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This is yet another incarnation of my personal blog. Here's where you can read about what I do when I'm not at work: hiking, seeing plays and other shows, eating, traveling, etc.

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Book Review: Tam Lin

Posted by gck Monday, January 21, 2013 0 comments

tamlinTam Lin by Pamela Dean

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)
Recommended for: People who enjoy magical realism and fairy tale retellings, lovers of Shakespeare and poetry

Back-cover summary:
In the ancient Scottish ballad "Tam Lin," headstrong Janet defies Tam Lin to walk in her own land of Carterhaugh . . . and then must battle the Queen of Faery for possession of her lover’s body and soul. In this version of "Tam Lin," masterfully crafted by Pamela Dean, Janet is a college student, "Carterhaugh" is Carter Hall at the university where her father teaches, and Tam Lin is a boy named Thomas Lane.

My review:
This month, I’m reading books that other people have recommended to me as their favorites. It is definitely taking me out of my reading comfort zone, but it’s an enjoyable change. Tam Lin is one of those books. Genre and description wise, it isn’t too far from my standard reading, but the writing style did end up being a departure from the norm.

It took me awhile to warm to the author’s writing style. From the description and genre, it seems like it would be a fast read, but it ended up not being the case for me. At over 400 pages, it was a thick book, and I didn’t read through them quickly. It seemed like some things dragged on slowly, but other times, I found myself having to reread passages because I didn’t quite follow where a transition happened. The most common example would be in conversation where suddenly it would mention that someone was furious, but I couldn’t understand from the dialogue when it went from normal conversation to anger. This and other character reactions that I didn’t understand showed some amount of emotional disconnect between me and the author.

If you’ve ever dreamed of being enrolled in an elite liberal arts college and having a group of well-read friends to have sophisticated intellectual conversations with, this could be a great book for you. It’s hard not to be immersed into the setting, and I enjoyed feeling like I was sitting with Janet and her roommates in their dorm room or listening to lectures in English class. The conversations constantly make references to works of Shakespeare, Keats, and more. Enough of the references are clarified so that you won’t be completely lost if you don’t recognize them. However, a reader with absolutely no interest in English literature might find all of this extremely boring or possibly even pretentiously annoying.

I enjoyed the mystical elements of the story, especially the ghost who threw books out of the window, the tradition of the piper, and the horse riders. The action of the fairy tale retelling was a little odd, but I felt that way about the traditional version of the fairy tale, too. Overall, I felt like the fairy tale was a good way to wrap up the story and also helped set the mood for the novel, but the other interactions between the characters were more prominent. This is one of eight in a Fairy Tale Series. I read Snow White and Rose Red as a teen, and now this has me interested to read some of the others.

TR: Heather & Maple Pass

Posted by gck Tuesday, January 15, 2013 0 comments

Distance: 7.2 miles
Elevation gain: 2000 feet
Trailhead directions and more on WTA.

Finally getting around the posting the trip report for the last hike of 2012, back in October. I unintentionally had a hiking season of firsts this year. First hike in the Canadian Rockies. First summit register. First real hike on the Mountain Loop Highway. And this hike was my first time in the North Cascades National Park. There is a lot of gorgeous stuff up there, and unlike national parks like Rainier and Olympic, there is no entry fee (you just need your Northwest Forest Pass). The downside is that it’s a pretty long drive. 3 hours and a lot of gas to get to this trailhead from Kirkland. Hopefully next time I go back, I’ll be able to spend the night and get a few days of exploration.

IMG_8671  IMG_8749
left: MARMOT!
right: dusty fall colors

The Maple Pass trail is probably one of the most popular hikes in the area, and it’s not hard to understand why. The loop makes it so you get different views the whole time, and you get a lot of payoff for the effort. I’d rate the difficulty as moderate (noticeably easier than some of the other hikes I’ve been doing this year) and the views as outstanding. Three lakes, mountains in all directions, and at this time of year, bright fall colors and golden larches. The parking lot was full when we arrived a little before 11, but oddly enough there was still plenty of parallel parking space right next to the trailhead, so we actually got an awesome parking spot.
The drive up the North Cascades Highway is pretty nice. Tip #1: The visitors center is a great place to use a real toilet! Tip #2: Save time to stop at overlooks. We passed the Diablo Lake overlook on the way to the trailhead and stopped both ways. Further past the trailhead is the Washington Pass overlook, with a fantastic view of Liberty Bell Mountain, which I hope to stop at next year. Tip #3: Allow time for slow cars. There aren’t a lot of passing opportunities on the highway. On the way there, we got stuck behind 8 or so RVs and I got so fed up that I pulled into an overlook just so I wouldn’t be stuck right behind them.

Lake Ann

Hiking the loop counter-clockwise is the most popular direction to go. The Mountaineers' guidebook suggests this, and if you follow the signs from the parking lot, this is the direction you will go. (If you prefer to go clockwise, you should follow the sign to Rainy Lake from the trailhead, and the trail to Maple Pass splits from there) Counter-clockwise means that it’s an easy grade up to Heather Pass, and it doesn’t stay in the forest for very long. Mountain views start quickly, then there’s a trail that splits to visit Lake Ann (we didn’t take it), and not long after that, views down to Lake Ann and its Taiwan-shaped island start.

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left: a lot of mountains that I don’t know the names of
right: golden larch

I would definitely like to come back and visit this trail in August, when the days are longer – our timing had pretty harsh shadows cast on the lakes by the time we reached them, and it’s unlikely that we could have gotten an earlier start. The trail is popular through the entire summer, but it’s particularly crowded during early August because of the bright fall colors and the golden larches, deciduous conifers whose needles turn bright yellow before dropping. Another fall benefit is that the ridiculously cute pikas are active, scurrying back and forth to gather plants for their burrows. Anytime we approached a boulder field, we heard them “eep”ing like crazy. Likeliness of actually seeing a pika goes down as the number of people go up (pikas are very shy), but we did manage to see one pika hiding behind a rock. Speaking of people, the crowds were pretty heavy. Fortunately, party sizes were pretty reasonable, but there was absolutely no solitude on this trail.

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left: view from Heather Pass of Lewis Lake, Black Peak, and a forest fire
right: helicopter dumping water on the fire

At Heather Pass, you get a beautiful view of mountains and a peek at Lewis Lake underneath Black Peak. The trail to Lewis and Wing Lakes branches off a little before the pass, and the whole thing is visible from the pass, including a long boulder field traverse. Pictures I’ve seen of these two lakes look absolutely gorgeous, and I hope to make it there on a future trip. However, no one was heading there on this day because a small forest fire near Lewis Lake had the trail closed. We continued walking to a sign marking the North Cascades National Park boundary (NO HUNTING!) and took a side trail to a high point for better views of Lewis Lake. Sat here and ate lunch, gazing out towards the mountains. Every once in a while, we’d see a helicopter fly past us with a bucket of water to dump on the forest fire.

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left: valley and Glacier Peak
right: fall colors, switchbacks heading towards Maple Pass

After lunch, there was more walking and more uphill to get to Maple Pass. Along the way, there were more views down at Lake Ann and across a valley to more mountains, including Glacier Peak. Visibility wasn’t great looking in that direction, probably partially due to smoke haze from the forest fires. I felt like the views on this last leg of the hike were less interesting than the first half, but it was still nice to be walking a different part of the trail. There was a partial view down to Rainy Lake, which is easily reached by a short, flat, paved trail from the parking lot -- definitely would have done this if we had more time. Finally, we passed by a woman who asked if we had a satellite telephone (no) because she had broken her leg (ouch!). We saw search and rescue come up with chainsaws and other gear as we went down, and I read afterwards that they got her out by helicopter... at midnight. The trail was very dusty from the lack of rain and steep in a few parts, and I had fallen down once or twice that day as well. Made me realize that I need to figure out how to be more coordinated before I get older, or I’ll probably end up with a broken leg, too.
Stopped by Diablo Lake on the way back, where we encountered four Corvettes parked side by side in the parking lot. Naturally, I parked right next to them, and now they have an ugly, dirty Camry in their photos. Anyway, highly recommend this hike! I was sad to see a good hiking season end, but this hike was a high note to end it.


Where we fit in our books

Posted by gck Wednesday, January 9, 2013 0 comments

We were at book club, trying to get a discussion going about our December book, Where’d You Go, Bernadette. One of the discussion questions was, “Do you sympathize with Bernadette?” Immediately, one of the book club members responded flatly, “No.” “Really? Not at all?” I thought. End of discussion.

Earlier, I was discussing Chekhov’s play, The Seagull, with someone who loved the play. From the description, it was one of the things I looked forward to seeing the most in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 season. But when it came to the actual performance, I was disappointed. The characters weren’t likeable. I didn’t connect to them. And one of them even had my name. His response was that the characters weren’t supposed to be likeable, they were supposed to be realistic. And that he fell in love with the play when he read it in high school, right after breaking up with his girlfriend, and the characters in the play spoke perfectly to his situation.

Thinking back on conversations, I realized how often this comes up in conversations with friends about books, films, and plays and how much of our enjoyment of the media is based on how we personally relate to the characters. Going a step further than that, some of the most beloved stories are things that we can project ourselves on. What woman loves Pride and Prejudice without pretending, at least while reading, that she is Elizabeth Bennet? Though I am one of those people who blindly judges Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, maybe they aren’t as stupid as I’d like to believe once taking into account the fact that the story is more than what is written on the page – it’s a combination of that and the interaction of the words with the reader. With such ideal blank slate characters, it’s quite easy for the reader to interact with and project onto the story and such an experience is an enjoyable one.

Orson Scott Card addressed this when discussing the various reader responses in his introduction to his book, Ender’s Game:

I think that most of us, anyway, read these stories that we know are not "true" because we're hungry for another kind of truth: the mythic truth about human nature in general, the particular truth about those life-communities that define our own identity, and the most specific truth of all: our own self-story. Fiction, because it is not about someone who lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about oneself.

As a reader, this is a powerful thing to realize. With romance novels or other “blank slate” type fiction, it is an “escape” when the reader knowingly submits to it, but it becomes a “guilty pleasure,” a sort of manipulation, if he or she unknowingly and perhaps unwillingly submits. But more interesting are the complex projections – seeing ourselves in defined and perhaps unlikeable characters. How much could we realize about ourselves if we spent time in specific reflection after discovering a character like this?

In reading book reviews, I find that there is almost always a discrepancy of opinion about whether to like or not like a character. Sometimes this is to the fault or credit of the writer, but more often it speaks to the differences in the readers, perhaps differences that are not unlike the ones that start conflicts in the real world. Imagine a system where people could confront their stereotypes privately with a novel instead of acting against a real person! I’d like to make it a goal – not to like every character I encounter – but to fully understand why I dislike the ones I do and to learn more about why others might disagree.

Reading has already opened my eyes to facts and history I was previously unaware of, but I hope that in the future, I can learn even more about human nature, different worldviews, and myself.

Book Review: The Light Between Oceans

Posted by gck Tuesday, January 8, 2013 0 comments

lightbetweenoceansThe Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: **** (out of 5)
Recommended for: people who like stories about parent-child bonds

Book 11 of 52 in the “Around the World” Challenge

Back-cover summary:
After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.
Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.

My review:
I enjoyed the writing, I enjoyed the immersive setting, and I enjoyed how emotionally invested the characters had me, but it’s hard for me to say that I enjoyed the book (in the same way that it’s hard to “enjoy” a book about the Holocaust). The whole thing is pretty consistently and oppressively dark in mood from start to finish, with only a few points of light, all of which occur near the beginning. This shouldn’t be that much of a surprise to anyone who reads the description, but somehow it did feel heavier than I expected, especially since I read most of the second half in one sitting.

I found the emotions in the story to be powerful, but it would probably affect a reader even more if he or she identified with the strong bond between parent and child, the horror of losing a child, or an intense longing to have a baby. As someone who has no children and has not (yet) experienced the need to have them, I didn’t personally connect with those sentiments, which also made me feel more distant from Isabel, who changes drastically because of them.

There is a lot in the characters’ actions to discuss. Was it right? Can you understand why? What should have been done instead? Great for book club. Ultimately, the idea I thought was consistently illustrated was that when it comes to great tragedy, people will go to extremes to protect their self-interest or the interest of those closest to them, even when it results in horrible behavior towards others who do not deserve it. When you’ve got a bunch of people behaving in this way, it’s not hard to see why the book ends up being so dark.

These things may seem like they are negative things, but I think they actually give a strong recommendation for reading the book. Tragedy is more complex than pure happiness, and these characters are ones that will stick in my mind longer than most.

Book Review: The Heretic Queen

Posted by gck Thursday, January 3, 2013 2 comments

HereticQueenThe Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran

Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: **** (out of 5)
Recommended for: Philippa Gregory fans, people who like historical fiction, beach read

Book 10 of 52 in the “Around the World” Challenge

Back-cover summary:
The winds of change are blowing through Thebes. A devastating palace fire has killed the Eighteenth Dynasty’s royal family–with the exception of Nefertari, the niece of the reviled former queen, Nefertiti. The girl’s deceased family has been branded as heretical, and no one in Egypt will speak their names. Nefertari is pushed aside, an unimportant princess left to run wild in the palace. But this changes when she is taken under the wing of the Pharaoh’s aunt, then brought to the Temple of Hathor, where she is educated in a manner befitting a future queen.

Soon Nefertari catches the eye of the Crown Prince, and despite her family’s history, they fall in love and wish to marry. Yet all of Egypt opposes this union between the rising star of a new dynasty and the fading star of an old, heretical one. While political adversity sets the country on edge, Nefertari becomes the wife of Ramesses the Great. Destined to be the most powerful Pharaoh in Egypt, he is also the man who must confront the most famous exodus in history.

My review:
The Heretic Queen is considered book #2 in a series, but I read it before reading the first one (Nefertiti) because I had a copy of it. Not a problem. The book gives enough of Nefertiti’s story for it to stand on its own, but I am interested to read Nefertiti to see if there are parallels that can be drawn.

This book tells the story from the perspective of Nefertari, who begins as a young girl in a royal court where she is adored by the Pharaoh Seti and his son Ramesses but disliked and distrusted by others because of her relation to the previous dynasty, one now branded as heretical. In many ways, I was reminded of The Other Boleyn Girl. It’s fun to read about women scheming against each other while the man who thinks he has all the power is actually just a pawn in the game. The politics could have benefited from more nuance, though, rather than having the characters be pretty black-and-white with their motives. Still, I enjoyed watching Nefertari grow into her position and deal with her adversaries with grace and intelligence. The plot moved quickly and kept me interested in what was happening.

The book description indicates that the Jewish exodus from Egypt will play a large role in the story. The event did make an appearance, with Moses as “Ahmoses” petitioning for the “Habiru” to be freed. However, the plagues and dramatic exodus did not occur, and it seems like all references to that could have been removed from the book without affecting anything.

With historical fiction like this, I do wonder how much of it is faithful to the known facts. I’d probably be less thrilled with the novel if I found out later that a lot of it was inaccurate, but on first read, I found it to be a light, pleasant way to experience a bit of Egyptian history.