What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Photo by Ichad Windhiagiri on Pexels.com

A Tale of Time City, by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones is my favorite author, but this was not my favorite book of hers. It was missing some of the coziness and cleverness I’ve come to expect. Also, it dealt with time travel. There are always plot holes in time travel stories. Always. It drives me batty. I don’t deal well with plot holes.

But I still liked it. I couldn’t help it. Jones has that sort of power over me. 

Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger

Salinger also has a curious power over me. Reading his work always leaves me profoundly moved. 

Well, “always” might be an exaggeration. When I read The Catcher in the Rye I was intrigued by the writing style, but I wasn’t “moved” per se. However, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction blew my mind. Franny and Zooey didn’t blow my mind, but I was still moved. I don’t know why everyone is so hung up on The Catcher in the Rye when the Glass Family stories are so much more…I don’t even know the correct adjective to use. 

I’ve had Nine Stories on my shelf for a while, but I just now got around to reading it. I think I was partly avoiding it because I knew that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” would deal with Seymour Glass’ suicide, and that can be a very triggering subject for me. However, I must give Salinger credit. I feel like few people who write about suicide actually understand it, and Salinger does. Reading it, I’m convinced that Salinger had PTSD. But it actually makes the story seem very odd and arbitrary. 

I enjoyed most of the stories, particularly “Just before the War with the Eskimos” and “For Esme⁠—With Love and Squalor.” I was indifferent to a few of them. 

I started reading “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” and immediately thought, “wait…I’ve read this before!” Ah yes. My handsome hipster writing professor who was too cool to watch Star Wars. He made us read this story. It was just the sort of story that writing professors make you read…lots of selfish people being selfish in a literary way with no point at all. Needless to say, it was not my favorite of the bunch.

But the only one I actively disliked was the last one, “Teddy.” I’m sure a writing professor would tell me it was actually the best story in the book, and while I can recognize the technical skill that went into creating such an unsettling but inevitable ending, there was no heart or redemption or human nature or anything good in it. I’m sorry. I hated it.

Still, I cannot properly express the way that most of Salinger’s writing, particularly his Glass family stories, make me feel. I think the Glass family reminds me of my family. 

Pumpkinheads, by Rainbow Rowell

I don’t have much to say about this one. It’s a graphic novel about two teenagers who are working at a pumpkin patch for the last time before they go off to college. It’s cute and fun. The end. 

Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull

This is a book I ended up with after the new librarian wouldn’t let me browse in peace. LOL. I’m happy to get book recommendations, but does anyone else feel a bit weird when the librarian seems a bit too invested in your reading choices?

Anyway. This was a fairly typical middle grade fantasy. A couple kids visit their grandparents and find out that, surprise! They’re actually running a haven for fairy tale creatures. It was an okay read, but Mull is no Diana Wynne Jones. His stories for kids are actually stories for kids, not stories for adults with big imaginations. 

Two Years in the Forbidden City, by Princess Der Ling

I don’t know a lot about Chinese history, and every time I think I’d like to know a little more I immediately get a headache when I realize how impossibly vast it is. But I’ve had this memoir on my shelf for a while, and I finally decided to read it. 

Still, I had to get a bit of historical background before I could even make sense of it. And this is what I learned:

China used to be run by emperors and/or empresses. In 1912 China became a republic, but of course that ended with Mao’s communist revolution. There’s a lot of complicated history surrounding all that, but this book is about the woman who was essentially the last empress of China, Empress Dowager Cixi.

Princess Der Ling, the author of the book, was a Chinese woman who received a western education in France. When her family returned to China, the Empress Dowager Cixi asked her to be a lady-in-waiting, so in 1905 she moved to the palace and lived there for two years. But in 1907 she left that lady-in-waiting life to marry an American. 

I had a hard time understanding the whole Chinese emperor system, but here’s what I gathered: it seems like, I guess since men were expected to respect their mothers so much, that the emperor’s mother had a lot of power in the system. Cixi married the emperor of China, and then when he died, her son became emperor, but she still had a lot of power.

Then, when her son died, she decided that her nephew should be emperor. So she basically adopted him and made him the emperor, but later staged a coup, took all the power for herself, and made her nephew the emperor in name only.

Both Cixi and her nephew died in 1908. It’s a bit sus, because he was poisoned the day before she died. A random two-year-old from somewhere in the family was chosen to be the new emperor, but that only lasted for four years before the monarchy was abolished.

Anyway. When Cixi died, she was widely regarded as a pretty evil person. And Princess Der Ling was like, “I knew Cixi personally, and she was awesome!” so she wrote a memoir about her time as lady-in-waiting, hoping to set the record straight. 

Not gonna lie, she did a pretty bad job at making Cixi seem like a good person. But whatever.

The memoir was interesting, but in the way that a Wikipedia article is interesting. I have never in my life read about such opulence. Der Ling was obsessed with detailing Cixi’s gowns, jewels, everything, and it’s mind blowing. Like, once they were going to go on a 4-day trip, and the servants were like, “let’s bring 50 dresses for Cixi, just so that she has plenty of options.” And of course these dresses are all hand-embroidered silk masterpieces.

Or once, Cixi was wearing a cape made from perfect pearls the size of canary eggs.

And the palace. I mean, just google “forbidden city” to get an idea of the size of Chinese palaces. They essentially were cities. And there were several of them that they’d go back and forth between. 

But the hardest thing to read about was the eunuch system. The whole palace was staffed with eunuchs, and they were essentially slaves. It was an extra cruel type of slavery, not only because these men were castrated, but also because there was no life for them outside the palace. And Princess Der Ling was so casually cruel when she talked about them. They were ungrateful and lazy, she said, and deserved their frequent and severe beatings. 

Goodness though, Der Ling is one of the most unlikeable memorists I’ve ever read, constantly bragging about how she was Cixi’s favorite. Also, there’s no plot to the book whatsoever. And Der Ling was weirdly obsessed with the most minute details of Cixi’s insane wealth. 

At the beginning, it was so plotless that I couldn’t figure out how Der Ling would find a book’s worth of material to write about. Then I found her Wikipedia page and realized that she went on to write seven! more! books! about this stupidly short period of her life. I…how?

Yeah, I’m not gonna read any more of her work. But I’m glad I read this one. It had interesting information even if it was delivered in a boring, self-righteous, cruel way. 

Other Books

I also recently read through the Lord of the Rings books, as well as Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien. But I have so many thoughts about that, it will have to come in a future blog post. 

***

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The Green Sock Prank

I’ve had an epic April Fools prank idea festering in my mind for years.

The idea stemmed from the mysterious way in which clothing items suddenly disappear or randomly show up again every time you do laundry. Sometimes you find things you’ve never seen before in your life.

One day⁠—I believe it was three years ago, just after April Fools had passed⁠—I noticed how easily one could hide a sock in the drier, on one of those little shelves that spin round. And I thought, wouldn’t it be funny to buy a bunch of outlandish green socks, hide them in the drier one by one, and drive my family slowly bonkers?

Well, when the next April Fools Day rolled around I was living far from home. Then last year, the pandemic suddenly descended upon us and I wasn’t sure where to acquire green socks in the middle of lockdown. For some reason I was convinced that they had to be green. Green, to me, seemed the perfect balance of very odd, but not a gendered color, or overly cartoonish.

(I should note, however, that on my podcast with Jenny I mentioned that I had a prank I’d been saving up for some time. This is the prank I was referring to.)

This year I was determined to finally pull it off, and so I planned ahead. I found a non-Amazon clothing website (we all share a Prime account) that sold green socks, and I bought five pairs, plus a few clothing items for myself and a birthday gift for Jenny. (Yep, I was aiming for that free shipping.) I ordered everything way in advance in case shipping took forever. And I didn’t let anyone watch me open the package because “some of it is gifts.”

Five pairs. Ten green socks in total, hidden away behind the bookshelf in my closet.

Then my plans began to unravel slightly. The joke is funnier when many people are using the same laundry facilities, but Matt and Phoebe left in March for an extended trip. Then Mom took a trip to California that extended over April Fools day.

Furthermore, I realized that there was no way to securely tie the joke to April 1. What if no one did laundry that day? And even if they did, I had ten socks to distribute. How could I possibly distribute ten socks in one day?

In this way, my vision for the prank morphed from being an April First Prank to being a Month Of April Prank. I waited until Mom got back, and I considered waiting until Matt and Phoebe got back too until I realized they weren’t coming back until May.

I planted my first sock on Monday, April 19. My idea was to stick a new sock in the drier every Monday and Friday. I’d chosen a good day to start, because we’d had guests over the weekend, further expanding the pool of who a random green sock might belong to.

But then, the anticipation started. My palms started to sweat whenever I saw someone folding laundry. Would they find the green sock? How would they react?

I should add that I had a whole plan for how to pull this prank without lying. I decided that when I put the sock in the drier, I was officially gifting it to whoever happened to find it. So when asked “is this your sock?” I could confidently say “no.”

But day after day passed, and no one seemed to find it. On Thursday, I was in my room completely lost in my own thoughts, when Amy knocked on my bedroom door. “Come in,” I said, and she opened the door and held up the sock.

“Do you have green socks?” she asked.

I was caught off guard. I’d so carefully crafted my response to “is this your sock,” but I was absolutely unprepared for “do you have green socks.” Because I did have green socks. Nine of them, in fact, behind the bookshelf in my closet.

But I needed a quick response, and I blurted out, “No, do you have green socks?”

“No,” said Amy, and she moved on without an ounce of suspicion.

I couldn’t believe I’d just straight-up lied. I never lie. I can only remember one other time in my life that I’ve told a bald-faced lie like that, when I was four years old. (Incidentally, that lie was also about socks.)

The next day I was cleaning my room, and I returned some books I’d borrowed from Amy. “That’s so weird about the green sock,” she said, as I stuck The Return of the King back on her bookshelf. “I called Alyssa, and she said it wasn’t hers either.”

“Weird!” I said, trying hard not to giggle. (Alyssa was her weekend guest.)

I was headed out on a quick overnight trip, and as I grabbed some snacks for the drive I saw that the green sock had been placed in the enamel bowl on the kitchen desk where we put mail and eggs.

I was just about ready to leave, but since it was Friday I wanted to quickly put another sock in the drier before I left. Unfortunately, the drier was full of Amy’s laundry. I wanted someone else to find a sock this time, so I buried it in a basket full of gray sheets that I was pretty sure belonged to Mom. And then I dashed out the door and zoomed away.

When I returned the next day, I peeped into the enamel bowl. There was a second sock now, this one stained slightly gray.

On Monday I put a third sock in the drier. I had a vague intention of doing my own laundry that day. I thought if the sock ended up in my laundry, that would make me seem less suspicious. But then I was busy doing other things, and after a while I heard the drier whirring. And the next day, when I looked in the enamel bowl, there was a third sock, stark and green.

Later, I was making tea when Mom walked into the kitchen. “did you hear that I found a third sock!?” she asked.

“What?” I exclaimed, trying to sound surprised.

“Yes! I washed a load of sheets, and fluffed them in the drier, and hung them out to dry, and brought them in again, and as I was bringing them inside a green sock fell out!!”

I tried to act appropriately weirded out, but I wasn’t sure what to say, so I asked if they could possibly be Dad’s socks. Mom held one up, small and neon green, and gave me the weirdest look. “Okay, never mind,” I said.

Then I took my tea upstairs and died with silent laughter. The most hilarious thing to me was that even though Mom was completely weirded out, she still didn’t seem remotely suspicious of me.

However, I started to realize that three socks was pushing the limit of the prank. Furthermore, April was almost over. I wanted to make it very obvious that the green socks were a prank, and I wanted Mom, Amy, and Jenny to figure it out at the same time.

So this was my plan: I’d stay up later than everyone else on Wednesday, and hide the socks in random weird places where hopefully, they’d be found before I got up in the morning. I had seven socks left, and this was my initial list of hiding places:

  1. In the dishwasher
  2. In Amy’s lunch box
  3. In Jenny’s mug
  4. In Mom’s laptop
  5. In the fridge with the limes
  6. In the chicken coop under a chicken
  7. I can’t quite think of a 7’th place

I was dubious about the limes, because I kind-of wanted them all to be discovered before I woke up, and who would reach for limes in the morning? So finally I decided to skip that idea. Instead, I’d wander downstairs in the morning wearing the last two green socks.

So Wednesday night I stayed up late and sneaked around planting socks in weird places. I couldn’t find Mom’s laptop, so I put a sock in her planner. I went out to the chicken shed and put a sock in a chicken nest. I stuck a sock in the dishwasher, and another inside Amy’s lunch box.

My most devious trick was with Jenny’s mug. We have a mug cupboard in the kitchen, but in the pantry by the coffee maker is a mug rack where Jenny likes to keep her favorite mugs. I swiped all of them but one and re-homed them in the mug cupboard. Then I rolled up the sock and placed it in the one mug left on the rack. Hopefully, that would induce Jenny to pick up this specific mug for her morning coffee.

Then I went to bed.

The next morning around 8:30 I got up, put on the last pair of green socks, and went into the kitchen. At first I was alone, but I guess Mom heard me get up because she came in very shortly. “It was YOU!!!!” she said the moment she saw me.

I laughed and gestured to my green-clad feet. “April fools!” I said.

Later, I could tell exactly when Jenny’s class let out because I heard her feet approaching my door. I made sure my stocking feet were very visible. She opened the door, all wound up to make an accusation, and then she saw my feet and burst out laughing.

Amy had already left for work, but from Mom and Jenny I was able to piece together how the morning had gone.

Jenny had come downstairs to get coffee and, seeing that there was only one mug in the rack thought, “welp, I guess I’ll have to use this mug that doesn’t microwave well.” So she picked it up and…what the bunnyslipper is this sock doing here?

Jenny’s immediate assumption was that Mom had taken one of the green socks from the enamel bowl and stuck it in her mug as a prank. But when Mom came along and Jenny showed her the sock, Mom was completely baffled. She whipped out her phone and sent a message to the group chat.

Amy came along then, and Mom accused her of pulling the prank. Of course Amy declared up and down that it wasn’t her, but Mom thought she was acting weird, and didn’t fully believe her.

Then Amy started to pack her lunch and…here was a green sock in her lunch box!

Then, just as they were collectively concluding that I was the culprit, Amy opened the dishwasher and there was another sock! Gales of laughter all around.

In that way the prank went exactly as I’d hoped it would. The added bonus, of course, was the way they all accused each other. That was completely unplanned by me, LOL.

My only regret is that Mom didn’t find the ones I’d hidden specifically for her. I spoiled the planner one by asking if she’d found it, assuming she had, when she actually hadn’t. That one was whatever, but my true disappointment was the chicken shed one. I’d taken great delight in the thought of Mom reaching under a chicken, feeling around for a warm egg, and finding a green sock. I was unaware that Dad has taken over the morning chicken duties. He found the sock of course, but was unfazed. “My girls must have put it there for some reason,” he thought.

Overall though, I’d say my sock prank was a success. The funniest part to me was the way Amy and Mom talked to me about finding these socks. Even though the socks were a completely outlandish green, something none of us would ever wear, neither of them remotely suspected that this was a prank until I started putting socks in mugs and such. So I had lots of delightful moments giggling to myself and my diary.

You may feel free to steal this prank and perform it on your own family. Or you can take it to the next level and sneak into someone else’s house to leave socks in their drier. Tee hee.

***

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YouTube Video: Making a Floor Chair

Hey Readers! Here is my most recent video, where I made a floor chair to conserve space in my tiny room. I actually finished it a while ago, only I never got around to taking a thumbnail photo until today. Hence why I’m suddenly dressed for much warmer weather in my thumbnail than in the actual video, haha.

I’m Moving!

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

After my year of travel, people frequently asked me “what’s next?”

It’s a valid question. One of my reasons for taking the trip was to potentially find a place to move to in the future. I guess I dreamed that one place would magically be “the one.” I’d step out of my car, it would be love at first sight, and I’d magically belong.

But life didn’t quite work like that. While I returned with a number of places I could see myself permanently settling, I wasn’t necessarily drawn to one place over other places. I enjoyed my short jaunts in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia enough that I would have moved to a city in a heartbeat if I could have afforded it, and the warmth and sunshine of Florida was so lovely that I considered temporarily moving south each winter.

However, by the end of the trip my health and my wallet were so strained that I decided to stay in Oregon at least until I finished my book. And then, just as my editor returned her first round of edits to me, Covid hit, keeping me in Oregon even longer.

And in that time, my priorities shifted.

I’ve written about this extensively on my Patreon, but haven’t elaborated much on my main blog, since it’s personal, vulnerable territory that I don’t necessarily want to blare to the whole world. But here’s the TL;DR of what happened.

  1. In the process of writing my book, I had to delve deep into my feelings. Yikes! I discovered just how lonely I’d been as I traveled. In the book, I write about my feelings as though I was aware of them as they took place. In reality, while I felt all those things, I didn’t realize I felt most of them until I wrote about them. So the writing process was very difficult emotionally.
  2. I ended up leaving the church I’d grown up in. Ever since then I haven’t had a church home.
  3. As a vulnerable person, the whole Covid era was/is very hard.

In the end, I’m left with this overwhelming conviction that family is the main thing that’s going to determine my future living situations.

(I’d be curious to know if the Covid era affected you the same way at all. I keep reading random articles about people re-adjusting their priorities and moving close to family as a direct result of the pandemic, and I’d link some but a lot of them I couldn’t read the whole thing because it was behind a paywall. [We need a Netflix of articles! How can I make this happen???] But if something similar happened to you or someone you know I’d love to hear about it.)

Anyway. My whole family has been around for almost a year, but post-pandemic we’re all moving away. Steven is the only one of my siblings with plans to stay.

Jenny is going to grad school to get her PHD in math. At some point she and I thought, “Why not move together?” So then, I no longer had the big overwhelming decision of where to move. I decided to just go wherever Jenny goes.

Just recently, she made her final decision: We’re moving to Blacksburg, Virginia, and she’s going to Virginia Tech!

To be honest, I was a big apprehensive when faced with the idea of moving to Virginia. I briefly lived in Virginia when I was 20, and let’s just say, that was the first time I realized that racism is alive and well. I’d never in my life heard people say such horrible things about black people, slaves, and other minorities.

However, I’m willing to give the state another chance. Also, I’ll be in a completely different community than I was in before, and I know that it’s unfair to judge an entire state as being a certain way. The people of my hometown have little in common with the people of Portland, after all.

So yes, Lord willing, this August Jenny and I will set out for Blacksburg Virginia! I am really, really looking forward to it. In my head, it signifies a new era, new adventures, and putting the Covid era behind me. Maybe that’s idealistic. But Jenny and I both had our first shot already, and by the time we get to Virginia we’ll be fully vaccinated. Virginia seems like the type of place that would open up faster than Oregon anyway, and I feel like by August enough people will have Covid antibodies to provide enough herd immunity to get back to normal. Right? One can hope, anyway.

So, Blacksburg. Any readers from that area? What should we expect? What should we do/see? Any advice?

***

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Thoughts about Books: The Watsons, by Jane Austen and John Coates

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Jane Austen is known for her six main novels, but she wrote a few other novellas and fragments that aren’t particularly well-known, except to her die-hard fans. Personally, up until now I’d only read the main six. But a friend lent me a copy of The Watsons, an unfinished novel by Austen that was then finished by a man named John Coates.

The Watsons begins with Emily Watson (called “Emma” in the original manuscript, and changed to “Emily” by Coates, presumably so as not to confuse her with Emma Woodhouse) being driven into town by her older sister Elizabeth, so that she can attend a ball. We find out that there are six siblings in the Watson family, two boys and four girls. Their father is a relatively poor clergyman. It turns out that Emily, who is the youngest Watson sibling, doesn’t actually know any of her brothers and sisters. She was raised by a wealthy aunt, and is only now returning to her father’s house after her aunt was widowed and re-married someone who doesn’t want to be responsible for Emily.

As they ride to the ball, Elizabeth tells Emily all about her siblings and the other people in town whom she will encounter at the ball. Thus, we learn about these people alongside Emily.

Interjecting Thought: It is so strange to me how normal it was in Jane Austen’s day for rich relatives to adopt their poorer relatives as an act of charity. Imagine your loving parents sending you away to a rich aunt’s house so that you could get a better education, and then never really seeing you again. Bizarre! But it happens all the time in Austen novels.

Emily meets three important/eligible men at the ball: A Mr. Musgrave, who seems to be the Mr. Wickham/Frank Churchill/Mr. Willoughby/Henry Crawford of the story; A Mr. Howard, who seems to hold promise as a proper love interest; and Lord Osborne.

Lord Osborne is by far the most interesting of the three. Honestly it’s hard to tell, from the fragment that Austen wrote, if she intended him to be more of a Mr. Collins or a Mr. Darcy. His defining characteristic is that, though he is rich and thus considered a “good catch,” he is painfully awkward. He doesn’t dance, but he immediately takes a liking to Emily, so he asks his friend to dance with her. Then, he spends the whole dance standing basically at his friend’s elbow, chatting with him, so that he’s sort-of in the same sphere as Emily.

Besides these three men, Austen also introduces us to about half of the Watson family. Of the six Watson siblings, only one, her older brother Robert, is married. He shows up with his wife fairly early on. That leaves three Watson siblings, Margaret, Penelope, and Sam, who are mentioned but never seen when Austen’s fragment ends.

Austen allegedly told her sister Cassandra a few things about how she planned to end the novel. She was going to kill off Mr Watson, Emma’s (Emily’s) father, and make her have to go live with Robert and his wife. Lord Osborne was going to ask her to marry him, and she was going to refuse. Lady Osborne, Lord Osborne’s widowed mother, was going to be in love with Mr. Howard, while Mr. Howard loved Emma. Eventually, Emma would marry Mr. Howard.

In the years since Austen’s death, several people have attempted to finish her novel. The typical approach was to leave Austen’s work untouched, and write an ending using the exact plot points that Austen intended to use. This often resulted in pretty short books, about half of it being Austen’s work, and half being new work.

John Coates took a different approach to ending Austen’s book. In fact, his Author’s Note at the end, explaining how he went about the process, is one of the most interesting parts of the whole book, in my opinion.

First, Coates prioritized making an interesting novel over being unflinchingly faithful to Austen’s legacy. Although he used some of the plot points that Austen had told her sister about, he didn’t use all of them. He also, *gasp,* changed a few small things in the original manuscript. First, as I’ve already mentioned, he changed “Emma” to “Emily.” There were a few other word choices he tweaked. But the most interesting thing, to me, was what he did with the character of Penelope. Penelope is only mentioned in Austen’s fragment, but Coates decided he wanted to make her one of the most interesting characters in the novel. So he invented a personality for her, and then tweaked Austen’s manuscript slightly to add hints about her character so that she made more sense when she finally showed up.

Coates also made his novel much longer than other manuscript-finishers had. He thought that Austen’s fragment seemed like the opening to a long, leisurely novel, so he wrote a long, leisurely novel. Then, when it became clear that it was a bit too long and leisurely and needed some trimming down, he trimmed the whole book, including the Austen section.

Interesting, huh? It’s so weird, because it just seems wrong somehow to even dream of editing Austen’s work. And yet, it was an unfinished fragment. Logically, if Austen had finished it, she also would have edited it somewhat.

But I’m sure you’re wondering, “Did it work? Was it a good novel? Did it feel like reading a new Jane Austen novel?”

Well, yes and no.

I very much enjoyed reading the book. In fact, if Austen had finished it, I could see it being one of my favorites. Mostly because it featured a family very similar to my family: six clergyman’s children, all of marriageable age, with only the oldest son actually married.

Still, even though the story was fun, with Lord Osborne and Penelope being perhaps the most interesting characters, it was very clear that this wasn’t a “real” Austen novel. I’m not 100% sure what it was that made it feel inauthentic. Coates was really good at making the language “match up” with the way she wrote. I think, overall, it was a little too interesting to be authentic Austen. The things that happened seemed a bit more dramatic than the things that usually happen in Austen novels. At the same time, it lacked Austen’s famous insights into the oddities of human nature.

You know how it feels to watch a movie that’s based on a book by your favorite author? Like, you sort-of get the same feeling you got from reading her books, but it’s not quite the same? But you still enjoy it? That was roughly the same feeling I got from reading this book.

This is the third time, in my recollection, that I’ve read a book which was started by one person and finished by someone else. The first was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and the second was The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones. In all three cases, the finisher was vastly inferior to the starter. However, The Watsons didn’t upset me nearly as much as the previous two did. I think that, since Austen had written such a small piece of the whole book, It felt less like an Austen book that Coates had finished, and more like a Coates book that Austen had started. The ending didn’t make me feel cheated.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Have you read The Watsons, either Austen’s original fragment or someone’s attempt to finish it? What are your thoughts, in general, of people finishing other people’s unfinished books?

Thoughts About Books: Station 11, by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven: A novel | IndieBound.org

I would like to start briefly (or not-so-briefly) posting my thoughts about every book I read. This is not quite like a review. Just thoughts. To me, there is no pleasure quite like thinking about books.

The most recent book I read was Station 11, by Emily St. John Mandel. I read it because Amy handed it to me and said “hey, you should read this book. I want to know your thoughts.” So I did.

I didn’t realize that it was a pandemic book, because I just dove straight in and didn’t even read the back cover. But it is, and that’s not a spoiler. (These, by the way, are going to be spoiler-free thoughts, which might be difficult, but I’ll try.)

Station 11 starts out as a book about a pandemic, but just as the panic is starting, suddenly the book jumps ahead 20 years to the post-apocalyptic universe that exists when 99.9% of humanity has been wiped out. And then it jumps back in time, to before the pandemic. I think the point is to make you think about the infrastructure that exists, and how normal it seems…the electricity, the airplanes, the fast food, the gadgets, the internet…but how dependent it is on millions of humans in thousands of random jobs, doing their little part to keep the system running. And how everything would crumble, and what humanity might look like after 20 years of not having those things. How the worst in us would come out, but also the best in us.

Thought 1: The Gap Effect (A term I made up, because I needed a term)

I kept perceiving flaws with how Mandel depicted the pandemic and aftermath. Little things, like, “why is no one moving to farms?” and “why aren’t they riding bicycles?” as well as some giant plot holes with the pandemic itself that I suppose I only think about because I’ve just experienced a pandemic. For instance, we now know that in the event of a catastrophic pandemic, rich people would immediately quarantine, while poor people would keep working their “essential business” jobs. This would leave rich people in a much better position to survive than poor people. This, however, was never touched on in the book.

I kept telling myself that these little things didn’t matter. And in a way, they didn’t. Mandel did something very smart, in that she kept the world of her book very small and focused on her characters. Maybe more rich people in the world survived than poor people. Maybe the death toll wasn’t as bad in say, Asia. Maybe people in Holland rode bicycles, and people in Colorado moved to farms. We don’t know, because the three or four characters she followed knew next to nothing about the world beyond their immediate surroundings. In the universe of Station 11, the pandemic killed the majority of people in existence. This disrupted the global communication network. This plot trick allowed Mandel to keep us in the dark about what the world looked like outside of the realm her characters inhabited.

While this was smart, I found it unsatisfying.

With many forms of media, a lot of my enjoyment depends on whether or not there is a gap between the premise I think is going to happen and the premise that actually happens. For instance, when I was a young teenager, one of our VHS tapes had a preview of a movie called Never Been Kissed. The movie was about a 25-year-old woman who was totally uncool back in high school, who then went undercover and pretended to be a high school student again. The preview made it seem like this time, with the natural confidence that comes with age, she would be “cool,” and it would be an interesting redemptive experience.

But when I finally saw Never Been Kissed, there was a huge gap between the movie I thought I’d see and the movie I actually saw. Turns out she was just as awkward at 25 as she’d been at 18, and while she became cool eventually, it was more through dumb luck than anything else. So I was left with this hollow feeling, that the movie could have been so much more than it was.

This frequently happens to me with movies and songs, but it’s much more rare with books, which is why books are my favorite form of media.

But unfortunately, Station 11 had the gap effect for me. The premise of “99.99% of people are killed in a pandemic” is fascinating, and my mind spins in a billion different directions, imagining what might happen. And yet, so much of this was left unexplored in the book, leaving me longing for what the book could have been.

Thought 2: Literary Fiction

In the classes I took for my writing minor, literary fiction was considered the end all be all of books. I found a lot of it frustrating and pretentious, and a lot of it made me experience the gap effect, because writing beautiful sentences always seemed to be prioritized over delivering on a premise.

Nevertheless, there’s something about the literary style of writing that brands things more deeply onto my brain. I frequently think about those books and stories I read in class. At their best, they provided deep insight into the human condition and how people think.

Station 11 is a literary book with a post-apocalyptic premise. And while the gap effect happened for me in a way it maybe wouldn’t have happened if Mandel had stuck to a more conventional literary “plot,” I still deeply appreciated this combination of genres. I adore books that have an interesting premise. What if you found out, after you were orphaned, that your parents had been part of a secret organization they never told you about? What if you lived in a castle, but were so poor you were barely surviving? What if you’d spent your whole life trying to please your relatives that you didn’t like, so that they would provide for you in your upcoming spinsterhood old age, and then discovered that you only had a year left to live? What if a witch’s curse turned you into an old lady?

Usually, my main gripe with literary fiction is that the premise is often so boring. Someone just kind-of wanders through an ordinary life and has deep beautiful thoughts about it all. So if you know of any other books like Station 11, a literary fiction book with an actually interesting/wild premise, please recommend!

Thought 3: Cleverness

I love cleverness in books, and I discovered something very clever in this book that I’d like to talk about. I don’t really feel like this is a spoiler, but maybe it kind-of is. I’m going to talk briefly about some things that happen in the middle of the book, but none of these things are supposed to be “surprises” of any kind.

One of the most interesting characters is this woman named Miranda. Miranda is the most insightful out of all the characters. She sees right through people, understanding when they’re putting on an act, or trying to be someone they’re not. She doesn’t really do anything with this information, just kind-of quietly observes, but through her, we as the reader get a lot of insight into the human condition.

Miranda is a deeply creative and introverted character, and she spends a lot of her time creating sci-fi comics. She tends to incorporate things from her real life into her comics. For instance, before Miranda’s marriage, she worked as an administrative assistant and drew comics in her down time. She loved the work environment, with its clean, quiet order, and vast windows. When she drew her comics, she incorporated this room into it, only with a view of a weird planet landscape instead of a view of Toronto. In fact, it’s hinted that the main character of her comics is, in some ways, a version of Miranda herself.

Miranda is from a little island between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland. When I looked up this island to see if it was a real place, I discovered that not only is it real, but the author, Emily St. John Mandel, is from there.

Still, it wasn’t until I discovered that Mandel worked as an administrative assistant as her day job that I realized that Mandel wrote herself into the book as Miranda. Mandel has deep insights into human behavior, but she wrote them as Miranda’s insights. Mandel incorporated things from her real life into her book, just as Miranda incorporated things from her real life into her comics. Mandel wrote herself into her book as Miranda, just as Miranda wrote herself into her comics.

I find this deeply clever and fascinating.

Those are my primary thoughts upon reading this book. I think it’s the sort of book that almost everyone will appreciate in these pandemic times. Of course it covers some very heavy topics, particularly an enormous amount of death, including murder and suicide. But there was nothing especially graphic. The book never tries to shock you, just make you think. It will never be my favorite book, but it is a book that I think most people will enjoy.

Launching My E-Book!

I am happy to announce that I’ve made a Kindle version of The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea, which you can order here. Of course in my heart of hearts I love print versions of books best, but the Kindle version offers a few advantages you may be interested in:

  1. It is $5 cheaper than the print version.
  2. It is part of the Kindle Unlimited program, so if you have Kindle Unlimited you can read my book for free.
  3. I enabled the lending feature, so if you know someone who bought the e-book version, you can borrow it from them even if you live in completely different areas.
  4. Best of all, you can now access my book even if you live outside of the USA!

My goal throughout this process has been to make my book feel accessible to as many people as possible, especially those who don’t have a lot of extra money. I’ve been there, and I know how it is. Making an e-book version of The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea is another step in that direction, and I’m so excited!

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I Think February Is The Worst Month Of The Year

I like to think that I’m in the final stretch of The Bad Times. Coronavirus cases are falling, and my county just moved from “extreme” risk to “high” risk, loosening restrictions. My brother, aunt, and a few friends were able to get vaccinated. Spring is coming, eventually, and we’ll be able to do things outdoors again. By summer, perhaps I too will be able to get my vaccination. And in the fall, I’ll probably move away from Oregon, and start having real adventures again (I don’t know yet where).

Thankfully, the past couple months have been relatively disaster-free for me and those near me. Unlike in 2020, no one I know has tragically died, none of my family members have been critically injured, and the state has not caught on fire.

Nevertheless, I’m finding February almost unbearably difficult this year.

When actual tragedies were happening, I gave myself a lot of grace to be unproductive. But now it’s different. Now I desperately want to be productive, but it feels like all the little frustrating things are working against me. I got sick—some weird nasty thing that doesn’t seem to be Covid, but I can’t quite shake it. One day I feel better, and the next morning I wake up with a sore throat again. Then we started a never-ending remodeling project, which means that I can’t just stumble downstairs for toast and tea without running into strange men. Also, it’s noisy. And smelly. I know it will all be worth it when we have a lovely new bathroom and office, but I just wish it could all happen when I wasn’t sick.

Winter was actually pretty mild this year, and both the camellias and the daffodils bloomed before February even began. I’d even begun doing some yard work. But then we hit a stretch of truly the most terrible weather possible: cold rain. Like, 34° and raining. Day after day. Just be snow already! But nope. The creek flooded enough to cut off power to Mom’s writing cabin, aka, the only place you could go to escape construction noises.

Anyway. I keep telling myself, SOON. Soon I’ll feel healthy, the remodeling will be over, and I’ll be able to go to Starbucks again. Soon soon soon.

I have little else to say, so I suppose I’ll end this blog post here. Here’s to brighter days and cheerier topics!

You can order my book here.

You can find me on

Instagram: @emilytheduchess

Twitter: @emilysmucker

Facebook: facebook.com/emilysmuckerblog

YouTube: youtube.com/emilysmucker

Patreon: patreon.com/emilysmucker (This is where I post bonus blog posts, about more personal/controversial subjects, for a subscription fee of $1 a month [or more if you’re feeling generous]. I try to post twice a month.

I DIY’d a Pair of Bernie Sanders Inauguration Mittens

Making a Purse out of a Shark Toy (Video)

With my book finished, I suddenly have time to make YouTube videos again. I’ve dabbled in various types of videos, but my favorite thing to do is make/sew stuff, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on in the near future.

Anyway, enjoy this video, and feel free to subscribe to my channel if you want to see more content like this!

You can order my book here.

You can find me on

Instagram: @emilytheduchess

Twitter: @emilysmucker

Facebook: facebook.com/emilysmuckerblog

YouTube: youtube.com/emilysmucker

Patreon: patreon.com/emilysmucker (This is where I post bonus blog posts, about more personal/controversial subjects, for a subscription fee of $1 a month [or more if you’re feeling generous]. I try to post twice a month. My latest two posts were titled What 2020 Has Given; What 2020 Has Taken Away, and The Ditch on Either Side of the Road.)