Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Failure Mode of Coffee

I like drinking coffee. I didn't always like the taste. When I was young, the aroma was enticing, but the taste was disgusting. It was only in college that I learned to appreciate the bitter flavor of a nice, hot cup of black coffee. Especially with a bit of whiskey in it...

I start most work day mornings with black coffee (without the whiskey). I'll have a cup with breakfast before I leave for work, and, if I'm tired or just in the mood, I'll brew a pot at work. Yesterday, I had just gotten back from vacation. I flew in late on Monday night and was eager for that first cup at work on Tuesday morning.

I almost cried when I saw that not only was the coffee pot not cleaned out from the day before (a sadly common occurrence in my office), but there were no grounds left. Nothing from which to brew the caffeinated elixir that would get me through the long work day. Nothing at all.

I urgently texted my husband, begging him to bring some grounds by. He promised that he would, but then salvation appeared. One of my co-workers actually brought in coffee. I was saved.

Then I heard the tink-tink of beans being poured into a metal hopper and I flinched.

At home, we use a burr grinder. It is a quality grinder and produces uniform grounds to relatively precise sizes. My co-worker had brought in a spice grinder. Those tend to do things like make half your beans into powder while not touching the other half, but she insisted it was okay that she put whole beans into the coffee maker because that's what she did at home.

I'm pretty sure she didn't explode her coffee maker at home though.

No, I exaggerate. The coffee maker didn't explode. The coffee did.

She overfilled the filter, which caused the hot water to flow up and over the sides of it, resulting in a splash of grounds in and on the carafe. The maker was valiantly trying to pump more hot water into the filter area, but it couldn't, because the powdered grounds had formed an impenetrable mud, sprinkled with whole beans.

I called this fact to her attention as calmly as I could, all the while wanting to scream at her for depriving me of coffee in such a cruel fashion. No grounds I could have fixed, but this delay, combined with a 9am meeting, would mean no coffee for me until nearly lunch time.

I told her I would buy myself some coffee, so that she would either not make any more or not make much.

She made half a pot, didn't drink a drop (and neither did I).

The pot was also let to sit overnight without being rinsed out.

I brought my own grounds in this morning. I'm here to do my job, and since I'm not a barista, grinding coffee beans is not part of that - especially not with a spice grinder.

If I can't do something fancy like have whiskey in my coffee at work, then I don't want to do anything complicated with the coffee making, thank you very much.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What Would You Do for Your Weekend?

The weekend of July 24th, my husband and I drove to the Kennally Creek Campground, outside of Donnelly, ID, and I found out just what I would do to save my weekend.

You see, our previous plan to go to Blackmare Lake had been aborted, due to unexpectedly snowy weather. As we are running out of weekends left in the summer, I wanted very much not just to take a backpacking trip this weekend, but also to backpack to Blackmare Lake in particular.

My husband and I have developed a routine for when we go on a backpacking trip. We each pack our own pack and any other items we want brought along. Then we pile them in the hallway and on the day of the trip my husband loads them into the car.

Simple, right?

Except when I forget to place my boots in the hallway, which is mistake number one.

And he forgets that if he hasn’t loaded something, then it hasn’t been loaded, mistake number two.

And we both don’t realize this until we are about five miles from the campground.

Which is about 95 miles from home.

Strike three.

We had several options at that point. We could have cancelled the trip. I could have tried backpacking in my sandals (really bad idea, especially on a "no trail"). Or I could prove to both myself and my husband that I am, indeed, a crazy backpacker.

He finished driving us to the campsite. We unloaded the car. And then I got in and drove all the way home on dark, narrow, twisting mountain roads.

When I saw a sign reading 91 miles to Boise, I thought to myself, “This is crazy. What the heck am I doing?” I thought about turning around, declaring defeat and cancelling the trip by default. But I’d already driven 17 miles on dirt roads to get to that sign. 91 more miles didn’t seem like much, not at good speeds.

It took me about three hours to get home and rescue my boots from the closet. I made coffee to sustain me on the drive back up, and, at about 11:30pm, I drove back up.

The drive actually reminded me a little bit of when I was in high school, driving to Shabbona, IL to visit a friend. Except those roads were all flat, and the worst that could happen if I fell asleep at the wheel was a whole lot of flattened corn. As opposed to car flying into the Payette River…

I made it to the campsite before 3am and crawled into the tent with Ambrose to go to sleep.

I’d drive six hours in the dark, late at night, for my weekend.

What would you do?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nominee Thoughts: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This year I'm giving each nominated work for the Hugo and Nebula novel awards their very own entry after I read them.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman was a lovely book.

I had requested an electronic copy of this book from the library back in May, and it just came through before I went on my solo backpack this last weekend. Based on the other Nebula award nominees, I was anticipating another lengthy, complex book. I thought that it would take me the entire weekend to read it, or even the weekend and more.

But I finished it the second night of my trip. I'm not sure how long it is in pages, since the Kindle displays reading time remaining rather than page numbers, but I don't think it could have been very long. However, it wasn't just the length that made it a quick read for me. The style was inviting, and the story was compelling. I wanted to know what happened next through each chapter, and each subsequent event had that magic combination of surprise and inevitability to it for me.

The story utilized a framing device, telling the story of the narrator's experience as a young boy through the mind of him as an adult. That could have gone sour, but the way that it ended, that the narrator has returned to the house and remembered this many times, only to have the experience edited out of his memory each time, felt like a fresher turn than it simply being the first time he remembers these events.

The child perspective, or the tone, or the matter-of-fact aspects of the magic... something reminded me of reading Diana Wynne Jones.

On my first of three nights alone in the Sawtooth Wilderness, this book helped distract me from loneliness and fear of what might be out there in the dark. I believe I would have liked it anyway, but this novel will always have that special luster in my memory, and remind me of that night. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Nominee Thoughts: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

This year I'm giving each nominated work for the Hugo and Nebula novel awards their very own entry after I read them.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is not, in my opinion, science fiction or fantasy. And yet, it was nominated for a Nebula award. The Nebula awards are meant to recognize the best of science fiction and fantasy published in the previous year, and yet, here we have this book that I don't find to be either science fiction or fantasy on the list.

I would argue that this book takes place in a contemporary timeline, in a manner that is clearly fiction, in that it did not happen, but clearly not science fiction or fantasy, in that it could have happened. I found everything described within it as clearly within the limits of possibility. That leaves me with the question of why other people, specifically the members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, found this work to be either science fiction or fantasy. Or both.

I try not to read about these books too much before I read them. I don't want my perceptions to be colored by what other people think. In this case, I unintentionally read some of the library's description of the book, which contained a significant spoiler, which, warning, I'm about to reproduce here.

The most fantastical aspect of the book is that the narrator was raised alongside a chimp for the first five years of her life. Being so young, she is raised to think of the chimp as her sister. And, in the first few chapters of the novel, the chimp is coyly described simply as a sister. The narrator does explain that she did this on purpose, in order to make the reader keep an open mind about her sister before writing her off as merely as animal, in order to give the reader the experience she herself had.

I'm not sure if I think the technique worked or not, because I read that damn description that spoiled it for me. I was pissed the moment she mentioned sister and didn't mention chimp, because I already knew about it.

Despite that irritation, and the lack of science fiction and fantasy (because people have actually been raised with chimps, therefore it is within the realm of possibility, and fiction, not fantasy or scifi), I thought the book was overall a good read. For a fiction book and all. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Nominee Thoughts: Ancillary Justice

This year I'm giving each nominated work for the Hugo and Nebula novel awards their very own entry after I read them.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie was a good book. I enjoyed reading it. But it didn’t live up to the hype.

I heard about this book soon after it was released. There was a big splash on many different blogs that I read about how awesome it was. I considered checking it out from the library, but I was busy with schoolwork and did not end up doing that.

The technique of alternating between a past timeline and a present timeline worked well to keep my interest in the story. It was also interesting in that the point of view in the present time and the past time were the same but different. Not just a singular character in two different times, but a multiplicity in one time and a slice of that multiplicity in the other.

And then there were the pronouns.

The language of the main society on which the story focuses has no gender. There are different ways to handle “translating” something with no gender into a language that does have gender. I would posit that the English language is not heavily gendered. It lacks that gendered nouns of, for example, Spanish, that require a matching gender for modifiers. But English does have gender specific pronouns. And, generally, when one wishes to remove gender from consideration in the English language, one will either use the neutral “it” or what ends up being the default, “he.”

Ann Leckie uses “she” as a default. The translation of gendered words from the Radch language of her book defaults to the feminine in English.

This is both disconcerting and neat.

I’m not used to it, and so every time I read one of those pronouns, I was bounced from the story, just a little bit. I had to consider and remember from other clues or outright pronouncements (“she was a male”) what the gender of various characters was.

Or maybe I didn’t have to, but I did. The gender of the point of view character is never discussed or revealed, and that makes sense, given that the personality was originally a ship and there is never discussion of whether a ship would have a gender (though I think my mind assigned female based on naval tradition - or my innate bias to see viewpoint characters as like me).

To me, this simple linguistic trick was the big deal behind the hype. And, in many ways, I believe the trick did live up to the hype. It feels like a big deal to me that a book has been written, and written well, that outright denies that the masculine gender should be the default.

But before reading the book, I thought all the hype was about the story. I thought I was going to read a mind-blowing story, rather than a good story with a mind-blowing concept in its structure.

Of course, that leads to the question of what I would consider a mind-blowing story, and I’m sure that answer is different for everyone. A mind-blowing story makes me want to read the book again, over and over. It makes me cry, and re-evaluate what I think about myself and how I live my life.

I’m looking forward to the sequel. I do want to know what happens. But I’m not going to be counting the days or marking it on my calendar, and I’m not going to be anguished if the publication date is pushed back. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Nominee Thoughts: A Stranger in Olondria

This year I'm giving each nominated work for the Hugo and Nebula novel awards their very own entry after I read them.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sophia Samatar was not the sort of book that I would pick up based on the cover. Which is not to say that the cover is inaccurate. I believe in this case, my instincts against the cover would have prevented me from picking up a book that I would not enjoy.

However, I didn’t choose to read it based on the cover, or the subtitle that appears on the title page, “Being the Complete Memoirs of the Mystic, Jevick of Tyom.” I chose to read it because it was nominated for the Nebula award (though it did not win).

Reading these award nominated books has helped me understand what it is that I seek when I read. I enjoy books that read quickly, in part because I like reading books over and over. I have, on occasion, finished a book and started it again immediately. I find it easier to slow down on a book that reads quickly than to speed up when I find a book to be a slog.

Of course, a book that is a slog the first time around may end up being a quick one subsequently, but, for whatever reason, I like to read fast first and digest at my leisure on the second read. I understand that some people only ever read a book once, but I don’t get it.

Still, like many of the others on the list of nominees, I doubt I will reread A Stranger in Olondria. I don’t know exactly why some aspects of it bugged me, but bug me they did. There was a stretch of about 20 pages where the word marmoreal was used on three separate occasions. I have a decently large vocabulary, but I didn’t know that word and the context seemed vague - just another adjective in a list. Add to that I was at a trailhead with no dictionary or internet access at the time and it was as irritating as a mosquito bite (it means marble-like, by the way).

The subtitle bugged me, because I felt that it was the only hook into the book. Despite the title, the first few chapters do not take place in Olondria and might be better titled A Stranger in Tyom. Without the subtitle, I think there would be little to compel the reader to read past the first page. (If the reader happened to be me. Maybe I’m just not the market.)

I could not find interest with or connection to the main character or the ghost that haunted him. On the one hand, many aspects of the world were lovingly detailed, and on the other hand, the questions that I, as a reader, would have preferred to have answered were not addressed. It was almost as if the story itself were quite simple, but dressed up in very fancy clothing.

You know that a book is not for you when you keep checking to see how many pages you have left to read before it’s finally over and when you hope that there’s a glossary of terms at the back which will make the ending come sooner. Sometimes a book grows on me as I read it, but not this time.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tempus Fugit

Dean Wesley Smith calls the summer the time of great forgetting, when writers tend to put their writing to the side and lose focus on their goals. This can be followed by the time of panic, as writers realize that their yearly goals have become unrealistic by the time they remember to write again, or the time of reassessment, depending on the temperament of the writer.

My goal is not set on to the calendar year, but it does have an arbitrary six month limit. I have not been considering how to measure my progress other than through keeping track of how many rejections I have collected. Given that I do want to keep my focus on writing, now seems like the ideal time to make those calculations.

100 rejections by the time a year has passed, from the moment I declared my intentions (February 26, 2014). It isn't the most difficult of goals. I don't even have to write 100 stories, since once a story is rejected I can always try it with another market. But I do want to keep writing new ones. It's good practice, and I already know I can write stories that are rejectable.

Now, I thought, until just a moment ago, that I had made set myself the goal for a year. But, it turns out I wrote six months.

In February. . .

Which means I have a little over a month to collect 72 more rejections if I want to meet my goal. . .

Panic or reassess?

I'll take the third option. It's time to go full speed ahead and get as close to my goal as possible in the time I allowed myself. August 26th will be the time to reassess, and evaluate what I did or didn't do. I'm not going to give in to the temptation to panic early because it looks like I'm going to fail at my goal. Failing isn't going to hurt anything.

But that doesn't mean that I won't try.