Doomsday Book

Opening line: ‘Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.’

Willis - Doomsday Book coverKivrin has always wanted to go to the Middle Ages. Fortunately for her, a history student at University of Oxford in 2054, time travel is possible, though still relatively new technology. When it is time for her to go, her tutor Mr. Dunworthy still holds misgivings about how her other tutor is running the ‘drop’ and whether Kivrin should be allowed to go at all. When the net technician collapses after sending Kivrin through, no one is able to confirm where or when Kivrin was sent to, and the only person who seems to care is Mr. Dunworthy. Oxford is put under quarantine; the Head of History is somewhere in Scotland; Balliol College is filled with detainees, including a group of American bell ringers and a student’s insufferable mother; Mr. Dunworthy has taken in his friend’s twelve-year-old grand-nephew while she takes charge of the situation in the hospital; it’s Christmas, and, as his secretary frequently informs him, the college is nearly out of lavatory paper. While Mr. Dunworthy tries to manage the confusion in the future, Kivrin arrives in the fourteenth century, and also collapses. She recovers, only to realize that she doesn’t know where she is or where the drop is for the rendezvous. Undeterred, Kivrin records her observations: of her hosts, the manor house, the village, the church, and the preparations for Christmas. She becomes enmeshed in the lives of Lady Eloise, her mother-in-law, and her two daughters, Rosemund and Agnes, and of the village priest, who believes Kivrin is a saint sent from heaven to help them in their hour of need. Kivrin thinks that finding the rendezvous before Lady Imeyne decides she’s a runaway nun and sends her off to the bishop is the worst of her troubles — until the first of them falls ill with the ‘blue sickness’, and Kivrin realizes exactly when she is.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a detailed, fascinating, and devastating book. Willis’s attention to detail captures characters’ idiosyncrasies with wit and compassion, creating fully-developed characters. This is the second time I’ve read Doomsday Book (I actually listened to it as an audiobook this time around), and it is still as wonderful and terrible as the first time I read it. The quote from the New York Times on the cover calls the novel a ‘tour de force’, and it really is. The first three-quarters of the novel are about the daily lives of Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy in their parallel timelines; there are difficulties, but they seem manageable at the time. And then people start dying, and it doesn’t stop.

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going to the ballgame

Yesterday, I went to see the Frisco RoughRiders play the San Antonio Missions with my friends C. and A.

FRRvSAM 2017

It was great because I could support both teams. I couldn’t lose!

When I asked my friends if they wanted to go, they were enthusiastic, and then asked, ‘Wait — will it be all right for you to go? It will be so hot.’

It was a reasonable question. My chronic illness makes it easy for my body to overheat quickly. After my brush with heat stroke a few years ago, my body has been even more sensitive to heat. We haven’t reached the hottest part of the summer yet, but already we’ve had heat advisories and heat indices above 105 F (40 C). It is unsafe for me to be outside for any length of time when the temps go above average human body temperature. The game was scheduled to start at 7.00 PM, and though that would be cooler than the afternoon, it was likely still to be excessively hot.

But I wanted to go. It had been so long since I had been to a baseball game. I had gone to Missions games when I was a kid, and I wanted to see them play the RoughRiders.

One of the lessons I’ve had to learn about having a chronic illness is to not let the chronic illness ruin my life.

If I stopped whenever I was in pain, if I stayed indoors every time the temperatures rose above 98 F, then I couldn’t work, play, or live. I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I read ‘I won’t apologize for having fun while chronically ill’ at The Mighty. I would figure out how to stay cool at the game.

I looked up the ballpark’s policies for what could be brought inside the park and assembled a bag of supplies. I assumed that we would be in the sun for part of the game, at least until the sun went down.

My bag included:

  • a parasol
  • a folding fan
  • a spray bottle
  • a reusable ice pack
  • two instant cold packs
  • sunscreen lotion
  • insect repellant
  • a bottle filled with Gatorade and ice

It also happened to be ‘Thirsty Thursday’, which meant all drinks were $1 and cups of water with ice were free. I would be able to stay well-hydrated during the game. I made sure to wear light and loose clothing and noted the location of the first aid tent, just in case.

And you know what? It turned out that I was over-prepared. When we found our seats, our section was already in the shade. There was a consistent and gentle breeze. Despite the clear sky, beating sun, and heat advisory, it was surprisingly pleasant. The only items I used from my bag were the spray bottle, the Gatorade, and insect repellant. It was a thousand times better than what I was expecting.

Of course, I’m exhausted today. Being outside for four hours still wore me out, even if it wasn’t sweltering. But I budgeted for the exhaustion; that’s part of having a chronic illness.

Baseball, fireworks, and friends — what more could you ask for in a fine summer evening?

Photo: The Frisco RoughRiders vs. San Antonio Missions in Dr. Pepper Park, Frisco, TX.

Ninth City Burning

Opening line: ‘We’re only a few minutes into our quiz when the sirens start, and the first thing I feel is relief, even though I know that’s totally wrong, totally not how I should feel.’

Black - Ninth City Burning coverJax is a twelve-year-old fontanus who has been raised in the military academy to defend Earth in a war that has lasted for centuries. Also at the academy are Vinneas, Imway, and Kizabel, older cadets about to become officers. Outside the Ninth City are the settlements; and outside those, the empty wildlands filled with tribes unaffiliated with the Principates and the nomadic traders who travel between settlements, belonging to neither the Principates nor the tribes of the lands through which they travel. Naomi and Rae, scouts of their caravan, cross paths with Torro of Granite Shore settlement. The young fontani, the artificer, the commander, the equite, the gunslinger, and the infantry soldier each have a role to play in the battle to defend Earth.

Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black is a difficult book to summarize without giving any spoilers. The structure of this debut novel was ambitious: seven perspective characters, each linked in some way to the other characters. When I saw from the description of the novel that it was a group of unlikely allies that would save the world, I expected that once the characters were assembled they would work together as a team to pull off some harum-scarum plan* that they had concocted, as is usually the case (and feels a lot like RPG campaigns). But I was wrong, and I love it when a sci-fi novel does something unexpected.

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two years of tortitude

On this day two years ago I brought home a wee three-month-old kitten who quickly turned my flat into a home. The first night, she slept on the armchair in my bedroom; the second, at the foot of the bed. The third night she slept by my pillow and that has been her spot ever since.

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I adopted a tortoiseshell kitten. I hadn’t even heard of ‘tortitude’, though I quickly learned that Willow has tortitude in full measure.

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On her bed next to my desk.

The term ‘tortoiseshell’ refers to the unique blend of black, brown, orange, and cream-colored fur. Like calico, tortoiseshell coloring is somewhat rare because it requires the red-coloring gene to be present in both X chromosomes. Because both calicos and tortoiseshells require two X chromosomes, nearly all calicos and tortoiseshells are female. (The occasional male calico or tortoiseshell is often the result of a mutation and is sterile.) The difference between calico and tortoiseshell is that calico cats have large patches of solid orange, white, and black, whereas tortoiseshell cats have little white coloring and the colors are mixed together. Although tortoiseshell cats can be nearly any breed, there seems to be a consensus among cat owners that tortoiseshells have such distinct personalities that these traits are generally referred to as ‘tortitude’.

What does tortitude look like?

These multi-colored cats are sometimes referred to as the ‘red heads’ of the cat world. Alternately called ‘divas’ or ‘princesses’, these cats certainly have minds of their own and are not afraid to make their wishes known.

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Some of the characteristics of tortitude are:

  • High-energy
  • Bold and curious
  • Affectionate
  • Possessive
  • Talkative
  • Unpredictable
  • Sensitive
  • Demanding
  • Companionable

(Of course, the academic in me will point out that there is very little scientific evidence to support the idea of tortitude, and that it’s likely that discussions of tortitude are the result of widespread confirmation bias. Take this as you will.)

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The Ghost Bride

Opening line: One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride.

Choo - The Ghost Bride coverLi Lan is the daughter of a respectable Chinese merchant family and, like any young woman her age, hopes for a favorable marriage. There’s only one problem: Her family is poor, so poor that the only offer she has is to be the bride of a dead man. The tradition is old, and rarely practiced, but the young man’s family pursues Li Lan despite her refusals. While his living relatives draw Li Lan into the intrigues of their family, the ghost of her prospective fiancé haunts Li Lan’s dreams in order to court her. Caught between worlds, Li Lan must navigate political and social intrigue in both the land of the living and of the dead, and, to solve more than one mystery, may have to go into Death itself.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo is about the relationships between two Chinese families in late nineteenth-century Malaysia. Li Lan, the protagonist, has been chosen to be a ‘ghost bride’ for a rich family’s deceased son: This practice ensured that the deceased would still have a spouse in the afterlife once the living spouse eventually died; in the meantime, there would be someone to perform the necessary rituals to provide for the deceased’s spirit in the afterlife.

I had picked up The Ghost Bride some time ago at a used bookstore, on a whim, as I always forget the titles or names of authors I’m interested in as soon as I step into a bookstore. The premise intrigued me, and the first page effectively whetted my appetite to read more. I am also trying to be more conscious about reading science-fiction and fantasy centered in non-Western traditions and written by people of color (especially women of color). I was entranced by the descriptions of the spirit world and the tapestry of folk lore Choo presents in her novel. In addition to being fascinating culturally, the novel does everything right: the prose was beautiful, employing rich descriptions that advance the narrative instead of as info-dumps, as is often the case in author’s debut novels; the pacing was just right, neither dragging at any point nor rushing through at others; the characters were each distinct and relatable. Overall, this is a stunning debut novel and I look forward to more from this author.

Earlier this year I was looking for a novel to read alongside The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (as one would determine wine and cheese pairings): both are set in the late-nineteenth-century/early-twentieth century and feature magical realism. The Golem and the Jinni also highlights non-Western folklore. I wish I had thought to read The Ghost Bride then; The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo fits perfectly alongside them.

Introduction to Literature by Women

Last week I learned that I will be teaching the upper-level course ‘Literature by Women’ this fall semester. As I consider what texts to choose and what to do with them, I remember doing the same last summer when I was preparing to teach ‘Introduction to Literature by Women’. The latter course fulfilled my university’s core ‘Women’s Studies’ requirement; many of the students were freshmen and sophomores from a range of majors. The upper-level course, in contrast, will be taken by mostly junior and senior English majors. Because the audiences and objectives of the course are different, I doubt I will reuse many (if any) of the same texts I used for the introductory course.

While I’m not ready to blog about the decision process for my upcoming course, I thought that I would write about my choices for my introductory course.

Because ‘Introduction to Literature by Women’ was an introductory literature course, I decided to use it to introduce students to women’s writings in a variety of genres, namely: memoirs, poetry, fiction, and essays. I also set the parameters that the texts I chose had to be written by modern or contemporary American women.

I wanted to introduce my students to as wide range of authors as I possibly could, so I opted to have a key text (a book-length work) for most of the genres that would be supported by selected shorter texts, such as short-stories or essays. The only genre that I did not have a key text for was poetry.

Once I set my parameters, I immediately chose Kindred by Octavia Butler as my fiction key text and Ursula K. Le Guin as one of my supplemental authors. I already knew that if I had to teach poetry, I wanted to teach poets I liked, so I included Naomi Shihab Nye and Laurie Ann Guerrero, who was the 2016 Texas Poet Laureate. Upon asking K. regarding memoirs, she suggested Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Dandicat. I read it, was hooked, and promptly added it to my list.

It was then that I discovered that nearly all of my chosen authors were women of color. Although this happened unintentionally, I did intentionally continue this theme: I had Latina-American, Palestinian-American, Haitian-American, and African-American authors, so let me also have Korean-American, Japanese-American, Indian-American, and Native American authors, as well as Anglo-American authors. We spent a lot of time discussing what it means to be an American that semester. Also, that women write about everything, not just ‘women’s issues’. It was awesome.

Below are the units, organized by genre, with the texts that I chose for each unit.

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Catification: Climbing Wall

climbing wall_2016-02-19Raise your hand if you’ve heard the term, ‘Catification’. No? Catification is a term coined by Jackson Galaxy (of My Cat From Hell fame) that means making a feline-friendly environment in your home.

For instance, since Willow literally spends more time in my (our) flat than I do, she ought to have some ‘say’ in the decor. This flat is her home, too.

One of my first catification projects was to build a climbing wall for her. Only one wall of my flat was suitable for it, and she would have to share with my research bookcases. My goal for catification is that it meets both Willow’s and my needs.

Benefits of having a climbing wall for your cat(s):

  • It expands your cat’s territory vertically, thus maximizing space.
  • Higher territory gives your cat(s) a place to escape from other pets, small children, or vacuum cleaners.
  • Destructive cats are bored cats: a climbing wall adds interest to your home for your cat.
  • Climbing the tree and jumping between (or across) levels keeps her fit and healthy.
  • The tree and sisal rope provide plenty of places for your cat to scratch her claws.
  • It looks nicer than a pre-built carpeted cat tree.
  • You can integrate your own furniture, such as bookshelves, so that the wall serves a double purpose.

The climbing wall is made up of a few shelves, a tree, and a branch. The mirrors are cosmetic. In the end, this climbing wall cost less to put together than it would have been to buy a short, pre-built, carpeted cat tree.

Wait — a real tree?

Willow’s climbing wall features not only one, but two real trees. I had originally planned to wrap a length of PVC pipe with sisal rope, but when I mentioned the cost of buying enough sisal rope to do so to my parents, they offered to bring Willow a tree from their tree farm in South Carolina.

Fun fact: Climbing trees is not instinctual for cats. I had to teach Willow how to climb the tree! Once she grasped the concept, she was climbing like a pro. Now she races up the tree in a flash.

The tree is not itself affixed to the ceiling or floor. Each end is capped with a bit of PVC pipe attached to a thin board, and it is the board that is attached to the ceiling. Friction and tension keep the bottom of the tree in place. The ends of the PVC pipe are wrapped with sisal rope.

In addition to the tree, Willow also has a ‘lounging shelf’, which is pictured above. This shelf is different from the others because it is covered from carpet squares I chose from the carpet samples at Home Depot. The lounging shelf is one of her favorite places in the flat. She sometimes slept in the basket until she grew too big for it; then it became a useful place to hold her toys.

After about a year, I started thinking of ways to modify the climbing wall and make it more interesting again. When visiting my sister for Thanksgiving, she showed me a branch that had fallen off the big ash trees in their garden during an ice storm. She had kept it because she thought I might like it for Willow’s wall. I did!

The current version of the climbing wall features more tree than shelves, which makes getting to the high shelves more of a challenge for my clever and energetic cat. Because the ash tree is very hard and the bark isn’t very deep, I wrapped parts of it with sisal rope to provide more grip. I also used the sisal rope to attach the branches to hooks I put in the wall, and the base of the tree is in a dark-stained, wooden bucket full of rocks.

We also use the wall when we play with Go Cat’s Da Bird toy: I’ll make the ‘bird’ fly up to the high shelves and flit away just as she catches up to it. When she has her nightly ‘crazy time’, she literally runs up the walls! Willow sometimes leaps from one high shelf to the other, nimbly slipping through the space between the top right branch and the wall to land on her lounging shelf. She also leaps from the sofa onto the middle of the right branch. Soon I will need to wrap more sisal rope around it as she wears away the bark with her climbing.

If you have the room for it, I recommend getting a branch or two of real trees for your cat(s). Willow has never scratched any of my furniture because she has plenty of her ‘furniture’ to scratch instead. Cats scratch to mark their territory, sharpen their claws, and to stretch their backs, and they’re likely to prefer scratching something natural like tree bark over fabric. Although both of my trees came from family sources, you could ask a local tree and lawn service if they have any particularly large branches you could use. That’s what I was going to do before my sister offered the branch that fell off of her tree.

In another year I will change the wall up again. Best to keep Miss Adventure Paws on her toes!