Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Hoarder in You / Robin Zasio

4 out of 5 stars
We all have treasured possessions—a favorite pair of shoes, a much-beloved chair, an ever-expanding record collection. But sometimes, this emotional attachment to our belongings can spiral out of control and culminate into a condition called compulsive hoarding. From hobbyists and collectors to pack rats and compulsive shoppers—it is close to impossible for hoarders to relinquish their precious objects, even if it means that stuff takes over their lives and their homes. According to psychologist Dr. Robin Zasio, our fascination with hoarding stems from the fact that most of us fall somewhere on the hoarding continuum. Even though it may not regularly interfere with our everyday lives, to some degree or another, many of us hoard. The Hoarder In You provides practical advice for decluttering and organizing, including how to tame the emotional pull of acquiring additional things, make order out of chaos by getting a handle on clutter, and create an organizational system that reduces stress and anxiety. Dr. Zasio also shares some of the most serious cases of hoarding that she’s encountered, and explains how we can learn from these extreme examples—no matter where we are on the hoarding continuum. 

I guess I intuitively knew there was a “hoarding continuum.” I have one sister who exists very much on the minimalist end of that scale—I envy her ease at keeping her house clean and organized. My other sister and I inhabit the mid-range of the scale, thankfully well away from OMG territory, but we struggle with accumulations of “stuff” in our homes.

It makes complete sense to me that the hoarding tendency goes hand in hand with anxiety issues and with perfectionism. My desire to do things not merely well, but excellently often stands in my way when I am sorting household debris—if I could just toss things into the dumpster and leave it at that, my home would be much less crowded. However, I feel the necessity to recycle as many items as possible—making things available for people who have less and keeping things out of the landfill. I’m starting to see that I need to let go of this perfectionism. Even the charities are getting picky about what items they accept and I need to just chuck some things.

Anxiety certainly also plays into my issues—questions like “where exactly is that electronics recycling depot?” hold me back, because I am reluctant to load the car and hope that I can find the spot. I like to know where I am going, but I can’t know until I actually go there the first time. I’ve managed to work myself into the perfect circular loop of inactivity.

I think one of the best tips in this book is the existence of thought distortions which make it difficult to part with certain objects. The whole “what if I need this later?” myth is a great example and one which I have heard directly from my sister’s lips. The truth is, if we need it later, we can borrow it or rent it or maybe find it second-hand. The real truth is we are unlikely to EVER need it and it is taking up real estate that could house things that are actually useful.

I had already come to see my household accumulations as piles of unmade decisions—now I have a few tools to deal with those problem piles. And I also have a book recommendation to make to my sister.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Nowhere Wild / Joe Beernink

3.5 stars out of 5
** spoiler alert ** Sorry, this review is very spoiler-y, as I can't talk about the issues that particularly interested & annoyed me without giving away large chunks of the plot & the ending. Read at your own discretion.

I’m still puzzling over the title of this one—I assume it means that they are in the middle of nowhere and it’s wild. All of this novel takes place in northern Manitoba, a great location to set a survival novel. It’s a wild and unforgiving landscape, requiring skill and luck to survive.

Nowhere Wild does pose a likely scenario—what if a pedophile uses the “opportunity” of a flu pandemic to abduct a girl and drag her off to the wilderness (basically as a sex slave, although that terminology isn’t used). The gravity of her situation sneaks up on Izzy, as she starts feeling less and less comfortable under Rick’s “protection.” She starts putting together remembered bits of conversation and realizing that she is definitely not the first girl that he has abused.

Jake is a young aboriginal man, left in the family’s remote summer camp with his wounded mother and his grandfather. His father, Leland, paddles for help and never returns. Jake and his grandpa eventually bury the mother and survive together until spring, the grandpa pouring as much of his traditional knowledge as possible into the teenager. When the grandfather dies in the spring, Jake is left to find his own way back to what is left of civilization.

The internal dialog of both young people is pretty realistic—I remember piecing together memories, just like Izzy does (although about much more innocuous subjects) and I still hear my dad’s voice in the back of my head (“Are you going there without a coat?”), just as Jake hears his grandfather’s advice as he travels.

Although not described in graphic detail, the reader is witness to the first time that Izzy is subjected to Rick’s sexual desires. What I appreciated was that she doesn’t give up hope immediately, nor does she become subservient. She plans for her escape, practices her skills, and looks for opportunities. She is not a passive victim and she doesn’t blame herself—she puts the blame squarely on Rick, where it belongs. A couple of items did annoy me however—Izzy is old enough to be experiencing her menstrual periods, but this is never mentioned. I realize that lack of food might have delayed the onset of her menses, but it seemed to me that they ate well enough during the winter that this should have been an issue (and it looms large in the life of a teen girl). It also seemed to me that a 13 year old would know enough to also be concerned about pregnancy and yet the idea is never broached. These two subjects would have been very much on my mind as a teen and I found the lack to be unrealistic.

The other thing that really bothered me was part of the rescue scene. Izzy and Jake have teamed up by this point, to try to escape from Rick and get back to civilization. In the process, Rick is killed and at exactly the same time, local men arrive. At first they are suspicious, but when they find out who the deceased is, they all say basically, “Oh, it’s him. Yeah, everyone knows what kind of perv he was” and they then take the teens into their care. And I’m thinking, so everyone knew that Rick was molesting girls AND THEY DID NOTHING. That really bothers me, because I’m afraid that sort of reluctance to report goes on far too often.

There are many unanswered questions at the book’s end—what happened to Jake’s dad? What has transpired in Thompson while the teens were gone? Are they returning to a recovering society? It seemed to end a bit abruptly, leaving a lot of hanging threads.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Neuromancer / William Gibson

3 out of 5 stars
The Matrix is a world within the world, a global consensus- hallucination, the representation of every byte of data in cyberspace . . .
Case had been the sharpest data-thief in the business, until vengeful former employers crippled his nervous system. But now a new and very mysterious employer recruits him for a last-chance run. The target: an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence orbiting Earth in service of the sinister Tessier-Ashpool business clan. With a dead man riding shotgun and Molly, mirror-eyed street-samurai, to watch his back, Case embarks on an adventure that ups the ante on an entire genre of fiction.

I can certainly see where Neuromancer was important in the 1980s when it was published. It brings together many threads of literature and assembles a lot of ideas that hadn’t previously been combined. There is the drug culture and general aura of darkness of Philip K. Dick’s fiction; the technology of Spider Robinson’s Mindkiller; the emergent machine intelligence foreshadowed by Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; the “heist” elements of the story. For me, it also had faint echoes of Dhalgren, with the whole “degeneration of society” aspect. I can also see where Neuromancer and Blade Runner both had influence on The Matrix movies.

The idea of computer hacking was fresher in the 80s—the mass media was just starting to catch on to what it was and who was involved in it. Neuromancer explores possible future implications of hacking, including being able to directly wire one’s self into cyberspace or to eavesdrop on/ride along with augmented people. The bulkiness of the gear required to do this is shocking to 21st century sensibilities—our hardware just keeps getting more compact. This is one of the aspects of the book that truly ages it.

There are lots ideas that were au courant then that really haven’t turned into mainstream items. Despite a lot of work, no one has managed to create a sentient artificial intelligence, so we don’t need a Turing Law Code to govern such things. It was a great idea on Gibson’s part, however. Space habitats that are easily accessed and cryogenics are still fiction at this point as well.

I was struck by Case’s disparagement of his “meat,” his physical body. Our physical selves have their limitations, but they are also the sources of our greatest comforts—food, sleep, sex—and I’m unsure that we would feel the same emotions without our brain structures to support them. I, for one, have no desire to ever be uploaded to a machine—like the Flatliner Dixie that Case works with, I hope to cease to exist when my time comes.

I give high marks for the world building—I felt like I could actually envision the dark corners of The Sprawl. Somewhat depressing is the fact that so many people are still living on the edge, scrambling to make enough cash to support themselves. So much for the happy, prosperous futures envisioned in earlier science fiction.

This is book number 188 in my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Bridge of Birds / Barry Hughart

3.5 stars out of 5
When the children of his village were struck with a mysterious illness, Number Ten Ox sought a wiseman to save them. He found master Li Kao, a scholar with a slight flaw in his character. Together, they set out to find the Great Root of Power, the only possible cure.

The quest led them to a host of truly memorable characters, multiple wonders, incredible adventures—and strange coincidences, which were really not coincidences at all. And it involved them in an ancient crime that still perturbed the serenity of Heaven. Simply and charmingly told, this is a wry tale, a sly tale, and a story of wisdom delightfully askew. Once read, its marvels and beauty will not easily fade from the mind.

My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character.
So says Master Li to Number Ten Ox when Ox is sent to the city to find a sage to assist his village, dealing with a mysterious disease. I personally was born in the Year of the Ox and therefore had a soft spot for Number Ten Ox.

This novel rated about 3.5 stars for me which, I hasten to add, I consider to be a good rating. I may have been reading Bridge of Birds at the wrong moment for me, as I am in a bit of a slump right now and finding it difficult to concentrate on the page.  Or there may be a slight flaw in my character.

In many ways, BoB reminded me of reading Aesop’s fables—as a reader, I was very aware that the author was not in any way attempting to reconstruct Ancient China. He was using Ancient China for a fun backdrop to his own kind of fable, enjoying have different cultural elements to play with than are common in Western literature.

He did, however, borrow the trope of the shady character who really has a heart of gold and who uses his criminal talents for a good cause. I thought of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat many times while reading Bridge of Birds. Master Li is the brains of the operation and Number Ten Ox is the brawn. That reminded me strongly of Fritz Leiber’s Ffafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. Some of Master Li and Number Ten Ox’s adventures may also have been influenced by the Indiana Jones movie franchise.

An enjoyable, fun book well suited to lunch-break reading.

Book number 187 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project

Monday, 5 October 2015

Road trip to Lake Louise

On September 27th, I drove out to Lake Louise with a friend.  Despite how close I live, I rarely go out to the Canadian Rockies.  This has to change!

Lake Louise, Alberta

Chateau Lake Louise

Cheeky Clark's Nutcrackers delighted the Chinese tourists (and me)

The lake again, with canoes.  To get more Canadian, we would need either a moose or a Mountie.

Friday, 2 October 2015

The Magnificent Ambersons / Booth Tarkington

3.5 out of 5 stars
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize when it was first published in 1918. The Magnificent Ambersons chronicles the changing fortunes of three generations of an American dynasty. The protagonist of Booth Tarkington's great historical drama is George Amberson Minafer, the spoiled and arrogant grandson of the founder of the family's magnificence. Eclipsed by a new breed of developers, financiers, and manufacturers, this pampered scion begins his gradual descent from the midwestern aristocracy to the working class.

While reading The Magnificent Ambersons, I couldn’t help but compare Tarkington’s work to that of his fellow Hoosier, Kurt Vonnegut. I know, completely unfair, as they are of different generations. But I think they share a certain desire to demonstrate the necessity for kindness in an industrial world.

Interestingly, the other writer that I kept thinking of was Robertson Davies. Seeing the world from the view point of George Amberson Minifer was a little like looking at Canada through the eyes of Boy Staunton of Davies’ Deptford Trilogy. I could just envision Boy Staunton, as the rich young ruler in Deptford (as seen through the eyes of Dunstan Ramsey) and he blurred with Georgie from time to time. Especially since both Boy Staunton and Georgie Minafer were very concerned with appearances, etiquette, and properness. The convolutedness of the family relationships also reminded me strongly of Davies (Francis Cornish’s relationship to his aunt in What’s Bred in the Bone, for example).

But enough comparing Booth Tarkington to other authors! I did appreciate his clear-sightedness with regards to human behaviour and our remarkable capacity to misunderstand what is motivating other people. How strong is our tendency to attribute our own reasons to the actions of another! And how completely inaccurate that can be—it’s a wonder that there aren’t more serious differences among family and friends than already occur. Ah, family relationships—the refusal to talk about money is a deadly sin, laid out here in dissection.

Recommended for those who are overly concerned about the opinions of others.