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Monday, January 22, 2018

An Unkindness of Ghosts and Let's Just Call It a Day

A scientist, Aster had learned something Giselle had not: decoding the past was like decoding the physical world. The best that could be hoped for was a working model. A reasonable approximation. That was to say, no matter what Aster learned of Lune, there was no piecing together the full mystery of her life. There was no hearing her laugh or feeling her embrace. A ghost is not a person. - Solomon Rivers, An Unkindness of Ghosts
The domain for www.howiesbookclub.com renews at the end of each April. It doesn't cost a lot to keep it going, but I think I'm going to let it lapse. I'm not sure if I'll still keep writing blog posts, but when I consulted my Stranger Things brand Ouija board, the demons that the warlocks at the Hasbro lovingly bake into every batch of flimsy cardboard and cheap plastic planchettes told me that it's probably the end of this particular era. Who knows? This may be the last post you ever see. If so, I hope you have as much fun as I did. Also, we're finishing up with a pretty good book so there are worse ways to go.

I don't know where it comes from, but I've always had this feeling that if people could just see inside my head, everything would make sense to them. Sometimes I manage to spin words around a thing in a way that seems more or less foolproof, and when whoever I'm arguing with doesn't immediately change their mind, I assume it's because they weren't really listening. I imagine that's part of why people tweet or make facebook posts or write blogs. If only you'd read the way it works in my head, this thing would be solved and then we could all move on to the next problem.

When I watched Zootopia, I thought "this is going to solve everything." I really thought that. It made one billion dollars and was the second highest-grossing movie that wasn't a sequel or based on a book ever. It makes such a subtle point that you're lulled into having a good time and then holy smokes, you just got hammered with social justice. It makes such a good argument and does it so cutely I don't know how you argue with it. And so many people saw it.

Imagine my surprise when enough Americans voted for a man who said that Mexican immigrants were all rapists and where men were still getting stabbed on the bus for standing up for Muslim women who were being bullied. Refugees from some of the most war-torn countries ever were turned away in airports. My face was like wha-

That sounds ridiculous, but also I can't figure out why. There are books and movies that change the world. Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring is credited with leading to the outlawing of DDT as a pesticide. The Marylin Monroe and Clark Gable picture The Misfits changed policy regarding feral/wild horses in the American West. Casablanca helped turn the American people from isolationism to supporting the war. Listen, am I comparing Zootopia to Casablanca? Of course I am, and not just because both heavily feature a Shakira song (note to self: Google before publishing to make sure).

At some point this blog went from being a chance for me to talk about the books I was reading to a platform to kind of outline the way I see the world. I think there's been some growth on some of that and I hope to keep growing and learning, but for now I think I've pretty much covered it. I've noticed that I'm repeating myself often, even using the same articles to back up my points. A couple of people have told me that they read a book because of my recommendation, which feels good, but for the most part it seems like a few years of very hard work little to show for it.

I think we're ready to move on from this kind of thing; the thinkpieces that everyone races to write to put the newest headline in context. I must have read six articles just today about how I should react to the Aziz Ansari news that by now you're probably already bored with. The thing is, I already reacted to that news. I read a few articles that supported my opinion, then hate-read two that didn't. It didn't change my mind at all. It's the same thing I've always suspected these articles to be, whether they are about why men don't like the new Star Wars, or whether it's OK for a sitting president of the United States to call other countries shitholes without understanding our country's role in how they got to be that way. They are a script for us to memorize and regurgitate when we get to work, or get into online fights, or chat about during dinner.

Like going through the seed catalog and imagining a garden, sitting down and writing these posts or long facebook rants that get comments like "here, here" or "well said, may I share?" makes me feel good sometimes and absolves me from getting my hands dirty. I could order every beautiful heirloom tomato in that catalog, put them in a drawer, and never plant a one. Then, while eating a boring BLT with tasteless grocery store tomatoes, I could grumble about how it's society that gives me these red waterbags when I asked for some flavor. I could write a thinkpiece about it.

It's time, I guess, to admit something that I've always kind of known. Thinkpieces don't put heirloom tomatoes in BLTs. Actions do. That's what An Unkindness of Ghosts is about. Actions, I mean. Not BLTs. Anyway, just read. This is the last one. You'll survive.

"Zero BLTs!" - Howie's Book Club

On paper, the character of Aster could be easily dismissed as the most PC character ever to be found in fiction. She is black, intersex, and probably somewhere on the autism scale. Instead of being a handful of cliches, though, she's deep and complex and funny; even if sometimes her humor is unintentional. Aster is a passenger on the HSS Matilda, an ark in space built to escape a dying Earth in search of another habitable planet. The Matilda is massive, with multiple labyrinthine decks surrounding a center filled with rotating crop fields and a nuclear reactor known as Baby Sun.

Somehow in the time since the ship departed several hundred years ago, the same kinds of people who would say something like "I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another.... Our families were strong, our country had a direction," found themselves in power. We don't know how long they've been in charge, but it has been long enough that most folks don't know any other life. If ever there was a democracy, it has been replaced by some kind of succession-based monarchy/theocracy. The sovereign is selected by God and his will is His, that kind of thing. Surprise! It's super racist.

Aster is on Q deck where it's almost always dark and the power is regularly restricted, leaving the residents with no heat. Guards patrol everywhere and do everything you'd expect small-minded people with no oversight would do. Aster, already struggling to belong anywhere because of analytical brilliance paired with a basic inability to decipher social cues, also straddles the two most distant social classes. Aster is essentially a slave, but also the assistant to the ship surgeon, one of the highest ranking members of the ship.

At first I thought that not fitting neatly into the mythical this-or-that sex binary was also a metaphor for being stuck between worlds, but I don't think that's the author's intention. It's just who Aster is and she is unashamed. I bet most real life people want a rare physical condition to be a defining character point, and this fictional one probably doesn't either. Aster, like most of the women on her deck, is the product of repeated and horrible trauma. Nobody wants that to define them, either, but usually that's not their choice.

Anyway, there's lots of stuff going on here, but essentially we're looking at a science fiction treatment of the antebellum slavery South. If you're on the top deck, or even one of the mid-decks, you're whte and things are A-OK. Even if you're in a middle deck and white, at least there's someone who has it worse than you, which is almost as good as being rich. You're on a thrilling adventure through space and you're probably not in a particular hurry to get to where you're going. Like Sara Miller, the real-life white Mississippi woman whose words appeared in this blog a while ago, you love the annual festivals and feasts but don't spend a lot of time worrying about the backs of people upon whom your entire life is propped.

A world that is unbearable for so many multitudes cannot continue, even if it's comfortable for a few.
Aster didn't mean it. As much as it frustrated her, she understood the logic of Giselle's psychosis. Everything dies, so exert control by burning it away yourself. Everything will be born again anyway. There's no such thing as creation, merely a shuffling of parts. All birth is rebirth in disguise. 
This book is so well-constructed you could use it as a text for how to build a novel. Nothing is introduced without being paid off in some way, even from the first page. It would almost seem coincidental, but there's a good reason for it. It's full of perfectly fired Chekhov's guns. In one case a literal one.

It's also relentlessly brutal because guess what; An Unkindness of Ghosts isn't really about a ship in space. If you're going to write a sci-fi treatment analyzing American slavery, it's going to be gnarly as f. It has to be. It would be irresponsible to delve into this kind of thing otherwise because while the very concept of enslavement is evil, it only touches on the depravity that was not only prevalent during that era, but actively and systematically protected by every level of government. Trying to talk about slavery as an abstract concept without dealing with rape, abuse, neglect, torture, and all of the rest of it is like when hotel staff just wipe the glasses out with a towel and put the paper back on top. It looks cleaner, but the nasty stuff hasn't gone anywhere.

I'm curious if multiple arks went out in multiple directions, each one morphing into its own new society over hundreds of years. Was this the natural progression based on the future society that existed before the ships took off? Or did a pluralistic society with a few weeds lurking in there eventually get corrupted? Or is this the natural tendency of humans when left to their own devices? Those are pretty good questions. There are an infinite number of possible outcomes for the other ships, some may be beacons of human innovation and paragons of equality, but the HSS Matilda isn't one of them. At least not yet. With someone like Aster aboard, anything seems possible.



Tuesday, January 16, 2018

What We Lose and Mourning With Those Who Mourn

In this regard I find myself dubious about the politics of women’s peace groups, for example, which celebrate maternality as the basis for engaging in antimilitarist work. I do not see the mother with her child as either more morally credible or more morally capable than any other woman. A child can be used as a symbolic credential, a sentimental object, a badge of self-righteousness. I question the implicit belief that only “mothers” with “children of their own” have a real stake in the future of humanity.
I don't have a lot of experience with grief. Friends of mine have died, but each time it has been after an extended period in which I hadn't seen them. At one point, Tony was one of my three or four closest friends, but I hadn't seen him in nearly a decade when I found out he'd overdosed and died. His funeral was weird and uncomfortable; it was held in a church that he hadn't attended in probably twenty years and filled with people who had probably never set foot in a chapel before. His sister gave a lovely talk, and the bishop who clearly never knew him doled out boilerplate platitudes that hopefully comforted the believers, but probably gave little to the majority of the attendees. I didn't envy the guy's position, but wished he'd spoken less.

One of Tony's close friends stood to talk, but was overcome by emotion and just sat down. Later my friends and I had a little party where we told stories about him and walked to the gully where we used to play and scattered a small bag of his ashes. I hope that the friends he'd made later in his life all had a chance to get together, too. Looking at his Facebook page it was clear he'd made an impact on their lives and they were suffering badly. In their messages I saw a lot of the same things I knew about him. He didn't judge anyone. He was emotionally available. He was funny. He liked to look straight in your eyes and get frickin' deep about something and wouldn't let you laugh it off.

I remember him introducing me to Rage Against the Machine in his basement and telling me what the machine was and explaining who burning guy on the cover was. Another time he decided to become a vegetarian, shortly after we went to a local concert and he disappeared for a while. He showed up a few hours later saying that on a whim he'd jumped onto a freight-train, depression-era hobo style, and jumped off near a McDonalds and ate the biggest hamburger they made, then he walked back. He would get mad that we all had a crush on his sister.

The news hurt bad, but it still struck far away from me. Like when I saw on Facebook that a work friend from years back had been t-boned at a stoplight, or when several acquaintances from high school committed suicide in the same year. I wasn't there among their family when it happened. I didn't watch it happen over months or years. There was a hole in my life, but not one that hit me every day.

Three of my grandparents have died, one of whom died pretty young of pancreatic cancer when I was a young teen. When we were waiting for my Grandma's diagnosis our family decided to hold a fast for her. Among LDS people, a fast usually lasts two meals and you don't eat or drink. The idea is that you want something extra badly and so you sacrifice to get it, also when you haven't eaten your body is weakened, which is supposed to heighten spirituality. Obviously we wanted the diagnosis to be good, but also we wanted to be comforted if it was bad.

I was at church that day, and someone found a big bottle of stale sprinkles and I kept eating them. I couldn't figure out why they were so delicious until I realized that I was starving, and then I realized why. I felt pretty awful about breaking my fast, but had honestly forgotten. Surely the God I believed in wasn't going to take away some of the strength of all of our prayers because a teenager forgot for a minute and ate some handfuls of sugar, corn syrup (which is also sugar I think?), corn starch, and food-grade wax (gross).

The diagnosis was bad and she went fast. One day, I think it was the Easter party, my cousins and I were playing tag or something and my mom asked us to play on the other side of the house so that Grandma could watch us play through the window. The memory that sticks with me every time I think of my healthy grandma is my sisters and I finding an old unopened Alvin and the Chipmunks card game in the basement and asking her if we could open it. She read the instructions and taught us how to play. I don't remember if the game was good, but was amazed that you could learn to play a game by reading the instructions. Up until then I thought of games like they were oral tradition; someone just knew the rules and we didn't question how. I thought every grandma kept a box of foil-wrapped Ding Dongs in their freezer, just for grandkids.

Both of my wife's parents have passed away, and in those cases the grief was more immediate and awful, but I feel like those stories aren't mine to tell. Watching her go through the death of two parents in such a short span was gut-wrenching, and being unable to do anything about it made me feel useless.

The weirdest part of grief for me is how everyone else's life just goes on when your own seems to be in tatters. I would run errands for my wife and there were cars on the road of people just going to work and yoga and shopping or whatever. The checkers at the store had their own problems and seemed completely unaware that a family had lost its matriarch. It makes you want to scream at the teens jostling around and joking in front of you; "don't you know that people are sad today?"

We don't do that because it would never stop. There are always sad people. While we post pictures of our Christmas dinners and happy kids with toys and sleepy parents who had to wake up too early because Santa came, or families in matching pajamas, someone is mourning. I have a friend who catalogs all of the local deaths on Christmas day. Each headline is the story of someone for whom the most wonderful time of the year is now a constant reminder of their loss.

What We Lose calls itself a novel, but it feels more like an autobiographical braided essay. I'm not sure what is true or made up in here, but it doesn't matter. Clemmons wrote it immediately after her own mother's death, and the emotions are so raw that it's a little uncomfortable sometimes. It seems rare to sit in grief when it's so urgent and the wounds are still so open. Her ability to capture that is a pretty amazing feat.
Loss is a straightforward equation: 2 - 1 = 1. A person is there, then she is not. But a loss is beyond numbers, as well as sadness, and depression, and guilt, and ecstasy, and hope, and nostalgia - all those emotions that experts tell us come along with death. Minus one person equals all of these, in unpredictable combinations. It is a sunny day that feels completely gray, and laughter in the midst of sadness. It is utter confusion. It makes no sense.

Thandi, the main character, bounces around in both time and topic. Sometimes she discusses the crime rate in South Africa (complete with graphs), others she talks about love and race. As a South African immigrant to the United States, she straddles the middle ground that's talked about in a lot of the books I've read. She feels like she doesn't belong anywhere.
I've often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe. Even while you're out in public, feeling fine and free, inside you cannot shake the feeling of rootlessness. Others may even envy you, but this masks the fact that at night, there is nowhere safe for you, no place to call your own.
The bananas thing to me about grief isn't that it seems like it sticks around for a long time, it's that people ever move on. I think about last spring when a mother and a bystander drowned trying to save a 4-year old child from a river near where I live. The mom left four kids, the bystander didn't know the family and left behind a wife. Honestly I don't know how people come back from that.

We were crushed this year when our beloved cat died. Going downstairs and telling my kids, especially the daughter whose bed our little kitty slept in every night, was one of the hardest dad things I've had to do yet. The other night I was looking under my bed for some chapstick or something and thought I saw her looking out at me, just like she used to (which was against the rules and she knew it). I can't imagine what it's like to lose a child. And someone loses one every day.
I realized that that was how heartbreak occurred. Your heart wants something, but reality resists it. Death is inert and heavy, and it has no relation to your heart's desires.
I don't really have a hopeful ending for this. I don't think that's the point. The frustrating thing about grief to me is that I never know how to help someone who is going through it. There's so much terrible stuff we tell people who have lost a loved one: "God needed them more than you did," "they're in a better place," "actually it's kind of blessing if you think about it." We want them to feel better because their hurting makes us uncomfortable when what they need is someone to mourn with them.

Here's a great illustration by BrenĂ© Brown.



I think that What We Lose does well is to bring us down in that hole. It points out how useless it is to ask someone who is hurting, "What can I do to help?" We need to know what it's like to hurt, and some of us have never had to hurt like that and we have no idea what it's like. If your best friend who you had brunch with yesterday and was your number one source of emotional support died today, my story about my old friend dying is the closest I have to what you're going through, and there is no comparison.
This was the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me? The question was so enormous that I could see only my entire life, everything I know, filling it.
We don't just grieve when people die. We mourn lost friendships, we pine for the days before health problems have changed our lives, we hurt for children and friends who have undergone a trauma that will change their lives forever. And we're all so bad at helping (I have been terrible about it). Maybe you're like me when you read the inside of this book jacket and think, "I don't want to read about someone's mom dying." It's not fun, but if we really want to help someone it's necessary. And to do that, we need to be able to crawl into that hole with them. It'll make sense if you watch the video.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Akata Warrior and a Very Important Instruction at the End

Overconsumption is a universal human trait,” Orlu pointed out. “And so is ignorance. - Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Warrior
I'm told that beards are going out of style, which I guess is a shame because the brief period in which they were was the only time I can think of when I was in style. It's also a shame if I decide that being in style is something I'd like to continue pursuing now that I've tasted the delicious savor of looking like the guys in men's magazines, if only between the bottom of my nose and the top of my Adam's apple. Because folks, I hate shaving.

I do shave, though, and daily. I was in a creative writing class once and there was a guy in our class who only wrote fiction in the Star Wars universe. Not only that, but the entirety of his fiction was based on his campaign in a dungeons and dragons-style pen and paper role-playing game. That's all fine, by the way, if you're someone who likes to write but hates even the prospect of being able to collect money for said writing. But he was also kind of mean. He would just tear apart everyone else's writing while refusing to accept any critique of his because nobody else understood what he was doing.

It should probably go without saying at this point that this man had a neck beard. Years later, when I first heard "neckbeard" as short-hand for the kind of guy who sits in his basement and writes multiple-page-long screeds about women not liking nice guys, I lost my mind with laughter. His single status is not a result of, as many of us would have guessed, his never leaving the basement; instead it's because women only like men who are awful and he refuses to let himself sink to that level. He is noble, this man, and his only requirement is for a woman to like Star Wars, but understand that she could never like Star Wars like he does (also she must be fit, beautiful, low-maintenance, never wear makeup, cook well, and understand her role in the relationship, which is to say she will give everything and will never receive anything of meaning in return).

Is shaming men with hair on their necks OK? No. Is it OK if he is also the kind of man who also spends hours online telling women that they should shave their legs daily? I submit to you that it is not only OK, but in fact the only way through this dark period in each of our lives that starts about halfway through kindergarten and ends at death. When I'm not sure where your nose hair ends, your mustache begins, or am sickly fascinated by the fact that there seems to be no delineation between beard hair and chest hair I think your opinion is less valuable.

There are times in my life where the only way to break myself of a bad habit is to see how I look from the outside when I meet or talk to someone with the same or similar habit. I felt like pretty hot stuff writing a novel during national novel writing month until I went to an event at the local library and saw another dozen people doing the same thing. Where I was thinking of myself in a tweed jacket and a pipe banging out a masterpiece, seeing the sweaty, desperate people just like me writing out pages and pages of words only a mother could pretend to enjoy deflated me a bit.

My creative writing friend from college with his gross black hair trailing down his neck like an advancing army of Sith warriors from the Old Republic made me touch a hand to my own nerf-herder scruff and reevaluate my life. Since then I have at least been able to keep it clean neck-wise, but I've sure hated it. I cut myself all of the time, which reminds me of a time when I went on a date as a teen. Like most of my social outings, it consisted of a free movie at the theater where I worked. We walked in, I said hi to people I worked with, and at some point in the movie I scratched my neck and found a wad of toilet paper I'd used to stop the bleeding of a now-routine shaving nick. I asked my date, annoyed, why she hadn't pointed it out, and she said it was to see how I reacted when I found out. She wanted to see if I had a sense of humor about embarrassment. It was a test I failed.

All of this dovetails into a goal I've had for the last six months or so that I'm trying to double down on as we enter the arbitrary frontier known as a "new year." That goal is to be an adult about stuff. Like all good goals it has very few measurable qualities and at no point will I know that I've accomplished anything, but the general gist of it is asking myself if the thing that I am doing or I am about to do is something an adult would do. It sounds awful, but it really isn't. It doesn't mean don't be silly, or go down waterslides, or laugh when a baby is clearly pooping in his diaper but is trying to be chill about it. It means taking stock of my day-to-day decisions and deciding if they are going to leave me in a better or worse place afterward.

I'm not sure if it's a generational thing or it's just more obvious to me because I'm living through it, but I feel like men my age figured out who they were at 16 or so and have just stayed there. Their hobbies and sensibilities and maturity level don't seem to have increased much since then. I'm including myself in that camp. When I was 16 the main thing people knew about me was that I like Mountain Dew. That was a stupid way to define myself then, and it's even more obnoxious now. It reminds me of an old co-worker who, at 50, still quotes Fight Club like the satirized viewpoint of its main characters' toxic masculinity is a relevant and even remotely valid point of view.

Here are some upshots of these decisions: I've stopped collecting old video games and have slowly replaced much of my video game time with reading good, solid, weighty books. I pay closer attention to how I dress given the circumstances I'm dressing for. I noticed how little soda the people I tend to look up to consume and am trying (this one is the hardest one, you guys) to cut down. I'm learning how to improve my cooking. What I've found over and over is that with a little extra effort and some learning curve, there are better and more satisfying ways to do everything. The newest addition is this: I'm trying to shave like a man.

See, for Christmas I got a starter set for a safety razor style shaver instead of the eight-blade disposable jobbies all over the place. Honestly up until now I thought the only use for razor blades anymore were to hide them in your mouth so that you can cut yourself out of a jam when you get captured. Instead of using the gel and quickly shaving in the shower and then dealing with bumps and ingrown hairs that make it a misery, I'm now whipping up shaving cream with a brush like Mad Men Man got for father's day that one time. I'm using aftershave, which up until now I assumed only existed so that novelists could lazily evoke memories of their fathers.

Not a sponsored post. Yet. Call me, you guys.

Like so many things I learned to do poorly as a teen (sleeping, eating, talking to human beings) and have spent decades attempting to do the right way, shaving this way is harder but better. For example, my whole life I've been taught to shave against the grain because that's how you get a closer shave. That's wrong! When you do that you shave under your hairs and that creates those ingrown hairs that suck so bad. Also, when you start paying attention to how the hair on your face and neck grows, you realize that it's going in all kinds of directions. You guys I haven't even started shaving my face yet and already just on my neck I'm dealing with four different directions. For someone who approaches every 4-way stop with the trepidation that should be reserved for only the biggest of decisions, it is a daunting undertaking.

Another benefit is instead of furtively cleaning up that nasty neckbeard in the shower, I'm doing this whole routine in front of a mirror which forces me to consider my current level of fitness in a way that is profoundly disappointing. I'm all for body positivity, my dudes, but that's for other people. Your boy has decided that if he's going to be shaving in front of a mirror for this long, luxurious regimen, he's gotta get cut so it's not so grody up in there.

I'm still getting the hang of it, but that's the whole point I'm trying to make. I think that so many of the things that make modern life modern give us 70% of the quality in exchange for removing the learning curve. The best example of this is cooking. Since being diagnosed with kidney disease I've learned how to make my own sauces, stocks, and soup bases. I've grown more of my own food every year since my first garden. Once you put in some initial work, though, the effort is about the same as the crappy alternative and the outcome is significantly better. Like, how can someone call no-bake cheesecake the same thing as the baked kind? There should be a law against that. It's obscene.

I learned how to braise, you guys
I get so mad about that cheesecake thing.

Anyway, the value of obtaining of knowledge is one of  the things that stuck with me about Akata Warrior. It's in Akata Witch, too, but I didn't think about it as much. If you remember from my last review and also from the book which you inevitably read because I said it was good, you'll recall that people who can use juju are called Leopards, and those who can't are called Lambs. In the Leopard world the only form of currency comes from obtaining knowledge. It's called chittim and it falls at your feet whenever you do learn something new. This could be from reading or someone explaining something to you, but is most often earned by doing something you didn't know you could do.



I was super fascinated with this idea as I powered through this wonderful, wonderful book and loved the idea that there was an immediate tangible reward for knowledge gained. In real life there is, too, it's just not as quick. Further complicating matters, there are a million different ways now to circumvent the gaining of knowledge for something that's almost as good and just happens to make someone else rich. From bread makers to frozen dinners to bagged salad, someone is happy to charge you extra to ensure that you don't learn the skills that they've convinced you that you don't need to have but were at one point considered vital.

I said that Akata Witch was a lot like Harry Potter. That wasn't a bad thing, but it's also impossible to ignore. Akata Warrior is its own book in every way. Once the initial world-building is in place, it gives Okorafor the chance to really explore in a way that is, to me, profoundly deeper than the Potter universe ever does. It's clear that with this book we're only getting the briefest glimpse of what the world she's created is and does, and unlike a lot of books and movies that dig deeper into unique fantasy worlds, it doesn't fall apart with further exploration.
"Leopard People read books by everybody and everything. We look outside and inside. But you have to be secure with yourself to do either..."
Sunny, after defeating a serial killer attempting to bring Ekwensu, one of the biggest and worst masquerades into the world, is starting to see visions of a city in ruins. She assumes it's the end of the world that the return of Ekwensu will bring about, starting with oil spills in the Niger delta and followed by mass fires. While that threat looms, she's also dealing with a brother who has gotten involved with a nasty gang, a freaky djinn, and some friction between her fellow warriors. It's all way fun and imaginative and was a great post-holiday read.

Anyway, that's my thing this week. Learn something new that improves your life in a way you can physically touch. Replace the quick way with the right way. Google how to bake banana bread, or better yet, use my favorite recipe. Make this roast chicken. It's one million times better than the rotisserie chicken at Costco and the stock it makes will improve everything you cook with it. Learn to knit. Take up carpentry. Bake me a cheesecake. The options are endless as long as you definitely do that last one.