New Hobbies & Deep Thoughts

I have returned to the mothership Barrow for a work gig, mainly so I could enjoy the best time of the year in the arctic, the dead of winter. This past Saturday was the first day of sun, and if I squinted really, really hard, I could kind of see it on the cloudy horizon. It was sort of a shimmery pink blob, and immediately infused me with the day's recommended allotment of vitamin D. I felt instantly powerful, which is why I went immediately home and took a long nap.

In case you can't tell, I've been having quite a few of these moments lately:

Which has led me on a path to self-discovery. It's the new year, after all, and while my resolutions usually involve vague half-formed thoughts like "save more money" and "dinner cannot be a block of cheese four nights a week," this traveling around and learning new things has led me to realize that I am made up of two contradicting personality traits. These traits are:
  1. A deeply rooted anti-establishment bias that makes me want to shuffle into a cave and distrustfully eyeball anyone who approaches;
  2. And a hyper-competitive, anxious-minded weirdo who does things because they might be better in some abstract way, never mind that the #1 trait is saying, "Yeah, don't do that." 
And when I say "hyper-competitive," I mean with myself. I have always disdained team sports and comparing myself actively to my peers, but I have internal wars with myself that can only be described as my brain splintering into two entities that actively annoy each other. One side is an over-achieving horse's ass, begging for external (positive) assessment--much like this:

While the other side plays the NOPE game and feels this way about external validation:

Good. So I've come to realize who I am after thirty years of being alive and eating a lot of cheese. The next step is acceptance. 

But I don't want to become a stale old pony, plodding along and never growing as an individual. Which is why I experimented a bit with some grammatical blunders. While I usually embody an acolyte worshiping at the altar of the Grammatical God of Pleonasm (much to the delight of my coworkers and friends, I'm sure), I've decided I'm giving up on grammar and spelling and embracing laziness. I tried out this approach with my brother. He was not really impressed:

 I stand by my appraisal. This whole new hobby warrants further experimentation.

In other news, I am reading Marie Kondo's new book, SPARK JOY, after my nonsensical love affair with her bestseller, THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP. SPARK JOY is even more batshit crazy than her first book, and it's illustrated with how to fold things in wonderfully regimented ways, so of course I am obsessed. If only I was in my own house--I would be hugging all my belongings to see if they spark joy, and then folding them in the exact KonMari style of my new revisited overlord, Kondo.

If a Japanese book about tidying up and paring down is not your cup of tea, then read MEN EXPLAIN THINGS TO ME by Rebecca Solnit. It was a recent read of mine, and it's an excellent collection of essays that are quite thought-provoking (though not nearly as acidly funny as the title of the book suggests. Many are downright heartbreaking). As a woman, I, too have suffered through men explaining things to me that I already perfectly understand. A man patronizingly called me "darling" at work the other day, and I nearly beat him to death with a fried fish patty (not really. But in my head, it was a violent affair). These things happen, people. It's still a patriarchal society. 

Let's end this disastrous post with a picture of Queen Sisuaq, who I won't see for over a month. She is a cute little fluffer, forever and ever (amen).

Photo by David Pettibone, artist extraordinaire.


Winter & Holidays in Homer

It's time for a picture dump! We've been in Homer almost six months, and I'm flying off to Barrow for a month on Sunday, so let's look at the wintry landscape we've seen in Homer the last couple of months. December brought a lot of snow--we got about two feet in two days. Austin and I spent hours shoveling the first day, only to wake up the next day and see all of our hard work had been erased. Which caused me to dramatically give up shoveling forever and want to immediately buy a little tractor or ATV for snow removal. This has not happened yet, don't worry. 

Onto the pictures!

Sisu at the top of the hill behind our house.

Moose friends in our yard, early in November.

Sisu loves the snow.
View over the bay.

View over the bay.

Mountain ridges.

Another moose friend.

Sisu looking like a fairy princess dog.

Our backyard with a view of the bay.

Sisu explores near the beach.

Oh, so cute.

Austin and I wrestle with the turkey on Thanksgiving day.

Benny, our friend's dog, takes a nap on the couch.

Benny & Sisu with our friend David, playing in the yard.


Favorite Books of 2015

I did not make a nice graphic for this particular post, and you will just have to deal with a wintry picture and a wall of text. I'm not even going to go into the synopsis of each book because a.) I the worst at summarizing EVER, even though I like writing and occasionally consider myself a writer and b.) you can read a summary somewhere else on the internet--a summary that is better crafted and more interesting than my rambling approximations of a book's plot. Instead, I'll give a brief note on how the book made me feel--a.k.a. why I liked it.

I read 150 books in 2015. That's less than 2014, but I didn't re-read any books, which is rare for me. I usually re-read 10-25 books, and this past year, I just plunged into all new stuff.

15 books stood out to me in 2015. So hold onto your butts, because here we go:

I loved SWEETLAND by Michael Crummey. It made me root for the curmudgeonly main character, Moses Sweetland, who is the fierce and stubborn remaining dweller on a remote Canadian island. The novel made me feel that alone-ness is a space to embrace, and it solidified the notion that loneliness is very different from the state of being alone. Sweetland was a great narrator--his voice in this novel pulled me through the book.

One of my top three books of the year was THE SACRED LIES OF MINNOW BLY by Stephanie Oakes. I already mentioned it in my Halloween post this past year, but this book was ballsy as fuck, and absorbing and incredible. It renewed the power of an old folktale, and confronted crazy subjects--mutilation and abuse, cults, the youth rehab and justice system, and on and on. I loved Minnow, even though she had been run over by a metaphorical truck about ten times too many.

For fun and lighter reading, THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir was entertaining, and I was charmed because it's not something I'd usually pick up. Mark Watney, the main character, is a dorky, hilarious genius, and the wild plot keeps the book going (I usually hate space novels. Love space TV shows and movies, hate novels. It makes no sense, I know). ONCE I WAS COOL by Megan Stielstra falls in the same realm of entertaining-the-hell out of me, in a different way. This personal essay collection was smart, introspective, funny, and was just right for me as I turned thirty.

On the serious nonfiction front, I loved IT'S WHAT I DO by Lynsey Addario. Get the hard copy version, as there are lots of photographs. It's a memoir of a war photographer. It's a world far outside my realm of experience, and so I was humbled and amazed by much of the memoir. MISSOULA by Jon Krakauer was difficult to read, but one of those Important Books to read (I have another one coming up). I am perpetually disturbed by rape culture and rape statistics, and Krakaeur's micro-study of Missoula was a smart way to approach the issue of rape on college campuses, especially for the uninitiated reader (which I am not). I would not, by any stretch of the imagination, call this book entertaining, but it's important, and I thought it was structured in a very successful way. IRRITABLE HEARTS by Mac McClelland is one I mentioned earlier this year--a memoir about a journalist's struggle with PTSD. It remains in my top 15, because I love McClelland as a writer and for the way she approached her subject matter.

Another serious nonfiction book that deserves its own, stand-alone paragraph is Ta-Nehisi Coates' BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME. Written in epistolary form to his teenage son, this book made me think Oh, my heart, my heart, my heart. It is a reflection and ululation on the rampant racism and police brutality we are seeing in the U.S. It's a worry stone and call to action. It's Coates' expression of helplessness and love for his son and his people. Coates is a writer I've followed for years, and he is special. Special in the way that few writers are. This book should be required reading; buy it, even if you don't think you can bear it. Read it, even if you think it doesn't interest you. It's an Important Book.

Another book that smashed my heart and yet I loved every word was poet Elizabeth Alexander's THE LIGHT OF THE WORLDI wrote about it before; the memoir meditates on Alexander's husband's untimely and surprising death. It's a worst nightmare situation, a dark tunnel with echoing walls, and yet Alexander's book is as luminous (even numinous) as you might expect, if you are familiar with her poetry. It made me sigh the way good, beautiful books do, even when they're painful.

In fiction that delighted me, THE ARCHITECT'S APPRENTICE by Elif Shafak thrilled me. It's a novel that spans decades, and instead of a slog, it was a beautiful verismo, a song that kept unfolding, the melody never wavering. Set during the Ottoman Empire, it follows a young man who becomes an architect's apprentice, an elephant handler, a leader, and a lover. It's a novel for long winter nights or cloudy summer days. Read it when you want to indulge and sink into a story. And if that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, then J. Ryan Stradel's GREAT KITCHENS OF THE MIDWEST ought to do it. This novel has been creating a buzz, and I agree with those little bees (get it?), because it's charming in the most authentic way possible. It follows a few generations of a family and friends in a tidy, compact novel, unfolding through a single plot unifier: food. It's a love song to food, both good and bad, and growing up. There's an airiness to the novel, even in the darkest of moments, that makes me want to call if fluffy, even though it's not fluffy. It's like a perfect little cream puff--those fuckers are hard to make, but when the pâte à choux turns out and the French cream comes together, it's a little bite of heaven that seems effortless, belying hours of labor. It was just a good, wholesome novel--you'll devour it in a day or two.

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff has been on soooooooooo many lists this year and was a bestseller for weeks (months?). I resisted, and then finally checked it out from my local library when I didn't have anything to read. I loved it. I loved every beautifully-written-these-characters-are-intolerable moment of it. It sent me on an emotional rollercoaster, and I don't care that the characters were so deeply flawed and privileged I wanted to strangle them sometimes. Because Groff made them ineffably human and I followed them into their darkness. Bravo, Groff. Beautiful writing. Just beautiful. Read if it you like prose to be teeth-achingly lovely at times, and so sharp at others, it cuts your fingers on the page.

Another book that delighted me with its literary prowess was THE DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jenny Offill. I read it a month ago, and I'm not even sure what it's about; I only know that I loved the novel. It's brief--so short--and so intense in its emotional capacity. It's about a marriage that coalesces into something real, and then falls apart and shimmies together again and lies come out and tragedy strikes and so on and so forth. But it's lovely, and it made me think and fall into the novel in the best way.

A book I read towards the end of the year that has weaseled its way onto this list is BOHEMIAN GOSPEL by Dana Chamblee Carpenter. Set in 13th century Bohemia, this novel is about Mouse, a girl of mysterious origins who grows up in a convent and somehow ends up as an advisor to the king. First of all, the setting is wonderful, and as someone who doesn't know shit about 13th century Bohemia, I found it beautifully fleshed out. Mouse is both human and a badass. The novel unfolds in a dramatic soap opera-esque style that is saved from ridiculousness because of the sound writing and strange creepiness (and I mean creepy). There's a whole plot line involving the Christian devil, and nuns, and weird, unbaptized souls that hang around tormenting people. It's delightful. I am not joking; this novel enthralled me. If you like historical fiction, go pick it up.

The final book I loved for its entertainment factor was the nonfiction account of the mid-nineteenth century cholera outbreak in London, THE GHOST MAP by Steven Johnson. Nothing piques my interest more than historical essays or books on a.) sewer systems, dating from Roman times to 1930; b.) weird and erroneous medicine and health belief systems pre-1900; and c.) old maps of cities with the wonderful hand-drawn streets and landmarks. This book had all three of those interests, and it was written in an engaging way. SOLD. If you want to read about how cholera was identified as a waterborne disease (without a microscope involved! This is pure deductive reasoning, my friends. Sherlock, move your ass over), then THE GHOST MAP is your book.

Now, what did you read that you liked in 2015?


Creepy Reading for Halloween (2015 Edition)

Yeeeeessssss, it's October! A perfect and wonderful month thanks (but not limited) to fall, scary movies, sweaters, and Halloween candy that is ostensibly purchased for trick or treaters, but magically consumed before the 31st actually rolls around. October also means that it's time to burrow into a blanket with a sinister book or two, which leads me straight into the Creepy Reading edition for 2015 (here's 2014's version and 2013--it's a blog tradition!). Now, my preferred creepy reading is dark, Gothic, full of creepy thrills and get-under-your-skin horror. Unremitting gore ain't my thing, not that it pops up too often in books compared to movies. If you, too, enjoy eerie, hair-raising stories that spook and titillate, then 2015's list is for you. Onwards, I say!

 (Links below go to Amazon, but I'm not affiliated, and I prefer you buy from your local bookstore, etc., etc.)

ONE: In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
This is a classic, suspenseful mystery that centers around a group of somewhat-estranged friends who reconvene in a remote English town for a bachelorette weekend. In a glass house deep in the woods, the friends grapple with the secrets between them, and the seeming instability of at least one of their members. Something happens late one night, leading to mayhem and blood, and the main character is left with a kind of situational amnesia. She has to put her memory back together in order to figure out who's guilty and who's not. The narrative shifts back and forth between the present (where the main character is in the hospital) and the past (the bachelorette weekend). I knew who our troublemaker was before the halfway point hit, but In a Dark, Dark Wood is worth a read. It's taut, atmospheric, and showcases the pathological darkness in some disturbed individuals.

TWO: The Fever by Megan Abbott
I seriously feel like I reviewed this book on my blog before, but damned if I can find any evidence of that particular hunch. Therefore, I'll pretend I've never mentioned it . . . The Fever is a tightly controlled and narrated novel about many things: hysteria over budding female sexuality; the power of the mob mentality; and the danger of secrets, both familial and on a corporate level. Teenage girls in a small town start to experience seizures, and rumors abound about a dangerous outbreak at the local high school. I don't want to give too much away, as The Fever flirts with many different reasons for this outbreak before revealing its source. Suffice to say, it's gripping in a creepy, disorienting way. If you've read The Fever (it was all the rage last year), then I suggest The Unraveling of Mercy Louis as an alternate option. It's similar to The Fever, but focuses on a town's polluting factory and the tremendous damage that hyper-conservative religion can wreak on budding young teens.

THREE: The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes
 Introduce yourself to this book, as you'll be seeing it again on my favorite books list at the end of the year. It's by far my favorite YA novel I've read this year. Do you all know the Grimm fairytale "The Girl Without Hands"? No? It's okay if you don't, but this novel loosely reinterprets that very dark tale. In The Sacred Lies, Minnow Bly is our narrator and main character. She grew up in the woods as part of a deeply religious cult that is very conservative and misogynistic. Minnow's life is irrevocably and violently changed as a result her challenging authority, and the tragedy that seems inherent to cults. The narrative is similar to In a Dark, Dark Wood in that it switches back and forth between the present (where Minnow is in a juvenile detention center) and the past (her life in the cult). The writing in this is compelling and absolutely lovely in its spare, unflinching style. There is some well-written but soul-crushing violence in this book, so be prepared for that. Highly recommended as a dark, beautiful book with a strange mystery at its core.

FOUR: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
To be honest, I'm not sure where to start with this one. Suffice to say, it's absolutely batshit. This novel involves a family in suburban New England. The family has two daughters: Marjorie, who's fourteen, and Merry, who's eight. Marjorie starts to exhibit signs of schizophrenia, and strange things start to happen in the house. The father in the novel attributes Marjorie's breakdown to demonic possession instead of illness, and he contacts a priest by the name of Father Wanderly for assistance. The priest recommends an exorcism. In a bizarre twist, and after gaining some notoriety, the family agrees to take part in a reality show about possession and exorcisms. So while there's all this incredibly creepy stuff happening, there's simultaneously a film crew traipsing amidst the domestic drama. This novel unfolds in a totally surprising way; the ending is crazy, and it really left me unsettled for a couple of days (so it's perfect for Halloween!). This is the closest novel to actual horror on this list.

FIVE: The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson
How about that title? I love it. So alliterative and Gothic. This is another novel loosely based on a fairytale. In this case, it's Tam Lin, the Scottish ballad. The Mirk and Midnight Hour is set in Mississippi, however, during the Civil War. In it, the seventeen-year old main character, Violet, is trying to hold together her fraying household. Her mother is addicted to laudanum and her father and twin brother are dead from the War. Violet finds an injured Union soldier in the woods near her house; she decides to help him, and hides him deep in the woods in an abandoned house. This novel has two threads from this point: Violet dealing with the War and this mysterious soldier, and the strangeness of the abandoned house that she's stashed the soldier in. In true Gothic fashion, things are not as they seem, and someone has a secret (or two). This is a YA novel, and its strength is in the setting and really creating a war-torn and moody atmosphere.

SIX: Working Stiff by Judy Melinek
This nonfiction book focuses on Melinek's personal career as a medical examiner. Melinek writes about both the banality of death (happens to everyone, after all), and the bizarre and awful ways she's seen some people die. She also worked in NYC during 9/11, and she recounts her experiences during that tragedy. I'm recommending this as a Creepy Read because Melinek does not spare her readers any gory details; the descriptions are graphic. There is one section that made an indelible impression on me. In the section, she notes that many people ask her about the worst way to die, and she recounts doing the autopsy on a young man who died in a particularly horrific way. I won't describe it here, but suffice to say it made me want to avoid open manhole covers forever and ever.

SEVEN: The Visitant by Megan Chance
If you have an e-reader, that's the way to buy this book. It's super cheap on Amazon. The Visitant bills itself as a "Venetian ghost story" and that's about as accurate as it can get. In 1884, Elena Spira is sent to Venice to tend a rich young man who has suffered a grievous beating. Elena is a nurse from America, and her family knows the injured man's family very well; Elena also has been very naughty back in the U.S., and so she's trying to atone for her mistakes. When she gets to Venice, she finds out the young man is convalescing in a friend's ancient, decaying house. He's too injured and ill to be moved, and so Elena is forced to stay in the house and deal both with her difficult patient and the super-weird Venetian family that owns the house. It doesn't take long for strange things to start happening. This novel takes a traditional approach to ghosts, but mixes it up by adding Victorian attitudes/beliefs towards mental and physical health to the mix. The injured young man is epileptic, you see, and such a condition was not well understood (or treated well) in the era. If you like ghost stories with some creeps and spooks, this is for you.

EIGHT: The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni
This is a YA mystery with a dash of maybe-it's-supernatural-and-maybe-it's-not. Set in 1867, the novel focuses on a small town in Pennsylvania that has two odd, caged graves on its outskirts. The protagonist, a teen named Verity Boone, becomes enthralled by the graves, especially since the townsfolk are reticent to discuss them. When she finds out her mother is actually buried in one of them, and that they are on unhallowed ground, she starts to do some investigating. Her inquiry leads to some chilling discoveries. This book has a unique plot; it wasn't quite like anything I've read in historical or thriller YA literature.

NINE: House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy
Like A Head Full of Ghosts, this is more of a traditional horror story. It doesn't share even an iota of plot similarities with A Head Full, but the tension, creepiness, and horror scenes are analogous. House of Echoes is about a young family that moves to upstate New York from NYC in order to start over after a series of personal and professional setbacks. They have two sons--an eight year old and a baby. In Swannhaven, their new town, they purchase a sprawling old mansion with the intention of turning it into a bed and breakfast. This endeavor is plagued by issues, as Charlie (the 8 y/o son) keeps wandering into the woods, and disemboweled animals are unceremoniously dumped on the family's new property several times. The husband and protagonist, Ben, also becomes obsessed with finding out more about the house's and village's origins. He finds letters dated from 1777 that allude to starvation and some sort of awful creature in the woods. Suffice to say, things come to a head, and the idyllic town betrays itself as not-so-idyllic. House of Echoes explores themes of man vs. nature and the power of the ancestral link to the past. It's a little slow going at first, but it builds up to a feverish pace. The scenes within the house and in the woods are genuinely creepy.

TEN: The Other Side of Midnight by Simone St. James
I always include St. James' novels on my Creepy Reading Lists, because they are absolutely fun in addition to being creepy. The latest St. James novel, The Other Side of Midnight, is set in 1925 in London, at the height of the second spiritualist craze (the first happened in the Victorian era, just FYI). The protagonist, Ellie Winter, is a psychometrist who can draw psychic connections from objects. When her friend and famous medium, Gloria Sutter, is murdered, Ellie is drawn into the mystery to find out who killed her. While investigating Gloria's untimely end, Ellie is plagued by the attention of James Hawley, a WWI vet who's made it his mission to debunk any and all spiritualists and mediums. Ellie perseveres, however, and starts to unravel a complex and dark knot regarding Gloria's death and other mediums around the city. If you enjoy historical novels that deal with ghosts and things that go bump in the night, I recommend all of St. James' works.
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