Difficulty

One of the things I love about Popsugar’s Reading Challenge is how vague, and open to interpretation, its categories can be. There’s “A book about a difficult topic”, for instance. Does that mean a topic that’s difficult for me, or difficult for society in general? Does that mean emotionally difficult, as in a story of abuse, or difficult to comprehend, as in a book about quantum physics? I tend to over think some of these categories, but that’s actually part of the fun.

I put several books on my “For Later” library shelf for this category, unable to decide in which direction I wanted to go. I finally decided to go for a topic that’s emotionally difficult for me, and also (I hope) society in general. Maybe it will be difficult for some people to comprehend.

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin, was first published in 1963. I downloaded it from the library and read it on my phone.The Fire Next Time

The book consists of two essays. The first essay is titled: “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.

James Baldwin wrote this letter to offer hope and encouragement to his nephew – on both a personal and national level.

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.)

He makes a point that every civil rights struggle is simultaneously unique and shared. He urges his nephew to be strong and recognize that there are those who will insist that he isn’t being oppressed – which is an act of oppression.

The second essay is titled: “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind.

In this essay, James Baldwin tells about growing up in Harlem, and getting assaulted by the police at the age of 10, on his was to the library. He tells about finding Christianity at the age of 14. He wrote at length about “the Negro problem”.

Negroes in this country – and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other – are taught to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. The world is white and they are black.

He tells about his early Christian faith, and what it meant to him. He tells about what he thought Christianity should be, versus the way it was being used.

He turned to Islam for answers. Although he didn’t agree with everything the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam were saying, they did, at least, treat him better than the Christians. And yet, he writes, he didn’t consider himself Muslim, and he didn’t consider himself Christian.

The Fire Next Time is a powerful, thoughtful, and difficult book. Its two essays are filled with anger, pain, love, hope, beauty, history, politics, and humanity. It is a book about problems, solutions, and the problems with solutions.

It is a book about how flawed the United States of America is.

  • A book about a difficult topic

Just As I Thought

I’ve gotten into the habit of riding the 47 bus home for the past couple of weeks. Today, I had a hold waiting at the library, so I rode Link.

Pioneer Square Station felt different. It seemed noisier. There was an aura to it that I couldn’t quite identify. I went down the stairs from the mezzanine, and saw that the platform was packed with people.

There was either a transit disruption or a sporting event somewhere, I figured.

A northbound 2-car Link train was just leaving the station. I made my way down the platform, but before I got halfway, a northbound 3-car Link train arrived. I didn’t have time to get to the third car, so I boarded the middle car. Despite having a train less than a minute ahead of it, this car was packed. I managed to find a seat, however.

It had to have been a game, and judging by how happy everyone seemed, we must had won.

Just as I thought, the Mariners played the Orioles this afternoon, and we won 7-6.

Meanwhile, we received an email at work today, telling us the final phase of the move will start in two days – or maybe a day and a half. I’ll be moving out of a cramped meeting room and into a proper cubicle on another floor.

They never did move a third person into our room, and my roommate and I have gotten along well, but I will be very happy to get out of there. I’ll be happy to have a window again. I’ll be happy to have a proper filing system again – one other than papers stacked on a table top. I’ll be happy to find my scissors again.

But, really, it hasn’t been bad.

A Bangsian Fantasy Book

This was a tough category. How in the world do you find a book in a genre or subgenre that you’ve never heard of? The internet is the obvious place to start, but what exactly do you search for?

Then it came to me.

I searched for “obscure book genres”. This lead me to a list of genres, some of which I had never heard of, along with books within those genres. This lead me to “Bangsian fantasy”.

BestFantasyBooks.com defines Bangsian fantasy like this:

Bangsian Fantasy is a sub-genre primarily concerned with the afterlife and specifically with the exploration of the afterlife. The sub-genre gets its name from author John Kendrick Bangs. Bangs wrote stories about the afterlife and the supernatural, but with a humorous style. Bangs is not the first writer, nor the last, who wrote stories like these, but his work gave the sub-genre shape.

A common feature of Bangsian Fantasy is the inclusion of dead famous people and mythological characters. These stories tend (though not always) to have a genial tone. There are three main categories that Bangsian stories fall into: ghosts stuck in the living world, living people stuck in the world of the dead, and people who have died in a Heaven (or Hell). All Bangsian stories try to answer the question of: “So I’m dead, now what?”

A list of Bangsian fantasy books led me to The Ghost Bride.

The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo, was published in 2013. I downloaded it from The Seattle Public Library and read it on my phone.

The Ghost BridePart One takes place in Malaya, in 1893. The narrator is a 17 year-old woman named Li Lan.

Li Lan’s father has asked her if she would like to become a ghost bride. It wasn’t a question, however.

A young man about Li Lan’s age, named Lim Tian Ching, had died a few months earlier. He was a member of the Lim family, one of the wealthiest families in Malacca.

The head of the Lim family had approached Li Lan’s father about marrying his daughter to Lim Tian Ching. The practice of marrying a dead person was uncommon, and used in only special situations, such as a marrying a deceased concubine so that a son could be legitimate.

Li Lan’s father had once been a successful businessman, but after smallpox killed his wife and scarred him, he retired from business. Now, he has very little money left. He sees marrying Li Lan into the Lim family as a way to give her a better life.

Li Lan had seen Lim Tian Ching once or twice around the city, but he’d made no impression on her. It is a mystery to Li Lan why the Lim family chose her.

Li Lan is invited to meet Madam Lim at the Lim mansion. The sprawling home is more beautiful than anything Li Lan could have imagined. There, she happens to meet the servant who maintains the mansion’s many clocks. She is quite impressed with this handsome, intelligent, and charming young man, and can’t stop thinking about him.

Li Lan learns of the connection between her family and the Lim family. She learns the identity of the clock-cleaning servant, and the reason behind the wedding proposal.

The night after her visit with Madam Lim, Li Lan meets Lim Tian Ching in a dream. In one of the dreams that follow, Lim Tian Ching asks Li Lan to marry him. Li Lan is disgusted. She tells him no.

Ghosts can be powerful beings, however – and so can mediums, who promise to protect you from ghosts.

Part One of The Ghost Bride is a historic drama. It tells of life in Malaya when it was a British colony. More specifically, it tells of life in the port city of Malacca. It’s a lively, melting-pot city of many races, languages, religions, ceremonies, and beliefs.

Part Two of The Ghost Bride is more of a fantasy. It takes place in the afterworld.

Li Lan is a spirit, but her comatose body is still alive. Her doctor tries to awaken her, while she watches, as a helpless spectator, from outside.

While learning the physics of the spirit world, Li Lan travels to the Lim mansion, where she uncovers layers of mystery surrounding the death of Lim Tian Ching.

Li Lan travels the streets of Malacca, as a wandering spirit. She learns from ghosts waiting for the right moment to enter the Plains of the Dead and face the Nine Courts of Hell. She learns from ghosts unable to move on. She learns to hide from demons.

She learns to enter people’s dreams, as Lim Tian Ching had entered hers.

Li Lan has a feeling that she needs to find a way to enter the Plains of the Dead, but she doesn’t understand why she has this feeling. All she knows is that getting there is going to be difficult, since Lim Tian Ching controls the border guards.

Part Three of The Ghost Bride is named “The Plains of the Dead”.

Ghosts in the afterworld have many of the same needs as a living person, including food, transportation, and money. A ghost receives these things from offerings left at their shrine. This presents a problem for Li Lan, since she isn’t dead. Li Lan is resourceful, however. With a ghost as her guide, and with the aid of friends in the land of the living, Li Lan travels across the vast Plains of the Dead.

Part Four of The Ghost Bride is named “Malacca”.

Existence in the Plains of the Dead is difficult. Finding your way back to the land of the living is more difficult. Knowing whom to trust is even more difficult.

Ghosts, just like the living, are not always who they claim to be.

The Ghost Bride is a complex story, and yet it was easy to follow. It’s a mystery story, and a young adult romance, and a tale of political intrigue, and a historic drama, and a ghost story.

I loved everything about this book. I loved the character of Li Lan, as well as the other characters. I loved learning about a history and culture I had been previously unaware of. I loved all the details the author, Yangsze Choo, wove into the worlds she created. I loved the twists and turns this story followed. And so on.

After the end of the story, Yangsze Choo provides further information about ghost marriages (which were practiced primarily in overseas Chinese communities, such as Malaysia, and almost unheard of in mainland China), as well as the Chinese vision of the afterlife, taken from parts of many religions. She provides more information on the history of Malaysia – known as Malaya at the time of this novel’s story. She includes information about Chinese dialects, and the names and words used in the story.

Yes, I absolutely loved this book.

  • A book from a genre/subgenre that you’ve never heard of

What A Day That Was

I slept until 9:00 this morning. I got up, feeling exhausted – in a good way. People are still posting photographs from the zoo and fondue. I think it’s agreed that yesterday was a special, wonderful day.

Phillip was still in bed when I left for Writers’ Group. I walked up the hill. I hadn’t written anything for the group, but I decided to read a book review or two from the Reading Challenge.

(I think I’ve figured out why the Reading Challenge seems like such a foreign concept to the group – why I keep getting asked if there’s a prize for completing it. We’re all readers. We read for the enjoyment. Why, they wonder, would I need a challenge to read a book? That’s my theory, anyway.)

We were missing Rebecca today, but other than that, it was a good Writers’ Group today.

After Writers’ Group, I walked up to 15th Avenue and caught a 10 bus home. That’s the second or third time I’ve done that – walked up the hill and bussed down. It seems like it should be the other way around, but I like riding the 10 down the hill.

I came home, read for a little while, and played on the computer. Then I took a three-hour nap.

Zoo Day And More

Yesterday morning, Phillip and I drove to Cristina’s place. Then the three of us drove to Woodland Park Zoo.

Cristina and Phillip and I met up with Sophia and Pat (visiting from Québec) and Colin and Sam. The zoo hadn’t opened yet, and we stood around chatting. Christina hadn’t met anyone in the group, except for Phillip and me. Phillip and I hadn’t seen Sophia and Pat in over a year – maybe even two years.

While we were chatting, a rodent of some kind came running out of the bushes, ran into the side of my shoe at full force, gathered itself, and ran into the bushes on the opposite side of the walkway. I hope it’s OK. We weren’t sure if it was an escapee from the zoo, or a local Phinney Ridge resident.

The heat wave had ended in Seattle that morning. None of us had dressed for the change in the weather. It probably wasn’t that cold, but in comparison to the last two weeks, it felt like it was freezing.

When the zoo opened, our first stop was an official group photo. Our second stop was the penguins. Our third stop was the gift shop, where we all (except for Phillip) bought souvenir hoodies. Phillip didn’t think it was that cold, and, besides, he believed it would warm up later in the day.

We spent a fun day at Woodland Park Zoo. We were seven people, wandering at random through a park that isn’t laid out intuitively. We got lost a few times, and members of our party got separated, but it was all part of the adventure.

Zoo Bear

We had many, many fun conversations. We were a good combination of friends and family. We saw the animals, had lunch, rode the carousel, and watched a show. The weather did warm up, but none of us removed our hoodies. The weather was pleasant.

We spent around six hours at the zoo.

Phillip and I took Cristina home. Then we spent about an hour recovering from the zoo. Then we drove to Colin and Sam’s place. Sophia and Pat were there too, of course. (Sophia is Sam’s mother.)

CiderSophia and Pat surprised Phillip and me with a gift of locally made cider, bought from a farmer’s market in Québec. That was completely unexpected but greatly appreciated.

We had a wonderful evening of conversations, jokes, stories, fondue, and Cards Against Humanity until almost midnight. Then Phillip and I drove home.

Yesterday was an amazing, terrific day.

Moonlight Fields Needs Cricket Players

The city of Moonlight Fields is booming. It has surpassed a population of 90,000, with plenty of space to grow.

The city has a cricket field, and is currently seeking a professional team. Currently, the field attracts only curious park goers.

Cricket

Moonlight Fields International Airport is bringing in a wealth of tourists. Its mass transit system can easily shuttle visitors to any of the city’s museums, nightclubs, stadiums, parks and performance centers.

International Airport

The city has tried to make even the busiest parts of town pleasant places to walk or relax.

Archway Park

Disaster Park

The city’s original freeway interchange, linking the oldest part of town, an industrial area, a tourist district, and a football stadium, was once the location of massive traffic jams. The freeway has undergone a major redesign. Service roads now tunnel under the freeway, away from the interchange. Road diets were put in place. Mass transit has been boosted. Traffic in this area is much better. There are always improvements to be made.

Freeway Interchange

Moonlight Fields continues to suffer the occasional sinkhole, tornado, forest fire, and earthquake. But the city’s disaster team is there to move citizens out of danger, and prevent as much damage as possible.

Fire Helicopters

 

 

An Afternoon As A Gadgeteer

Today was an “open game” afternoon in Everett. Brian, Kathi, Daniel, Philip and I met up for food and games. We had no game planned, but rather agreed to decide when we all got there. Maybe it would be role playing, or maybe it would be a board game. Maybe there would be dice involved, or maybe not.

We ended up playing Star Munchkin. It was a game Brian and Kathi had bought at Wizards of the Coast – way back when Wizards of the Coast had a store in the University District – and had never played until today.

The game was fun, once we figured out that the rules were not as complicated as they seemed on paper. I played as a gadgeteer. It was a challenging and cutthroat game, which Daniel won.

As always, the food was potluck, and, as always, there was way too much.

Unfortunately, Phillip wasn’t feeling well, and we had to leave early. Other than that, it was a fun afternoon.

A Book In Another Book

All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven, was the fifth book I read for the 2017 Reading Challenge.

Here’s a passage from page 194. It’s Violet’s chapter. Violet’s parents are having breakfast with Finch:

When [Mom] asks Finch if he’s thought about what he wants to do beyond college, as in with his life, I pay attention because I actually don’t know the answer.

“It changes every day. I’m sure you’ve read For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Mom answers yes for both of them.

“Well, Robert Jordan knows he’s going to die. ‘There is only now,’ he says, ‘and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion.’ None of us knows how long we have, maybe another month, maybe another fifty years – I like living as if I only have that two days.”

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway, was first published in 1940.

Unlike Violet’s parents, I’d never read it before now.

For Whom The Bell TollsThe 471 pages in this novel span a few days in May, 1937.

Robert Jordan is an American in the International Brigades, assigned to a group of republican guerrilla fighters in Spain. They’re fighting against Franco’s fascists. As an expert in demolition, he’s been given the job of blowing up a bridge, at the right time, by a Russian General.

While sharing a meal at the guerrilla camp, Robert Jordan meets a woman with shockingly short hair, named Maria. Three months earlier, she’d been a prisoner at Valladolid, where they’d kept her head shaved. She’d escaped, and her hair has been growing back. Robert Jordan learns that Maria “belongs” to no one. The abuse she received in Valladolid has made her fiercely independent. Robert Jordan admires her and falls in love with her. He calls her “little rabbit”.

“He was violating the second rule of the two rules for getting on well with people that speak Spanish; give the men tobacco and leave the women alone; and he realized, very suddenly, that he did not care.”

And, Maria falls in love with Robert Jordan.

As Robert Jordan falls for Maria, he clashes with Pablo, the leader of the guerrillas. Pablo feels that blowing up the bridge is too risky, too big a job for their group, and that attempting it will get them all killed. He wants to take Robert Jordan’s dynamite away.

Robert Jordan is a loyal man. He was given the assignment to blow up the bridge, and he intends to follow his orders. Yet, there is some doubt in his mind. Pablo may be right, he decides.

As demolition day approaches, the colorful band of guerrillas drink wine, discuss death and philosophy, and swap stories of their pasts. Robert Jordan and Maria, meanwhile, talk of the future.

Pilar is Pablo’s woman, and Maria’s guardian. She considers herself old and ugly, and is a little jealous of Maria’s youth. Pilar is happy that Maria has found someone as kind and intelligent as Robert Jordan. (In Robert Jordan’s mind, it was Pilar who pushed him and Maria into the same sleeping bag.) Pilar considers herself the true leader of the guerrillas, since it is obvious to her that the men have lost faith in Pablo.

Robert Jordan has been living in Spain for twelve years. He speaks Spanish and Castilian fluently. He considers himself as much Spanish as he is American. The guerrillas don’t consider him a foreigner – when they call him Inglés, it’s in a sense of friendly jest. Because of his involvement with the International Brigade, if he were ever to return to Montana, he would probably be branded a communist.

And, as Finch reminded Violet’s parents, things do not end well for Robert Jordan. He is loyal, introspective, and a hero to the end, however.

I have fought for what I believed in for a year now. If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it. And you had a lot of luck, he told himself, to have had such a good life. You’ve had as good a life as grandfather’s though not as long. You’ve had as good a life as any one because of these last days. You do not want to complain when you have been so lucky. I wish there was some way to pass on what I’ve learned, though.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a war story. It’s also a love story. It’s a story about loyalty, bigotry, religion, and political beliefs. It is a complex story. Hemingway put it all together into a masterpiece.

It lives up to its reputation as a classic. For Whom the Bell Tolls in a wonderful book, and I loved it.

  • A book that’s been mentioned in another book