Monday, June 10, 2013

WISHR Challenge: The Death of Ivan Ilych

On April 16th, 2007, Canadian Author Yann Martel started a "guerrilla book club" with the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. Martel, known for the recently-movie-adapted novel Life of Pi , sent Harper a book every two weeks for nearly four years. Along with each book, he sent a letter explaining why he was recommending it. He published the letters on a now-defunct website*, and in a book by the same name: What is Stephen Harper Reading?
Now, as part of my 101 goals in 1001 challenge, I'm going to read and review the first five by the end of the summer (and hopefully I'll enjoy it enough to continue through all 100). I'm calling it the WISHR challenge!

First up: The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy

Thoughts before reading: I'd heard of this book before, in the 'it's famous and good literature' way, which rarely bodes well for me liking it, so I wasn't that interested. But Martel's letter sold the story well, and got my hopes up. I also consoled myself with the reminder that it's short (only about 60 pgs).

Here's the best part of the letter - about making time to read:
I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. Meditating monks in their cells are busy. That’s adult life, filled to the ceiling with things that need doing. (It seems only children and the elderly aren’t plagued by lack of time—and notice how they enjoy their books, how their lives fill their eyes.) But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table. In that space, at night, a book can glow. And in those moments of docile wakefulness, when we begin to let go of the day, then is the perfect time to pick up a book and be someone else, somewhere else, for a few minutes, a few pages, before we fall asleep. And there are other possibilities, too. Sherwood Anderson, the American writer best known for his collection of stories Winesburg, Ohio, wrote his first stories while commuting by train to work. Stephen King apparently never goes to his beloved baseball games without a book that he reads during breaks. So it’s a question of choice. 
^isn't that great?

Thoughts after reading: Wow. Tolstoy can write! But the story he wrote was a tragedy (which I almost uniformly despise), and in the end the story is rather boring. I'm glad it was short enough so I had just enough time to appreciate the craft and not enough to force me to give up in sheer boredom (it only took me about half an hour to read).

So that's that. Book one is done! I'm not going to review this story (although I might some later ones), because let's be honest: if you want a review of Ivan Ilych you can definitely find one online. 

Overall, I'm a bit disappointed by this first read, but not discouraged about my challenge. The story was well-written, just not my cup of tea.

Next up: Animal Farm, by George Orwell

*If you want to read the letters without acquiring the book, you can access the website:, using the Wayback Machine. Basically, this link should take you to the first letter, and you can adjust the date at the top of the screen to see other letters. If that doesn't work, just put the URL into the Wayback Machine, found here.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Other People's Bodies (leave them the f**k alone)

A red-headed young woman with pierced ears and a large hoop stretching her earlobe.
It looked kinda like the thick grey hoop
in this picture, maybe a little bit bigger.
Yesterday @GloryisBen tweeted this post about not wearing makeup, which struck a chord with me, and also reminded me about a draft of a post that's been kicking around for a while. Here it is:

Last December during exams I went late at night to an on-campus eatery. The girl in front of me in line had big hoops in her earlobes, stretching them out. I was fascinated by them, and we were both standing there, so I turned to her...
"Excuse me, do you mind if I ask you a question?"
"No, no, go ahead."
"I was wondering how long it took to stretch your ears like that."
"About 2 and a half years."
"Wow - cause it's really neat."
"Thanks, yeah, it's good but it took a long time."
"Well, I mean, I just think it's really cool."
"Thank you - you know, I don't really get a lot of compliments on them."
"Well, I don't even have my ears pierced, but I think yours are really cool."
It was a nice conversation, based on the Captain Awkward social interaction rule that when it comes to other people's choices about their bodies (ie. what they're eating), you are only allowed to say nice things/ask nice questions.

But it left me so so sad. It's a travesty that something so neat, that took dedication, time and care to achieve, almost never gets positive feedback - and often, it sounds like, gets negative feedback. Her body, her ears, her choice - and everyone else needs to shut up about it!
I mean, I don't think I would ever stretch my ears - but before you think I'm saying that to be "better" than her, I'd like to point out that I also never intend to pierce my ears. I don't see anything wrong with either choice, but they simple don't interest me.

And I think that's the point - I can get behind the neat thing she's doing with her body because she wants to, without wanting that for myself or thinking everyone should. It's about respect for everyone. Respect, not judgment.

I've been that girl who has to deal with people expecting you to look one way and being embarrassed or angry when you don't. Not for what I've done, but for what I don't do: shaving under my arms or my legs, wearing make-up, wearing a dress to graduation.... the list is rather long, actually.

Around the same time as I encountered that girl, I wrote a monologue for a play that my school does, modelled after but more inclusive than the Vagina Monologues. On the surface, it was about the "smallest" of things - the fact that I don't shave my legs. But really, it was about the sheer amount of pressure I had to endure in order to leave my body to it's own devices.

Watching my speech performed live on stage was one of the neatest experiences I've ever had. Knowing the people who chose my words to be among those presented thought it was good enough, and important enough, was amazing. And hearing people talk about it, and clapping and laughing and sitting in horrified silence at all the right moments was amazing.

My favourite part of the speech is probably the end:
When I was 12, not shaving wasn't a statement to be made - it was as if I decided to cut my hair or pierce my ears. I was doing as I pleased with my own body. But with all the pressure on me, not shaving became an act of defiance. I am making a statement now, because I want a little girl like me to realize she's not alone, and because I don't fucking take orders from the patriarchy.

I don't judge other women for conforming - your body, your choice. But please, take a minute to think about why you do what you do, before you tell some little girl like me that she doesn't have a choice.
I almost want people to comment now, because I am so confident in what has become a decision thanks to years of paternal & step-maternal pressure. And at this point, if I could press a button and magically make all my 'unacceptable' hair go away forever - I wouldn't. It's a part of me.

This winter, the ski team was driving through a city and we passed a tattooed woman standing on a street corner. One of the boys in the van (someone who is a total fucking mysogynist but is also an assistant coach so I can only call him out on about half the stuff) started saying how gross that was. Other people chimed in to say she'd regret it, that it would look bad when she was older.

-- Amanda Palmer 
(this is one of my favourite quotes, and funnily enough,
 though I now am a fan of Amanda's, the first time I read
 the article she's quoted in, I had no idea who she was)
I said something. Not loudly, not forcefully, but I casually threw it out there: "hey if she's happy with it, why is it such a big deal?"

No one responded to that, but the conversation did move on quickly after. I almost wish they had asked me why I said that - I could have told them it's because I know EXACTLY how it feels to be judged based on what you do with your own body.

Here's what it boils down to: You don't have to find everything attractive. And in fact, you are allowed to say you don't find certain things attractive. But there are two conditions: 

1) Acknowledge the societal/family/whatever conditioning that may make you prefer thin/tall/white/non-pierced/whatever people

2) Frame your preferences as just that: preferences. Use self-descriptive vs. universally-prescriptive statements. (I don't like ear stretching, I wouldn't date someone with a mustache vs. That's just gross, People shouldn't do that)

To sum up: Other People's Bodies - leave them the f**k alone.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: One, by Leigh Ann Kopans

(I received an e-ARC of ONE from the author back in February. Now that my life is less busy and the release date for ONE is approaching, I'm actually getting around to posting a review.)

Sixteen-year-old Merrin Grey would love to be able to fly – too bad all she can do is hover.

If she could just land an internship at the Biotech Hub, she might finally figure out how to fix herself. She busts her butt in AP Chem and salivates over the Hub’s research on the manifestation of superpowers, all in hopes of boosting her chances.

Then she meets Elias VanDyne, another One, and all her carefully crafted plans fly out the window. Literally. When the two of them touch, their Ones combine to make them fly, and when they’re not soaring over the Nebraska cornfields, they’re busy falling for each other.

Merrin's mad chemistry skills land her a spot on the Hub's internship short list, but as she gets closer to the life she always wanted, she discovers that the Hub’s purpose is more sinister than it has always seemed. Now it’s up to her to decide if it's more important to fly solo, or to save everything - and everyone - she loves

Cover of ONE by Leigh Ann Kopans
Cover: Very pretty. My favourite part is that the wings look like organic chemistry diagrams.

One sentence review: ONE builds a super-neat future world, with interesting & lovable characters - who are frustratingly not at all genre savvy.

This book is for you if:
  • You like sci-fi set in the near future - but with a what-if twist
  • Your favourite subjects are science and chemistry 
  • You think a couple making awesome music together is hot and/or adorable
This book isn't for you if:
  • You don't want to see where the story is going miles before the characters do
  • You would be triggered by [non-detailed SPOILER - highlight to read] coercive science experiments
Full review:
The premise of this book is what attracted me to it. Superpowered people are cool, but half-superpowered people? That's something I haven't seen before, and amazingness waiting to happen!

For the most part, ONE lived up to my high expectations. I loved the characters, and soaked up every bit of info about the new world and it's history that I could. The worldbuilding was really well done.

I was a bit disappointed by how easy it was to spot some of the plot coming - it made watching smartypants Merrin not see it all the more frustrating. Still, none of that stopped the plot from being good, and it was hard to blame Merrin for having blinders on when when she had every reason in the world to not WANT to see.

As for the romance, Merrin and Elias have serious chemistry, especially when they're rocking it out. Merrin is a drummer - how cool is that? - and she and Elias have fantastic music making scenes.

The ending of ONE is epic and wonderful without being a cliffhanger. Enough is resolved so you don't have to jump up and down and curse the author, but there's plenty more adventure and story to be found. (And the sequel, TWO, is coming out in October.)

ONE is coming out on Tuesday, June 11th. In the mean time, if you want to read the first eight chapters in comic book form, check out the author's blog, which will have links to the comics starting Tuesday, May 28th.

Leigh Ann Kopans' website

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Drastic Haircut, Part 2

A few weeks ago, I asked for advice about short hair, since I was planning to get mine cut, and the change would be drastic. See, this is my hair last week:

My hair, when loose and dry
My ponytail, when wet
Although it rarely looked like that, since I only had it in a ponytail when it was dry, for running, and the rest of the time I put it up. So I pretty much always looked like this:

Hair in a bun/looped ponytail thing
Which is nice, but the hair you can't see is still there and a pain.

On Tuesday, I went to the hairdresser's. Debbie's cut my hair since I was tiny, and unlike my mom, has never cut it lopsided so my head looked permanently tilted. So I trust her.

I told her I wanted it short and easy to deal with, and let her go from there. After all, who am I to go in with some grand vision - I know NOTHING about hair, and she's the expert.

So now I look like this:

And I love it.

(oh it was weird at first, and I still ocasionally forget I don't have a bunch more hair, but it feels a lot the same, and it's a million times easier)

Moral: try new fun things with your hair. maybe they will be amazing. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Fantasy Novelist's Exam

I just finished writing 30k during April's Camp NaNoWriMo, for a fantasy novel called TEETH & CLAWS. It's far from finished, but I love the world and the characters, so I thought I'd share a bit about them by answering some questions from "The Fantasy Novelist's Exam".

(I originally discovered the list of questions through a blog post by EM Castellan, though the list itself it originally by David J. Parker.)

This is an exam designed to detect "poor, derivative, fantasy" and while some of the questions seem just plain silly if you've been into fantasy for years, and some can be answered with a yes without harming your story, it's a fun way to question some classic but silly tropes.

Since there are 50 questions, I just picked a few relevant ones to answer. A lot of them didn't apply since TEETH & CLAWS doesn't have a ton of "cliched epic fantasy" aspects, like elves/orcs/dwarves, epic quests and swordfights.

But the biggest thing that doesn't fit the formula that the list questions is my MC, a 23 year old woman named Sara. She's a dragon shapeshifter who is trying to force her king to restore her family's estates, the loss of which lead to the death of all her close family but her cousin.

Without further ado:

1. Does nothing happen in the first fifty pages? 

No. TEETH & CLAWS opens from the POV of a caravan trader heading through a mountain pass against all advice. He doesn't believe the warnings of a dragon - until Sara shows up and proves him wrong. A few pages later, two of the main characters take the third prisoner.

4. Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy? 
While Sara has recently come of age, and she does wield great power, the power has been hers for many years, and comes with some major drawbacks. As for the supreme badguy - there really isn't one (there's lots of grey), so no.

16. Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?
17. Do any of your female characters exist solely to embody feminist ideals?

I'm not brave enough to claim that all my characters are wonderfully 3D, but I do know that my female and male characters exist on the same level of depth - and none of them exist for these one-dimensional reasons. 
Also, TEETH & CLAWS is actually set in a world free of the institutional racism, sexism and homophobia that is often the norm in fantasy. All characters, SWM or not, should get the chance to have real stories, about a lot more than fighting bigotry.

26. Did you draw a map for your novel which includes places named things like "The Blasted Lands" or "The Forest of Fear" or "The Desert of Desolation" or absolutely anything "of Doom"?

I actually do have a map. It was exciting to make, since it helped me figure out travel times and methods. But nothing is named.

48. Do your characters spend an inordinate amount of time journeying from place to place?
It depends on what you mean by inordinate. There is a lot of travel in TEETH & CLAWS, because the two main sites for the action of the book are 2-14 days travel apart (by dragon or on foot, respectively).

Basically, the beginning all takes place in the mountains bordering the kingdom, where Sara is holed up blockading trade through a pass, but most of the second half occurs in the palace, which is centrally located in the kingdom. Hence the travel.

That's it, that's all - I think I passed with flying colours! For the full comic effect of the list, I recommend reading it in full, in order, here.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Seeking Shallow Advice about Short Hair

In the next couple weeks, I am making a "drastic" change. It's not very serious, but I'm freaking out a bit. See, I'm cutting off most of my hair, down to something that might be called "boy short". (Is there a technical term? I don't know!)

Currently, my hair hangs a foot past my earlobes - when I let it hang. It's rather curly and very thick, so my typical hair routine involved a ponytail for running, and a twisted bun for everyday life. I very occasionally comb it.

Maybe my laziness stems from the fact that as a kid, I had perfectly straight blond hair, no fuss to take care of. It grew more brown as I got older, and then in grade 5 it turned into a bush. Puberty apparently decided I ought to have my paternal aunt's hair instead of my mom's. *shakes head*

<- me at about 10 (the blur is my little sister)

I was definitely pissed when my hair changed, but I've had plenty of time now to get used to it and to figure out what works (ponytails, bobby pins and for the love of god never take a normal brush to it when dry).

Now, taking care of my hair is EASY and I LIKE my hair. I'm not interested in a new hairstyle that requires work or effort, because I have zero to spare in the morning.

That's what it comes down to: while I'm very excited for this new-and-possibly-amazing thing, I'm worried I'll be unhappy with it, that it will be a hassle, or that it will just plain bug me. (And then I'll be stuck with it as it grows out).

But it's been on my imaginary bucket list for a while to try short hair, and it's something I want to try sooner rather than later in case I love it. If not now - while I'm 19 and in school - then when?

So I ask: Have you done this before? Do you have suggestions for EASY to care for short hairstyles? Or tips for how not to freak out if this ends badly?

I'll check back in after the cut is done and we can celebrate/commiserate together.

P.S. The foot or so of hair that I cut off in a ponytail will be donated to Pantene Beautiful Lengths. I've cut off 8 inches before with intent to donate, but this time it's just a nice side effect.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Library: My Home Away from Home

If I was writing a speech about first year, Oscar-thank-you-style (because, well, it feels like making it through has been a pretty big accomplishment), there would be a section where I'd thank the Kingston Frontenac Public Library. It would be a long section, because KFPL was something of a rock for me in a year full of changes.

Before I even moved to here in September, I looked up how to get a library card as a non-local university student. Thankfully, it was free and easy. So after classes ended on the first day of school, I headed off the library.

When I walked into the building, immediately this sense of belonging descended on me. I've always felt at home in libraries, but this one was special - it was going to be my new home library. When I finally had my card in hand, I couldn't keep the grin off my face. 

The first book I ever checked out of KFPL was a old favourite, The Queen of Attolia. I walked back to residence unable to close it, flipping through to my favourite parts, laughing to myself at Eugenides' antics. I kept QoA with me for most of that first week, and it grounded me during a time where everything else was new and different.

I smuggled Mercedes Lackey's Home from the Sea into my first midterm so I could return it afterwards without detouring back to residence. That was the first time I walked to the library in the dark - but hardly the last. By now I know every step by heart.

But I didn't just walk to the library. Without a bike or access to a car this year, I got into the habit of literally running my errands, which more often than not included a trip to drop off or pick up books. (yes, even in the middle of winter with ice on the ground - I wouldn't let a little thing like that get between me and a good read!)

I had just acquired Dodger when I had my first ski race weekend, so naturally I brought it along. It's a Terry Pratchett book, which for me means semi-regular outbursts of laughter. I knew I'd been accepted on the team when I burst out laughing in the middle of a quiet room and everyone just shrugged knowingly.

Now I have an email saying my membership expires on May 1st. I want so badly to rush over there and renew it, but I don't have proof of address for my new apartment yet. KFPL will have to wait until June, when I'm back in town (and living entirely on my own for ten weeks!)

Until then, I'll enjoy being home, seeing my family, relaxing - and using the local library I practically grew up in.