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1. Will Genre Wars Ever End?

Even with the success of Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Game of Thrones and so many other genre books over the last years the genre wars are apparently still raging. The latest salvo has come from Kazuo Ishiguro. With the release of his book The Buried Giant (one of my favorite books last year), the criticism the book received for its fantasy elements came up in a recent interview.

Unfortunately, it seems this interview is behind a subscription firewall so I can only go by what the articles, mainly The Independent, report about the interview.

It seems what is getting folks up in arms is Ishiguro’s comments that educational systems have been for a long time focused on conformity and turning people into productive citizens to grow the economy:

Education’s task was to get pupils to abandon the fantasy that comes naturally to children and prepare them for the demands of the workforce.

Ishiguro suggests there is a reason why geeks, who as a group tend to read science fiction and fantasy, are in demand by big companies. The big companies are looking for creative thinkers and the geeks, not beholden to mimesis, are sought after people.

And perhaps that is true but I don’t think it is the whole story. I am inclined to agree with Charlie Ander’s thinking that Ishiguro has oversimplified just a bit because there is also the matter of math and coding skills to consider. I read SFF and have no problem thinking up all sorts of imaginative worlds and creatures, but Google is not going to hire me based on that and my mediocre html skills.

Still, the author of the Independent article gets a bit grouchy by declaring that while fantasy may be good to read, “life is more like bullshitty literary fiction” and he’ll put his trust in people who “think inside the box” to make decisions about how we live our lives.


Ishiguro doesn’t just talk about fantasy but all genre fiction and how it is not taken seriously, how it is just as valid a means of exploring human lives, feelings and relationships as “literary fiction” is. With that I am completely on board. That we even still argue over genre seems ridiculous to me. Good literature is good literature whether it is realist or fantastic, involves a murder mystery or a romance. It is convenient to use genre as a means to discuss books that partake of certain tropes and plot elements, but as a way to categorize readers or assess literary value? We really need to get over it.

Filed under: Books, Mystery/Crime, SciFi/Fantasy Tagged: genre wars, Kazuo Ishiguro

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2. A Magical Extra Day

It’s February and do you know what that means? An extra day for reading! It’s Leap Year y’all! Twenty-nine days this month instead of twenty-eight. I almost said I wish every year were Leap Year but then it would just come to be a regular year and the joy of an extra day of reading would get washed away. Any plans for cramming in some extra reading? It is unfortunate that the extra day falls on a Monday but we’ll just have to make the best of it.

The piles on my reading table are shrinking and it’s not because I am reading the books on there that I own. Nope, it is shrinking because I am working my way through the library books that got added to the table. It feels good to have my library reading under control. At the moment I have only four books checked out, two of which came today, The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli and All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Anders. Also out from the library is a book of poetry by Joseph Massey called To Keep Time. It is most excellent. And then there is Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho with which I am just about finished. It too is good.

I have six outstanding hold requests at the library, for two I am up next, for the rest I am in the nebulous who knows when my turn will come, probably all at once realm. Only six outstanding requests is pretty darn good though given my profligate ways of late. I can even see several of the non-library books on my reading table and I am eyeing them and thinking , oh, I forgot you were there! Looking forward to reading you! I am quite proud of myself and if I am not careful I will cause harm to my shoulder and arm from patting myself on the back so much. That or my inflated sense of self-worth will be too large for me to fit through my door.

Other books on the go at the moment include Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. This is my slow, meditative read of the moment. Very much enjoying it. Then I am still working my way through The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo. She writes in short chapters and it is the perfect book for the spare ten minutes here and there. While it is quite good, I don’t want to try reading it in bigger chunks, it would lose its umph and quickly become boring.

And finally, I just began reading a review copy of a new biography of Charlotte Bronte that will be out in March. Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman is pretty good. It is advertised as being groundbreaking but since I haven’t read any other Bronte biography I can’t say whether it is or not. At the moment Charlotte is still a young girl and the family has just moved to Haworth. There are a good many more siblings than I knew about which means bad events ahead.

There are a couple other books I am in the midst of that have been moved to the back burner and not worth mentioning at the moment since I haven’t picked them up in a few weeks. I will get back to them, just probably not this month! Or perhaps the extra day will grant me the chance to get them in front of my eyes again. Ha! The odds in Vegas don’t seem to be leaning in my favor. Imagine that!

Filed under: Books, In Progress Tagged: Read the Table

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3. Between the World and Me

cover artBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a powerful and passionate book. As a white person in America, it was at times difficult for me to read. I found myself whispering I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry over and over. How do we make things different? What can I do? And at other times, reading the words of a black man talking about how white society does whatever it can to control his body and lets him know regularly that his body is not his own, I thought, yes, I understand from my place as a woman in a patriarchal society what it means for the culture and the law to always be trying to control your body. The control comes in different forms, but I too know what it’s like to walk down the street and be afraid. And so Coates’s book had the curious effect of making me feel guilt and sympathy and anger in repeated waves of various intensities.

Between the World and Me is a “letter” Coates wrote to his fifteen-year-old son. It is inspired by James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time, a book about what it means to be black in America. Certainly a great deal has changed since 1963 but so much remains stubbornly the same. I got the impression at times that Coates felt like nothing would ever change, that we will never see an end to racism, while at other times, especially when he was reflecting on his son’s life and experiences and how they have been different from his own, Coates seemed hopeful in a clear-eyed there is still much work and struggling ahead sort of way.

In thinking about the book and how I should read it and understand it, the best approach was to just listen. Don’t try to say, it’s not like that; don’t even think about suggesting things aren’t that bad. Don’t argue and critique or dismiss. Don’t compare my experience of oppression with his in order to determine who is worse off. Don’t go to an insensitive place and think, I have a black friend so I can’t possibly be racist. Don’t get defensive and definitely don’t try and claim I am not part of the system.

It is not always easy to listen, to refrain from Yes, but… I think I managed pretty well. Being open to Coates’s experience was unsettling at times. I caught myself thinking at one point when he was talking about slavery that my ancestors came to America after the Civil War, none of them owned slaves, my family had no part in it and can’t be blamed. But that is beside the point, isn’t it? While my ancestors may have had nothing to do with slavery they certainly reaped the benefits of a country made wealthy by the work of slaves. And they were definitely not immune from participating in casual and thoughtless racism.

It is hard to shut up and listen and not try to exonerate oneself, to think other people are like that but not me. When you grow up and live in a racist society, especially when you grow up and live with the privileges that come from white skin, you are not free from prejudice, I am not free from prejudice. And it hurts, I don’t want to be a “bad” person. And that is good. Because that is the only way we can move as individuals, as a culture, as a country, through prejudice to a society that is as free and equal as it imagines itself to be.

Filed under: Books, Nonfiction, Reviews

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4. Coming Soon to a Golf Course Near Me: A Food Forest

Have I mentioned lately how much I love Minneapolis? It is by no means a perfect city and the winters are long and hard, but by golly how many other cities have a community advisory group that works with the city council on things like urban agriculture and food security issues? Homegrown Minneapolis is the name of the group and their latest newsletter included a map of all the vacant city lots that can be leased for community gardening and urban farms. Also in the newsletter is information regarding a proposal to turn a public golf course near my house into a food forest.

What’s a food forest? It is exactly what it sounds like. It is a designed landscape that mimics a natural ecosystem while incorporating food producing plants like nut and fruit trees, shrubs, perennial vegetables and herbs. Annual plants can also be grown in the mix. And of course it is a space that also utilizes native plants to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects, control weeds and build soil fertility.

The site of this proposed food forest is a public golf course near Lake Hiawatha. The golf course is very expensive to maintain not just because it was built on a wetlands and requires millions of gallons of water to be pumped out of it every year. It turns out the amount of water being pumped far exceeds the permit limits and is therefore illegal. A portion of the golf course has also been closed since 2014 when we had so much rain that the “back nine” was flooded and is still so soaked and damaged the park board can’t really afford to fix it. This golf course also drains into Lake Hiawatha which suffers greatly from water quality issues do to run-off into the lake. This golf course covers 140 acres and serves very few people, costing to my mind and many others, more than it is worth.

So a young, brilliant city resident has put up a proposal and taken up the challenge to advocate for repurposing the land. His vision allows for a much reduced golf course, fruit orchards, nut trees, and more. His vision even includes returning wild rice to Lake Hiawatha which, I just learned, used to be called “Rice Lake” because local Native Americans grew and harvested wild rice there before they were forced to move elsewhere.

The food forest would be grown on public land, would be tended by volunteers, and would welcome all from the community to go and harvest food from it. It would solve the water pumping problem and the lake’s water quality issues as well. And it would provide learning opportunities for both adults and school children. Plus it would be far cheaper to maintain than a full golf course not to mention more beautiful and useful.

This is such an incredibly exciting thing and if it goes through, if the Park Board decides to go along with it, it would mean Minneapolis would be home to the largest food forest in the United States. And yeah, you know I’ll find a way to be involved with the project even if it is only volunteering a few hours every month. There is a meeting being held on February 27th. It’s scheduled for four hours in the afternoon which is a big chunk of Saturday time for me, but I might just see if I can make it for at least a portion of the meeting. If not, I am sure there will be other opportunities as the proposal picks up steam.

In my own garden, I have a tray full of paper pots ready for onion seeds next weekend. I must continue working at making pots because at the end of the month I will need to get the peppers and tomatoes started. I love this time of year. While it feels so hectic getting everything started, it is also the most hopeful time of the gardening year because there is still so much possibility. The slugs haven’t eaten the greens yet, the squirrels haven’t dug up or stolen anything, there hasn’t been too much rain or not enough, too much heat or not enough. In my mind’s eye my garden is lush and green and perfect. Reality will kick in soon enough, but until then, everything is still perfect.

In chicken news, the same newsletter that brought word of the food forest proposal also informed me that the city council will be voting on the new chicken ordinance on February 12th! I wasn’t expecting anything from the city council until summer. But perhaps they want to get it all settled before spring when people who want to start keeping chickens will be looking to get underway. Bookman has not yet begun to collect neighbor signatures, it has been too cold and snowy. But now we will wait and see what happens come Friday. Bookman may just be saved the trouble of collecting signatures after all. Fingers crossed!

In cycling news, I am still riding in virtual races on Thursday nights. Each week is different and sometimes I finish first or second and sometimes I finish last. One thing for sure, my fitness has improved immensely. I am also in the final week of a 6-week workout program that has meant hour-long (or more) workouts four to five times of week doing intervals of varying intensities. This too has paid off. On a (virtual) ride after my workout yesterday I decided to see if I could beat my personal sprint records on the two sprint sections of the course and I blew each one away by several seconds! I even managed to ever so briefly hit 4 watts/kg, something I thought I would never manage. I also noticed I now frequently go over 3 w/kg which means that after this week I will start racing in group C instead of D. Technically I should start this week but I want to give myself one more “easy” week before I go to the next group and start coming in last all the time. I will be good incentive to work hard and improve, right?

Also this last week on Wednesday night I participated in my first virtual group ride. It was so much fun! I am part of a group on Zwift called ROL (Ride On Ladies — in Zwift you can give riders a “ride on” thumb’s up, it’s a way to offer support and tell other riders they are doing great or thanking them for a good ride, etc). There is an ROL group ride on Wednesday nights but I had not joined in because it is a fast ride and with the races I’ve been doing Thursday nights I didn’t want to overdo it the night before. Anyway, a slower group ride was introduced this week so I joined that one. We used an app called TeamSpeak which allows us to actually talk to each other while we ride. I rode with a couple people from Seattle and someone from Ohio and I think maybe Texas. Technology is awesome!

Also, there are enough ROL women who are interested in racing that we are going to have our own women’s race on Saturday upcoming. It will be a 30km race and I will have to race in group B which is both exciting and scary. There are not a lot of women on Zwift, I saw somewhere that women are only about 8% of the Zwift population, but among them are some really strong riders and racers. It is exciting to ride with them because it forces me to work harder and they are all supportive and encouraging so even though I feel intimidated, it comes from my own personal worries of not being very good rather than anything anyone else has said or done. Currently there are 24 women who have indicated they will be racing Saturday and 56 who have said maybe. We’ll see what kind of turnout there really is. I just hope I don’t finish last in my group. But hey, if I do, incentive to improve!

Filed under: biking, chickens, gardening Tagged: Food forest, Lake Hiawatha, Minneapolis, sustainable gardening

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5. New Edition of Sexual Politics

There is a new edition of Kate Millet’s ground breaking book Sexual Politics coming out this month. It’s been 45 year since it was first published and some things have changed and some things remain stubbornly the same.

There is a great article at the New Yorker by Rebecca Mead that is partially adapted from the afterward to the new edition. It discusses why the book was so revolutionary and some of the ways it is now dated and some of the ways it is still frighteningly relevant. Here’s a taste:

Re-reading ‘Sexual Politics’ today, I am struck anew by two things. One is that, while Millett was publicly cast in the polarizing role of polemicist, there is often in her tone the cool, controlled archness of the literary essayist, a role she might easily have inhabited had the times not called upon her to do otherwise. The book is suffused with a strain of very dark, angry humor, an aspect of Millett’s writing that seems to have been barely noticed—or was perhaps invisible—upon publication. […] If ‘Sexual Politics’ has endured, it is not just because so much of the political work it recommends remains undone, but also because it is an astringent pleasure to be in the company of Millett on the page

I have the book on my bookshelf. I read parts of it in college but not the entire book. I remember it being rather eye-opening and rage inducing. Perhaps that is why I never read it completely? Not sure. But Mead’s piece makes me want to pull it from the bookshelf if for no other reason than the stellar literary analysis it contains and the presumption that art is important. I am not certain one could take a such a stance on the broad cultural value of art these days which is heartbreaking in its own way.

Two of my library hold requests are currently on their way to my library so I won’t have time to pick up Millet’s book now, unfortunately. Perhaps in a month or two I will be at a place I can pick it up. Or maybe that is just more delusional thinking on my part; I seem to be into that lately.

Filed under: Books

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6. The First DNF of the Year

cover artOne of the books I currently have from the library is a graphic novel called The Explorer’s Guild. I borrowed it because one of the co-authors is the actor Kevin Costner. I wouldn’t call myself a huge Costner fan, he is a good actor but I haven’t seen all of his movies and have no plans to do so. I borrowed the book because I was curious.

The book looks really nice and sets the mood for the story. A heavy chunkster with an old-timey looking adventure story cover, when you open it the paper is a pleasant creamy “old book” color slightly darker around the edges than in the middle of the page. And the drawings a sort of monochrome palette and highly detailed laid out in a comic book fashion. There are also pages of text, usually one or two, integrated between the comic panels with little illustrations. It is a pleasing look and feel.

However, after one chapter I am not so sure I want to keep reading because I don’t really care for the story. It is made clear from the start that the Explorer’s Guild is made up of all men, mostly of the gentlemanly sort. And while the story takes place during WWI, I don’t know why the Guild has to be all men. Paging through the book there is a woman who appears much later, an actress known to have many affairs, so I am not certain what sort of role she has in the story.

Also, the story is set, at least in the beginning, in “Arabia” and the company of British soldiers is worried about being attached by two thousand “Turkmen” and angry looking “Mohammedan” armies wearing turbans and carrying scimitars. Um…

That this adventure story is set during a time of racism and colonialism is one thing, that it plays into it is bothersome to me. If I keep reading, maybe the story redeems itself in some way, but then it might not.

When I started writing this I thought perhaps it would end up convincing me to keep going for at least one more chapter. But now, I think I am going to mark it down as DNF and return it to the library. I fell better already.

Filed under: Books, Graphic Novels Tagged: DNF, Kevin Costner

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7. Fates and Furies

coverI’ve seen quite a few mixed reviews of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and wasn’t so very keen to read it but I got curious about it and had to find out for myself whether it was brilliant or so-so or terrible. It seems that many people don’t like the first half but those who stick with it and get to the second half end up liking that part better. So I began reading with low expectations. Perhaps it was this that helped me fall into the book, I don’t know, but I certainly didn’t struggle to read it or like it. In the end, I didn’t find the book brilliant but I did like it very much.

The story is that of a marriage told from both sides. The first part is told from Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite’s point of view. He grew up in Florida in a wealthy family, his father, Gawain, having made a fortune selling bottled water. But his father died young and left Lotto and his sister to the care of an increasingly distant yet controlling mother and Aunt Sallie who ran the household. Left to run wild, Lotto turned to sex and drugs and alcohol and when his mother found out, she sent him away to an all-boys boarding school. There he had few friends, but this bright, very tall boy discovered the joys of Shakespeare and determined to go off to college and become an actor.

Near the end of his senior year of college he met Mathilde, statuesque, beautiful, smart. The charismatic Lotto gave up seducing women and decided to marry Mathilde. He believed her to be pure and because she was pure he considered her his savior. He failed in the real world as an actor but in a dark night of the soul moment, discovered he had a talent for writing plays. Soon he became a famous playwright and grew wealthy in the process. Until his mother died, he saw not a penny of his inheritance because she was so angry he had married without her permission that she cut him off financially.

In spite of his profligate sex life -pre-marriage, he remained loyal to Mathilde throughout, forever worrying that this pure, saintly woman would leave him:

If she was happy, it meant she wouldn’t leave him; and it had become painfully apparent over their short marriage that he was not worth the salt she sweated. The woman was a saint. She saved, fretted, somehow paid their bills when he brought in nothing.

Mathilde, of course, was no saint. Because of a terrible family tragedy when she was very young girl, her parents basically abandoned her. They shipped her off to a grandmother who didn’t want her and who then shipped her off to another grandmother who made her sleep in a closet. Mathilde was French, born Aurelie, and when she was a teenager she was shipped off to her uncle’s house. He lived in the United States and left her to raise herself. He was wealthy, however, so she was never wanting for anything but attention. Unable to make friends at school, she became Mathilde, a girl who was angry and hard, who would not let the world take advantage of her, and who was very, very lonely.

She was also terrified of Lotto abandoning her like everyone else in her life did. She never talked about certain parts of her life:

Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband. What she did not tell him balanced neatly with what she did. Still, there are untruths made of words and untruths made of silences, and Mathilde had only ever lied to Lotto in what she never said.

Any husband paying attention might wonder what she was hiding, but that is one advantage to being married to a charismatic, rather self-absorbed man. She did quite a few things he was never even aware of not least of which was edit his plays to make them better. And how she managed to hide the ongoing and ferocious war between her and Lotto’s mother without Lotto once suspecting a thing is beyond me.

As much as they both feared the other leaving them, in the end Lotto does leave Mathilde by an untimely death. She is devastated and her grief at losing her husband and once again being left is uncomfortable reading as well as heartbreaking.

I thought the book’s structure worked really well with clueless Lotto in the first half of the book and revelation after revelation from Mathilde’s part of the book. Still, as much as Mathilde knew and kept secret, Lotto had secrets too, though certainly not of Mathilde’s caliber. I liked getting both sides of the story and seeing how each one created and navigated their marriage. It is a more complete picture than we would ever get in a real life marriage and I found the completeness satisfying. From the outside, one would think their marriage would never work, and some of their friends even took bets on how long it would be before they were divorced and some, even after the pair had been married for years, tried to sabotage the relationship. The ending with an elderly Mathilde reflecting back on her marriage made me a little teary.

Contributing to my enjoyment of this book was a personal connection. Mathilde and Lotto were married at the age of twenty-two ( I was twenty-three when Bookman and I got married) and they married a year before my own wedding. So in many ways it felt like I was reading the story of a couple I might have known, except of course I didn’t and wouldn’t have known them if they were real, they not being the sort I would generally be friends with. Nonetheless, there was a certain happy friction, a bit of voyeurism and self-satisfaction regarding my own good fortune that smoothed away some of the annoying bits about the book (like the bracketed narrative intrusions, what the heck were those about?).

I’d like to say wow, you should read this book, but it isn’t that sort of book. I think it is one that will appeal to many, be enjoyed by some, and really liked by a few. Which one of those you might be, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Lauren Groff, Marriage

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8. Squirrel!

I have managed for two entire weeks to not add a book to my library requests. I would have made it past today too but the book gods sent me a message and I am not one to mess around when they are trying to get my attention.

It seems their message has a duel intent, good books and for me to come to terms with squirrels.

The first message came last week with an article at the Guardian of top 10 squirrels in literature. Who knew there were so many books with squirrels in them? While the description of the squirrel in Nabokov’s Pnin sounded amusing, the demon squirrel in Small Game by John Blades seemed more realistic. I saved the list because, you know, it could be amusing to read a few of the books at some point in time.

I went on my merry way until today when it came to my attention that The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie contains an “an intimate tête-à-tête with a very charismatic squirrel.” I checked my library and of course they have it and of course there is a line for it. I hesitated for about a second before I put myself on the list. I am number 82 so it will arrive sooner that I want it to but not as soon as I expect.

While I was thinking of squirrels I checked to see if there was another volume of Squirrel Girl and there is! In volume 2 she faces off against Ratatoskr, the Norse god of squirrels! So of course I had to request that too! I am number 26 in line for it.

In the meantime other books in my library queue are moving up faster than I expected but it’s all cool. I finished Fates and Furies and should have something to say about it tomorrow. I am working my way through Sorcerer to the Crown and Between the World and Me is moving right along as well. That means I will be ready for the squirrels whenever they should arrive! And, I have followed the directive of the book gods so all will be well.

Filed under: Books, In Progress

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9. Getting Ready for Gardening

newspaper pots and inky hands

newspaper pots and inky hands

I noticed on my way from my porch to the bus stop earlier this week that birds are starting to sing in the morning. At 6:30 it is still dark but a few voices are sleepily chirruping hello in the pre-dawn. This made me so happy that I would have danced my way down the sidewalk if it weren’t for treacherous slicks of ice hiding in the shadows. We might be having a thaw this weekend —it’s 40F/4C as I write this — but spring is still two months away.

Still, one must plan and prepare. Today I began folding newspaper pots for starting seeds. In just two weeks the onion seeds will need to get going. Last year I got started late with the onions and the late start combined with putting them out when they were too small meant I ended up with no onions at all. Not having grown onions before, it was all trial and error. Mostly error. This year I try again and see if I have any success.

Folding pots out of newspaper is messy and a bit tedious after the first pot or two. What does one do to entertain oneself? Watch the Secret History of the British Garden of course! I just watched the third episode about the 19th century and there is only one more episode left and that makes me very sad. A few years ago I watched and loved A Year at Kew. There are three seasons of this marvelous show and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it, especially on a cold winter’s day. Why can’t Americans make good gardening shows? It’s not like we don’t have any spectacular gardens.

I almost titled this post “Pot Making” but decided it might give the wrong impression. Have I ever told the story about my pot garden? Way back before Bookman and I bought our current house we had a townhouse with a large south-facing deck. We began container gardening on it before container gardening became a thing. To me at the time it was growing plants in pots. We were at a social event once, I don’t recall the exact occasion, but I was talking with someone and said with great enthusiasm that I had a pot garden. The astonished look on the person’s face and her sudden loss of words made me realize what I had just said. I quickly explained I was growing tomatoes, peppers and herbs in pots on my deck. I wasn’t entirely certain she believed me. I beat a hasty retreat.

I have been lost my gardening journal. It had three year’s worth of notes and plant lists and plans in it. I have no idea where it has got to. I have looked in all the likely places more than once and even in unlikely places too. It never leaves the house and my house isn’t that large. The last I recall seeing it was during the summer on my reading table. Bookman kindly surprised me with a new notebook that even has a pocket in it, very handy. But I remain nonplussed about the missing notebook and terribly sad about not only the disappeared garden notes but also reading notes. My hope is that it will turn up eventually and I will wonder why I failed to look for it in that location. In the mean time, planning for this year’s garden moves ahead.

I have begun a list of things that need to be done once the ground thaws. Last year at the Friends School Plant Sale in May we bought a few shrubs in anticipation of our garage being knocked down and an expansion of garden space. It took far longer for that to happen than we expected so we had to plant the shrubs in a temporary location in the main garden. They will need to be transplanted into what we now call the chicken garden. The list keeps growing every week. Spring is such a busy time!

And speaking of the Friends Plant Sale, I got the save the date postcard in the mail during the week. It is magneted to the refrigerator door where Bookman and I can see the date and the photo of the beautiful flowers. Every year I think it will be the year when I get to finally plant up my front yard and pack it full with prairie flowers and grasses and every year it gets put off. This year it is being put off again because I need to plant a green roof instead. I have already begun a list of plants I know will be good but looking at the catalog when it becomes available at the end of March will be when the planning really happens.

Lots of things in the works and the closer spring gets, the busier I will be. But it is all fun and I love it or I wouldn’t do it.

In cycling news, 250 Kung Fu nuns biked 2,000km in India to spread a message of women’s empowerment and environmental conservation. They are amazing and inspiring women.

Filed under: biking, gardening

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10. Do We Need a Patronage System for Writers?

I came across an interesting article by Maggie Doherty in Dissent Magazine the other day via Arts and Letters Daily that discusses how and by whom a writer is paid might affect how and what they write. For instance, if you are being paid by a big commercial publisher and your compensation and future book publication is tied to how many copies of your current book sells, how much money it makes the publisher, then you are more likely to write the kind of fiction that caters to the mass market. And that is fine if that is what you want to do. What, however, happens to the genre of literature we call art? What happens to experimentation?

today’s writers must meet market demands. Those who succeed often do so by innovating no more than is necessary. Many of today’s most celebrated writers marry experimentalism with accessibility; they produce prize-winning fiction with just a dash of formal excitement, enough to catch the eye of cultural gatekeepers but not so much that it renders a work unmarketable. They forge aesthetic compromise and favor political consensus. Their work reassures readers more often than it unsettles them. This isn’t so much bad literature as boring literature. After all, what’s more exhausting than reading, time and again, experimentation you’ve come to expect?

The article provides a thoughtful look at the history of public funding of literature in the United States, mostly through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), but other organizations as well such as the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) during the depression. When public funding was high, literature thrived, there was a diversity in viewpoint and a wider engagement with issues. Think Zora Neal Hurston and Ralph Ellison both of whom received funding from the FWP. Think Tillie Olsen and Raymond Carver, both of whom received grants from the NEA when they were just starting out as writers. But thanks to Ronald Reagan and the 1980s, public funding has been cut back to a pittance and the NEA has to be extremely careful in who it gives grants to so it doesn’t ruffle conservative feathers and lose even more funding.
What about universities you may ask since many writers support themselves these days by teaching:

many of today’s writers have retreated from the public sphere and are holed up in private and increasingly corporatized universities. Endowment managers are their patrons now, rather than representatives of the public. More and more writers cycle through temporary faculty appointments, teaching at the undergraduate level and in MFA programs. At a time when some English departments must make do without a medievalist or an eighteenth-century specialist, creative writing is flourishing. Since 1975, the number of MFA programs across the nation has increased tenfold. Some critics have also complained about the standardizing of literary style, while others, such as Junot Díaz, have voiced concerns about the lack of diversity among MFA faculty and students.

So while universities may offer some support, they are clearly not the answer either. After all, there are only so many jobs to go around and if you don’t have an MFA you are completely out of luck unless you have already made a name for yourself as a writer.
I’ve sometimes wondered what the big deal was with most writers not being able to actually make a living from their work. I mean all of us regular people who write manage to do it. Sure it takes a long time but we keep at it anyway because it is important to us. Even the likes of Kafka and Hawthorne had jobs that were not related to writing and they seemed to do just fine.

But that is short-sighted of me. Because the single mother who has to work two jobs to make ends meet and take care of her children and everything else is not going to have the time or energy to write even if she wants to. What a gift it would be for her to have all her expenses covered for a year or two! But even if she has shown talent, published a few pieces that prove her potential, she is not the sort of person who gets grants these days. Grants tend to go to writers like Jonathan Franzen and Jhumpa Lahiri after they have won major awards, after they have begun to make a name for themselves, rarely new and unknown, unproven writers.
All things considered, Doherty says we can’t fault writers for “selling out.” But the results are a literature that appeals to the mainstream and is aesthetically compromised, a literature that reassures rather than unsettles, a literature that flirts with innovation and excitement but never truly is innovative or exciting. In short, a literature that is boring.

What might a literature that is not beholden to anyone look like? Wouldn’t it be interesting and exciting to find out? Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear as though that will happen any time soon. Doherty suggests we need a return to a patronage type of system, preferably a public one like the NEA used to be. There is no political will for that in the US.
I wonder though what enterprising authors might not be able to achieve with crowdfunding? I contributed to a crowdfunded novel a few months ago and actually received the book in the mail a week ago. I haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet but I am looking forward to it whether or not it is good. As if writing isn’t hard enough already for writers looking to do something truly innovative, to have to do a Kickstarter or similar campaign just adds to the burden. But it does seem a possible viable alternative from my perspective because it would offer a kind of freedom they might not otherwise have. As Doherty says,

When writers are forced to conform to consensus positions, either political or aesthetic, the literary world starts to look depressingly monochrome. Literature that appeals to the mainstream isn’t just politically anodyne—it’s aesthetically predictable. We need a literary world, and a political order, in which writers, from a range of social positions, feel encouraged to surprise their readers. We need fiction and poetry that will confuse us and trouble us, challenge us and incite us.

A range of social and political positions, surprises, challenge and incitement. Yes please!

Filed under: Books, Writing Tagged: public patronage of the arts, Writers gotta eat and pay the rent

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11. The Water Knife

cover artI always thought the first Paolo Bacigalupi book I read would be The Windup Girl. I even have a copy of it on my bookshelf. But as these things usually work out, at least in my reading life, I was wrong. Windup Girl sits unread on my shelf still. After NerdCon in October and Bacigalupi mentioning several times his book The Water Knife, that is the one I ended up reading first.
You can’t really blame me. The book is all about water rights in the western United States; California versus Nevada and Arizona mostly. I wasn’t always a Minnesota girl. I was born and raised in southern California, the San Diego area to be precise. I went to college in Los Angeles. There were always droughts, though not as bad as the one going on right now, and there were always people arguing about water rights. And I remember wondering many times just how precarious the whole house of cards was and how long would it be before it all fell apart?
The scariest thing about The Water Knife is that Bacigalupi’s book is completely plausible. The story takes place in an undated but clearly not too distant future. Climate change has caused a series of huge weather disasters that have strained the resources of a federal government that now seems to be only nominally in charge in the western states. Between hurricanes and droughts and prolonged heatwaves Texas is entirely uninhabitable and refugees are streaming across the borders of neighboring states whose own resources are growing more and more scarce. Nevada and California have formed their own militias and closed their borders to anyone who does not have permits to cross. There is a kind of guerilla war going on between California, Nevada and Arizona over rights to the Colorado river. The war is being fought both in courtrooms and on the ground. Water pipelines to entire cities are shut off and hundreds of thousands of people are immediately turned into refugees with nowhere to go. The Red Cross sinks relief wells and tent cities spring up around it but the water is not free. Prices fluctuate daily and at one point in the book it costs $6.75 for a liter of water.
Meanwhile the Chinese are investing heavily in building arcologies in Las Vegas and Phoenix. An arcology is an almost self-contained living environment that recycles 95% of the water. And it isn’t just water that is recycled, pretty much everything is. In this way an arcology can be climate controlled, crops can be grown, the air can be filtered and kept clean and safe from the frequent dust storms outdoors, people living inside can almost pretend like life is normal. It is the poor and desperate who build the arcologies, the poor and desperate who never make enough from their work to live inside them. It is the wealthy and powerful who get to live in comfort and safety.
A Water Knife is one of those people only rumored to exist. A Water Knife is the one who does the dirty work for the people in charge of the water, the one who does what has to be done whether that is killing someone or blowing up an entire water processing facility. Angel is a Water Knife and he works for Catherine Case, the most powerful person in Nevada. She is in charge of the water and the existence of the state of Nevada, Las Vegas in particular, depends on her.
Arizona is pretty much a lost cause and the city of Phoenix is will soon be drinking its last glass of water unless someone can find some water rights that trump those belonging to California or Nevada. Someone does. Digs them out of some old dusty files, documents well over 100 years old that trump every other right in existence. The person who has the rights in his possession can make billions from their sale and he plays buyers from California and Nevada off each other and pays with his life. But no one knows what happened to the documents.
It is a life and death race to see who can get the documents first. Angel is on the hunt and so is everyone else it seems with no one sure who is working for who. Lucy, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has been living in Phoenix for a number of years documenting its decline gets mixed up in all of it as she investigates who killed her friend, the guy who had originally found the water rights. Maria, seventeen, a Texas refugee and orphan living with her friend Sarah and forced to prostitute herself in order to not be fed to the hyenas of the local gang leader for being unable to pay her rent, also gets mixed up in the business.

The Water Knife is a fast-paced mystery/thriller but also more than that. It alternates between the point of view of Maria, Lucy and Angel until eventually all their individual story threads come together. It wasn’t so long ago that life was normal, that there was enough water to go around, but each one is forced in their own way to come to terms with the world as it is now not as it once was and not as it could be. And when it comes down to your own personal survival versus the potential survival of an entire city, what choices are you forced to make and who can really blame you for them?

Also running through the book is a refrain about how those who knew and could have done something long ago to make sure the present day of the story didn’t happen did absolutely nothing, or worse, precipitated the disaster and even profited from it. Bacigalupi does a marvelous job at character development and it is fascinating to watch each of the three main characters change over the course of the novel as their personal beliefs and illusions, hopes and dreams, are ripped away. And while the ending provides a conclusion, it leaves much up in the air. I appreciated that because given everything that came before an ending that tied everything up nicely would have been false.

I am pleased with my first venture in reading Bacigalupi and looking forward to reading more of his work. Perhaps The Windup Girl will be next!

Filed under: Books, Clifi, Reviews

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12. It’s All Under Control

It was just back on the 13th that I mentioned how deluded I am regarding, in particular, a book that I was next up for at the library and that I was sure I’d have at least a week’s wait before I had to worry about it. Nope. Two days later, I got an email from the library telling me that Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho was ready to pick up. I ignored it for a few days, until the middle of the following week, when a couple books had to be returned. Then, looking at my library holds list I thought, phew! I really will get a break for a little while now!

Yes, that is exactly how deluded I am!

Because you know, right, that three days later I got an email from the library to tell me that Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates was waiting. And then the next day I got another email from the library to let me know The Explorer’s Guild, Volume One had been added to the shelf. I ignored them until today when a book had to be returned.

This all happened last week when I was beginning to feel as though my reading was getting under control. I’ve been really zipping through Fates and Furies and have reached close to the two-thirds mark. Really liking it! I am plugging away diligently at Sorcerer to the Crown on my lunch breaks at work. Haven’t made it far yet but I’ve only had it for three lunch breaks and it reads fairly quickly. I’ve felt so good I have been eyeing my reading table, certain I will be able to begin digging into those books very soon.

After I got the email about the Ta-Nehisi Coates book, however, and looked at my library holds requests, I had a moment of fretting. I am moving way too fast up the list for the new China Mieville book, The Census-Taker. I did something I have never done before. I suspended my hold request until March 1st. That has left three books that might come rushing at me faster than I expect: The Cabaret Of Plants (currently I am 6 on the list), Strong Female Protagonist, Book One (I am also 6th on this one), and The Story of My Teeth (I’m at 10). In my formerly deluded state I would relax and figure I have plenty of time. But the veil has been rent and I know better, at least until I can stitch the tear back together.

That leaves only two other books on my holds list and both are currently on order, The Vegetarian by Han Kang for which I am first in line, and All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Anders for which I am number 11. There is no telling how long it will be before the book is available. They are like jokers or wild cards. The likelihood that in two days I will get an email from the library telling me The Vegetarian is ready to pick up is high given how these things seem to go. The messed up crazy thing is, that when I think about it, if I don’t get an email in a couple days regarding The Vegetarian I will be disappointed rather than glad!

Part of me is looking at my hold requests and thinking, hey! I got this! I can totally add Svetlana Alekseevich’s Voices from Chernobyl to the queue because I’ll be number 33. Or maybe I could be number 64 for Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights? Or maybe even number 14 for Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan would be okay?

Except the other part of me is yelling really loud right now and it is so distracting! She is saying things that, well, let’s just say I didn’t know she knew some of those words! She says I can’t add any books to my hold requests until I have finished one book from the reading table.

Fine, be that way. Sometimes I can be such a party pooper.

Filed under: Books, In Progress, Library Tagged: Read the Table

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13. Clucking Around

This weekend has zipped by! I feel like I have been busy but for the life of me I can’t tell you what I have been busy doing. Not a feeling I like to have because it makes me tired without seeming to have a reason.

I suppose much of what I have been doing is planning and that is mental work that doesn’t have anything immediately to show. What kind of planning you ask? Chickens!

We will be getting them as babies only a couple days old. They will be living indoors with us for a while in a brooder. My chicken book says it definitely does not have to be anything fancy, it just has to be big enough. It suggested big plastic tote bins or even sturdy cardboard boxes taped together. Since I have access at work to free paper boxes that are quite sturdy, we are going to build their home out of those. I have two boxes already. I think we will ultimately need four. But if we need more that will be easy enough. So brooder solved.

In the bottom under the bedding we will put old cookie sheets to keep the cardboard from getting damp and to make cleaning easier. We can then also use the cookie sheets out in the coop beneath the roost to make cleaning up easier there too.

I have a checklist of other items we will need including bedding, feeder, waterer, heat lamp and baby chicken food. We will get all of that in February when we order the babies. Then we will have time to get everything set up but there won’t be a long time to wait after that before the girls move in. I will be sure to have my video camera battery charged and ready so I can share the fluffy cuteness with you.

We have also finally decided what breeds of birds we will be in our small flock. Our chicks will come to us via Egg Plant Urban Farm Store and they have eight breeds to choose from. Unless they tell us when we order that our chosen mix is not a good idea we will be getting one Rhode Island Red, one Ameraucana/Easter Egger (so named because they lay green and blue eggs), one australorp, and one barred rock. We decided one of the advantages of getting four different breeds is being able to tell them all apart.

And yes, we have names for them already. Since we are getting four, we have decided to call them The Dashwoods. Which one will be Elinor, Marianne, Margaret and Mrs. Dashwood remains to be seen. We have plans once the coop is completed to paint it up as Barton Cottage with a faux brick paint job. Why not? There will be no Mr. Willoughby or Colonel Brandon or Edward Ferrars, only the ladies. I wouldn’t mind a rooster, but the city requires I get 100% approval from all my neighbors within crowing distance. Stupid city regulations.

While we are on the topic of stupid city regulations, let’s talk about those for a second. My neighbors can have big dogs that bark at all hours and none of them require permission from anyone. For me to have four hens that hardly make any noise at all I have to get permission from 80% of my neighbors who live within 100 feet/30.5 m of my property. The city sent me a list of all the addresses I have to solicit and there are fourteen! That fourteen includes four houses across the street from me who will never even see the chickens because they can’t see into my backyard. At least they should be easy to convince to sign the form.

We need eleven signatures. We don’t foresee any problems, we get along well with our neighbors. It’s just having to go through all the trouble of getting their signatures that is ridiculous. Last year the city held hearings to drop this requirement but nothing has yet come of it so we have to jump through that silly hoop.

The Dashwoods will be worth the trouble, right?

Filed under: chickens

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14. Print in Peril!

Poor beleaguered print books.

I came across a report at the end of December that print books were making a recovery. E-book sales have leveled off, even dropped a little, and sales of print books were having a little rebound. Huzzah!

The tech evangelists predicted the ebook market would eventually be 50 to 60 percent of books sales. Of course one could say these were tech people making these predictions, not actual readers so what did they know anyway? It appears they were waaaayyyy off because ebook sales are pretty much staying steady at around 25 percent of the market.

But just as I begin to breathe a sigh of relief, I come across another article talking about a new threat to print books: audiobooks!

Say what?

Oh yes, MarketWatch is all about audiobooks as the future of reading. They even have a bold header stating “Audiobooks have begun to outsell print.” They go on to toss out some numbers, audiobook sales totaled $1.5 billion last year. Spewing dollar amounts doesn’t really tell you anything really. Audiobooks are expensive, sometimes they cost a lot more than the print books. For instance a paperback copy of the first Harry Potter book can be had at Barnes and Noble for $6.76 but the audiobook costs $28.66! So don’t tell me dollars, tell me how many actual audiobooks were sold. They don’t of course.

What they do is provide examples of titles where the audiobook outsold the print book. We have a debut spy thriller, some supernatural romance novels, a business book. Based on these and the popularity of audible.com, the trend watchers have declared that audiobooks are the future of books.

Oy. I wonder how long this will last before someone else declares the real threat to print books is billboards or bumper stickers or some other crazy format. It’s all starting to sound like The Perils of Pauline with print books tied up on a railroad track. Or maybe it’s more like the boy who cried wolf?

Whatever the case, I’m not worried. Print books are not yet gasping their last breath.

Filed under: Audio Books, Books, ebooks

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15. When a Book You Need Finds You

Isn’t it a really wonderful thing when a book you didn’t know you needed to read unexpectedly comes into your life? Last week Sigrun at Sub Rosa mentioned a really good book she is reading, The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo. She mentioned it in the frame of thinking about the ideal writing life and Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own,” how this room is something that is pretty close to a fantasy for most of us.

I commented that DeSalvo’s book sounded interesting. Sigrun provided a link to the publisher description of the book and I thought, I should read that sometime! In the process of checking to see if it was something my library has, I decided to request it. Even though I am not looking to publish a novel or anything, I always enjoy a good book about the craft and process of writing and the idea of slow writing had an interesting sound to it.

The book arrived and I started reading it.

At this same time I have been struggling to write my next essay for Vocalis, that essay website I created with the lofty goal of publishing a new essay to it every week. How quickly that schedule has crashed! Because it turns out that even though I am great at writing a blog post in around an hour, essays take a bit more time. Go figure.

The process of writing an essay is an entirely different one that a blog post or book review or even an essay for class back when I was in library school about six years ago (wow has it been that long?!). I was surprised by this discovery and then I was surprised that I was surprised. And then I started worrying about timelines and whether or not I should shut down Vocalis now before I got too attached.

But then DeSalvo told me to not be so stupid. Most of the kind of writing I do is not exactly the creative sort and here I am expecting to produce creative essays in the same way I do everything else. I had forgotten how much time and extra work it takes, how different it is to dashing off a blog post. And I was getting frustrated. But DeSalvo reminded me:

We can take as much time as we need in our projects’ initial stages, allowing ourselves to be unsure of what we’re doing or whether we’ll succeed. We can commit to the process of learning and honoring our craft even as we acknowledge the anxiety and frustration that often occur early on. We can commit to working slowly, taking time to figure out our work, one slow step at a time.

That turned out to be exactly what I needed! Permission to learn a new process, to not rush but take the time I need.

I began writing a new essay last week but didn’t get far before I discovered I needed to do a bit of research. Research accomplished I then had to figure out how to use the research because, while it supports what I want to say, it also changes the scope of things and possibly even the direction I had thought I wanted to go.

I worked on the essay for about three hours Sunday and only stopped because I was starting to feel stuck and noticed my stomach was growling. Instead of an almost complete first draft, I had not even two pages. Disappointed. But also exhilarated because during that time I had found that place you go when you are fully focused and time and the world fall away.

DeSalvo talks about working at writing, how the process from project to project is not going to be the same, how we have to find our own rhythm and routine. All that and I have only read through page 22! She is right about what she says and I know she is right, I had just forgotten all these things in the regular routine and rhythm of blogging that has become so familiar, so comfortable and very close to easy.

Thanks to DeSalvo I am working at getting past the layers of disappointment from not being able to hit the ground running with this essay writing thing. I did, after all, want to try something new and different. I did want a challenge. I knew there were things to learn. That I am surprised, impatient and a bit vexed that I got exactly what I wanted makes me laugh. What? You mean I’m not a secret super genius writer?

Nope. But then most people aren’t. I guess I can be okay with that. It certainly isn’t a reason to give up and pull the plug on Vocalis. I wanted to be the hare but it turns out I am the tortoise. Slow and steady. Writing is not a race and there is no true finish line anyway. What’s the hurry?

Filed under: Books, In Progress, Writing

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16. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

cover artLooking for an off the beaten path superhero comic? The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Volume One just might be the ticket. Squirrel Girl is in the Marvel Universe of comics and was actually first introduced back in 1991. Back then she was fourteen, in high school and crushing on Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), kind of scrawny and looked so 1990s. Thank goodness she has gotten an update! Current Squirrel Girl even comments on her past poor fashion choices.

Now heading off to college Squirrel Girl, also known as Doreen Green, is a full-bodied young woman. Her

Original Squirrel Girl - scary!

Original Squirrel Girl – scary!(credit)

tail is much fluffier and squirrelier, she has a much better outfit and she no longer has black diamonds around her eyes that make her look like an evil clown. She wears a squirrel ears headband, acorn earrings, has a bit of a buck-toothed smile and her squirrel friend Tippy-Toe wears a pink bow around her neck. When Squirrel Girl is incognito as Doreen, she tucks her tail into her pants which gives her a rather round and pronounced booty, much to her delight.

Technically, Squirrel Girl falls into the mutant class of superheroes but doesn’t want to have anything to do with the X-Men. She is half squirrel, half girl which means she has the proportional speed and strength or a squirrel. She also speaks squirrel and she and Tippy-Toe are frequently helped by their squirrel friends when fighting evil.

Doreen is majoring in computer science at college and her first day there doesn’t quite go as planned. her roommate is ok but when they go to orientation Doreen doesn’t get a chance to sign up for a single club because she has to rush out in order to save the earth from being destroyed by Galacticus, Devourer of Worlds.

Squirrel Girl is confident, smart, sassy, and fun. Being part squirrel she kind of acts like one, zipping here and there, never staying still for more than a minute or two and constantly chattering about something. She is strong but she is not the kind of superhero who solves things by throwing punches. She is tricksy and in fact manages to defeat Galacticus by turning him into a friend.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is not a thinker. There are no lessons to be learned. It is nothing but pure frenetic squirrel entertainment. I enjoyed the comic so much that my antipathy for real-life squirrels may have slipped a little. I’m not about to run out to the garden and try to make friends with them, only, perhaps, I can appreciate their daredevil antics a little more than I did before.

Filed under: Books, Graphic Novels, Reviews Tagged: Iron Man, squirrels, Tony Stark, X-Men

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17. Climate Change in My Garden

Garden not to scale and all the beds aren't even in the right place!

Garden not to scale and all the beds aren’t even in the right place!

The seeds I ordered last weekend arrived already this week! I was not expecting them for another week or two, but here they are. It is far too early to be able to do anything with them yet. As I type this it is -3F/-19C outside with a wind chill of -19F/-28C. Ah, winter in Minnesota!

Despite the cold, I was rather disturbed to learn that 13 of the last 16 winters in my area have been “Zone 5” winters. If you aren’t a gardener or in the U.S. you might not know what that means, so let me explain. The United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, long ago created a plant hardiness map. It is based on average annual extreme minimum temperatures over a 30-year period and goes from zone 1, the coldest, to zone 13, the warmest. My zone in Minneapolis is 4 which means minimum winter temperatures regularly dip below -20F/-28.9C. That’s air temperature without wind chill added in. The last time the USDA updated its zone map was 2012. I’m not entirely certain, but I think they update it every ten years.

For 13 of the last 16 winters to be zone 5 is a big deal. It won’t yet put me squarely in a warmer zone but it is definitely moving there. State climate watchers and meteorologists are speculating that within the next three to four years we will begin seeing zone six winters. This is both crazy and scary. A zone 6 winter would mean a minimum temperature of only -10F/-23.3C. Some people might wonder why I’m not cheering, why I am not excited about the bigger variety of plants I might be able to grow, why anyone would be upset over a winter that never got colder than -20F/-28.9C because, wow, -10F/-23.3C is still pretty cold.

But it is not cold enough.

Minnesota ecology has evolved around long, frigid winters. Already forests in the northern part of the state are showing signs of stress and disease. Our moose population is getting smaller every year. The emerald ash borer is spreading at a faster rate, killing the state’s ash trees. And every year incidents of West Nile virus occur earlier and earlier in the season. That we even have to worry about the virus at all is a fairly recent, within the last ten years or so, thing.

And it isn’t just ecology that is affected by warmer winters, people are too. Minnesota culture is heavily invested in cold winters. Heck, we have a frozen lake’s worth of jokes about it. And we tend to think we are better than everyone else because we can endure the frigid cold. There are winter carnivals and events that warmer winters will make difficult. This year it took so long before the cold hit, the lakes have not been able to build enough ice for the various pond hockey tournaments and many of them have been postponed or cancelled entirely.

Warmer winters are no small, inconsequential thing.

I am not quite sure how to plan for shorter, warmer winters in my garden. I continue to operate under zone 4 assumptions but clearly I am going to need to adapt. I don’t know what that means, exactly. Today I spent an hour or so figuring out where to plant all those seeds that arrived in the mail earlier this week. I am supposed to rotate my “crops” to keep garden soil healthy and avoid hungry insect problems. But, as big as my garden is—pretty much my entire backyard—it still is not large so rotating is a flexible term. I mean growing my tomatoes three feet from where they were last year and moving the zucchini from one end of the garden bed to the other counts as rotating, right?

I got it all figured out though, at least on paper. There are always revisions when it comes time to plant because I can never remember exactly how much room I have in all the various garden beds. And bundling up and walking around the garden right now won’t work because everything is under snow and I can’t even tell where the paths are and where the beds are. Spring and planting time will reveal all!


Just a quick bike note today. I did another race on Thursday and it was an entirely different mix of people than the week before. There were eight people in group D and I was still the only woman. It was a crazy fast race and I think the guy who won by just over five minutes should have been racing in the C group instead, but maybe he has low self-esteem issues and needed an ego boost or something. I came in fifth in my group riding pretty much at the same rate I had the week before. I had a great time though riding with a C group rider who had gotten dropped from the main group and playing tag with another D group rider.

I’ll try again this coming Thursday and see how it goes. One thing for sure, it is most excellent exercise and I work a lot harder in a race than I do during a regularly scheduled workout. I will be really interested to see how it all translates to riding outdoors again when spring comes.

Filed under: biking, gardening Tagged: climate change

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18. Two Steps Forward

With Nimona and the Small heart of Things I managed to clear two books off my reading table. However, I picked up three books at the library yesterday. Two steps forward and three steps back.

The good news is that I shouldn’t be getting any more books at the library at least for a couple weeks. Though I just checked and I have moved from second position to first in line for Sorcerer to the Crown. Perhaps I am too hopeful that everyone who has it checked out now will be slow and I’ll have at least two weeks before my library sends me an email to come pick it up. Or I’m probably deluded.

Definitely deluded.

Nonetheless, my poor little table remains standing despite Bookman’s dire predictions regarding its load-bearing capacities. And, I have a three-day holiday weekend approaching for which the weather is forecast to be even colder than last weekend—we probably won’t even get above 0F/-18C! Get the coffee brewing and the quilts piled up, it’s going to be the perfect holiday weekend for reading! Hopefully I can convince Bookman to bake me up something delicious to nibble on too. I can hardly wait!

But wait I must.

The books I brought home from the library are ones I’ve had in the holds queue for quite some time. Months. They are Fates and Furies, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Volume One: Squirrel Power.

Squirrel Girl is a superhero comic and our hero is part human, part squirrel. She has a squirrel sidekick named Tippy-Toe. I started reading it last night and it’s as crazy and frenetic as two squirrels chasing each other around the trunk of my maple tree. It’s cute though and there was a brief moment, and thank goodness it was brief because it worried me a little, in which I might have actually thought squirrels were cute and kind of cool. But then I remembered how they are not good garden sharers—I’ve had a hazelnut tree for ten years and have never gotten a nut off it because the squirrels eat them all first. Every. Single. One. I’m cool with sharing but the squirrels, not so much.

Anyway, Squirrel Girl, so far, wacky fun. Haven’t started the other books yet. Those will be for the frigid weekend ahead.

Filed under: Books, In Progress, Library Tagged: Read the Table

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19. A Few Good Gardening Books And Vacation’s End

cover artAh friends, my two-week vacation is slowly coming to an end. It has been really nice. I am so completely unwound that I feel like I am ready for a vacation. Isn’t that the way of things? I managed to get through all but one gardening book I had piled up for my time off. The one I am still reading is called Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener. It is really good and I am eager to try my hand at it in my own garden. Perhaps I will manage to create a tomato that ripens early and is less prone to blossom end-rot. Wouldn’t that be something? Also radishes. I grow a mild pink variety and last year I also grew a spicier purple variety, wouldn’t it be fun to have a radish that is purple but a little less spicy to slice and eat raw on sandwiches? There aren’t any flowers in particular I’d like to try this with, but you never know.

The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the cover artFuture of Sustainable Gardening is also quite good. This book is composed of essays by various names in the sustainable gardening field on a number of different topics from managing the home landscape to waterwise gardening to soil health. In case you are wondering what sustainable gardening is, the definition used in the book is,

using methods, technologies, and materials that don’t deplete natural resources or cause lasting harm to native systems.

Simple enough, right? Yet in the general world of gardening as conducted and encouraged by big box stores, sustainable is not encouraged.

One of the essays, “Flipping the Paradigm: Landscapes That Welcome Wildlife” by Douglas W. Tallamy, made me laugh because he talks extensively about the importance of insects in the garden, and not just pollinators. I thought you all might be interested given my post about insects not that long ago. Tallamy notes, and he has the citations to back it up, that ninety-six percent of the terrestrial birds in North America rear their young on insects, not seeds or berries. Insects are high-quality protein that growing birds need. No insects, no baby birds.

cover artOne other book that is excellent, Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. At first I thought I would not like this book because they began by disparaging people who advocate planting native plants. But, but, but I spluttered. And then a lightbulb moment. Native plants are definitely good and Rainer and West advocate for them too. The problem is the people who say native plants and only native plants and if you plant something from Asia in your midwest garden you are some kind of heretic.

These garden designers encourage creating gardens based on landscape archetypes like grasslands, woodlands, shrublands, etc. Pick your archetype and go from there. It is about matching plants to the site and creating plant communities whether that plant is native to a midwest prairie of the Russian steppes.

They do a fantastic job in explaining their design process and how to do it at home. I took extensive notes and find myself full of ideas. My soil is extremely sandy and I have always thought I need to work at improving it. When it comes to vegetables, that is the case, but when it comes to the grassland plants I enjoy, Rainer and West tell me to forget about it. I shouldn’t be wasting my time doing this, instead I should be busy searching out plants that like the kind of soil I have, and there are plenty.

I can’t say enough what a good book this is. I have been trying for years to create a grasslands-type garden in my front yard and have succeeded in creating a wild, weedy mess. Now I feel like I know what I can do to correct it. It will still be pretty wild but if it goes well it will be a more contained and more varied wild with a lot fewer weeds and a lot less maintenance. I have quite a bit of planning work to do to make it happen and not being a person of great wealth, it will take years to plant it all up because I can’t afford to buy all the plants in one go. But ideas and a plan make a good beginning and will go a long way to correcting the helter-skelter way I’ve been going about things.


On a side note. I have some catching up to do on replying to comments and visiting blogs. Bear with me as I get back up to speed after vacation. All too soon it will be like these last two weeks never happened.

Filed under: Books, gardening, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: garden design, plant breeding, sustainable gardening

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20. Read the Table, an Update

So Stef, it’s day four of 2016, how’s that New Year’s goal to read all the books on your reading table going?


Anybody there?

Hush? Oh, are you talking to me? I’m sorry, what did you say?

Your 2016 project to Read the Table, have you started on it yet?


Fine. If you must know I haven’t picked up any of the books yet and actually added three more to the table today. The books came from the library, I cannot be faulted for adding library books to the table.


Stop it! Stop looking at me like that! Now I know how Bookman feels when I raise a single eyebrow at him.

Don’t you want to know what books I added to the table from the library? C’mon, you know you do.


Great! So there is Nimona, a graphic novel by Noelle Stevenson I have been waiting my turn for since October. There is A Timbered Choir, a poetry book by Wendell Berry. This is part of a kind of project for the year with my friend Cath. We share poems through the mail and this year we have decided to focus on reading poets who are currently writing who we have not read before and whose poetry focuses on nature. I’ve been wanting to read Berry’s poetry for ages so now seemed like a good time. The other book is called Toolbox for Sustainable City Living. I have no idea when I requested this or where I came across it so I would know to request it, but there it is. Good books. And because they are library books they won’t be around long. Once I get through them I’ll start working on the books that are on the table.

Is that right?

Hey! What’s that saying about stones and glass houses?

Yeah, thought so.

Filed under: Books, In Progress Tagged: glass houses, library holds, not my fault, Read the Table

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21. Iphigenia in Tauris

Iphigenia in Tauris by Euripides was first performed in 414 BCE. Euripides and the Greeks considered it a tragedy even though these days literary folk like to argue otherwise. But no one dies! There is no blood and keening, no eye gouging! It kind of has a happy ending! What ancient Greeks considered a tragedy is quite different from our modern day definition and it seems completely pointless and silly to waste ink arguing over how to classify this play. But I guess scholars need something to do and it is harmless in the scheme of things.

If you recall your Greek stories, Iphigenia is the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Agamemnon sacrificed her in order bring the winds that would get the Greek fleet to Troy where the dastardly Paris had absconded with Helen, his brother’s wife. That’s Agamemnon’s brother, Menelaus, not Paris’s brother, Hector. Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon on his victorious return from Troy ten years later in part as revenge for him murdering her daughter. Orestes, Cly and Agie’s son, eventually shows up and kills his mother and her new husband in revenge for his father’s murder. As punishment for the matricide, the Furies are set loose on Orestes. Well and so.

Iphigenia, however, according to some, was not actually sacrificed. At the last moment Artemis saved her by substituting a pig/lamb/calf (take your pick) and whisked Iphigenia away to her Temple among the Taurians somewhere on the Black Sea (there was never an actual country called Tauris yet the people were called Taurians but I can’t for the life of me find out what their country was called, if it was even real so if you know, please enlighten me). Euripides chooses to go with this version of the story. Obvs.

So for all these years Iphigenia has been the High Priestess in the Temple of Artemis among the Taurians who think that human sacrifice is a pretty awesome thing. They especially like to capture strangers who are driven to shore by the freak tides and dangerous waters around their country and offer them up to Artemis. In spite of the excitement sacrificing humans must be, especially when you yourself were at one time supposed to be a human sacrifice, Iphigenia seems rather bored. She spends quite a lot of time missing Greece and wishing she could go home (she has apparently forgiven her father for his attempted sacrifice of her). If she knew all that had been going on, she might change her mind, but she doesn’t because no one from Greece has set foot on Taurian shores in all the years Iphigenia has been there.

Until now.

Two young Greeks land their boat on the shore and then hide it and themselves because they don’t know how friendly these barbarians are. On a side note, when you come across anything in ancient Greek stories that talk about barbarians, it usually isn’t referring to specific barbarians (like Conan for instance or even Cohen and Nijel the Destroyer for that matter), but to anyone who is not Greek. The Greeks thought very highly of themselves and if you were not Greek, you were a barbarian which goes a long way towards explaining quite a lot of ancient Greek history.

Anywho, these stealthy Greeks had been sent by Artemis to “recover” something from the Temple, an icon made of wood. They are none other than Orestes and his best bud Pylades. Even though he is on this mission for Artemis he is still also being chased by the Furies. Since Artemis knows that Iphigenia is at this temple and she and Orestes are siblings, one can’t help but think this an elaborate ruse to get them to meet. The pair of icon thieves are captured by Taurian guards even before they get to reconnoiter because Orestes has a crazy Furies moment and starts yelling and waving his arms about on the beach in front of everyone. So much for stealthy.

The Taurians are delighted to have prime Greek humans to sacrifice. They are brought before Iphigenia. No, she does not recognize Orestes because he was just a boy when he was fostered out elsewhere for his own protection. Before getting to the sacrificing bit, Iphigenia starts pumping them for information about what’s been going on in Greece all these years. She realizes pretty soon that these two are actually from her hometown and the more questions she asks, the more evasive Orestes gets. He has no idea he’s talking to his sister. Round and round they go.

Finally in desperation, Iphigenia strikes a deal. She’ll only sacrifice one of them if the other one will carry a message back home for her, letting the family know she is actually alive and hoping that maybe someone will come for her. This bargaining is all carried out without once mentioning family names. But the men agree and then the pair proceed to argue over who is going to be the one sacrificed. Orestes thinks being killed would be pretty okay, it would, after all, rid him of the Furies. Pylades, says no, I love you too much, let me be killed so I can die happy knowing you are still alive even if the Furies are chasing you. After many declarations of love and bickering over whose life is worthier, Orestes gives in and Pylades is thrilled that he gets to die for him.

Since Iphigenia doesn’t know how to read or write, she has to tell Orestes the message for her family at which point Orestes and Pylades gawp at her because they realize who she is. Orestes reveals himself as her brother but Iphigenia makes him prove it which he does by telling her something only a family member would know. Happy reunion scene ensues followed by a what-do-we-do-now conference since Iphigenia is supposed to kill them.

But they work it out as only the children of Agamemnon can. All three escape from Tauris and Orestes and Pylades even get the icon they came for. The king is about to send his navy after the three but Athena appears and tells him that it wouldn’t be prudent. The king knows which side his bread is buttered on, calls off his men, and places a help wanted ad in the local paper for a new High Priestess for the Temple. Meanwhile, Orestes, Pylades and Iphigenia sail off into the sunset.

You can see why scholars are into arguing how to classify this play. It’s also not the most exciting or interesting Euripides play ever. There is lots of longing for home from both Iphigenia and Orestes, and how that homesickness can really drag on a person. The play sets up a scenario where you could really dig into the psychology of longing and exile and the meaning of home, but this being a Greek tragedy, it only flits around the edges, psychology not having been invented yet.

One more thing, it’s really hard to type “Pylades” over and over and not “Pilates.” I’ve never done Pilates but I am sure there are plenty of people in the world who have and wouldn’t mind seeing Pilates sacrificed in the Temple of Artemis. But then that would be an entirely different story.

Filed under: Ancient Greece, Books, Plays, Reviews Tagged: Euripides, Greek tragedy, Where is Tauris anyway?, You say Pilates I say Pylades

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22. Thanks a lot Neanderthals

So apparently I can now blame Neanderthals for my allergies! And here I have been blaming my mom all these years for not breastfeeding me when I was a baby. I am sure my mom will be relieved to know she is now off the hook. I’m going to have to think of something else to blame her for now. (I love you Mom!)

That glowy post-vacation feeling evaporated when my alarm went off yesterday morning and when I got home last night I just couldn’t face a computer screen any longer (I’d been looking at one all day). Today isn’t that much better but at least I have some interesting places on the internet that I can direct your attention because I know you all need more links to click on and things to read!

So Emma Watson, who you may know as Hermione Granger, is going to start a feminist books group on Twitter. It is going to be called Our Shared Shelf and the first book up for discussion is Gloria Steinem’s latest, My Life on the Road. I am really impressed with how well Watson has grown up. She’s a goodwill ambassador for the UN and in 2014 launched the UN’s HeForShe Campaign that asks men to step up and help women fight sexism. I think Hermione would be proud of how little Emma turned out.

It is kind of interesting and a little strange how many celebrities these days have book groups. Gwyneth Paltrow runs a cookbook group, Reese Witherspoon has a book club on Instagram, and Mark Zuckerberg has a book group too. Are they filling in where Oprah left off? Have the floodgates been opened? If it gets people reading who might not read otherwise, I am all for it.

If this essay at the Los Angeles Review of Books doesn’t give you chills then you are a far too trusting and innocent person in this world. The essay examines Orwell’s 1984 and how Orwell lays out the politics behind how the state gained so much control. Sure, people have been chattering for years about Big Brother watching, but this is a serious article that turned my stomach into knots. It says stuff like this:

Orwell is clear: regardless of shifting enemies, the Party perpetuates a permanent state of war in order to maintain complete control over society.

And this:

The first essential ingredient in permanent war is that ‘it is impossible for it to be decisive.’ And that is intentional, using up the products of ‘the machine’ without ‘raising the general standard of living.’ If the machine was used not for war, but to eliminate human inequality, then ‘hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy, and disease could be eliminated within a few generations.’ But an all-around increase in wealth would threaten ‘the hierarchical society.’ ‘If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction.’

And it just keeps piling on the bad.

So as to not end on a big downer, wondering what is behind the door for us in room 101, allow me to present a delightful distraction.

You know scientists announced four new elements earlier this week? They have not named them yet and there is a petition afoot to name one of them “Octarine” in honor of author Terry Pratchett who died in 2105. Octarine, in case you don’t know, is the color of magic and is only visible to wizards and cats. Its abbreviation would be Oc and pronounced “ook” in honor of the librarian at Unseen University who was turned into an Orangutan and can only say “ook.” You can sign the petition at Change.org.

Whether or not you know Pratchett’s Discworld books, wouldn’t it be really awesome to have an element inspired by books? Go on, go add your name. Octarine, element 117 on the periodic chart will be one I won’t ever forget!

Filed under: Books, Links Tagged: celebrity book groups, George Orwell, Octarine, Terry Pratchett

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23. The Birds and Bees and a Bike Race

What does one do on a day when the high temperature is 0F/-18C and the windchill makes it feel like -10F/-23C? Why, order garden seeds of course! I wasn’t planning on placing my order until next week but the need to think warm, green happy thoughts won out.

I ordered with three different companies. My biggest order went to Pinetree Garden Seeds. They are a great company, reliable, excellent prices and good quality seed. I love them. I got the usual sorts of seeds, carrots, beans, peas, cilantro, cumin, mustard, nasturtium. In addition I got some new varieties and some new for me to grow things. I got the Irish Cobbler potatoes we grew last year and a purple potato called “Adirondack Blue.” I got a Japanese turnip called “Shogoin” that is white and about the size of an extra large radish. It can be sliced up and eaten raw, pickled or stir fried. I also decided to try growing chicory this year, “Catalogna Emerald,” and it turns out it is a fancy Italian dandelion, but hey, I like dandelion greens so no hard feelings. In consultation with Bookman we decided to try growing cauliflower for the first time. I am getting seeds for a short season small headed heirloom variety called “Early Snowball.” We also decided to try and grow ground cherries, also known as tomatillos. The variety is “Pineapple” and the description promises high yields of fruit that have a pineapple flavor. I’ll let you know!

I also bought a little thing called a “seedmaster.” Not seeds but a seed distribution system for those tiny seeds that Bookman’s sausage fingers drop in huge clumps and that stick to my damp ones. The seedmaster looks kind of like a fat syringe without a needle. Fill it with seeds, push down the plunger and it will supposedly drop one tiny seed out at a time. It was about the price of a packet of seeds so if it doesn’t work, I haven’t lost much. But if it does work, the clouds will part and the angels will sing.

Baker Creek sells nothing but heirloom seeds and quite a few of them are for hard to find rare varieties like the Sakurajima radish. A variety of daikon radish, Sakurajima is the world’s largest radish. It typically weighs 13 pounds/6 kgs and can grow as large as 100 lbs/45 kgs! There is an article on the history of this radish with some photos at the link attached to the radish name. No, I did not order seeds for this!

What I did order was seeds for golden amaranth and elephant head amaranth, pink radishes of normal garden size, “Holstein” cowpeas —funny on several different levels, but Americans probably know cowpeas better as “black-eyed peas”— and a white seeded sunflower called “Tarahumara.”

One more order placed with Jung Seeds. They’ve been around since 1907, very reliable with good prices. They are based in Wisconsin, a neighboring northern state so when their catalog says something is cold hardy I can believe them. I like to get actual plants from them from time to time as well as garden supplies. This time I ordered a seedless red grape called “Somerset” that is supposed to be good eating and for jam or jelly. Bookman and I have tried growing grapes before and failed both times. The varieties we tried were different than this one and we planted them both in the same location, a rather exposed one at the back of the garden. This one is going to go in a small space on the south side of the house where it will get lots of hot summer sun and be protected in the winter from the cold north winds. I am not sure how long it takes for a grape to begin producing. If it survives the summer and next winter I will consider it a success.

I also ordered ten feet/3 m of nylon trellis that is guaranteed for five years and promised not to tangle. If there is the remotest possibility that it can tangle, in my garden it will. But as long as it is easy enough to untangle, that is all that matters to me. Also, that it is reusable year after year. This will save me having to buy the giant skein of jute string every spring and creating my own pea and bean trellis out of jute and sticks from tree prunings. This stuff is so upscale fancy in comparison I might not recognize my own garden!

These seeds are all in addition to ones I have left over from last year: several varieties of tomato, sweet peppers, hot peppers, pole beans, pumpkin, zucchini, Swiss chard, beets, cantaloupe, okra, basil, onion, and a whole bunch of other seeds it will take far too long for me to list out for you. Big garden? Oh yes! Bookman and I will start making paper sprouting pots in the next week or two. We’ll seed the onion around mid-February and the seed starting just scrolls out from there to peppers then tomatoes and more. Busy fun times ahead!

cover artWhile I am on the subject of seeds, I have to tell you about Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener. I mentioned last week that it is a really good book. I did not mention how hilarious it is. I was reading the section on flower anatomy yesterday because in order to properly cross plants you have to know all the sex parts of a flower. The author has some fun with this explaining that flower stamens are plant penises. The carpel is the female part of the flower. The ovaries live at the bottom of the carpel. The top of the carpel is where the stigma is. The stigma is the plant version of a vagina. He goes on to talk about plant sex and what happens when a flower gets pregnant.

But that’s not all. Because in order to make crosses, a gardener has to do a sort or artificial insemination thing. If the plant you want to cross has flowers with both male and female parts in one flower, one must first emasculate a flower so it does not self-pollinate by using tweezers to pull of its little plant penises. This procedure really is called emasculation and the author alludes to it as being like neutering!

Pollen of course is plant sperm and the gardener needs to transfer pollen from one flower to the other to make the desired cross. The author discusses various ways to do this and in the end recommends fingers and tweezers because they are easier to clean so you don’t risk spreading pollen where you don’t want it:

Between crosses, I clean pollen off my fingers and tweezers by rinsing them off with a little water or (if no one is looking) simply a quick swipe with my tongue—which really isn’t all that gross, people, you eat pollen every time you eat honey. Even if it is, erm, plant sperm.

I’m just going to leave that there for you to dwell on. No doubt I will also be seeing an uptick in pornographic spam.


So I am doing a six-week workout program in Zwift to improved my FTP (Functional Threshold Powers, a measure of fitness). The first week went pretty well and I began the second week yesterday. Week one was only four days of various types of interval workouts. I took Wednesday as an easy ride day and Thursday I entered my first virtual bike race!

I entered in category D, the lowest ranked category. I could have raced category D women’s group but I was the only woman racing and besides the categories are based on watts per kilogram (how much power you produce per kg of weight) so on that ranking alone everyone should be fairly matched regardless of biology.

I was really nervous but excited. The A and B groups start first so they don’t get tangled up with the slower racers. The C and D groups start together two minutes later. It is a neutral start where we all get a chance to form a group. The real start of the race comes in a section of the course that is about five minutes from the start/finish line. There were about five other Ds that I fell in with and we pedaled along together in a group until we hit the first big hill. Then the group fell apart, I found myself in front of them, and by the time the hilly segment was over I had lost them completely.

But then I spied a D group person about 8 seconds ahead of me. Back at the start he must have been up at the front with a big group of Cs and I had not seen him. So I made it my goal to try and catch him.

The race is three laps and each lap is just a little over 10 miles/16kms. I caught the guy on the first hill on the second lap. We spent the rest of the race riding together. There are three hills on this course and they all come at the end of the lap; a long hill of about 6% grade with a few short spots of 8-10% grade followed by a downhill that turns a corner into a short, steep 10-12% grade hill that then has a nice longish descent that lets you catch your breath before the really long hill to the finish that ranges from a 3-8% grade. We hung together until that second hill on the final lap. He started to pull ahead and gained a 7-second lead on the descent that I could not make up.

Can't believe I won!

Can’t believe I won!

It was a great race and I had loads of fun and figured I came in second since the guy had crossed the finish line first. But it turns out that is not how the race finish is calculated. It is calculated by your actual start and finish times so, when the results were posted, it turns out I won my group by 2 seconds!

The guy I was racing against found me on Strava afterwards and thanked me for a great race, told me I had caused him some pain. I thanked him too and told him the feeling was mutual (I was a bit sore on Friday!). It turns out it was only his second race.

There is a race every Thursday night and I will be trying it again this week. My new racing friend will be out of town but he promises to be in the race the following Thursday for a rematch.

Filed under: biking, gardening

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24. Oh Nimona, How I Love You!

cover artWell I’ve seen Nimona by Noelle Stevenson making its rave review way around the book blog world and it was finally my turn to have a go at it. I expected I would like it very much but there was a little voice niggling just behind my left ear causing me a bit of worry. What if I am that person? The one that hates the book everyone else loves? I didn’t want it to be me.

Well, it turns out there was no cause for concern. From the first page to the last I loved this book. Briefly, it is a graphic novel. Nimona is a teenage girl and a shapeshifter. She shows up at the villain Ballister Blackheart’s lair to become his sidekick. Blackheart is not looking for a sidekick but Nimona gives herself the job anyway, and pretty soon Blackheart couldn’t get rid of her even if he tried so it’s a good thing he takes a liking to her. Blackheart is the nemesis of Goldenloin who works for The Institution. The two used to be best friends but past events changed that and now they are always fighting each other but there are rules and it is obvious the hatred doesn’t run all the way to their cores. Nimona’s arrival upsets the balance because she refuses to play by the rules. She wants to be evil but it turns out the bad guys are the good guys in this story.

The book is funny and fast-paced, the art is fantastic. Nimona is not a little twig-girl, has a mostly shaved head and the hair she does have is pink and then later purple. She makes no apologies for who she is. Sometimes she tells the truth, sometimes not, but she is always trustworthy. She is eager to do and please like a puppy, but don’t cross her or she will turn into a dragon and burn you to a crisp without regret.

The world the story takes place in is a recognizable fantasy world with knights in armor and jousts and swords. But then shake in a liberal dose of rule-breaking and you also get taser guns and electric whips, a science expo, video chat screens, and a zombie horror movie night with popcorn. You’d think such a mash-up would create chaos but Stevenson makes it work without question.

Nimona is a great rollicking good time but there are also some good lessons lurking under it all. But lessons is the wrong word because that makes it seem like the book is didactic and moralistic and it is not. Themes maybe? Friendship most definitely. And what friendship means, like support and encouragement but also accepting someone for who they are no matter what and not trying to turn them into someone else. Also, forgiveness.

The story in itself is complete but it is left open at the end just enough to suggest we might see Nimona again sometime. I sure hope we do!

Filed under: Books, Graphic Novels, Reviews, SciFi/Fantasy Tagged: Noelle Stevenson

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25. The Small Heart of Things

cover artWhat a quiet, lovely book is The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World by Julian Hoffman. In 2000, Hoffman and his partner, Julia, moved to the Prespa Lakes region in northern Greece. The main lake, Lake Prespa is situated in such a way that the borders of Greece, Albania and the Republic of Macedonia all meet somewhere in the middle of it. The area has seen more than its share of conflict from Albanians feeling communist rule to the Greek Civil War to the break up of Yugoslavia and Macedonia becoming its own country. Hoffman discusses pieces of this history in the context of what it has done to the people who live there , their traditional ways, and the unique ecology of the place.

When Hoffman and Julia first moved to the area they made part of their living as market gardeners. Now, the pair monitor bird populations in the upland areas where wind farms are being built. As a bird expert, the book is filled with bird observations as you might expect. But it is also filled with observations of geology and how people live in and with the nature. It is a book that is deeply imbued with a sense of place and what it means to belong to that place.

More a series of essays than a start to finish memoir, each piece focuses on something different. “Homing” is about our need for finding a place we can belong and call home. “Among Reeds” is about walking through a reed bed and discovering bitterns live there. While “Time in Karst Country” is about karst, how it was created, how deceptive and seemingly barren it is. But it is more than that,

There is a distinctiveness brought about by weathering and ageing, both limestone and ourselves the inconstant ones, enduring the elements, overcoming the flaws of our inheritance. Dissolution is more than a lessening; it’s a reminder of time worn well.

Another essay, “The Distance Between Us” is a wonderful story about when Hoffman was walking on the hills above Morecambe Bay in Cumbria and noticed a man walking far ahead of him. He gradually began to catch up and then the path went down into a small, narrow valley, the man disappeared over the edge of it and a few minutes later when Hoffman arrived the man was nowhere to be seen. He was worried there had been an accident and searched around but the man was gone. This happened years and years ago but he still thinks about the man especially when he is out walking and spies a solitary person walking ahead of him. The essay then turns into a meditation on the impact strangers can have on our lives without even knowing it. And, conversely, the impact we also must make on other people’s lives that we are unaware of.

One of my favorite essays is the titular essay, “The Small Heart of Things.” It is about the successful reintroduction of the beaver to Transylvania. The animal had been absent from the country for two hundred years, trapped and hunted to extinction for their fur. The beaver was so important to the country at one time there are cities and villages, common words and surnames based on the word for beaver. The reintroduction has been a smashing success. The beavers are thriving and spreading out among the country’s waterways. And, even though there is a fund to which farmers and others can apply to be reimbursed for damage a beaver may do, hardly anyone has used it, not because there has not been damage, but because people are so happy to have the beavers back in their lives again that they accept the damage as part of the relationship.

Hoffman asks,

Extinction and preservation ask of us essentially the same thing: what is the meaning and measure of loss?

And he goes on to observe:

While we may adapt to the absence of things, either easily or over time, each extinction diminishes our lives as well; each fragment as essential as the next when attempting to understand our place on the planet. Loss lessens our shared inheritance, and the world is made inescapably smaller.

The Small Heart of Things is a slim book but it is packed with such clear-eyed observations and thoughtful meditations that it feels much bigger than it is. It is a book about being part of a place, being part of something bigger than you. It tells us how to do this too, by slow, careful attention, by being present in the world and by forming relationships to the things of the world both common and rare. Hoffman reveals time and again, it is those relationships that matter most.

Filed under: Books, Essays, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: nature, Prespa Lakes

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