Can I say, I don't really enjoy bookstores? Oh, I quite like nosing in and looking at what's on display and seeing all the shiny, new, unbent and perfectly formed books and all. They are so perfect! Most of my reading is library so they've often been well-cracked, or modified with plastic and such to make them last a little longer. Plus bookstores always have interesting knick-knacks and general atmosphere - but all it makes me feel is that I should go home and read the books piling up there. I feel, guiltily, that I have so many books on hold at the library and as well as on the to-read-later list on the library website. That I have the real TBR list (on paper), the vague TBR list I keep in my head (which consists of things like "eventually, read all of Shakespeare's plays, Milton, the four Chinese classics, etc" - you know, very ambitious projects).

And what do I do when I get home?! REREAD SOMETHING I LOVE. I am making so little headway!

I'm presently about 30% through A Tale of Two Cities. I've read a lot of British literature and decided (completely ignoring all of the TBR lists previously mentioned) abruptly a few weeks ago I was going to stop avoiding Dickens.

flist, what are you reading?


The Goblin Emperor: Katherine Addison

The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an "accident," he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.
Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.
Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend . . . and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne–or his life.

Summary taken from GoodReads

The summary is pretty much bang on in terms of the novel's set up, but what it misses is the fact that Maia is upset, awkward, afraid, and uncomfortable for every single page except maybe two in the end. I have scrolled past discussions of TGE on meme for years and it's been on my reading list that long too. But I found it to be rather tedious, and one of the reasons is because characters like Maia don't appeal to me.

To TGE's credit, the novel starts at the beginning of the excitement, at the moment when a courier arrives at the remote estate exile Maia lives at, with the news that his father and all his older brothers have been killed in an airship explosion, and now he's the emperor. Maia's the youngest son and moreover the son of his elfin father's marriage to a goblin woman. His mother died when he was young, while they were both in exile, and he's been under the guardianship of his cousin Setheris, who dislikes Maia and loses his temper at him often. So he has had no teaching about the court at all.

I think that Maia's response to being emperor is quite realistic, generally speaking, though I have more specific objections about characterizations later. He's afraid to speak out, he doesn't want to be seen, he resents the loss of privacy, he feels awkward because he doesn't feel like he belongs and doesn't know how to handle the many complex personal interactions he will have to have as emperor. But as a reader, I found the whole novel dragged miserably. I can feel awkward and exhausted all on my own, thanks! It is not really interesting to explore it all in a massive fantasy tome format. Maia continually feels guilty, or sleepless, or flat-footed, or tired, or afraid, or determined to push past the awkwardness (unsuccessful) or any of the many unpleasant adjectives you can think of, and so spending all four hundred pages with this kind of attitude gets tedious.

I think there's a lot of people on meme who like woobies - and of course, except for venting, people generally want to talk about what they like, so the fans of course are loudest there. I just really don't like them. They don't appeal to me. I can see why they ship Maia with Csevet (his competent secretary/courier), Maia has to trust at least one person if he's not to completely collapse and it is Csevet.

Another issue - I found that a lot of the names were really similar. So many characters that started with C! Then there were many prefixes/titles that I didn't realize were titles, so I swam through the novel mostly vaguely confused about who they were speaking about. This does not improve my engagement with a book, because I like characters and tend to care about them, and it's hard to build up caring when you can't remember interacting with them before. And again, there's plenty of political camps, and I couldn't remember which collection of e's and z's were in which political camp.

Also, I think the final thing that bothered me, kind of like a tag that keeps chafing your neck and always reminding you of its small yet incredibly irritating presence, is the feeling that this novel is so...2010's. Almost as if it's tumblr-esque. Not overtly - I wouldn't say the prose imitates tumblr, for example. But the way Maia feels and reacts, it read so modern. It reminds me of those over-excited, poorly-researched GUYS LISTEN posts, where the poster then goes on to excitedly talk about how the Vikings were very feminist in this very specific vein of third wave feminism (without any awareness of any of this). The worldbuilding otherwise tries very hard to get out of Tolkien's shadow, and does try to use non-human signals to indicate mood, like ears flicking and such, which I did think was cool, but it makes an even stronger contrast.

I think this sense of modernity spilled into characterization, where it often felt like there were some characters bent into unnatural configurations to satisfy the plot. Maia's pretty believable, and some of the closer characters are. But others just seem to be warped towards one particular character shape. Idra is Maia's heir, his nephew. His mother hates Maia and schemes to get rid of him by going so far as kidnapping him - Maia thinks she'll exile him and then kill him, and I'm inclined to agree with his assessment. Idra is sixteen. His reaction to the attempted assassination is horror, which is understandable as he was not in on the plan. But later he has all these weird conversations with Maia where he's preternaturally understanding, and mild, and seems to have neither ego nor ambition nor sense of preservation in maneuvering. This is a sixteen-year-old growing up in a court full of political games and very close to the seat of power, with a very, very ambitious mother. But in order to clear out some space where not all characters are horrible, it's like Idra is - surprise! - quite nice. In, again, a really modern way. The society of TGE is pretty paternalistic in ways that resemble ours. There are a few female characters who are political barter (again, standard). But Maia is perfect of course, and draws them out, trying to figure out what they want. And one of them comes out and says (eventually) that they correspond with all these other female characters who are doing work like research on genetics (based on horses, a nod to Mendel's peas), or translating famous works of poetry. While I think these are all very interesting characters in other contexts, I found the way this was presented to be so reminiscent of the endless, lazy, and shallow depictions of Strong Women. I have come to loathe that term. And finally, I can just see the reams of dutiful fanart of those side characters sandwiched between 5870 posts with lovingly drawn art of Csevet/Maia. It's just so tumblr to me that it's hard to stay in the novel and stay engaged. 5/10


(no subject)

I've been trying to learn more about natural history, especially deep time, and I've been trying to read general books on the subject. I have a pretty decent grasp of the time scales now - that took awhile to grasp, since we're not great at really understanding the difference between 5 million, 50 million, and 500 million years, not to mention 5 billion. I also read a couple pretty good general popular science books on the subject.

I took a lot of science in high school but although the curriculum very good, we never did cover biological classification, taxonomy, etc. So I tried to find textbooks about cladistics, specifically. I am so interested in this reconstruction of the tree of life - and staggered at how much I don't know (and frankly what the field doesn't know) about the species that populate it. Even leaving aside most the tree, which is bacteria and archaea, where I know almost nothing, even the animal branch is very very full of things I still know nothing about, even when considering phylum level classifications. Cnidaria, I know they're sea dwelling and often jelly, but what are the defining characteristics? My god there are so many worm phyla! (At least I recognize Annelida). I think I've confused brachiopods and bryozoa. I can't deal with the number of species described in Arthropoda - it dwarfs every other animal phyla. And phylum is one step down from kingdom. On the tiniest branch! There is just so much detail that you could drown in.

I don't have access to an academic library anymore - I could get an alumni pass by paying money but I don't even live in the same country anymore - so I turned to ILL, which is one of the best things in the world. The site's kinda finicky to use so I just sorta guessed and ordered a few books. I ended up with Biogeography: an Ecological and Evolutionary Approach by Cox, and Species & Speciation in the Fossil Record edited by Allmon & Yacobucci. Unfortunately I ran out of time to actually read cover to cover but I did enormously enjoy both. I mentioned to someone at work how much I enjoy reading them, and it made me think of the difference in difficulty. Work isn't difficult. There is definitely work to be done, there can be challenges in figuring out how best to do it with the resources available, how we can optimize our processes, and of course lots and lots of detail to absorb, the firm handles billions in assets so risk & control etc blah blah blah, but it's certainly not a challenge in the same intellectual way that thinking about these problems are.

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I'd still like to get a good general grasp of the tree of life, as neither of these books actually had a good list. I kind of fear that a real list would just be too much information unconnected to anything - despite all of this, I'm not into this in order to memorize hundreds of phylum names or anything, that's not the point. But they were very interesting reading.

Back to ILL!


journaling (on paper)

Leaving aside the whole issue that's slowly developing on me regarding internet privacy and me hosting my journal (privately) on LJ...physical journals!

I don't longhand journal because I am too wordy and it gives me hand cramps, but I do like having a physical and I use it as a mix of to-do list, reading tracker (since 2019, maybe I'll buy Excel at some point), to-read list tracker, small offhand journal/today lines, and place to stick all kinds of flat memorabilia, ranging from ticket stubs and admissions to newspaper clippings found in old books and stickers.

I bought a small Moleskine early on and immediately hated it. It is fairly expensive but mostly the paper is horrendous. Top peeves in writing in notebooks:

1. Paper quality - ghosting/bleedthrough/feathering of ink - ghosting is seeing the shadows of the ink from the other side of the paper, bleeding is the actual ink showing on the other side, feathering is the ink spreading and making all your strokes fuzzy
2. Journals that don't lay flat so you have to forcibly prop them open with the other hand
3. Did I mention my feelings about paper quality?!

Anyway the ghosting and bleedthrough on the Moleskin were really bad. It made only one side of the paper useful, which is such a waste. I also miscalculated and got a tiny notebook, around A6 size, which made me feel like I was writing in a tiny cramped space. However, I did discover I really like dot grid. It's much less intrusive than graph paper or plain ruled paper.

I can't write in a straight line for the life of me, so some kind of ruling is necessary.

At the end of 2017 I looked briefly online and basically looked for a dot-grid with the least amount of ghosting, and ordered a Rhodia Webnotebook. And I love it! Honestly, it's really good in terms of paper - I actually switched midway though to using fountain pens, and it takes fountain pen ink really well; almost no ghosting, no feathering at all, nice smooth surface to accept ink, but not so un-porous as to make the ink sit on top of the paper too long (and lead to smearing). The pages are cream/ivory not white, and the cover is this sort of soft pleathery stuff that I'm afraid of scratching, but otherwise I really like it. Oh and I've put bookmark post-its in since there is only one ribbon, and no pen-loop, but otherwise meets my requirements perfectly.

I just spent awhile searching online through reviews for a replacement one once I run out of this one - though this one is taking a couple years so it's not like I need one urgently. And if I hate the next one I'm going to probably go right back to Rhodia...I was originally planning to try Archer + Olive's really thick paper ones, but I've learned that they are really bad with fountain pens according to reviews, unlike their site page which of course simply claims they are great with fountain pens. Grr. But the reviews have test pages showing front and back - I love that this is convention - and it's awful. So far I haven't found one particular journal that I really want to try yet. There are some like Tomoe River paper, a Japanese brand, with apparently crazy good reviews of the paper but which are pretty much one-side papers again; and I like the covers of Western-style journals better than the Japanese ones. Though then again I suppose I could black out the cover with some paint. I may try Leuchtturm1917 or maybe Franklin-Christoph. I don't want anything fancy with indices and table of contents and calendars. I just want plain dot grid.

I've also thought about using the refillable paper journals, to appease the super picky paper part of me - is good paper so much to ask for?! But I really like the aesthetics and durability and permanence of a good, stitched journal. And because they have a limited number of pages, they are a discrete unit of time.


War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

Trying to write a summary for War and Peace is hard. It's a novel that spans the years 1805-1820, through the tumultuous years of the Napoleonic wars, and follows the interlinking stories of three aristocratic families: the Rostovs, Bolkonskis, and Bezukhov. The novel opens as the old Count Bezukhov is dying and his relations are jockeying for his favour in the will. The major characters are Nicholas Rostov, the Rostovs' eldest, who buys a commission in the army as a cavalry officer; Natasha, his sister, who is just coming of age; Andrei Bolkonski, a young man who also goes into the army, against his idol Napoleon, but struggles with unhappiness; Maria Bolkonskaya, his sister, a deeply religious young woman who is stuck in the countryside with their father, a distinguished retired general; Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate, awkward son of the count who ends up inheriting the title and immense wealth. The novels draw in a huge, sprawling cast of characters that interact with the core families, including both supporting characters that reappear periodically, like the Kuragins and various aristocratic members; and others appear once and are just incidental, but the overall effect is a very dense novel with a lot of elaboration even at the level of small everyday incidents. In addition, especially as the novel progresses, Tolstoy uses the story to illustrate or encapsulate his theories on how history is created: not only how it is recorded, which is not his focus, but what events and people create the headlining events that stand out, like war, the actual influence of historical figures, and especially in the end, the relative impact of free will in the events of history and the way he believes the "science of history" does and should operate.

I read the Duke edition, which was translated into English by Aylmer and Louise Shanks Maude. They worked with Tolstoy on their translation, although that's not why I picked the text. I think I was just looking for an edition that the library had and that was not abridged. If their translation is accurate and faithful to the Russian text, and I have no reason to believe it's not (readers in Russian definitely add your input!) the prose is extremely straightforward and the ornamentation entirely lacking. I would call the prose completely unadorned and that the stories are conveyed with a dry recitation of actions. Sometimes the emotions of the character whose perspective the novel is focusing on at that moment, or else a recounting of various political moves made over some time. This is not a novel with elaborate, indulgent descriptions of landscapes or settings. There are no prose tricks. The depth of the book is really in its many, many, many small stories. There are full-length adaptations in their own right that only use material from a few chapters, like the musical.

I generally enjoyed reading the narrative/story sections, whether it was drawing rooms of the wealthy or the battlefield, or whatnot. Increasingly towards the end, Tolstoy uses the novel to discuss his views on how history works. The novel takes place against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and of course the person Napoleon as well as the other major leaders - the Emperor of Russia, the generals that lead the armies - are conventionally seen as directing and changing the course of history, a view Tolstoy disagrees with. He argues that the leaders are pushed by the actions of the armies and people that they head, that the chaos of the battlefield and army make it impossible to actually direct them and enforce real orders. And this is supported, of course, by the densely layered stories all piled together in the novel, because no matter how trivial the scene is, Tolstoy handles them with the same kind of prose, point of view, etc, no matter whether it's a snippet of the boredom of the cavalry and going off and having little amusements or Kutuzov meeting with his adjutants. They all get space and arguably the smaller stories receive much more.

The last epilogue (which is several chapters long) is almost entirely devoted to the question of free will and history, how history could be scientifically treated, which I won't encapsulate here, mostly because I found them incredibly uninteresting and disagreed in several parts. I do generally agree that the view of history which only follows the actions of the very top to be pretty incomplete. Tolstoy argues that it's essentially not the genius or vision or whatever other quality of Napoleon (to take the most prominent example of his time) that shaped that era of history; it's just that Napoleon inhabits a highly-visible role that all these momentous events get attributed to him. I agree and disagree - I definitely agree that given communication technology of the day, orders would be relayed with extremely variable reliability and speed. Your couriers could die on the way to delivering your message and you might not find out till much later! But it's not true that Napoleon had no impact, or that his decisions did not have an outsize impact compared to an man who did not have his position or his personal influence. And the army is composed of many individuals, and acts because each of them acts, and they will make their own decisions to some degree - but swapping out someone random into a role like Napoleon's would not present the same choices to individual cavalrymen. Even some of the Russians, like Andrei Bolkonski, are admirers of Napoleon, and it's hard to see how Napoleon's decisions are all inconsequential.

Incidentally, as the novel goes on, the feeling that Tolstoy did not like Napoleon strengthens, which I found amusing.

I also think that history's focus has broadened considerably from his day. There has been a lot more scholarly research into how the rest - the majority - of the population lived, even those who couldn't read or write, who lived away from urban centers, who couldn't leave their individual histories the way the rich could. I know medieval history best, so what's studied are, for example, the manorial court rolls, where the peasantry could seek redress for various grievances, some small and some large. Not a complete picture but at least a glimpse.

One of the things I noticed about the characterization is that it's quite neutral and compassionate. One of the first characters seen in the book is Prince Vasily Kuragin, who is at Anna Petrovna's party in order to curry favour with the wealthy and powerful attending her (not very interesting) salon. Neither his daughter nor son are very nice either, which doesn't suggest good things about Prince Vasily either. But I wouldn't say that the text ever calls or even really implies that he's a slimy little thing. Instead it says that Vasily probably didn't even think of it as a deliberate attempt to climb - just that he was made like that and he felt it was the right, instinctive thing to do. Characterization of Nikolai Rostov was also similarly drawn. I personally think that Nikolai is a spoiled young man who's never had to survive in the world - son of a count, with a commission in the cavalry, he mostly does as he's told and tries to appear dashing and gallant. When his family's finances start to plunge, he returns home, half-heartedly tries to do something about it, and, upon failing after speaking to the estate manager once (once), he just goes back to going to parties and gambling and such. After all, what can he do? If he were competent and good at this, he would be frankly a strange character. Where would he ever learn to have this spine for dealing with distasteful or uninteresting work?

Finally I want to say that I hated a few characters and found them personally repellent. Like the older Prince Bolkonski, the father of Andrei and Maria. Maria lives with her father in the countryside, pretty much buried in obscurity, and she's constantly bullied by her father, who the narrative describes as treating her that way because he loves her. Yes, he may do so - but he constantly berates and belittles her, and makes her life a complete misery, even though she's probably one of the kindest characters in the novels. What is in your heart doesn't matter much when every action you take hurts the person you love! What difference does it make to Maria? Andrei Bolkonski - I tried to come up with a description but an eyeroll interrupted me. He repeatedly cycles through being extremely cynical and depressed, then having this epiphany of his capability of happiness and bliss, and then back again, in a way that suggests that he'll always be in this cycle. He's someone who will keep having the same epiphanies over and over again, and none of them will ever stick. I was honestly cheering for his death midway through the novel (before the shell - just wanted him gone) and the trope of losing the will to live is not my favourite either.

And finally. The treatment of Natasha Rostova. My overwhelming impression is one of "wow, Tolstoy is such a man writing about a young girl becoming a woman". There's no other way I can put it. I could not think of anything else while reading her story. It's not exactly creepy. It just leans so much on the innocence and the unartfulness - Natasha's as-of-yet mostly untaught voice is one manifestation, beautiful and of course never learned, then that would be unnatural - and joy and such. And maybe this is way too much influence of growing up in the recent century, but have you met an adolescent girl before?! We were not so joyously gay and springing of girlish glee. Young girls have a range of emotions greater than wide-eyed happiness. Where Maria Bolkonskaya represents the soulful, pious woman, Natasha is the giggling, child-like dream girl. Natasha does become depressed after the Anatole incident - but bleh, it's caused by a man, of course. There's nothing else that could cause characterization shifts - not war sweeping the whole continent.

So - should you read War and Peace? Well, what do you like in a novel? If you're after a lot of small, interlocking stories, or a novel with decades' worth of scope in a time of a lot of political tumult, probably! Do you want to hear someone's views on the prevailing theories of history and his suggested framework? Skip to the end to save some time, but yes. I don't regret reading it, and there were parts where I liked it and wanted to keep reading because of the storyline, but there were equal parts where I trudged through, hoping something more interesting would reappear.

[Note: the latest review I have ever written. I finished the book in February, started writing the review mid-May. To be fair, there were some extenuating circumstances. But this would probably be more fulsome if I'd written it earlier.]

Carol frown

I have 3 inboxes

in my personal life (for purposes of not crossing the streams) and at work, 2-3 (personal inbox, team group box, team task box etc - actually for the latter there's actually 2+1 but I don't usually work out of the other 2). I get a LOT of email. Especially on former team where my personal inbox was on a group distribution list, so every morning was 100+ emails and it just kept climbing. In this system you either develop some kind of way to cope or you drown utterly and miss important things, so my main strategy is "file anything that has been dealt with". So I have the No Scroll Ideal - i.e. empty inbox probably impossible, because I leave stuff in there as reminder/for easy reference in the future. But I should be able to look at it all without scrolling. And if something needs to twitch at the corner of my vision until I do it, I mark it unread.

My fandom email is pretty quiet, but my personal one is terrible these days, probably because I get Real Life Important Stuff to it sometimes, or friends' emails that require typing (and mobile typing is The Worst). I unsubscribe from stuff I don't want, and I'm liberal with the delete/archive function, so every email in my inbox is something to look at. My terrible to-do list. So stuff can stagnate there for Even though if I sat down for 30 mins I could clear 99% of them. It's just that it's much more entertaining for my monkeybrain to continually swipe down on my gmail inbox and see something new and shiny pop in.

stars in the sky

Spider-Man: Far From Home

I saw Spider-Man: Far From Home last Thursday and it was really good!

Not spoilery - I didn't see Homecoming, but it was fine. I really enjoyed Tom Holland as Spider-Man - believable teenager, endearing, awkward but genuinely trying to be a good person and understandably wanting to still live his life. There's a great vibe between his friend Ned and with MJ. Lots of jokes and I honestly didn't know that what I wanted in my superhero visual fights was acrobatics - but I totally did. Some fight scenes tend to drag on and get uninteresting, but I really liked the change the acrobatics made!

LOVED some of the touches - it opens right with an in memoriam segment, and just as I was thinking "is Marvel unironically using comic sans?!" it turned out to be a student-made presentation and it was hilarious. I did wonder at all the TVs in the hallways for announcements. Did I just go to a poorer school? Am I old? The students are getting announcements from taped segments that are filmed and then shown on big TVs in the halls! We had PA system announcements.

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stars in the sky

new table!

I have a new desk and I'm all aglow with happiness! It is L shaped, I bought it for as a flatpack for about a hundred dollars, and it has no drawers but it does have two shelves at one end. I, um, bought it in November, being fed up that my desk was tiny - it wasn't deep enough to have my computer (then a fairly large 15") and work on something analogue like a piece of paper at the same time, and moreover was unsteady, as in I would erase something and the whole thing would sway. The swaying drove me crazy.

However once I got the package - which was very heavy and there was some thinking and trial-and-error to get it up the 5 steps - I discovered that the instruction packet said I needed way more screws than had been shipped. So I contacted customer service, and they said yes we can replace the screws, and they sent me the same thing. Aargh. So I wrote back and said hey, on my first request I said exactly what I was missing (with their product numbers and how many of each), I just got sent the same thing as my original package. To be fair, the lady answering my question was quite nice and said, "I see what you're missing, I'm going to send you them separately" so in December, I got mail that consisted of two yellow bubble-package mailers of just screws. Like I tore the mailers open and it was just fistfuls of screws and cam locks and stuff.

Anyway it's taken till now. (To be fair, I wasn't able to use my arm between March to, well, now - still restricted to under 10 lb but at least I can use my left arm again). I told one of my book club friends - who was so annoyed she couldn't install the drywall in her boyfriend's house - that she should come over and peer-pressure me into FINALLY assembling my table, and she was so excited to come to my apartment and assemble it. Which she kinda did. Thank god, because the whole screw-acquiring episode was sufficiently irritating that I kept putting it off.

The assembly instructions were not very good. I think it must have been an instruction manual for a slightly different table, because though the table assembled just fine, it kept telling us to put this cam lock into this place but it wouldn't fit (still baffled) - we went with what did fit, and it worked.

But!! despite all that, the table was built, and it's less prone to shaking than the last one, so YAY. And it has much more workspace than my last one did! So I am so pleased. I am sure that I will manage to fill it with all my stuff - indeed I think I need to buy some organizers because I no longer have that drawer, and maybe tidy/throw out some stuff I don't really use - but I am so happy. Ahhhhh, more work space!!