Sunday, August 28, 2016

Perfect Timing: Graduating Late and the Myth of Perfection

Last Day of Classes, Spring Quarter, Freshman Year.

This past Spring, I got a lot of questions from friends, about the lack of graduation news on my Facebook: how they hadn't seen any pictures of me at Commencement, or having a big blow-out grad party like my parents had always threatened, or even any over-effusive posts from distant relatives. They joked that because I hadn't taken part in those hallmarks of what it means to graduate college, I hadn't really graduated at all. I joked back plenty, but really did my best to cover up what I saw as the ugly truth: they were right.

I didn't really graduate this past Spring Quarter. Due to a series of failed Math/Science classes and three damning unfulfilled credits, I really just graduated, a few days ago, after my final grades for one last ESRM class came in.

Yes, I realize things could have been a lot worse... I could be graduating a year late rather than a Quarter, or have flunked out of UW entirely. But you have to understand: graduating late was never something I was afraid of; it was never something I imagined happening to me. As a result, adjusting to the fact that I didn't graduate on time was really difficult. To be perfectly honest, I've written this post twice already just trying to tell you about it.

The first draft blamed my incomplete college credit status on my identification as a "Book Person," criticizing the idea that culturally, we place a huge division between what it means to be good at Arts versus good at Sciences. I wrote it when I had first got the news, and it carries a lot of the self-directed anger and frustration that I was still feeling back in June.

The second was more representative of what was present in my journals, replacing those negative feelings, with a move into a super-manic mode, determining that this personal failure was really an opportunity for me to get ahead - write a book, lose weight, change my life! - instead of feeling like I'd been left behind

Each illustrated various facets of a problem I've encountered multiple times in my life: the idea of perfectionism. 

You know that feeling you get, when you're running down a flight of stairs too fast, and you miss the last step... that swooping terror that grips your heart and stomach as you plummet a foot farther down? It's trying to prevent that feeling which always stopped me from raising my hand in class, in order to guard against even one wrong answer. It's what made me feel like I should have been pursuing a more difficult sphere of study, so that every time I was asked who I was, my answer was "just an English major." Now, after graduation, I had friends who weren't just finishing up their scholarly lives, but embarking on entirely new journeys: acceptances to grad school, announcements of new positions with major companies and organizations, and marriage proposals had been flooding my social media feeds all Spring. There was a whole world open to them, a new door of opportunity, and I had tripped trying to cross the threshold. That swooping feeling felt permanent.

Last Day of Classes, Spring Quarter, Senior Year.

While I grappled with feelings of rapidly plummeting self-worth and the subsequent rebound of all-too-high self-expectation, my summer passed, primarily without incident. When I wasn't surreptitiously doing homework in the odd hours of the afternoon, while my roommate was at work, I searched for what I thought of as a "grownup" job - unsuccessfully - and an apartment in Seattle - unsuccessfully, as well. However, something interesting happened.

I began spending more time around the city (easier for me, due to the continued existence of my UW-provided ORCA pass), making my first foray into areas of Capitol Hill and Ballard I'd never visited before. I made plenty of time for initiating plans with my Greek family, and spent days with my biological one, too, as I helped support my sister through her SeaFair experience. I explored the ideas of freelance writing and wrote up more outlines for short stories, while taking time to install elements like AdSense on my blog. Happy hour at Matador made me feel like an adult; touring the neighborhoods and taking public transportation alone made me feel independent; researching alternative job opportunities made me feel like my future could be profitable; and spending time with friends and family reminded me that I was not alone.

Long story short, I lived. I got through it. If I had spent the summer agonizing over the idea of failure, it's something I never would have really gotten to do.  It is only when I really let go of the idea of doing something perfect, that I was able to do something great: I completely aced that 5-credit ESRM class, and therefore, got a 4.0 in the very last class I took in college!

Most parents buy their recent grads a laptop.
Mine did that... and a little something extra!
I had seen my inability to graduate on time as something shameful. I even made my parents promise not to tell anyone, even my two youngest siblings, and I'm pretty sure most of my Greek family still doesn't know. While I thought I was saving my pride, what I was really doing was sacrificing my support system: if we take the responses of the people who did know as any indicator, had I told more of my friends how I had been suffering, I would have had that many more people waiting at the finish line for me, cheering me on as I (quietly) passed it.

I didn't graduate on time, but I graduated. I'm not living where I want to be, but I have a place to live. I don't have a job lined up, but I've got time to find one. The problem with the myth of perfection, is that you're so focused on the places where you're not "good enough," that you miss out on all the good that you already have. I had been staring down this idea of failing, of losing everything I felt like I finally had a grasp on, and that idea of not taking the perfect next step was preventing me from understanding how much I still had gained through the experience.

So, I'm proud to say, I graduated the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Arts in English Language & Literature! I have no job, I'm moving back home, and I've now got a ton of student debt to grapple with.

But beyond all that, I know this: I am a very, very lucky girl, and I'll take "lucky" and "hopeful" over "perfect" any day. 

Congratulations to everyone who graduated with me in the Class of 2016! What areas of your life do you deal with perfectionism? Let me know, in the comments below!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Review: American Gods

Vacations are the perfect place to get some heavy reading done: with an absence of any work (or homework) standing in your path, it's one of my favorite opportunities to really take a swing at some of the titles I've been holding off on my TBR list. Hence, why I made sure to pack this title in my suitcase as we headed down on our annual trip to Oregon! 

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, follows the story of Shadow, a recent felon, released from jail, and greeted by the crippling news of his wife's death. While traveling home for her funeral, an enigmatic plane seatmate - dubbing himself Mr. Wednesday - enlists Shadow to be a part of a mysterious enterprise, tracking down ancient gods and goddesses across the United States in a final standoff against the new crowd: the burgeoning mythical brethren who guide the ideals of America today. With war on the horizon, Shadow begins to understand that the forces at play are far more powerful than he could have ever imagined... and that he, himself, could tip the balance of the world as we know it.

Okay, all hype aside - because if you're a fan of fantasy, you're sure to not just recognize this title, but the name of its prolific author - this book was awesome. Amazingly inventive, with an enthralling concept that allowed for the creation of an entire world, I was left astounded by creative characterizations, surprising plot twists, and a new paradigm with which to view the "melting pot" origins of the country.

In terms of the foundation of the story, with the idea of gods and goddesses living and walking among us, it's easy to draw comparisons, be it to a grown-up Percy Jackson, or that one Joan Osborne song. However, the ways that Gaiman classifies and explains their presence in contemporary culture make it inherently unique, as well as set up a comprehensive universe within which such powerful beings can exist alongside things we interact with every day.

One particular view that you can't necessarily get from Rick Riordan, is that the novel makes no exceptions for the more gruesome points of religion. Sacrifice, bloody and human, plays a part in too many theological contexts to go unrepresented; almighty power comes alongside a serious amount of gore. Sexual activity has always been a hallmark of ancient religion as well (ahem, Zeus), and makes its appearances within the narrative, too. While the explicit/graphic nature of some of these elements might throw some readers off, I seriously respect its inclusion, if only to remind you of the fact that religion has always been a bloody practice.

Something else I really loved about the novel was the absolutely monochrome nature of the characters: almost everyone in this novel is gray in at least one fashion. While I really liked and respected Shadow as a main character, even he had a lot of darkness to his framing, and no allowances were given in order to make individuals more or less redeemable. That way, even with the extraordinary nature of the powers at play, gods were made mortal... or, at least, humanized.

And on another side of cultural implications, I felt like the novel offered a fascinating perspective of America's consciously collaborative status: we are a nation of many peoples, and believe in a lot of different things, so to have everything from Norse to Native to many more creeds and cultures, interacting and jockeying for position and power, was pretty terrific. While it was fun to call out characters I recognized from a childhood spent devouring myths and folklore - Anansi! Kali! Loki! - it was just as much so to meet the gods of our new culture, like Media, hair-sprayed and shiny-teethed, or Technical Boy, a stylized wiz-kid who smells like burnt circuits.

Despite its 600+ pages, I zoomed through the novel. Partially, I chalk it up to interest, because once I started reading, it's all I wanted to do, but I also have to factor in language, because the more formalist elements of the novel, like diction, were still really accessible. Keeping the reading easy was only a benefit to the topic, by making imaginative and large-scoped concepts more approachable.

Final Verdict: In case you couldn't tell from my review, I really, really loved this novel. Total five stars, even if there were parts that I thought were a little squirmy. I don't have a subscription to Starz, but I feel like I'm going to have to get one, just to see how the new TV adaptation is going to play out!

It was only after I finished American Gods that my younger sister, Delaney, realized that Gaiman also wrote Stardust and Coraline! What's your favorite of his works? Let me know, in the comments below!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Review: The Girl from Everywhere

You know how growing up, everyone had one or two historical time periods or cultures they were obsessed with? For me, it was the Titanic disaster, Egyptian and Greek mythology... and Pirates. Even to this day, I know way too much about flag symbology and swashbuckler slang, and yes, I have my favorite figures among the pirate population. So, if I read a book review on Goodreads that includes the words "modern-day pirate ship," you can bet that I'm picking it up! Especially if it also involves time travel... 

In Heidi Heilig's The Girl from Everywhere, Nix's father is a Navigator: as long as he has a map and his ship, he can sail to any place - or time, for that matter - whether the destination is real, or not. She's grown up for sixteen years on that vessel, traveling through centuries and trading in exotic and impossible treasures, alongside her father's crew... and the mystery of her mother, who died in Honolulu in the 1800s, shortly after she was born. Driven to save the woman he loves, it is her father's greatest ambition to return to 1868; however, if he does, Nix might just blink out of existence entirely. She's traveled through fairy tale lands and encountered fantastical creatures, but the greatest adventure of all, might just be finding her family. 

I've been making pretty good time on my Goodreads goal for this year, with my expected summeer bump, but out of everything I've tackled so far, this book has probably summoned the most summer spirit! There's something about the sea, and adventure-type books, that makes me reminisce on reading Treasure Island for the first time, or watching Pirates of the Caribbean in theaters.

I've got to chalk up that sunny summer vibe to the exceptional world-building and involving action that forms the foundation of the entire novel. The story's concept itself is fantastic: ships + time travel + fantasy worlds = a pretty winning combination in my book, and in this one. It's a dizzying combination of elements that might be hard to tackle on their own, but are fairly well-meshed within the context of Nix's narrative.

Unfortunately, as a result, it becomes a little unevenly paced... especially in the second half of the novel, when the stakes are raised and the dates and locations become more convoluted, as the action overwhelms the execution. Of course, it has a lot to do with the fact that a comprehensive time-traveling system is always a little difficult to explain fully, so it's understandable that it got a little muddled.

Where the story truly shines, however, isn't the action or the suspense, but the historical setting and accuracy to detail, which keep the novel interesting, complex and dynamic. Integration of elements of Hawaiian and Chinese histories amplify the believability of an unbelievable concept, while a set of diverse main characters emphasizes even more cultural presence from further destinations and populations across the world.

However, at the end of the day, it's Young Adult, and there's going to have to be some points deducted for involving a love triangle (I know; all that imagination in creating a time traveling pirate ship, and you can't even let your heroine breathe without two guys tripping over themselves). At the same time, I've got to add points for a different kind of relationship you don't typically see done well in the genre, through Nix's interactions with her father: Nix's struggle to understand a significantly flawed parental figure results in differences that are actually worked on, rather than avoided, and that makes up a little for the uninspired romances.

Final Verdict: Cool and complex plot and characters sometimes ran a little ahead of themselves, to the detriment of pacing and understanding; however, the concept was too fun to pass up. I'm really glad I read this during the summer, so make sure to fit it into your TBR before September starts up!

Monday, August 8, 2016

We Went to RenFaire! : Fantasy and Festival Fun

There's plenty of reasons as to why I've dreamed about attending a Renaissance Faire. Let's be real: the kinds of books that I read throughout my adolescence and girlhood basically primed me to live in a world packed with knights and maidens, fairies and farmers, and, of course, the bubonic plague.

Tamora Pierce's complex world-building constructed what laid along the winding roads of Tortall through books like the Beka Cooper series, while Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong trilogy populated towns and cities with magical winged beasts working alongside their human counterparts. Gail Carson Levine's fairy tale re-tellings, like Ella Enchanted, raised up relatable heroines to the status of princesses, and novels that had nothing to do with the Fantasy genre  - like Karen Cushman's Matilda Bone, or Catherine, Called Birdy - made for a vividly descriptive narrative of the Renaissance time period, as well as the girls who lived through them.

As it turns out, my younger sister, Delaney, has always wanted to go to Ren Faire, too, so when I broached up the topic earlier this year, we decided that this was the summer we would finally make it happen. Soon enough, we had roped in some friends - including yet another sister, joining in as we were practically running out the front door! - and we put on some sunscreen, laced up our bodices (well, some of us), and pointed our caravan towards Bonney Lake, WA, for the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire! 

I cannot express to you how great a time we had. As soon as we walked in the front gates, we grabbed a map and a schedule of events, in order to make sure we could fit in as much as possible into our one-day passes. Some fan favorites:

  • Jousting! We made a beeline for the tournament arena, in order to take in some good ol' (really, really ol') fashioned horseback jousting, as soon as we'd reached the Faire. Each corner of the arena was repped by a different country, and came complete with a requisite rider and accompanying retinue, straight out of A Knight's Tale. Gaps in the tournament were filled by members of these two-legged groups taking part in bouts of broadsword and hand weapon fighting, in a tournament all their own. In the end, France's steel and Germany's steeds were decided the best, but England's champion was still kind enough to talk with a us a little bit, and take a cute picture! 
  • Tournaments! Naturally, jousting and sword fights were not the only sports on display. Our youngest sister ended up striking the bulls-eye at the archery booth, thus qualifying her for the Faire-wide archery tournament, while Delaney's friend from high school did the same at the hand-axe wielding field. 
  • Turkey legs! Okay, so $12 for a giant hunk of poultry was a bit of a splurge, but it definitely fit the atmosphere! Plus lemonade, plus crepes from a nearby stand, plus delicious small-batch cream soda and root beer, we were left plenty happy and not at all hungry, despite the fact that Delaney and I both bemoaned the fact we'd overlooked the meat pie concessions stand. And due to the number of bards wandering the grounds, we were treated to a special song after we'd eaten (He left us with one of the most imaginative business cards I'd ever seen: a homemade Magic: The Gathering card of himself!). 
  • Shopping! Our youngest sister took home a blue coin skirt, while Delaney had already splurged on the outfit she wore to the event, which she had gotten off of Etsy. I picked up a commemorative tee shirt and a pair of crazy beautiful shaped-wire elf ears, and one of our friends took home a leather pouch for her D&D dice. Plenty of goods abound, including Renaissance-appropriate chain mail and other outfits, worked-leather accessories, swords, and jewelry. 
  • And, of course, much more! We took in an amazing magic show and a rat circus, and there were plenty of other performers we missed, too. You can take out bounties on friends, and get them thrown in the town jail, or you can drink the day away with mead in the Faire's two beer gardens. Plus, I can't explain to you the number of adorable dogs and children that were there... so cute! We were there for about six hours and still ran out of time to do everything we'd wanted! 

As you can see, some of us were more prepared than others. Yup, that's me in the middle! 
The most adorable baby dragons!

I Went to Ren Faire, and All I Got Was This (Gorgeous!) Tee Shirt (and these amazing shaped-wire elf ears!)

Naturally, we're already making plans for next year, which may or may not involve making use of the Faire's campgrounds, which lay adjacent to the event grounds. The Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire is multi-weekend, too, each with a different theme: "Piratical  Plunder" weekend was pretty fun, but I'm really pulling for "Fantastical Faeries" weekend on our next excursion.

It's not all good news, though: I had so much fun, I left with a pretty ridiculous sunburn, cringe-worthy dirty feet (word to the wise: do not wear sandals!), and especially tragic, a missing set of apartment keys! Still, while I'm busy hunting down some aloe vera, and coordinating schedules with my busy roommate so that I don't get locked out, I've made plenty of good memories this weekend to look back on... and that deserves a HUZZAH! 

Have you ever gone to a Ren Faire? What is your favorite novel set in a Renaissance time period? Let me know, in the comments below!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review: One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories

Unpopular opinion time: I'm not a huge fan of The Office. My family used to watch it together - not even in real time, when it was still on TV, but after purchasing those huge, clunky collection of DVDs each season! I'd usually wander out of the room ten minutes into each episode to go upstairs and find a less cringe-inducing form of entertainment, like a good book... so it's highly ironic how two of the show's stars - Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak - would end up being two of my favorite writers! 

I've had Novak's One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, on the shelves for a long time, simply because short story collections have never really been my cup of tea. However, after tackling Kaling's Why Not Me? this past April, I knew I was going to have to bump it up in my TBR queue. I'm so glad I did: what I found was a perfectly balanced blend of levity and brevity, and I zipped through the whole collection in one night!

So, in reviewing, let's start by tackling the obvious: this book is supremely funny. Like, catch-yourself-laughing-out-loud, Snapchatting-pictures-of-pages-to-my-sister funny. However, even beyond the silly and subversive, it's also the kind of humor that knows exactly how it's making you laugh, in a subtle and almost tongue-in-cheek way: the funny is found without the self-knowing moments of a punchline in a comedy act, but more like a friend just telling you a really hilarious story over drinks. I guess I could say that it was more of conversation, than strictly comedy; just very understated, almost like it's winking at you about it at the same time it's laying out the joke.

The stories are, of course, of varying lengths, and also contain varying levels of comedy. Some are a little more edgy and gasp-inducing, while others are almost existential, making you really consider the theming and how it plays with the rest of the narratives around them. It was really some of those secondary types of stories that caught my attention: it's easy to make someone laugh, but not as easy to make someone think while they're doing it. Thought you might even be tempted to skip around the book a little for the ones you really want to read first, you're going to end up reading them all, and laugh at least a little at each (even those that are a little more on the long side).

And, of course, the cerebral nature of some of Novak's comedy really forces you to acknowledge the fact that he is smart. Not just clever in how he constructs each narrative, or how he arranges them in the greater pacing of the collection, but intelligent in choice of subject matter and style of writing (without coming off as pretentious). Also, his ability to craft an arc over the course of the entirety of the collection is superb: characters and highlights from one story might end up in another one several dozen pages later, while the flows between the subject matter of each tale never got me bogged down within the context of the work as a whole.

Final Verdict: Let's be real, we all knew this book was going to be hilarious, simply from the absolute perfection of the book trailer alone. I am incredibly impressed and look forward to reading more of his work... and I can totally see why he and Mindy Kaling are such amazing friends!

You guys... I haven't done a review - and honest-to-goodness, full-length review - since I tackled Patrick Ness' The Rest of Us Just Live Here this past May! Have you missed them? Let me know, in the comments below!