Tuesday Reviews Day: We Are the Ants, Shaun David Hutchinson

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This book came in one of my Book Riot boxes, one of those I used to sub to that came with three books four times a year and somehow, I never seemed able to keep up with them. I’ve been wanting to read this book for awhile now and finally, I’ve gotten around to it. This book was …. well, it was definitely worth the wait, and yet I wish I’d read it twenty times by now.

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A panel from Chasing Shadows; art by Craig Phillips

Tuesday Reviews Day: Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi

I’m ahead of the game! This has never happened before but I’m trying to keep it up. This review is actually for a novel¬†I started before Christmas, so I’m three books past this already! Whew.

This is one of the first graphic novels I’ve read in a long time, and it was so fun. I love the mixture of prose and images and what it says about the novel. More about that later just to avoid any possible spoilers.

Chasing Shadows also fits into my No-SWCM Reading Challenge, and it made me realize I’m probably not doing this challenge right. Yeah, I’ve cut out all the SWCM authors from my reading list, but I’m still reading predominantly white authors, even if they are female. Avasthi, of course, is not white,¬†but I realize now that I need to broaden my horizons even more. I’ve gotten some really great recommendations for works by PoC, but if you have one¬†you’re dying to tell me about, preach its gospel in the comments!

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Savitri, her boyfriend Corey, and his twin sister Holly are the closest friends can get. They do everything together. When they’re not in school, they’re cutting new paths along the rooftops of Chicago, taming the city and making it their own.

After an afternoon freerunning session, the twins become the target of a hooded gunman, who kills Corey and leaves Holly in a coma.

Savitri and Holly are left to pick up the pieces and deal with their loss‚ÄĒand their survivor’s guilt‚ÄĒin their own ways. But when Holly wakes from her coma, she’s not the same person, and she’s eager to get revenge on the gunman. Sav struggles with the loss of her boyfriend, the slow fade of her best friend, and whether it’s possible to hold on too tight‚ÄĒand for too long.

A panel from Chasing Shadows; art by Craig Phillips

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How I found it: Book Riot YA box #03
Genre: Young adult; contemporary realism; graphic novel
Does it pass the Bechdel test? Yes
Is it a standalone? Yes
So what worked?¬†I like the complexity of the girls’ friendship. It isn’t just the tragedy that comes between them; the difference between their cultures cause issues that Holly seems to be blind to. I like the implications that has for their relationship, the subtle addressing of white privilege and how that can affect interracial friendships in sometimes surprising ways.

I loved the graphic portions of the novel and, as I mentioned before, their symbolism. The appearance of images coincides with and really signals Holly’s descent into madness as she struggles to parse¬†this new reality without her twin.

And of course, I also like the pull-no-punches way the novel deals with violence and how it ripples out and affects so many people. It treats the grieving process and mental illness carefully but truthfully; people grieve in different ways and on different timelines, and none of them are wrong. And mental illness can manifest in startling and unexpected ways, but it’s important to try to recognize the signs in your loved ones and¬†be sure they’re taking care of themselves.¬†Sav thinks she’s helping by withdrawing when Holly pushes her away, when the reality is that Sav should have done anything but. Of course, every situation is not the same, every response is not the right one, and the novel does a great job of showing that.
What didn‚Äôt work?¬†It seemed strange at times that the parents of any of the children were not more visible, more involved. Josh’s mom in particular¬†seems either willfully or woefully ignorant of what’s going on with her son. Granted, the teens are all seniors in high school who can obviously drive themselves and (generally speaking) conduct themselves responsibly,¬†and granted, this does touch on the book’s theme of dealing with grief. Many people, I’m sure, do withdraw from their families and their other children when facing the loss of a child. But¬†all the parents were strangely absent for the majority of the story, and that struck me as slightly odd, especially for Savitri, who seems to have a strong relationship with her mom that really wasn’t displayed.

Overall:¬†It’s a very emotionally dense read,¬†so it took me longer to get through this than I anticipated. I occasionally had to take a step back from it, but that’s¬†not a critique in the slightest. I loved the way it drew me in and then tore me apart. I got so invested in the characters I found myself taking things personally, even after I started disliking some of them and the way they handled things. I liked that it wasn’t some happy-go-lucky BS that wraps up with rainbows and flowers as if nothing bad ever happened. And of course, I’m a sucker for symbolism, especially when extended through a whole work like this, so the graphic element and what it meant for the story really amped up my enjoyment of it. Very, very effective.

This book is heavy. I’d assign it trigger warnings for violence and mental illness at the very least, because I want you to go into this book fully aware of what you’re getting into. But I want you to read this, because what this book has to say about life, love, and loss is utterly critical.

New year, new plans

For the last couple of years, I’ve made some resolutions that have been a little outside the box, I suppose you could say. For 2014, I resolved to become the person I used to be. Yes,¬†to some that sounds a bit odd, I’m sure, but somehow after college I started morphing into this quiet hermit of a person who wasn’t intrusive, wasn’t offensive, wasn’t obnoxious. Wasn’t anything, really.

But, you say,¬†isn’t it good not to be offensive?

Of course! I don’t mean storming around shouting swear words in church or racial slurs in crowds or anything like that. I mean, I started going out of my way never to hurt anyone’s feelings in the slightest, even when that meant withholding necessary truths or even allowing myself to be hurt. I wanted to be the person I used to be, because I used to be someone who was outgoing, confident, funny, adventurous… but I suddenly realized I’d become the opposite of all those things. I don’t know when it started or why, but I knew I hated it and wanted to change.

So in 2014 I decided to start identifying places in my life where I’d allowed myself to become a doormat again, and either change my own behavior or start cutting out the people who¬†abused my silence.

I got a tattoo.

In 2015, I made a more concrete resolution: Stop giving other people so much control of my thoughts and actions.

It’s good, to an extent, to care about what others think of you. Really, isn’t that what stops us from doing a lot of things we really want to do but shouldn’t? Like finishing that box of donuts by yourself or texting your ex or fill-in-the-blank. It helps us keep the reputation we want.¬†I don’t want people to think I’m a cruel and heartless person, but I also don’t want them to think I’m easily manipulated, waiting to be used for their purposes.

I forced myself to sit down and think about the areas of my life¬†where other people’s opinions didn’t and shouldn’t matter:

  • My appearance
  • My career goals
  • My educational goals
  • My writing
  • Our family planning decisions

It’s stupid, I know, but I was letting worry over what people thought of me and my choices dictate almost everything I did. I didn’t get another tattoo in 2015 (I wanted to) but we did buy a new house and a new car and make plans for me to go back to school, plans I’ll be acting on very soon.

I got two new piercings. (Just my ears, piercings are the worst)

I dyed my hair every color I could think of, sometimes changing it multiple times a month. It’s now a point of conversation when I see someone at work that I’ve not run into in a few weeks.

So for 2016, I’m continuing in the same theme. This year, I’m going to stop coddling everyone around me at my own expense. I’m not going to cause needless drama or seek out confrontation, but I’ve spent the last several years bowing my head and biting my tongue and hiding my tears when what I really should have done was say what needed to be said, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable. The truth really does hurt, even when you choose not to expose it. I could go in depth about what brought me to this decision, but it was a hard one to make, so I’ve spent enough time already trying to parse it.

Women's Do No Harm Shirt

My mantra for 2016. Buy the shirt here.

I feel I’m making the right choice. It’s time to stop putting myself last just so everyone else feels safe and happy no matter what. It’s time to stop excusing every¬†offense with phrases like “that’s just the way s/he is” and “it’s okay, I don’t mind” or “things will be different next time.” But what’s right isn’t always easy, so I know this year’s resolution may be more difficult than last year’s. But I think there are better and brighter things ahead, and I’m excited to see them arrive.

Stages of Grief, or Stages of Writing?

This morning I read this post by Chuck Wendig. Of course it made me laugh, but it also made me realize something about my own writing process: I think I may be stuck in the “Depression” phase. And that makes sense, sort of, in the grand scheme of the things that are my life and personality.

I’m prone to depression. Notice I didn’t say I “have” depression. I think that may be because a large part of my family still harbors some of society’s stigmas toward depression. I’m not sure why that is, but I know it’s affected me and the way I talk about myself and my emotional and mental struggles.

I get depressed over the strangest things. You may have noticed, for example, that my posts fell completely off with no warning and no reasoning. I made a very brief attempt at weekly review posts rather than biweekly ones, and it proved more stressful than I thought. I like reading at a slow pace and giving myself time to process what I’m reading; otherwise I find myself reading just to be reading, and I don’t retain anything at all. Months later I may even entirely forget I’ve read a book if I read it that way.

When I realized that weekly posts were probably going to be too strenuous, it hit me hard. Harder than it probably should have. Instead of telling myself, “that’s fine, just adjust the schedule again. People will understand,” I told myself I was a failure, a horrible writer, and no one followed my blog anyway so what difference did it make. Of course, these are horrible things to tell yourself, and I know that, logically. But that doesn’t stop Scumbag Brain from being a scumbag.

So of¬†course the conclusion Scumbag Brain reached was to just. Stop. Blogging. And somehow, I was mostly okay with this. I would get a twinge of guilt here or there, or really miss writing, or have a great idea, and yet somehow I’d dismiss it all with some lame excuse or self-deprecation.

But then I read Chuck’s post. And I get that it wasn’t specifically talking about my situation, but it seemed¬†so relevant. It really struck me that this is what I’ve been doing with my writing for years; I get started, somehow get discouraged, and I get out. I put it down and never go back to it.

I’ve decided in recent days that I want to change all that and let myself be the person I want to be. I need to get out of my own way, basically. So I signed up for Habitica — which is¬†already¬†making a difference in the way I think about my free time and my priorities. I did some research on online graduate schools¬†and got some input from some¬†of my career mentors. And most terrifying of all: I signed up for NaNoWriMo. I’ve signed up for it before, but this time, I mean it. I work at my alma mater, so I enlisted the English department chair to help keep me accountable, and I added daily writing to my Habitica tasks. Plus, last fall I was able to attend an excellent character-writing workshop with Mary Robinette Kowal, and I’ll be drawing heavily from what I learned there, not to mention using the completed excerpt I ended up with as a basis for my concept.

I’m really excited about what’s in store. I’m just hoping that I can hold on to this momentum, because life isn’t always a stroll down a sunny lane. Recently, husband and I moved into a brand new home and, while of course it’s exciting and wonderful, it’s also very stressful and a little scary. Part of me wants to stay home all day in my pajamas and enjoy it to the fullest, and part of me wants to be ten years old again so I can stay at the home I grew up in¬†in my pajamas and not have anything to worry about, apart from which flavor of Ramen I’ll eat for lunch and whether I can sneak a second soda.

Chibird's penguin encouragement :)

Chibird’s penguin encouragement ūüôā

But that won’t do either. It’s time for the Acceptance phase.

I can do this.

So now I’m going to go do it.

©Jessica Hoffman

A Much Needed Break

So, recently I told you that my World Book Day post had to be backdated because of other things I’d tell you about later. Wow, that sounded ominous, didn’t it? It wasn’t anything bad; quite the opposite, really.

Kris and I celebrated our fifth anniversary this year, and thanks to all the time and money we’ve been pouring into the house, we weren’t able to do anything huge. But we decided not to swap gifts and instead take a whirlwind, twenty-four-hour trip to a city we haven’t been to in at least a decade, and never together: Savannah, Georgia. If you’ve never been to Savannah, start making plans now. Well, after you read my post. And maybe also share it. I don’t know. Let’s not talk about all the time I spent completely panicking because I thought we weren’t going to be able to find any available rooms and have to stay home for our first milestone anniversary.

I crawled the city’s CVB site¬†looking for cute places to stay and found this utterly adorable B&B in Savannah’s historic Old Town called Zeigler House Inn. The owner is a positively delightful woman named Jackie, who greeted us with a map of the city and proceeded to plot out dinner recommendations, sightseeing points, and weekend activities.

©Jessica Hoffman

Zeigler House Inn

She explained that we could use the house’s parlor, porches, and library at our leisure, and we should help ourselves to the cream sherry and fresh-baked cookies, fudge, and cupcakes in the dining room. There were movies to borrow and books to read, umbrellas in case it rained, and a single-cup coffee maker. In our room a closet had been converted to a small kitchen complete with mini-fridge and a full set of silverware and china. Jackie had baked giant muffins (they were to die for), strawberry turnovers, and ham-and-cheese turnovers for breakfast. The bathroom was amazing, the bed was ultra squishy, and the whole room was just so relaxing and plush and perfect.

©Jessica Hoffman

Our cute room!

We tossed our bags down and headed to a restaurant really close by called Crystal Beer Parlor. We got nachos topped with pulled pork and jalapenos and sampled some of their beers. Kris had a bison burger that he loved, with sweet potato fries, while I stuck to local shrimp (they were enormous!) and tried-and-true¬†hand-cut¬†french fries. We didn’t do anything else that night; we’d driven there after working all day, so it was pretty late once we left the restaurant.

©Jessica Hoffman

Delicious dinner!

 

Friday morning — our 5th anniversary, yay! — we got up late, lounged around and chit-chatted with Jackie before paying for the room (an excellently affordable price, all things considered) and heading out to face the day. We had talked about doing a trolley tour, but we ended up finding a parking garage and spending literally the entire day walking around and getting lost. It was amazing.

We found art galleries by the dozens, with pieces by local artists that were stunning.¬†There were so many¬†adorable and amazing places, and we soon¬†ended up in touristville, a.k.a. River Street. We watched an employee at Savannah’s¬†Candy Kitchen make saltwater taffy on a 100-year-old taffy puller; bought pralines at another shop; and ate a delicious lunch at Fiddler’s Crab House overlooking the water. We also found Savannah Bee Company, where I nearly had a heart attack because one of their employees sounded exactly like one of my college best friends, whom I haven’t seen in several months. I spent far too much money there. Honey is delicious.

©Jessica Hoffman

Making saltwater taffy

Also on River Street was a craft fair, which was pleasantly empty thanks to unusually cold and wet weather. We met a wonderful couple of musicians named Glen and Joyce who create jewelry from used guitar strings. Proceeds go toward their nonprofit they founded to help¬†mental illness survivors and their families. We turned out to have a lot in common, and we talked for a long time about oddly personal things. It was a beautiful and¬†healing experience that I think I’ll hold on to for a long time. I got their card and bought a beautiful ring Joyce¬†had made moments before I walked in their tent.

©Jessica Hoffman

River Street

We walked around more, and¬†found hilarious little stores, quirky — and occasionally creepy — bars and live music venues, ran into a St. Patrick’s Day themed 5k, and found the most fantastic interior design store called 24e. Kris wanted to go in but I didn’t; their window display alone was intimidating. But Kris is fascinated by art and design and I have a serious love for interior design, so in we went. Yes, it was pricey. But almost everything in the store is one-off, and a lot of it is reclaimed or created by local artisans. They even had a table made from a bowling alley lane, so of course Kris wanted one. We’d have to take out a small loan to pay for it, but hey, who knows; our next house may very well have one. I’d love to make that happen for him — he does so much for me. ‚̧

©Jessica Hoffman

It actually made a beautiful table, surprisingly

We got a grand tour of the store by one of the designers and took his card home. Even if we don’t get that insane(ly awesome) table, we’ll certainly be picking up a few things from them.

We wandered a while longer, not quite sure where to stop and not really wanting to anyway. But we were starting to get hungry so we made our way back to food, stopping to take pictures of an historic African-American church and a beautiful monument to African-American soldiers in the Revolutionary War.

©Jessica Hoffman

The story of the drummer boy was my favorite.

After that, we finally found our way to Jazz’d, an underground tapas and jazz bar, I guess? There’s a delicious tapas restaurant in our home turf so we were looking forward to it, but this was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. We ordered their Tapas for Two, which got us two appetizers, two tapas each, and two desserts. It was a ton. of. food. And every bite of it was amazing. She-crab soup, orange-glazed pulled pork with red cabbage, seared tuna tacos, barbecue shrimp-and-grits, lamb lollipops, creme brulee and a chocolate torte so good we just had to bring home the leftovers. Service was so fast we could hardly keep up, and the atmosphere was a comfortable mix of after-work and nightlife crowds; not too dressy, not too casual.

We went straight home after dinner and ate that torte for breakfast.

All in all, I have to admit – it was probably one of my favorite vacations so far, and I can’t wait for our next anniversary. It’s really great¬†being married to your best friend.

©Jessica Hoffman

But first, lemme take a selfie

Finding my way back … to myself

People always talk about finding themselves and to be honest, it was something I thought I’d never experience. But you know how a few months ago, I just disappeared, and I told you I’d explain it later? Well, here we are.

I have never really been someone who stood out. I’ve just been myself, mostly quiet when surrounded by strangers yet annoyingly extroverted and shameless when I’m with friends. In high school I had my punk rock phase, my goth phase, my preppy phase, and then my “who really gives a crap about any of this” phase. (I fluctuated between all of these, but the last one was basically my default setting. It was always running in the background.) My best friends were mostly older than me, I hated everything (now I guess you’d have called my high school self a hipster), and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

I still don’t.

And the honest reason for that is I just generally do what people expect me to. I made good grades because my teachers expected me to based on (most of) my older siblings. I went to a local university because I thought I was supposed to. (I do freaking love my alma mater though. I am super proud of that school.) I took all the classes I was told to take, pursued a degree everyone told me I’d like (I did enjoy it, and in some alternate reality I probably did stick with that path). I look back sometimes and wonder what I’d have done differently if I had done all the things I’d really wanted to do. Some of those things were incredibly stupid ideas, and sometimes I think I’m glad I didn’t do them. But what if I had? What stories would I be able to tell my eventual kids?

Did I ever tell you about that time in high school, when I …

Did I ever tell you about when I was in college …

But I don’t have any crazy stories to tell my kids. I never really did anything bad or unexpected or scary. That’s not an exaggeration, not me pretending to be the perfect kid. I wasn’t. But probably the worst things I ever did were miss curfew by an hour or slam my door during a one-sided screaming match with my grandparents. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing awe-inspiring.

And now I realize I’ve carried that into adulthood, and it’s sadder now even than it was then. I don’t take risks, I don’t really do anything that scares me or excites me or inspires someone. I think too much about: well, what will people think? What will people say about me? What if they think I’m a failure or a fraud or just stupid?

So in January I decided that this year, as my New Year’s Resolution, I was going to do something a little different. Instead of resolving to lose weight, hit the gym more often, cut back on sweets and soda, I was going to start living for myself. (And Kris of course. We’re a team, obviously.) I was going to stop bending to what I thought everyone wanted and expected for me, living the life and being the person that I perceived I should be. Because the reality is, no one was putting these weird pressures on me but myself. My family wouldn’t love me less and my friends might give me side-eye but they’d support me no matter what, and anyone who wouldn’t doesn’t deserve front-row seats to my life, anyway.

It was a good goal, I thought. One that would require real changes and serious effort on my part. Step 1: Do something scary that I’ve always wanted to do.

Ink by Matt Skin

Ink by Matt Skin

So I got a tattoo. I love tattoos. I only had one, and it’s relatively small and no one really notices it, even though it’s not hidden at all. But I’d wanted this design for a long time, I knew I would be happy with it, but I kept getting held back. It’s too big. I’ll get bored with it. Everyone will hate it. What if I don’t find the right artist, and it turns out poorly? I ran through every excuse in the book, even while I researched local artists and shops, settled on the perfect guy, and doodled hot air balloons on every page of every notebook I wrote in for over a year. Finally, just before Christmas of last year, I printed out the painting I liked, took it to Matt Skin and asked if he could do it. Obviously, he could.

It took awhile to do (of course) and after the first sitting I went into panic mode. I completely shut down and freaked out like I haven’t in a long time. After a few weeks I realized my freakout was normal, and reminded myself how long I’d wanted the tattoo. I got some predictable responses, but by the time they arrived I had discovered a part of myself that I thought was lost: the part that cared more about what I wanted and what I liked than about what other people wanted for me. So when I heard the first “but your legs were so beautiful” comment from a family member, I told her I hadn’t gotten in a car wreck, I’d just gotten one of them painted, and if she wanted to see a plain leg she could look at my left one instead. Not even a month before that happened, I’d have broken down crying and left.

In the months since I got the tattoo complete, I’ve been making strides toward my goal that are visible even to myself. I’m not there yet, but I think I’m doing well. So it was time for Step 2: Make big decisions based on what’s best for myself, not on what I tell myself is expected of me.

So I put in my two weeks at my job. I know some of my coworkers might read this, but that’s okay. I don’t really have much to say on this front, just that it became startlingly clear that it was time to move on, and work-related stress was wearing me thin and disrupting my relationships and my personal life. I do think that my anxiety disorder has worsened in recent months, but it’s a chicken-or-egg question at this point. It’s scary for me, because I don’t have any prospects. But I know that I’ve made the best decision for myself, and if it upsets someone’s apple cart, then that’s their responsibility, not mine.

I know for a lot of people, these things all sound like common sense. And for high-school-me and even college-me, it would have been common sense, too. But somewhere along the way I really lost myself in the sea of projected and perceived expectations, I stopped pursuing things that made me happy, and I became someone I wasn’t really proud to be.

But the old me‚ÄĒthe one who didn’t care about being called a bitch as long as she was with people she liked, who wore clothes she thought were cool even if no one else agreed, and read manga tucked into her history book as if her teacher didn’t notice‚ÄĒthe old me I think would be proud of this new me, this me that I always really wanted to be anyway.

Good morning starshine!

This is probably my third attempt at regular blogging. I always get into it with the best of intentions, tell myself I’ll write more regularly, welcome input from others, enjoy the exposure. But somewhere along the way I always let my head get in the way of all that.

Full disclosure, I struggle with anxiety disorders. The idea of really putting myself out there is frightening, despite the fact that most of my hobbies require baring my soul to an audience. I love to teach. (I am not a professional teacher.) I love to sing. (I am not a professional singer.) I love to write. (I am a professional writer. But not in the way I would like.)

But this time something is different. Somewhere along the line while everyone around me made New Years’ Resolutions about losing weight, working out more, blah blah blah, I decided that my resolution was going to be a little different. I was going to resolve to stop being my own worst enemy. And I want to start heading toward that goal by writing more regularly, not being my own worst critic anymore, but instead being my loudest cheerleader, but also my most honest critic. Seeing things for what they really are, not what I fear they are or what I want them to be.