wednesday reading, 4 september 2013

recently finished: 

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. Despite the previously-mentioned “more math and fewer women than I remembered” problem, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I’d forgotten about the weird but charming turn towards earnestness at the end. And on the women question, there are plenty of women in the book. There are nameless, faceless armies of hyper-competent women in the book. The WACs and Wrens that Waterhouse sees on transport trains during the war, and the machine operators he sees at Bletchley. The Filipina women who run the Epiphyte office in Manila. Plus the named but still weirdly absent hyper-competent women who have speaking roles; Glory, Beryl, America Shaftoe. Amy Shaftoe! What the hell does that woman see in Randy Waterhouse? Why does she do anything? Who is Amy Shaftoe? For someone who is nominally a major character, she’s an absolute fricking cypher.

Anyway. I did very much enjoy reading Cryptonomicon, but still. It’s not without problems.

Daron’s Guitar Chronicles, Volumes 1-3, by Cecilia Tan. I gave some money to the Kickstarter for the print book, but I hadn’t really read much of the web serial version. And I’m not sure what I was expecting–no, let’s be honest, I do know what I was expecting, I was expecting a serialized version of something Circlet might publish. There’s actually less sex in this than your average romance novel. But it’s a good, strong, compelling coming-of-age story, and I loved reading it.

reading now: A bunch of stuff for school, plus the complete Marla Mason story collection. I still haven’t made any more progress on Strange Stones.

reading next: No idea! Matt has a few books he’s read recently that I want to borrow (Choire Sicha’s novel and the new Guy Gavriel Kay, mostly.) I also have that monster of a short story collection from, so maybe that? We’ll see. I was recommending the Vorkosigan books to a friend at work today, which has me wanting to read them again, so maybe that.


uninvited guests.





So my mother gave us a housewarming gift for the new apartment. It’s a big pot of herbs, basil and rosemary and parsley and something else. It’s really quite lovely. It was especially lovely, as a gift, because my mother and I have been sniping at each other a lot lately, and it was not just a lovely herb pot, it was a lovely gesture.

Anyway. It sits in the backyard, I water it every couple of days, we’re fine. I worry that squirrels or snails or something will attack it, but there’s not much I can do about that right now. The day before yesterday, when the weather report threatened flash floods and drenching rain, we brought the pot indoors to keep it from being flooded. The rain was never that bad, and this afternoon I picked the pot up to bring it back outside. Which was when I discovered this:


In case you can’t see, because the picture isn’t that great, those are caterpillars. Very big very fat caterpillars. At least ten of them, sitting there, having essentially decimated the parsley plant. 


Matt did some googling and has determined it’s an Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar. Or, rather, a dozen Eastern Black Swallowtails. The followup reading I did suggests that it’s a “fifth instar” caterpillar, which is like a really late stage in development, which means we’ve had these caterpillars hitching rides on our herb pot for a while. And that they were IN OUR BEDROOM. God. There are no caterpillars in the bedroom; I searched very, very thoroughly in the area where we had been storing the herb pot. 

So now we just need to figure out what to do. Root them out and dispose of them? Abandon the herb pot to caterpillars and hope to see butterflies eventually? Just pry the parsley out of the pot, isolate it in a butterfly pen, hope the rest of the pot is okay? I have no idea. Either way, the parsley is entirely caterpillar food now, and I will have to find a way to explain this to my mother without letting her know that her lovely housewarming gift was infested with voracious caterpillars.




Summer is over! It was lovely, and exhausting, and I am going to miss the boy so much now that I’m not full-time momming any more.

Some days were just a joy, and some days were extremely frustrating, and most days were a little bit of both. And every single day, I was just so tired by the end of it. I’ve been reading a lot, and not sleeping enough, and I’ve been retreating into computer games at the end of the night.

In particular, I’ve been playing a lot of Crusader Kings. It’s like a medieval Europe simulation, you pick a ruler and govern a county or a country or an empire or whatever. When they die, you play their heir, until your dynasty goes out of power. I’m having an epic game, playing the ruler of Denmark, who is now also the king of Finland and Poland. The game started in 1066 and was pretty normal for a while, but now it’s 1470 and the Holy Roman Empire is Sunni Muslim, and Sweden is part of the Aztec Empire, and England is split evenly between the Duchy of Meath and the Kingdom of Wales. Things are crazy but Denmark is holding strong. It’s a Catholic Sultanate, but it’s pretty solidly in the control of my dynasty, so we’re all good.

I don’t expect this makes sense to anyone who isn’t playing Crusader Kings. I’m just saying I’ve been a bear of very little brain this summer, and weirdly enough I expect to be a little more back on my game now that school is starting. I’ve never been someone who was good with unstructured time. There was something really joyful about spending so much of the summer on baby time, with no goal or plan other than to get through the next ten minutes or whatever. But there’s also something awesome about going back to work, even though I will really miss the boy.

wednesday reading, 14 august 2013

Oh, so much going on. We’ve moved apartments, I love our new place and want to talk about it, there’s a lot going on with Declan and the summer is almost over and and and and. 

Instead, books.

Recently finished: so last time I posted about books, I think I was reading something by Liz Jensen. Why had I never heard of her before? I love her. Anyway. Two fabulous but wrenching visions-of-apocalypse novels by Liz Jensen (The Uninvited and The Rapture), read back to back, wiped out my ability to read anything but fluff for a while. So I read most of the Eloisa James back catalog, which blurred together after a while.

Stardance by Spider and Jeanne Robinson. I was lucky enough to have breakfast with Ted when he was in town on his way to Readercon, and we ended up talking about Spider Robinson a little, which reminded me how much I had loved Stardance when I first read it. Then, later that same day, I found my copy while I was packing up some bookshelves. Serendipity! So I re-read this, and I still found it delightful. 

A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn. Raybourn is the author of the Lady Julia Grey mysteries, which I love love love. This is a bit of a departure, a historical novel set in early-20th-century British Kenya. A scandal-plagued socialite is exiled to a family estate in colonial Kenya, where she rubs slightly against the grain of colonial society. I thought this was very well done; it was the kind of book that I was sad to see end. So I followed it up by re-reading the whole Lady Julia series.

Reading Now: Several things in parallel. 

The Voyages of Ibn Battuta, by Ross Dunn. Commentary and historical context for Ibn Battuta’s travelogue. I’m using this as the backbone for a new elective I’m teaching this year (History of the Islamic World), and I’m reading through it now with an eye towards how to make use of it in class. Ibn Battuta was a Muslim merchant from Tangier who, in the fourteenth century, travelled the whole of the Muslim world and then wrote a very popular travel memoir about his trip. My tentative current plan is to use the chapters of this book as a structure for the class, and in each unit of the class, focus on one or two aspects of Ibn Battuta’s experience, and do some broader historical context on those aspects. Sometimes that would mean doing a survey of that place since Battuta’s time (his time in Cairo and Pakistan would lend themselves to that), and sometimes it would mean pulling out of regional histories and looking at the history of a thing (like the role of pilgrimage in different cultures, or the nature of university educations). As I write this out, it feels incredibly ambitious, so maybe I’ll scale that back and just teach a more straightforward class. We’ll see.

Among the Believers by VS Naipaul. I have a feeling this would pair very well with the Ibn Battuta, but again, not sure how to work it in. I’m enjoying reading this, but it’s slow going, because I’m halfway through so many other books.

Strange Stones by Peter Hessler. A collection of essays from the guy who wrote those China books I liked so much. I bought this to read on our recent beach trip (four days in Wildwood Crest with my parents, and oh god are there things I would like to say about that trip) but didn’t get very far. Which is not because I don’t like it! The opening essay, in which Hessler talks about trying multiple rat restaurants in Guangdong Province had me laughing out loud. But it’s a regular paper book, and most of my reading time is ebooks right now, so for paper-book reading time I’m trying to stick to the Ibn Battuta / Ross Dunn.

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. When I say most of my reading time is ebook time, I mean most of my reading time is when I need to have one hand free; either while nursing or carrying the baby on the subway, that kind of thing. During the move, we didn’t have internet for like a week and a half, so I couldn’t download anything new from the library (or access half of my actual purchased books from B&N, stupidness). And then I discovered that I have a copy of Cryptonomicon on my Nook. I read this… god, I don’t know, probably right around when it was first published. I remember loving it, but I don’t actually remember it that well. Re-reading it now, I’m enjoying it a lot, although I had forgotten how much math there is, and how few women there are. 

Girls In White Dresses by Jennifer Close. This came in from my library ebook holds yesterday, so I’ve put Cryptonomicon on hold. This is lovely. Linked short stories about young women in their twenties, trying to make their way in a post-college urban world. I am loving the hell out of this book, seriously no kidding.

Reading Next: Seriously? I’m halfway through five different books. I’m not adding anything to the list until I finish at least two or three of them.

thirty seven.

So Wednesday, that was a birthday. A double birthday! Mine and the boy’s, because his dramatic unexpected early arrival last year happened to coincide with my birthday. (I will tell you, filling out paperwork in the first few days of his life, while hospital-hazed and sleep-exhausted, I had a hell of a mental stutter every time I wrote down his birthday. Decades of muscle memory writing “7/24/76” and suddenly I have to write “7/24/12”? Oddly challenging.)

More on the boy later. 

I’m thirty-seven years old. Which feels much older than thirty-six did? Maybe because I kind of missed turning thirty-six. It got lost in the shuffle. (This year, Matt asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, and all I could come up with was “not spend it in the hospital.”) But thirty-seven is, like, late thirties, which is almost forty, which is time to finally be getting my shit together, maybe. I have been making steady progress on this front throughout my thirties–I have a great job and I think I’m pretty good at it, I have a good family life with an awesome little kid, etc.

But there are definite areas for improvement. I’m still a crap friend, for instance. Whenever I start to run out of energy, contact with the outside world is the first thing to go. I stop answering email, stop planning social engagements, stop making calls (or even answering the phone). And, frankly, working on being good at the job and good at the family life, that’s been drawing down a lot of energy. I mean, it’s all excuses, right? So much of being a good friend is just showing up, and that’s the part I’m really bad at. But it’s never too late to get better, right?

The other thing I’m really bad at, or have been really bad at lately, is keeping up with creative work. God, that sounds all woo-woo. But that matters to me, and I’m so out of practice. I want to start building habits–doing something every day. Writing a little bit every day, or teaching myself to draw, something, baby steps to get back to thinking of myself as someone who does things. (Last weekend, I was so inspired, I was all “yes! I will pick a project like that and that will be my way to celebrate being thirty-seven, I’ll do something every day that I’m thirty-seven!” And now I’m realizing, it’s Friday, and my birthday was Wednesday, so we’re at least two days short on this hypothetical project already.) 

Anyway. This turned much more introspective, more confessional, and more resolutions-making than I was expecting, but I’m going to stick with it for now. 

girl most likely.

[note: I wrote this on Tuesday, and tried to post it then, but wordpress has not been cooperating.]

Movie night! We just got back from seeing Girl Most Likely as part of the Hawks With Babies series at Nitehawk. Dinner and a movie, in a theater where no one gets annoyed if your kid screeches a little.

And the movie was… I really liked it, actually, but it’s a weird weird movie. Premise: Kristen Wiig plays Imogene, a writer living in Manhattan who doesn’t quite fit in with her Manhattan friends. After a series of life crises, she ends up having to go back to New Jersey to live with her mother for a little while. She hasn’t been back home in years, and she discovers that in her absence, her widowed mother (played by Annette Bening) has rented out her childhood bedroom to Darren Criss (playing a former Whiffenpoof who now sings in a casino karaoke revue) and is sleeping with a man (played by Matt Dillon) who claims to be a CIA agent but clearly isn’t.

This movie is simultaneously very subtle and incredibly over-the-top. (Among other things, Wiig’s character ends up in New Jersey with none of her own clothes, but digs up a box of the clothes she left behind nearly twenty years ago when she moved out. So for the rest of the movie, she’s dressed like the mid-90s Jersey Shore.) This is also a movie that caused me to lean over at one point and whisper something to Matt about “if you have a portable exoskeleton in the first act…”

It was bizarre, hilarious, and incredibly well-acted. And now I want someone else to see it so that we can compare notes.

[Editing to add: Matt looked up some reviews of this, and apparently everyone hates it! Which I find impossible to believe. It’s a weird fricking movie, make no mistake, but I stand by “bizarre, hilarious, and incredibly well-acted.”]

saying goodbye.

Yesterday evening, walking through the kitchen to get a glass of water, I had to stop and catch my breath when I saw the view out of our kitchen window. The Empire State Building looked like a diamond, glowing a clear crystal white against a darkening sky streaked with violet. 

For five years, I’ve lived in this apartment, and I’ve never yet taken the view for granted. 

We’re moving next week. The new apartment is lovely, and I’m very excited about it, but I think it’s also okay to take some time to be sad about leaving this place. We’re only moving about a mile, but it’s going to be a big change. 

I’m leaving behind this incredible view of the Manhattan skyline. I’ve watched the Empire State Building almost every night for five years, I’ve watched the new World Trade Center building go up, I’ve watched Manhattan disappear into the clouds every time we have a storm. I’m also leaving our view of the street. This apartment is right on a very busy corner, and from the fourth floor we’ve had a great view of all sorts of craziness. I’ve been witness to a flashmob of people in panda costumes. I’ve seen the police riot that followed the remnants of an Occupy houseparty gone wrong. Every year a brass band from Our Lady of Mount Carmel comes by, with a police escort, to publicize the Giglio festival. On some Jewish holidays, the Hasidic men are out in the streets late at night celebrating; on most Jewish holidays, the Mitzvah Tank parks just down the block. The New York City Marathon ran right past our building. If you’re up at four in the morning, when the bars let out, you can see great Drunk Person Theater outside the window, like the time I heard two people have a screaming match over whether or not taxis are yellow. Our new block is quiet, residential, and we won’t have this kind of view anymore.

We’re also leaving behind a lot of people who know us, and who know and like our kid. The owner of the restaurant across the street feels like family, and the whole staff there treats Declan like family. The woman who sells jewelry on the sidewalk outside of our building also loves Declan–she’s so effusive in her praise for him (and our parenting of him) that it can take us an extra five or ten minutes to get out the door sometimes. One of the women who works at the coffeeshop across the corner has a daughter who’s a few weeks older than Declan, and we’ve been comparing notes on baby development since she came back from maternity leave. Even the weird old woman around the corner, the one who hoards magazines in her basement apartment, asks me how my baby is doing, and we’ve recently made a new friend, an older man who we pass most mornings on our way to the park, sitting on his stoop smoking a cigarette. We can (and will) come back and visit in this neighborhood, but it won’t be the same.

I have loved living here. I haven’t loved everything about it–the fricking smooth-jazz combo that sets up right outside our window every month or so and plays, amplified, until two or three in the morning. The fourth-floor walkup. The sticky way that heat and humidity pool up here at the top of the building. The uneven stovetop, or the windowsill that’s turned into a pigeon guano farm. But I have loved living here, and I am going to miss it when we’re gone.