Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 book party: ending the year on a more organized note

I am finally organizing my nonfiction.  This is much more intense than organizing fiction because I can't just put it all in alphabetical order by author.  I have to group things and then try to guess how my future self will search for them.  Where should the research books on pain go?  Next to the comedy books, of course.   
Philosophy - science - history - literature - aesthetics OR aesthetics-philosophy - science - history - literature?  (Actually aesthetics - philosophy - literature - history - science, in case you're curious.)   

Unread theology/philosophy next to general unread nonfiction?  Or should the read theology / philosophy go next to that?  Organized by last name?  Can't remember author names of some books.  Do those by title and mix in with authors I know.   

Separate narrative from essays / general nonfiction?   

All the poetry and books on writing go to the closet bookshelf in the library; they're hanging out with all the graphic novels and anime, so they're obviously having a good time.   

Why do I have two copies of Basic Theology?  

 Why on earth do I still have two racquetball books, and should they be moved to be with the comedy books at this point?   

And there is only one row tall enough for the big art books, so that throws everything off unless I remember what SIZE the book is.   

It's a really fun way to end a year, for sure: rediscovering the books I have yet to read and the ones I read and liked enough to keep.  And trying desperately to exert enough self control to finish organizing before settling down to drool over the Pre-Raphaelite art book or a beloved new Christmas book that is whispering my name . . .

Happy New Year a bit early.  I'll likely be asleep when the main event happens. : )

Thursday, December 25, 2014

12 Months of 2014: 2 Oratorio Performances

Less than a month and a half after February's wrenched ribcage, I was singing two performances of an oratorio one Sunday evening.  It was not easy for me to learn the music even with a practice tape, a friend's borrowed electronic piano, and a month and a half of rehearsal because I was so rusty I think the flakes were visible (and because it's hard music for someone not formally trained).  And because I can be kind of stupid sometimes, I also decided to actually audition for some of the solo and small group parts, even though it had been years at that point since I had really auditioned for anything.  

I ended up with a part in a quartet.  Neither of our performances were flawless, but I decided not to dwell on the imperfections when a co-worker I didn't know had been at the performances stopped me at work the next week to tell me he thought it was beautiful.  And it was.  Our Elijah had been a professional performer, and, even though he was a bass, I have never heard a human being sing so loudly without any microphone support.  And his diction was so clear.  It was amazing.  

The choir was over 90-voices strong, and there were these moments of gloriousness I can't describe.  And an awful lot of pain.  I ended up having to sit with the disabled, elderly ladies in the front row, which was not my favorite thing ever (the front row being a place I have avoided for a long time).  Only ibuprofen and the grace of God got me through it, and I'm glad they did.

12 Months of 2014: 1 twisted ribcage

There were a lot of snowstorms last winter. During one particularly memorable February storm, after a 90-minute, white-knuckle drive home (8 miles), I arrived in my parking lot to find it had not been plowed, and then my little car got predictably stuck. It was late. There was no one around. It was not safe to drive, so I could hardly call anyone over to help, and I had to dig myself out enough to get into the garage because I was pretty sure the tow-trucks were the only vehicles NOT unconquered by the snow. Long story short: I wrenched my rib cage out of alignment. There's no way to fix that kind of thing, so I was in a lot of pain for months. With the help of a good chiropractor, I'm getting better, but holy cow; I can't believe how much it can still hurt sometimes if I sit funny or for too long. Got a poem out of it, at least, written the night of the accident before the real pain had a chance to set in.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

I Need a Hero

I am being pathetic.  As early as last weekend, I was starting to come to the unavoidable realization that I do not have the energy to seek justice on the matter of my seller lying to me about replacing something in the house that then proceeded to break and damage the unit below me.  For some reason, I still hesitate to pull the trigger and put in the insurance claim that will likely make my insurance premiums too high for me to pay if I ever have another claim.  Today I found myself thinking of a lovely Chris Rice song where he sings in his usual gentle, amused way about how much he needs a hero to come in and save him just like in all the stories.  That's when I was forced again to face the fact that, often, people in need of justice don't have the energy to get it themselves, and that's why we need to live in community.  When someone is too weak to do what needs to be done, the rest of the community can move in and help out.  In theory.

It's hardly a new lesson; I learned it thoroughly over the course of my decade-long inability to get my life together enough to go after the government for breaking its word after I got hurt working for them and ended up disabled and in a hazy mental fog of chronic pain.  I should know I am not strong enough to seek justice for myself, haven't been since the year I was sexually assaulted by a classmate and bullied by a teacher and the school principle (and didn't tell anyone about any of it).  But I always used to be strong enough to seek justice for people in my sphere of community, whether it was bringing a case before a health teacher who didn't believe a classmate had fractured her arm in gym class to a college committee wanting to stop considering the most deserving award nominee for an incredibly hypocritical reason to my retail employer deciding to change the dress code to require all of us barely-minimum-wage-earning employees to purchase a whole new wardrobe, I fought to the last.  I didn't always win, but I followed through, and I could say that I did everything that could be done. 

Or maybe I should say that I did everything I possibly could.  It's just that I used to be able to do so much more.

I was younger then.  Less damaged in every sense of the word.  The things I can do now are actually more limited.  I can't make sure the criminal gets punished by the forces of justice.  I  can't keep waiting for a hero to step in and take care of all of it.  I need to just do what I have to do to move on.  But I'm stuck here.  I don't want to throw in the towel.  More could be done.  But not by me.  And there is nobody else.  Adulthood really sucks because finally you're old enough to do things only to find out that so many things that should be done can't be done.  Oh, God, I need a hero.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

a prayer for the truly desperate

I thought I knew what was worse than needing to give plasma to be sure I can buy Christmas presents without exceeding my budget (I must stay within it until March, or there will be very serious problems), but when I actually went to give the plasma, I found out there is something even worse.  There are several time-wasting and tedious processes in place to prevent people much more desperate than I from trying to give more plasma than is healthy.  Every time I ran into one, I would think, "Seriously?!"  They have to have these elaborate safeguards in place because so many people try to do this?  Oh, man  . . .  Saying a prayer for the truly desperate enough to hurt themselves tonight.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

For the fictional love of fictional country

I've been watching Burn Notice now that the show is complete.  (Thank you, public library.)  I've been burning through it, actually.  (Groan.)  After season 3, I found myself wondering what makes me like it so much.  At first, I thought maybe it was because it's about a person who wants to set the record straight with the government he served.  (I know how that feels.)  Thing is, I always like this kind of show: different identities every week (Pretender), dangerous ops and deception (La Femme Nikita in the 90s), witty banter, conspiracies (Nowhere Man), touchy but frequently humorous family relationships (Psych), etc.  I liked these things before my injury working for the government ever happened.  Going into the final season, I'm wondering if what I'm looking for is someone who loves his country so much even after having his life and everyone he loves crushed in its dispassionately turning gears that he will still actively put himself at risk of death and worse to make the world a safer place.  Even if it's all fictional, maybe I want to see someone betrayed much worse by the government he loved still able to actively love it the way he used to.  I want to see the possibility even if it is fiction.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Packing and Unpacking for the Win?

Packing may be like saying prayers with a rosary, but it is not anything like efficient when the items in question are books.  I don't really let that inefficiency stress me out, though, because spending time with books and savoring my memories of them and finding quotes and notes and bookmarks and remembering is not an unworthy use of time.  It can also double as a test of willpower: can I resist the temptation to stop, drop, and read?  And as long as I start packing soon enough, does it matter? 

I do hate closing a box and stacking a new box on top, though, because it is a farewell, and even if I have not looked at these books in months or years, there is a sadness that comes from knowing it will be over a month before I see some of these old friends again, and if I suddenly feel the urge to read them, I won't be able to.  There is also a happy anticipation, too, though, because I know I will be seeing them again soon.  I look forward to the unpacking, not just because it always goes way faster, but also because it is like a reunion with friends.  Also, I get to alphabetize lots!  WIN!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

It took a long time from first day of reading to last day of reading, but I recently finished Guy Gavriel Kay's history-based fantasy The Lion's of Al-Rassan.  It took me a long time because everything these days takes a longer time, what with all the moving planning stuff that has to get done and the pain and such, but the real reason it took a long time is because I was dragging my feet because I knew this book would end in tears.  And holy cow, did it ever.  I've read four of this author's books now, and there are SO MANY TEARS IN EVERY ONE that I think I will need a Terry Pratchett chaser.  (Sorry, new Dresden Files book.  I will continue to exercise extreme self-control and put you off until I really need a pick-me-up and have a whole day to give you.)

I see why writers like Kay.  He is a master of technique.  He does things I would not let many other authors get away with doing, but he does them so well I just have to smile crookedly and bow to his mastery.  For instance, I should really be irked with Kay for this dragging out of cliffhangers he sometimes does.  Other authors have the decency to open the next section far away with another set of characters to distract us or just start out the next section by handing us the information in the first sentence.  Kay sometimes drags it out for PAGES.  And he does it brilliantly.  It just grinds the tragedy with the uncertainty for that much longer, and I should resent him for this obvious artifice.  Instead, I suppose I appreciate his acknowledgement that patient readers can sometimes savor the not-knowing for a while, that good readers can trust good authors to only use this device when it intensifies something important.  He uses these techniques with restraint, so they don't get tedious.

I knew that one of the characters was based on El-Cid, but I purposely didn't go and look to see how that story ended.  I didn't need to.  The fun thing about making fantasy out of history is that you don't have to be a slave to it.  Also, I was sure it was going to end in tragedy.  I don't know a lot about that period in history, but I did know that it was around the time when Spain went from being a society where Jews, Christians, and Muslims could mostly co-exist rationally to a place where that really wasn't the case anymore.  Lots of war and religious extremism and violence and religion used to disguise a desire for power and domination and the destruction of an era of peace that allowed some things to flourish that never had before.

Kay's omniscient point of view is excellent.  He effortlessly switches between characters, always moving to just the right character to keep the plot going, and he is deadly with his foreshadowing.  (It's kind of like a bludgeon, but he adds this foreshadowing sentence at the end of an otherwise seemingly slow-moving section, and it's like a punch in the gut.  You don't go on to the next section wondering what will happen.  Instead, you keep reading and wondering exactly how it will all go wrong.)  It's not that all of the POV characters are likeable; it's that they are all expertly drawn.  You understand something important even about the ones you dislike (and Kay knows how to limit your time in their heads to just the parts of the story that need to be told from that point of view to best move the plot along).

The story is so very timely for me right now, too.  The radio has recently been reminding me that this kind of "ideological" clashing didn't stop in the 11th century.  It's happening in the Middle East and in Southern Asia right now.  It is scary and it is ugly and it is messy.  It always has been.  It always will be.  It destroys things and people.  It breaks my heart, it probably breaks God's heart, and it breaks the world.  Reading the kind of mindset that causes it is important but difficult and a little terrifying.  

I love Kay's books.  His grasp of story is very strong, and his voices are compelling.  I'm off to read some Pratchett, though, because I need some more gentle humanism right now.  I'm a couple Pratchett books behind, so I can probably read a few powerful and slightly soul-bruising Kay books followed by some Pratchett.  Not a bad plan in a stressful time.

NOTE: For those of you who like to see book covers, check them out here.  My favorite is the top left (Canadian Hardcover).  No confusion about who the fourth person is; though I understand the desire for architectural symmetry.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


She gives me the part.  Maybe she believed me when I said I'm a choir chameleon who can blend with any group.  Maybe she just liked my voice.  Then again, maybe not because once I have the part, she tells me to sing completely differently.  In her heaven, the angels all have lots of vibrato.  In my heaven, there is no vibrato.

I have never been formally trained.  I used to take a sort of pride in the openness, cleanness, and clarity of my voice (when I wasn't rusty).  I don't actually know how to control and use vibrato for good and not for evil.  Actually, I don't even really know how to use it for evil.  It is not something that comes naturally to me.  I'm not really an alto either, something my old choir director used to say but I didn't really understand until I was out singing with older adult choirs.  Yes, I will now freely admit that I am a mezzo who doesn't have a high range anymore (since I wrecked my health a bit my senior year in high school).  I can't quite bring myself to say I'm a mezzo-soprano, I, who have spent my whole choir life holding up the alto section because I could hit the low notes.

She wants me to sing with more of an alto tone (deep and rich and solid), to keep my voice tall and closed, to pour on the vibrato.  I give it my best shot, trying to memorize the piece so I can spend that mental effort on trying to blend the soprano 1's and alto 2's vibrato while also bridging the openness of the soprano 1 with the closed-ness of the soprano 2 and trying to remind folks about dynamics and to--above all else--listen and make lovely music. 

But at the last practice, our first with the orchestra, I forget everything because the choir is singing and they are getting it right and the orchestra is so full, and I let all the beauty going on distract me, catch me up, pull me away from my duty as bridge/anchor/chameleon, make me forget that I am tasked with singing about the holiness of God so wonderfully it blends into a whole where I don't stand out at all but support and redirect attention where it belongs.

This is why one of the ladies who has also joined the choir just for this events says she likes singing with church choirs more than professional choirs: because this music is not only beauty to us but is also truth.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Audition, Part 2

When I posted the first part of my audition adventure, one very kind writer friend said, "i don't get why you couldn't audition with what you had prepared, since that was their instruction, right, to be ready with these songs."  First of all, I made an assumption based on the information on the audition sheet that was, in the words of another friend, "Totally understandable but also totally wrong."  I had questions; I should have asked them.  My own fault I didn't.

My kind friend said, "i am assuming you did not get the part, or get a place in this group?  it all seems so wrong, given your beautiful voice."  I don't know yet if I got the part, but I thought that maybe it would help to explain the audition in terms of writing and publishing because there are some similarities. 

When a writer sends in a submission to a magazine or anthology publisher, the writer should know that it's not (only) the quality of the submission that is being judged but how well it fits in with the whole.  Maybe your piece is lovely but just not quite matching the theme or maybe there's another submission that is slightly better than yours and covers some of the same territory.  It's not just the quality of your writing that is being examined; it is how your piece blends in with the whole.

A rejection is therefore not necessarily a judgment that a writer is not good at writing.  (This is why reading through some issues of the magazine or journal one is trying to publish in is highly encouraged: it can cut down on wasted submissions of perfectly good work to places where it just won't fit, which saves time for editors and emotional energy for the writer.)

One way a vocal audition is not like trying to get published is that, while you have a short time to wow the decision makers in both situations, you sometimes have to somehow try to demonstrate the whole stylistic range of your vocal talent in an audition, to show all the possibilities.  You don't have to do that in writing.  In writing, it's okay to just be really good at one style or genre.

Sometimes a person has a lovely voice for one kind of singing that doesn't necessarily translate to being a good fit with another kind of singing.  I have a good voice for sacred choral music (straight tone, resonant in a good acoustic, no vibrato, able to blend well with other parts).  The group I am joining for this endeavor is singing operatic, classical choral.  The quartet I auditioned for would likely be made up mostly of church ladies who are (on the whole) not formally trained and use excessive vibrato or are formally trained and use vibrato.  I knew that going in.  That's why I was kicking myself so much for forgetting that BLEND should have been the thing foremost on my mind and not just getting the notes right in that audition.

I'm not even sure I want the part.  My health still isn't totally reliable, and my voice definitely isn't.  (And if I get the part, it means I have to expend more than normal energy avoiding illness until after the concert.  I'm not sure I even have that energy.)  I think maybe I tried out because the process of preparation is important; I wanted to show myself that I can do that part in case I ever get healthy enough to get back into music more seriously.  Maybe that's why it was so disappointing that I couldn't even get that right. 

In the end, I explained the situation to the director and, unusually, ended up getting a call back for a second audition of the song I had prepared but for a different vocal part, so I learned that and prepped it and then had my audition.  I asked her what she was looking for, and she told me to just sing it, so I did.  She was impressed by my accuracy but seemed dubious  about my ability to blend with the others.  I told her that I was actually a choir chameleon because I could blend with nearly any kind of voice (which was often true in my last choir) and help pull the whole together.  And then I waited for a final decision, something writers who try to publish are very familiar with.  : )

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Audition

It was my first audition in years, and I am so very rusty.  There were three songs to choose from, and she said she wanted us to work on them in advance so that we really knew them when we were auditioning.  After I finally got access to a piano, I came to the conclusion that I really only had time to get one piece truly audition-ready, so I chose the one that I loved when I first heard it and it sent glorious shivers down my spine.  (The other two were ugly in the recordings I heard because they had opera soloists doing the small ensemble parts, but they were terrible at singing together, and it became this horrible contest of every soloist trying to upstage the others and making ugliness instead of music.)  I spent every spare moment of four days lovingly preparing a performance-worthy audition of that song I loved.  I practically had it memorized, and I had all the dynamics and line shaping mapped out.  I was very nearly ready for anything.  It probably would have gone better if that song were actually used for the audition.

Instead, bits of the other two songs were used.  And I had never really heard them, especially not my parts.  And I suck at sight reading.   While the men auditioned elsewhere, I vampired off other ladies who could sight read (music-by-ear is a gift and sometimes a curse) to pick up one of the parts, but then we had to audition, and I was kind of flustered by the new music and focused on somehow trying to give a performance when I'd never even seen it until that day and getting the totally unfamiliar notes right, and I was reminded of why I hated group work in gym class.  Group jump-roping routines, in particular, taught me that being right (on the beat, executing moves properly, etc.) sometimes matters less than blending in (rhymed with giving in and lowest common denominator and failure). 

I wish I had remembered that before I started singing at the audition.  We were auditioning for small group pieces.  Being on the right note on the right dynamic doesn't really matter if others are making a different (wrong) chord, and you are the only one who is right or you are beautifully bringing out the drama of the line as the dynamics are written to shape it, and everyone else is singing the same (wrong) dynamic.

It was hardly an embarrassing disaster.  I wasn't having an asthma attach from other people's perfume.  I didn't totally make a fool of myself.  Things could have been way worse.  So.  I suppose this is a good learning experience.  I need to remember to listen when I am doing group work and blend in.  Someday, maybe I will learn this lesson for real, and it will stick.  Because the Lord knows I'm not an opera soloist, so I have no excuse.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Shining Court - shiny, creepy, epic

The Shining Court by Michelle West (The Sun Sword Book 3 of 6): Back to the South we go!  But first a sliiiight detour into seriously weird territory.  If you wanted to know more about Avandar, Jewel's unconventional domicis, this book will, well, it will make you want to know more and less at the same time.  This person is one seriously scary individual, and his motivations are remarkably unclear. 

Again, one of this author's strengths is her ability to create compelling characters with obviously full histories behind them.  Avandar is someone who just screamed "I am ridiculously powerful and have been alive for a very long time, and my actions now seem unfathomable to normal mortals."  Holy cow. 

In general, I feel I should also mention that this author has a special gift for the inhuman and super-human characters.  Anya A'Cooper is completely insane.  And you KNOW it from every interaction with her.  Avandar, the Winter Queen, newcomer Celleriant, Firstborn (offspring of two gods), and the ever superb Isladar are each unique and perfectly not at all human in different ways.  Good stuff!

The Voyani are back with a vengeance, as are all the fraught shenanigans in the southern court, and more insights into the Shining Court of the demons.  More threads are starting to wind together halfway through the series, but I still have NO IDEA where things are going, where they will end up, and who will survive.  But, it must be said, I completely trust this author to bring it all together.  Eventually.  If I can steal enough time to read faster than I forget people's names . . .

Monday, January 13, 2014

Red Knife - the massacre book

Red Knife by William Kent Krueger: Didn't expect the ending to this one.  I suppose if I had read it when it was published, it would have been less unexpected and more sad and timely.  Maybe.  Anyway, a suicide, a double murder, a reservation gang, some bigots, more murder, moral decisions, decisions about the future, possible drug connections,  and some reservation justice bring this all to a close.  Except for that terrible coda.  Krueger does different things with each book, branching out to focus on different characters instead of keeping a mostly single focal point of view in this one.  There was just more massacre-ing than I really wanted to deal with.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Thunder Bay (a.k.a. the history of Henry Melou)

Thunder Bay by William Kent Krueger: For all the folks who really wanted to know more about Henry Melou: this book is for you.  Henry ends up in the hospital and then asks Cork to help him out by tracking down his son.  Yep, his son.  This is a big surprise to Cork, who wants to know the whole story.  And it is a long, sad story full of history, tragedy, love, and murder.  Then it's back to the present where more tragedy and murder and mystery await as Cork does his best to track down the mysterious son to arrange a meeting.  When he finally does, the reunion goes awry, and there is more death.

Good stuff!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Are You My Mother? by the creator of the Bechdel test

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel:  I was curious about this one because I'd read Fun Home and wanted to know what an analysis between the author and her living mother would be like.  I have to admit that there wasn't much for me to identify with in this mother-daughter relationship.  I found myself engrossed because a friend of mine has a particularly fraught relationship with her mother, and I kept sensing echoes in this book.  I also like memoirs that stretch over a longer time period when history is an important element.  Seeing history through the lens of a person's life can be rewarding, especially when the memoir is a graphic novel because you really can see it. 

There were a lot of threads running through this book: literature, lesbian history, psychology, romantic relationships, memory,  family history, gender, the writing life, etc.  I loved how frequently her mother, literary analyst that she is, brought up the problems of focusing a piece of literature when there are too many pieces to it.  Overall, I feel the author did a decent job of tying the threads together.  I read it in one day, so my still mostly scattered mental state wouldn't make the story feel artificially fragmented, and I think that was beneficial.  Nothing blindsided me or tossed me out of the narrative, although at times the fragmented chronology (anchored to names, which are one of my weaknesses) did get the best of me.

It's a very different book from Fun Home, a very different relationship with a very different person.  (And I think that someone I once studied with made a brief appearance in it, which was really wild, to say the least.)  I do wonder if the order of reading would affect someone's opinion on which of the two books they think is "better."  Both of them were interesting, educational, and touching, so I consider reading them both to be a win for me.  (I would suggest that you at least take a look at the physical hardcover because I loved the symbolism on that one more than the paperback.)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Uncrowned King - thickening plots, new characters, lots of awesome

The Uncrowned King by Michelle West (The Sun Sword Book 2 of 6): And now for something completely different.  We move back to the north where the sole surviving member of the Leonne clan has gone from the least to the greatest rather suddenly.  His first act as uncrowned king is to try to save the other Southern hostages from retaliatory execution.  Then he just has to win the biggest tournament on the continent all while avoiding assassination at the hands of demons and humans.  There is absolutely no way to summarize much of anything in this sprawling book without spoilers.  However, Kallandras, Mirialyn, Devon, Sigurne, Merallone, and other characters are present and awesome.  Some new folks are introduced  (mostly awesome), politics are suffered, intrigue is enacted, people die horribly, surprisingly, and suddenly, and the author proves, once again, that she knows how to make a novel a satisfying story arc while still advancing the larger, seriously epic plot she has going.

Valedan is a really intriguing character, as is his advisor, the only bright Southern woman who did her best to educate him even in the North.  They have really tough choices to make.  Valedan is one of those good people who is thrown into a position where, suddenly, all his choices seem like bad ones, and he has to make them to prove that he is an adult capable of ruling an entire kingdom, but he has no real power.  I like it when an author tackles this kind of character and makes the difficulties real and believable and also finds ways to let the goodness of the character manifest even in the midst of all the choices. 

Having spent a book in the South, I find myself also respecting the author's world-building abilities.  She is good at depicting the different cultures and the ways they clash.  The way she shows you the limitations on characters like Mirialyn in the north contrasted against the limitations for the southern women is really heartbreaking in both similarities and differences.  This author also has that ability to surprise with the turnings of the plot.  You think you see where something is going, and then it suddenly twists and turns and shifts, and it's going in a completely different direction that is completely in fitting with the plot.