Things I’ve been reading this summer

So, not being buried in a pile of literary homework makes for a lot of time to read. While low in volume, I think my most recent list is high in quality, especially since I ditched that whole speed-reading thing and have begun spending more time with the words dancing across the page. So briefly, here’s a short smattering of the works I have slowly devoured since June.

First thing, I accidentally found a copy of Peter S. Beagle’s classic The Last Unicorn at a local thrift store. (Looking at the way I just wrote that, it occurs to me that The Last Unicorn at the Local Thrift Store would be an awesome title.) I’m not what one might call a swords-and-sorcery fan (not since I was fourteen, at least), but this book is pretty transcendent. I read it when I was younger and it was, frankly, life changing. One of those books that whisper secrets about how to live a full life without actually coming out and telling you how to live. It is utterly brilliant, and I’m so happy the universe dropped it in my lap. It was life changing again, I’m happy to report.

I also read a theory text I’d been wanting to go through for a long time: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands. This is a really profound book that builds a compelling argument for mental and cultural hybridity, inclusivity, and ambiguity–something that I personally think will be the surviving perspective in a constantly changing world. Plus, it’s magic realism, flavored like Castaneda (except, y’know, not a bald-faced lie like ol’ Carlos), and full of vivid, compelling imagery. I was going to read the book’s poetry component La Frontera, but after a few poems I realized I like Lorna Dee Cervantes better.

What else? I picked up my husband’s copy of Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things but George Lakoff, cuz I love me some cognitive science and linguistics. While the book is fascinating, it’s been slow going, largely because I’ve been distracted by an Elmore Leonard novel I picked up, the old classic Out of Sight. I adore Leonard’s narrative style, and I’m very sweet on hard-boiled crime stories (not so much police procedurals–there’s definitely a difference), so reading this has been a ton of fun.

Oh, and also in the fun department, I re-read editor Ellen Datlow’s Fearful Symmetries anthology, with all of its wonderfully rich and immersive dark short stories. This time, I noticed in the back was a listing of all the backers who helped fund the project–and my name was there! My name is in an Ellen Datlow anthology! …I’m more tickled by this than I really should be.

I think that’s it. Should I remember anything else, I’ll be sure to record it (for posterity, of course, for I’m sure everyone is at the edge of their seats in anticipation for what I could possibly be putting in my brain next. Har-har.) Although it occurs to me I could just update my Goodreads profile–that would probably be easier. Well, then–off to update Goodreads!

On Forgetting How to Speed Read

So I was trying to slog through William Gibson’s newest book this week, and I realized that college has nearly ruined my ability to read.

I kept flipping the pages quickly, one after another, in the manner in which I have become accustomed to in the last few years. With every page I got more and more frustrated. I couldn’t understand a thing. Not a thing! The narrative had bizarre commas and abundant fragments, exposition-free jargon and terse descriptions—certainly not the long-winded run-ons I was used to. I wanted to throw the book at the wall. I was vexed. Gibson used to be so good—what could have possibly happened?

After some moping over this, I tried doing something I have not done in years: I read every word on the page.

Apparently, the haphazard speed reading style I’d developed in college is not conducive to immersive reading. Imagine that! For the last two years, I’d perfected the art of the “close skim,” in which I would basically run my eyes over the page quickly, looking for clumps of words I could read at once or glancing at every other sentence. Mostly, I just snatched up enough information to grasp the overall thesis of the work. This works surprisingly well with those ridiculously big Norton anthologies, as the text is cram-packed on the page in 8.5 font, tiny single space. It is perfectly easy to read five words at once with 8.5 font. After so much reading, you get to recognize patterns of words more than the words themselves. And I have a 4.0 GPA for my last 60 hours of college, which would suggest my comprehension with this tactic wasn’t too shabby.

But my Gibson book (or rather, my husband’s book; he still buys hardbacks for some bizarre reason) is printed in standard 1.5 spaced lines with 12 point font. Freakin’ gigantic! After reading books with so many tiny words crammed together, this book’s formatting is like slogging through mud, full of jerks and stops. The words were so big, I couldn’t see clumps of several words at a time. One word filled my whole eyespace. And with Gibson’s particular style, one part technical manual and one part hardboiled dime novel, there were patterns of words that were unrecognizable. I read pages quickly without grasping a single thing. I wanted to cry. I wanted to strangle William Gibson.

So, I tried slowing down. I reminded myself that I did not have to get the whole thing read by tomorrow in time for class. I let my eyes rest for a fraction of a second on. Every. Word. One. After. Another.

It was excruciating at first. I felt like a sprinter with lead weights strapped to my ankles.

But, slowly, I realized the text was beginning to make sense. At least, make sense in that sci fi kind of way where you don’t know the denotation of every word but that’s okay because you can still see the scene unfold in the mind’s eye. I was getting those brain pictures again, something I was sorely lacking, because my form of “close skim” works for intellectual engagement with the text but doesn’t allow those immersive mind pictures to pop up. Reading slowly, I was there, in the scene. I was enjoying myself.

It was magical.

So I have been practicing this skill of actual reading, and it’s been a lot of fun. I did not finish the book in an afternoon, but I actually feel like I’m there. I’m immersed. And that feeling of immersion is what encouraged me to go into college to study literature in the first place—quite the commentary on modern academia that intense study in one’s particular field is commonly what spoils one’s joy in that field. I am not the first person to have made this observation, either.

But now, I am free. I almost forgot how to read, but with practice I should remember the skill again. Maybe I’ll even get good at it. It doesn’t matter that I have to slog through the words on the page—my paper on this book is due on “never,” and that is freakin’ awesome.

Five Stages of Grief in Finishing my Bachelor’s

It’s interesting, the rush of feelings one gets after having completed a long-time goal. (Well, almost completed–I have two pud finals on Monday, but apart from that everything is golden. I have my degree, for the most part. I should be awarded for my hubris by the universe dumping something silly in my lap, like a class I forgot to take or something my advisor didn’t tell me, but that will be something interesting to write about, at least. And I’m not sure I want to leave college, anyway.) At this point, I think I’ve reached acceptance.

Oh, there was initially denial–how could I finally be finished?!–and that denial quickly turned to anger. Mostly over academia’s ivory-tower hijinks and shenanigans. Por ejemplo, the career services pamphlet they prepare for English majors has a list of careers on the front, jobs English undergraduates should potentially be able to get, and the list is a complete, bald-faced lie. Such as “Teacher,” for which one needs an Education degree. “Editor,” which requires a Master’s. “Museum Curator”: but ain’t no museum gonna give you a curator job without Art History or Anthropology. (I seem to recall that “Writer” was not on the list, but that may simply be my own madness clouding my brain.) Ultimately, I didn’t get into this gig for monetary gain, but academia does a real crappy job of conveying any value, intrinsic or extrinsic, of Liberal Arts studies.

Which caused me to spend to a bit of time bargaining in attempt to fight my depression. It took me a while to remember that broadening my experience of the world, encountering new thoughts and ideas in it, and enlarging my empathy towards my fellow human creature is highly valuable to my inner being and my quality of life. Just cuz it don’t pay the bills doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have done it. Sitting here now, waxing poetical on the many writers and ideologies I’ve encountered during my English studies, I realize I have a rich worldview and a hunger to expand that worldview even farther. That’s the very goal of career in the Humanities, to become more human essentially, so I’ve done a pretty good freakin’ job I think. Which ultimately brings me to acceptance.

I have finished. My time here has been valuable. I am a better person for having done this.

And grad school is for chumps.

In the acceptance stage, I think about grad school, and I fantasize about running off somewhere to find an intellectually stimulating, personally enriching MFA program, in which I can write and linger with other writers and read and experience words in an all-consuming, monk-like existence. And I realize I may have tumbled right back into the denial stage, where I try to convince myself that oh no, it’s not really over, goals have not been achieved, not until the word “Terminal” is slapped on that degree. Someone, somewhere, has made a joke about the five stages of grief for terminal degrees, probably in somewhat poor taste. And let’s not forget how fantastically yuppie it is to just run off and blow thousands of dollars (or loans, or struggle to get funding) on a two year activity that will ultimately lend towards “personal enrichment.” La-la Land, indeed.

So I will take my rush of feelings and appreciate them, but ultimately I should just be proud of myself for finishing something that was super difficult. (With a 4.0 Institutional GPA, I might add. Although, it might be 3.95 if that jerk film professor gives me an A- on his useless fine arts credit class). After all this deep, introspective, Liberal Arts Yuppie pondering, I will turn my eye towards more practical pursuits, and hope, at the very least, this degree will help me make an extra buck or two an hour. Whoo-hoo!

The Unbearable Lightness of Beverages

I’m sitting in my kitchen currently attempting to do some Real Writing(tm), which of course is impossible. I have a pounding headache, three cups of coffee and a double black tea (loose leaf) in my system, and all I want to do is play Singing Monsters on my tablet and nap like I got to nap on Christmas. Oi. Maybe another tea will help.

The husband and I are considering the purchase of a hot water dispenser (or, electric kettle, however fancy you want to be about it) because our tea and coffee habit is getting a little outlandish. We of course drink only loose leaf fragrant teas bought at the local Indian grocer, and we of course love French Pressing our coffee. The addition of an elite, Japanese, top-of-the-line water heater would be the pinnacle of caffeinated snobbery. We could even make noodles with it! You know, green tea needs to be served at a different temperature than black and certainly a different temperature than coffee or fancied up Ramen. If only we could make our chia-seed-steel-cut-oats-with-marionberry-sobpuss-compote with it. Then our lives would be complete.

If you haven’t yet picked up on the subtext: my own hispter yuppieness occasionally disgusts me.

But that won’t stop me from enjoying a cup of  black loose leaf tea at the precisely correct temperature thanks to a Tiger brand hot water kettle. I am actually very excited about this purchase. We live in a very, very crappy apartment, so the idea of not having to wrestle with the fifty-year-old stove in order to boil water is very appealing. It will save lots of time for tea drinking between running the recycling out and picking up the toddler from the university preschool before my husband gets home from his graduate school classes. My Gawd, everything I’ve just said is so yuppie whiteness. Mmmm, tea.

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Excerpt from “He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings: Winnebago Hero Mythology”

In his 1948 book, Winnebago hero cycles: a study in aboriginal literature, linguist Paul Radin collected and translated stories directly from the people of the Winnebago nation, introducing previously unheard of mythological heroes to Western audiences. Among these stories is the Red Horn cycle, a series of tales that describe the exploits of the hero Red Horn, or He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings. These tales explore themes of identity, ritual, struggle, and transformation, and in many ways they can be seen to trace the separation-initiation-return formula presented in Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. However, not every facet of the Red Horn cycle fits perfectly within Campbell’s structure; the cycle is a distinctly non-Western narrative with a cultural agenda of its own. Nevertheless, the journey of Red Horn is a complex hero tale that both challenges and reinforces Campbell’s model of the monomyth.

To begin with, Red Horn is a hero of supernatural origin, and this marks him as a hero of monomyth despite the fact that his actual birth or parentage is not explicitly described. In Winnebago Hero Cycles, the supernatural nature of Red Horn is revealed when he clarifies his true name to his elder brother and sister-in-law:

Now the little brother stood up and said, “Those in the heavens who created me did not call me by this name, He-who-is-hit-with-deer-lungs. They called me He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings.” With that he spat upon his hands and began fingering his ears. And as he did this, little faces suddenly appeared on his ears, laughing, winking and sticking out their tongues. Then he spoke again, “Those on earth, when they speak of me, call me Red Horn.” (117)

Red Horn spends the initial stages of the cycle as an unnamed “youngest brother” who often is pelted with the lungs of freshly killed deer. His eldest brother Kunu appears to be the central figure for the first narrative in the cycle until Red Horn wins a footrace by magically turning himself into an arrow (Radin 116). The prize of the race is the hand of the chief’s daughter, which Red Horn gives to his older brothers because he is not of marriageable age; this indicates that, until he discloses his origins and goes on warpath, he is not yet a man. Having announced himself as from heaven and displaying the living human heads in his ears, Red Horn announces himself as a hero and is treated accordingly throughout the rest of the narrative. This is the way Red Horn, as a hero, separates himself from the rest of the population, preparing for his departure on his journey. This step can be correlated to the first step in Campbell’s “separation-initiation-return” monomyth formula.

After being recognized by his divinely given name, Red Horn departs on four warpaths; while the warpaths do not obviously fit the aspects of the monomyth, they do establish him as a cultural hero who illustrates Winnebago ritual. In this movement, Red Horn is called upon to go on these warpaths with his brother Kunu, his friend Turtle, and a hunter named Storms-as-he-walks (Radin 120). Red Horn is then invited by a “host” from a neighboring village who is interested in claiming scalps from other villages. There is no explanation of why this host wishes to make war or who the victims of the war might be. In the myth, the warpath is presented simply as a cultural function. Red Horn agrees to this call to warpath immediately, without any moments of refusal, and he and Storms-as-he-walks fly through the air to reach the enemy…

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The stuff we’re not made of: Armchair Particle Physics

I’ve recently fallen in love with the Large Hadron Collider.

Well, I’m not sure I can say “fallen in love” because it’s not that kind of deep, comfortable kind of love one has with, say, a supportive spouse or long-running TV series. It’s probably more like the kind of love one experiences on their third drink in an empty basement bar–superficial but momentarily overwhelming. (Last summer, it was cognitive neuroscience that caught my fickle eye–but don’t get excited, I’m not that smart. I just love reading stuff that’s over my head. Armchair intellectualism, y’know.)

For the last two weeks or so, I’ve been puttering around on the very well written CERN website, checking out a few articles on the subject, and surveying various Wikipedia articles on the Standard Model and other particle physics related topics. I’ve probably spent a bit too much time reading the Wikipedia articles, as one click then leads to another click and another, and at some point I realize I am in a rabbit hole and can’t remember what I started looking for. Wikipedia scavenger hunts are tons of fun, by the way. Should you ever attempt it, I suggest starting with the Origin of Language or the Treachery of Images. Anyway.

So, I’ve been reading quite a lot about this particle physics stuff, and I can only say I understand it loosely. But of the concepts I think I have a tenuous grip on, the most startling is this: the particles that make up the atoms in everyday matter are, if fact, matterless. They have no mass. Mass is generated not by the mass of the things themselves but by the interactions of the particles with the Higgs field and the Higgs boson particle. Before I venture off too much farther into ideas I’m most likely going to get wrong, let’s pause for a moment and ponder this.

We are, essentially made from nothing.

Well, an actual physicist probably would disagree with me–massless particles are something, obviously. But their lacking of mass is what blows my mind. I’m not equipped to say what that may mean–whoever’s writing for the CERN site has a really great grip on this stuff (like check out the metaphor with the ants here), so maybe I’ll find a good paragraph that illuminates this concept better than I can. But, in any case, my mind is left to marvel at the universe, much like a drunk bar patron marveling at the swirly colors in her glass’ melting ice cubes. So pretty, so simple and so utterly mindblowing.

Also, it’s super hard to search for “Large Hadron Collider” without first accidentally typing Large Hardon. It’s true. Try it.

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What I’m reading this winter.

I must be a fast reader because, sometimes, I’m amazed at how much I actually get read. Eventually, I mean. I tend to read more than a few things at once, hopping back and forth from book to book, so I can’t exactly be called the most disciplined book-o-phile. Blame college for my bad habits. So despite the massive piles of stuff for my classes (which are thankfully winding down–yay finals next week!) I have managed to pick at a few delicious word-morsels that have definitely expanded my horizons.

First, I’m on this Victorian Gothic kick, so I’ve been thumbing through Joyce Carol Oates’ BellefleurI say “thumbing through” because the book is so massive, so densely formatted, and such an accurate depiction of the original art form that it’s almost unreadable. A highly difficult book, one that I doubt I will finish in the next ten years, but it’s chock full of dirty bits and Oates’ beautiful language. Well worth the time.

Also, I discovered (rediscovered) Pioneer Women by Joanna Stratton, first published in the 80s and full of compelling stories of women on the Kansas frontier. I remember my mom reading this book when I was a kid (and living in Kansas), so it’s a bit like a homecoming. While the writing itself is sadly plain non-fiction narrative, it features first-person accounts of life on the untamed prairie, from women’s perspectives, and there’s lots of wolves and guns and starving to death. Exciting and poignant. I’m working on a prairie gothic/alt fantasy series of short stories, so this will be a fine inspiration.

Along with all that, I’ve got a horrible one-click habit on Amazon, so I just picked up Laird Barron’s The Imago Sequence and Other Stories and Shirley Jackson’s uncollected stories in Just an Ordinary Day.  So far, both have been amazing. Short-form literary horror is, and likely forever will be, my favorite thing to read, and it’s just perfect that I can squeeze in a story or two before bed or in between classes. And the contrast between the two is so fun–Barron is so deliciously masculine (in that great women-get-to-be-people-too kind of way) and Jackson so marvelously feminine (with men-as-people, too) that the two of them together just round out a perfectly whole, dark vision of a doomed universe. Great stuff.

And, after finals, I’ve got a pile of stuff on my reading list, including Douglas Unger’s Looking for War, Ursula K. Leguin’s Birthday of the World and Other Stories, and a literary Xmas present my husband got me (which I know he got me, but I can’t say what I know he got me.) Altogether, it’s pretty ambitious (and perhaps indicative of an addiction). I hope my eyeballs can keep up.