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Review: City of Stairs

City of Stairs
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A great example of its genre, but, unfortunately, not much more. My interest in this book peaked about a quarter of the way through, and peaked very high, but then it kind of tapered off as it became more and more predictable. I liked the reliance of female characters (the protagonist, her foil, and her enemy are all strong women), but I didn’t really feel like the characters were ultimately that fleshed out. Can I give a book high marks for its female characters if the female characters are stereotypes, but not female stereotypes? I’m not sure.

The magic in this book seemed very promising and interesting at first glance, but the further into the narrative we got, the more I realized it just wasn’t going to be fleshed out as much as I would have liked it to be either. I’m very picky about how “magic” is handled in fantasy, so maybe it was just me and an unrealistically high bar. It did have some strong parts to it, like its history, and how it fits into the world’s history, but it also had some pretty dumb, weak parts to it too.

Ultimately, this book wound up being a heavy-handed, preachy book about cultural differences, racism, and oppression. I felt kind of stupid and tricked when I realized this so late in the book, when it was too late to put it down. Hey, I like Le Guin, and Tepper and even some dystopia fiction – I don’t object to social commentary in my SF/Fantasy as a rule. But I do object to heavy-handedness, and being clobbered over the head with the author’s righteous indignation.

This book was so much fun and full of interesting surprises in its first half, I kept reading through the second half, though all signposts pointed toward disappointment. I kind of wish I hadn’t. I hope the author keeps at it and finds a better, more savvy editor. I really think if the author had been challenged more, he could have made the second half as solid as the second. Looking forward to seeing what he does in the future!

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Outsourcing Frustration

I’m reading this book called The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber, and while I’ve got a few mixed feelings about it, overall it’s superbly written, and very thought-provoking. One of the things it’s increased my awareness of, for better or worse, is the human tendency toward egoic posturing. All the little ways so much of what we do is really just to commmunicate:

look at me!
see what i did/know/thought/can do!
i’m special!
i’m ok!
i exist!
i’m worthy of your attention/love/time!

Telling a joke is egoic posturing, writing a blog is egoic posturing, lots of things are egoic posturing. I am trying not to mean the term in a pejorative sense. This is just what the ego does, part of its organic function. It’s all ok behavior, and worthy of compassion and acceptance, but I have to admit, that there are certain kinds of posturing that can wear me the fuck down. In particular, lately I seem to have just zero patience for what, in my head, I call “games.” Here’s what I mean by a game, in this (very specfic) context:

• Some person wants something from someone else, be it love, care, affection, acknowledgment, validation, encouragement, support, whatever. “Good strokes” in whatever format those strokes are available.

• Rather than working directly, consciously and/or openly with other people to get the desired good strokes, the person manipulates circumstances, conversations, or people to get those strokes. This manipulation is the actual playing of the game.

• Like a game, this behavior has a particular desired outcome (usually good strokes, but ok, yes, sometimes bad, because sometimes bad strokes are better than none at all), but it also has rules: If I behave in this way, then other people are supposed to behave in this other way in response or This person did X, which means I’m allowed to do Y now or some such nonsense.

I almost don’t mind the actual game-playing. In fact, I wish there was a less judgey way of talking about it, because it sounds harsher than I intend it, when I say someone is playing games. I don’t actually mean the intentional, deliberate games that people play, when someone is being manipulative because they’ve consciously chosen to be. I don’t run into that too often, I’m happy to say. I’m talking about the kinds of games people play because they simply don’t know any other way to get what they need out of the world or the people in it. It’s the unconscious game playing that chafes, the kind you can’t legitimately call someone out on, because they’re not even aware they’re doing it.

It’s obvious these people need attention and love and care, just as any of us do, and all this game-playing does read loud and clear to me as a cry for validation. That’s what makes it so exasperating. There’s almost a kind of bravery to these people — some might call it effrontery — because they have needs, and they’re trying to get them met. But there’s also some kind of inability or blind spot that’s holding them back, keeping them from consciously engaging with that need and bring it forward in a more honest and direct manner. That inability, to me, though, well, and I’m not proud to say this, looks like cowardice, like they’re unwilling to do the self-work necessary to excavate the particular shape and texture of their own needs.

So help me, but this is almost always my own failure when I run into these games: I read the inability as unwillingness, like blaming a blind person for not being able to see what’s right in front of his face. This twin barb of what I think I see, and this knowing that I’m seeing it wrong, this is why I get so exasperated, frustrated, or irritated. When people are being needy in the particular way, it always evokes in me the response that’s least likely to be productive in that particular situation. I’m not too comfortable directly asking to have my own needs met, I know that, so who am I to judge but still…

But that’s usually how it works, isn’t it? The weakness we aren’t comfortable with in ourselves, well, other people wind up being great targets for us to lash out at for that weakness. Too much effort to change? Let’s outsource our frustration at that roadblock to a third party.

Or maybe that’s just my own game.

Crossing the Year Chasm

I just noticed that I haven’t really published a “what’s going on in my life” here since I returned to work after our relocation. So, like, mid-November. Awkwarrrrd. Sorry about that, but let me see if I can catch you up now… just in case, you know, you’ve been traveling the world, say, and missing out on the thrill-a-minute rollercoaster that is my exciting life.


* Had a birthday party, which you can actually read about on my other blerg.

* A few days after my own cuh-razy birthday party, we went to another friend’s birthday party, where I was caught completely off-guard when we ran into a friend of mine from college. So completely off-guard, in fact, that it took a fair amount of memory jogging before I remembered this former underclassperson. We didn’t hang out a whole lot together, but we did have a ton of friends in common, and she had an excellent memory for a couple of conversations we did have. This was a real treat for me, so much more satisfying than just re-connecting over Twitter or Facebook. Also met her sister, who was equally awesome.

* Thanksgiving happened, one of our favorite holidays, focused as it is on food, family, and friends. E and I were in charge of cooking for E’s family this year. Let’s just say that’s a work in progress, and I’m sure we’ll do better next year. We were trying to use up our final weeks of CSA vegetables, so maybe there were too many squashes and other starchy veggies. The pie was pretty great, though.


* Had a little housewarming party the first week of December. And by little I mean, I think we had about 60 people stop by. One of our bigger parties, to be sure, but much more manageable in our new space (which is way better laid out for entertaining), and also because it was a brunch party. We were done by 4, had time to clean up, and still feel like we had a little energy left, which is not what happens with night-time parties that end at 1:00AM. Great entertaining “stress test” for our new condo, and a great way to warm it up with conviviality and mirth. And bourbon, lots of that.

* Later that same week, we had a designer come by and talk about closets with us. She had some great ideas and was a breeze to work with. After a few hours, she had some CAD drawings and renderings for us to talk about, tweak, and, ultimately sign off on. We were unduly excited to get this project under way.

* Probably the biggest event of December was having my Indiana-based cousin and her new husband come visit and be houseguests for a few days, just before Xmas. We don’t all know each other very well, so this was a huge effort on their part to try and change that. We had many adventures, including introducing them to oysters, Taza chocolate, and Dali Restaurant, which they loved. E practiced her Hoosier fight chant, and we all did a LOT of walking. (Aside: Husband JW can’t be around cats, so we had to find a place to board her on relatively short notice, the search for which led me to – great website, and a great idea which I highly recommend checking out if you ever need pet care while traveling!)

* Christmas was pretty laid back and, like always, spent on the Cape. Ever been on the Cape in the winter? It’s verrrrry laid back. Not much going on at all. Which is a fine way to spend a long weekend, if you ask me. Poor E and her dad got very sick just before the holiday started though, so that was rough for them. E got me a fancy steel stand for use in the kitchen with my iPad, since I do so much cooking from recipes I display on it. A great gift!


* For New Year’s Eve we got totally hammered at a series of clubs on Lansdowne Street. No wait, just kidding. We actually went to bed early so we could get up and make a nice brunch for a few friends. We served homemade granola and cinnamon raisin bread, and an egg dish with black eyed peas and potatoes. Guests brought toasted citrus bean dip, home-made flatbread, roasted carrots with a tahini sauce, fruit and yogurt. Very nice, very cozy, and a warm and mellow way to ring in the new year.

* Have to call this out as a highlight: we discovered Market Basket. I mean, I’d been there before (E had not), but never for more than a couple items at a time, back when I lived closer to it. Now we’re close to it again, and, as long as we get there before the crowds do (so, prior to 9:30 am), it looks like it’s going to be our new favorite go-to for weekly shopping trips. Saving huge, huge, huge amounts of money over what were spending at Whole Foods.

* Another highlight, not just of January, but of our first winter in our new home: Jared the bartender at Kirkland Tap & Trotter. We’ve known each other since I worked with him when he was a student at MIT years ago, and now he’s married, so am I, and he’s moved on to his dream job. He always treats us super-well when we go there, and it’s a pleasure to watch a professional at work, doing something he loves. He’s been a big part of making our new neighborhood feel like home.

* Hard to believe I went to his 30th ten years ago already, but it must be so, because we went to NH to help Nick celebrate his 40th a couple weeks ago. Very, very different sort of party, I have to say. Lot less throwing up, for one thing. For another thing, his wonderful parents were at this one, which prompted E to make the spot-on observation, “It’s ok to invite your parents to your 40th. No one invites their parents to their 30th.” We stayed in NH overnight, and then the next morning met Nick and his parents for breakfast, which was probably the highlight of the trip. E and I both loved catching up with Nick’s family.

* Finally, last night, got our new closets installed. This weekend is going to be such an organizapalooza.

And that’s almost all there is to catch you up on! Not all of it, but enough for one blog post anyway!

Perched Upon the Edge Of a Crater

Sometimes I wonder if I write because I can’t make music. I’ve often felt like my brain more naturally flows in the channels shaped by music and mathematics, those utterly clean lines of human expression that rise up above the cracked, grime-spackled perturbations of crude language and give voice to everything we experience but cannot speak of. The rarefied and pure conduits of music and math lift my spirit up into the platonic, let me look down on life and get some perspective. Language, and writing in particular requires a willingness to sacrifice oneself at the altar of the all too real, to put your own needs second to the observed.

There are of course, rare times, where language cracks out of its own self-imposed shell, and gives birth to a firebird as pure as any music, equation, sculpture or early morning dew. Those are the times I’m reassured, when I know I’m doing the hardest thing I can do, and the best thing I can do.

In between those times though, I’m grateful for music, and for accidental discoveries, like “Souvenir de Porto Rico” by a composer I just learned about, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. According to a note on, Gottschalk described the setting that inspired this piece this way, “[I was] perched upon the edge of a crater, [and] my cabin overlooked the whole country. Every evening I moved my piano out upon the terrace, and played for myself alone, everything that the scene opened up before me inspired.”

Souvenir de Porto Rico by Gottschalk on Grooveshark

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