You Make Me Happy, When Skies are Gray

I got up this morning with high hopes. (I may not have been bright-eyed and bushy tailed, but wrapped in a fluffy pink robe and shuffling through to the kitchen to get Cheerios still counts as being “up,” even if not fully functional.) Why high hopes on this random day in February? Because I could see across the river, and seeing across the river means that the air pollution is down, which means, hope against all hope, we might see a ray or two of sunshine at some point today.

It may sound a bit ridiculous to be cheered by the sight of a river that is less than 100 yards from my apartment, but we’ve been weeks with a steady haze in Chengdu. For those of you who follow air quality indexes (two years ago I would have asked who in their right mind does that, but after a couple of years working for the State Department as a community liaison office coordinator, I am more well-versed in the science of air junk than I ever imagined I would be), we’ve been running a steady 160-180 for a couple of weeks now. With a bit of overnight rain though, we broke through that depressing gray miasma and when I checked the monitor first thing this morning, we were at an AQI of 80. I can’t remember the last time we were in double digits. This is exciting news in Chengdu-the soup has parted!

Having lived most of my life in Idaho, I’m used to cold winters, but for the most part they were sunny winters. Yes, the Treasure Valley has its annual inversion and I know it is no fun at all for that week or two in January when Bogus Basin is invisible, but Boise at its worst is Chengdu at its best.  So, yes, I can do cold winters (I don’t like them and prefer to avoid them, which is why Malaysia is going to be fantastic for the next two winters), but they are survivable as long as that brilliant orb in the sky makes a daily appearance.

Every summer, I convince myself that Chengdu winters aren’t really that bad, while at the same time counseling all of the new officers that they should really plan a vacation to Thailand or Indonesia during January or February. Nothing heads of a bout of seasonal-affective disorder like a few days in Bangkok or Bali. Heeding my own advice would have been a good thing this year. (We did go to Hawaii in January, but I definitely could have used a February-Phuket boost as well.)

It really is that bad.

Luckily, Pope Gregory had the wonderful foresight to make February the shortest month of the year, shortening the amount of time I grumble about winter weather. (Like it or not, when March rolls around, I consider it spring. In my mind, the air is going to get magically better, I’ll be able to put my winter coat away for the last time and say goodbye to my tights for a few years.)

In elementary school, we learned that March “comes in like a lion and out like a lamb,” which I am totally fine with. A lion’s head is surrounded by a giant orange and yellow sphere, which is exactly what I am looking for! (Apparently, I need Thad’s post-Malaysia posting to be in Africa, as my lion-anatomy is heavily reliant on cartoons.)

Elusive Mr. Sunshine has yet to make an appearance yet today, but it is still early. I will keep my fingers and toes crossed that some much needed vitamin D breaks through the smog soon. As for now though, I will content myself with the clear(er) view of the building across the alley and knowing that my lungs will get a bit of respite when I head out to get noodles for  lunch this afternoon.

(I must admit to a bit of growing trepidation though, as I just checked the AQI and rather than holding steady in the 80s and I had hoped, we are climbing back up, having passed the triple-digit mark and now sitting at 112. Nevertheless, I’ll keep all ten toes and all ten fingers crossed. Sunshine might still happen.)

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The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir

the martian

Lately, I’ve been intrigued with this movie, Gravity that came out last fall in the States. As I wasn’t home at all during the time it was in theaters and I don’t want to pay $20 to watch it on Amazon, I’m still mostly in the dark about it. But, the reviews I read when it was out caught my attention and I am secretly hoping it will be a viewing choice on the airline when I head home in late May. With that spark of interest in outer space ignited, I was excited when I saw The Martian listed on the best books of the week on Huffington Post. (That weekly article costs me *way* too much money!) I figured this novel could tide me over until I have a chance to watch Ms. Bullock and Mr. Clooney do their thing on the eight-inch seat back screen provided by United.

Andy Weir does not disappoint! I was drawn in from the very start, sliding through pages quickly. Mark Watney, a NASA-trained astronaut, was a part of a group of scientists who were going to explore Mars for 31 sols (a bit longer than an Earth day) and then head back to our little third rock from the sun. But, through a series of unfortunate and unlucky events, he gets left behind when his colleagues are forced to call their mission, 25 sols short of their intended stay.  What Watney does have going for him is those first six sols, when the team had time to establish their camp, giving him at least a bare minimal chance at survival; although what he has to survive for is quickly called into question. Is it really just prolonging the inevitable?

While I’ve read reviews that said they didn’t like the sometimes chatty tone of Watney’s diary, I thought it created a nice balance to the heavy science jargon and mathematical equations that permeate much of the tale of attempted survival. Watney is a likeable character, stuck in a horrible situation. Throughout the narrative though, it felt realistic. He doesn’t give into the overwhelming pressure put upon him and become a crumpled mass of helplessness, but his humanity shows as he does crack at times. His humor is what keeps him sane throughout the ordeal.

As would be expected of a book based on NASA and space flight, science and math play a heavy roll in the narrative. There were times I felt exhausted by the technicalities of space travel, feeling like an 11th grader stuck back in Mr. Tilsey’s chemistry class, desperately trying to balance equations, but not really understanding what I was doing. The technical parts of The Martian had that same feel for me. I would read them and get through them, but I couldn’t have summarized them with any accuracy. But, luckily for the less than scientifically-minded readers like myself, it doesn’t distractingly take away from the narrative. (Although, I am sure for those who can follow these details, the book has a whole different level of interest that I just couldn’t tap into.)

On a personal level, I love that the earth-side of this book partially takes place in northern Gansu province, in the town of Jianquan, where China’s space program is located. I’ve had a couple of chances to visit there, spending two weeks with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers doing a summer outreach program. It was incredible to see this off-the-map town featured so heavily in an American novel.

When I get through a book, cover to cover, in just two days (work days at that!), it must be a good read! Even with just a few pages left, I wasn’t ready to bet money on the outcome and still feel like it could easily have ended differently, depending on the whims of the author when he wrote those final stages. The only thing holding Andy Weir’s book from a full five shells is the incredibly scientific passages that had me skimming in search of more action. The Martian earns a very solid:

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99 Adventures in Chengdu on the Calendar (sung to the tune of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall)

As I was riding home in the cab today, after I got over my slight fuming at the jerk who tried to steal the cab I had hailed (That’s a whole different story involving some angry Tarzan-like Chinese and some much more elaborate, but not eloquent, English, resulting in me sitting in the cab, while jerk-dude and his girlfriend were left in my pollution-filled dust.), I realized that we are well under four months left in Chengdu, which then got me thinking about that kindergarten stand-by where they celebrate the 100th day of the school year, which led me to pondering exactly how many days we did have left in Chengdu. (I know, it was a bit of mental rattling around, especially considering I never even went to kindergarten, but that’s what happens to many folks on a Friday afternoon of a very busy week and to those of us with blonde hair a little more often than that.)

With my curiosity now peaked to the point of cat-killing, I hurriedly changed out of my dress (I opted for a cute red and blue dress covered in hearts, thinking it would be appropriate for the 14th, which it was, but I quickly realized what it was not appropriate for was February! Let’s just say that dress won’t be making an appearance again until summer rolls around!) and pulled up a 2014 calendar. Fourteen days left in February, thirty one in March, thirty in April and then twenty-four in May. 14+31+30+24=99. I missed the epic 100 day countdown by less than twenty-four hours!

Now knowing that I have broken into the double digits of Chengdu days, I already feel a little homesick for this quirky southwest China city. I have only ninety-nine days to perfect my nearly Olympic-level loogie pirouette, where my foot slips in an unknown highly-viscous substance, I flail slightly and grimace greatly, but stay upright and continue along my way, pushing down my gag reflex and trying to convince myself that it was just water, or possibly dog urine, which is a much better alternative than the probable reality. I have only ninety-nine days left to risk my life, skittering across roads without crosswalks or understandable traffic patterns, but with uncovered manholes and scooters headed in all directions. And, I have only ninety-nine days left to join vacation photos in TianFu Square, People’s Park and JinLi Lu, becoming the random pasty girl in the family photo that I still am not sure how they explain to their friends back home. (Do they claim I am a new friend or do they admit that they just took a picture with a totally random stranger because she was tall, with blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin? Oh, to be a fly on the wall…)

Ninety-nine days!

It is going to fly by. Soon, we’ll have to cull the winter weather herd, sending boot and heavy coats to storage, granting a pardon only to a few hoodies and layers for future travels. Then, it will be series of lasts: last hotpot dinner, last trip to the ridiculous IKEA, last CLO outing and last days at work.

I can’t believe we’re down to ninety-nine days, but I am excited to have ninety-nine more days to explore the city and enjoy all the strange and quirky bits that make Chengdu such a great place to live. Rather than countdown (I thought about making a paper chain like we did in elementary school for the weeks leading up to Christmas- red, green, red, green, red, green), since it seems so negative, as if I am dying to get out of here, I am going to count up. I’ve got ninety-nine days of adventure ahead of me, kicking off tomorrow afternoon with #1- ice skating at the world’s largest building- the Global Center.

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The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia by David Stuart MacLean

The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia by David Stuart MacLean

the answer to the riddle is me

The Answer to the Riddle is Me recently popped up on a friend’s Facebook page and I was instantly drawn to the dark humor of the subtitle A Memoir of Amnesia. The contradiction between a book written to record memories and a brain that has no recollection of those memories made me curious to see what direction David MacLean’s writing would take. Would it be filled with a dark, self-depreciating humor at the situation or bitter and angry or just plain lost and hopeless? Whichever way the story played out, it was this snappy little play on words that prompted me to download the newly released book.

When MacLean wakes up on a train platform in India with no idea who he is, where he is or how he got there, his life begins to unravel. Luckily for him, a tourist policeman realizes there is something wrong with this young man and goes out of his way to offer is assistance and get him to a safe home. Throughout their time together, the officer assumes MacLean is just another foreign tourist who came to the country to use drugs and party and his lack of awareness is really just a terrible high that has yet to wear off. The cop places him in the home of a local woman who helps drug addicts get cleaned up, where both remind him that that his choices are causing great pain for his parents. Soon though, MacLean is admitted to a hospital, as he begins to have seizures and requires medical help for his condition.

As the tale continues, it soon becomes apparent that MacLean is not just a recent college graduate on a multi-continental bender, but rather a Fulbright scholar in India working on a novel, through a grant from the US State Department. It was with a huge amount of relief that I read the first discussion of Lariam. Suddenly, the narrator isn’t an unreliable recreational drug user, but rather (though no fault of his own) an unreliable fellow world traveler. While I was a bit horrified to realize how much I had been judging MacLean for his predicament when I could just think of him as a dumb college graduate traveling the world in search of a party, I definitely fell much deeper into the book when I could make a connection with him as someone seeing the world in hopes of understanding it better, rather than just looking for the next street deal.

Once the doctors realize that MacLean is having horrific side effects from the anti-malarial drug he had been prescribed, they begin to try to push it out of his system, but none of that brings back his memory. His parents take him back to the States, where he spends the next few years trying to piece back together who he was before his psychotic break and who he is in its wake. Friends and passed girlfriends, none of which he can remember, begin to create a tale of who he was, but it is like reading about a different person. All stories of someone else. This book is a fascinating look at what it means to be “you.” With no memories of your past, what do you base your future upon?

This book is also a powerful reminder that even “approved” medications can have serious side effects and for people who often travel to malarial regions of the world, difficult decisions have to be made about prevention vs. possible infection.

The only thing that holds me back from giving this book a full five shells is that I would have liked a deeper look into how MacLean actually rebuilt his life. With little memory, I was surprised at how quickly he jumped back into graduate school. Delving deeper into what memories remained intact while others were lost would have been helpful, as at times I didn’t understand his loss in certain areas and his full comprehension of others. (Academic learning vs. social habits.)

David MacLean’s newly released memoir The Answer to the Riddle is Me is highly readable and for those considering taking Lariam, it is a “must read,” easily earning it:

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Arena One: Slaverunners by Morgan Rice

When I realized it had been awhile since I posted a book review, I went back to the blog to check just how long it had been and was horrified to see my last book review went up on November 15- nearly two and half months ago. It isn’t that I haven’t read anything since November, but somehow I’ve been lazy and not written up any of them, good or bad. (And boy, there have been some doozies on either end of that spectrum.)  It is probably not a good idea to go back and try to cover all of those missed reviews, so I’ll just promise to be better about them from here on out and pick up where I am now.

Arena One: Slaverunners (Book #1 of the Survival Trilogy) by Morgan Rice

arena one

I initially picked up Morgan Rice’s Arena One because it was billed as a book for people who loved Hunger Games, which I did. (Although my love in the series diminished with each subsequent novel.) I figured this might be the next great YA trilogy and I was excited to start a new series. I’ll be brutally honest here- don’t bother.  I’ve never read a book that seemed to be written solely with the thought of making millions in Hollywood. The whole thing seems ready to translate directly into a screenplay that will be attempt to be the next big summer blockbuster.

Arena One starts out in the not-so-distant future when the US has been destroyed by a second Civil War- this one brought on by the fractious nature of the American political system, where each side takes more and more extreme positions, until actual war breaks out, trapping the citizens in the middle of the politicians deadly hubris.  After the government fails, large gangs take over the big cities and scour the countryside for any holdouts, hoping to make them slaves or pit them against each other, to the death, as a form of entertainment and a show of power. Hence, the existence of Arena One.

The premise of the book is by no means unique or horribly intriguing, but with a great writer at its helm, it could make a great story. Instead, Rice spends most of it writing car chase scenes and increasingly violent hand-to-hand combat battles. I think the initial chase scene is where I began to lose interest. I get the desire for action and the seemingly endless car chase may definitely draw in young male readers, but it felt like it went on for an eternity. How a car, no matter how plated and outfitted, would ever be able to submit to the abuse in the early chapters of this book is beyond me. And yet, it does and keeps on rolling! This whole section of the book felt like it was being written for the big screen, rather than meant for the realm of words on a page.

While another series with a strong female lead character is always a positive thing (especially when it is one that draws in both male and female readers), but I hate that yet again, that lead character has to get caught up in a romantic relationship, or worse yet, a love triangle. Brooke is a caring young woman who has spent the last handful of years protecting her little sister on her own, but the instant a boy walks into her life, she suddenly gets all oozy/woozy about him. (To be fair, she is still the physically and mentally stronger character, so she doesn’t totally wimp out, but it would have been awesome if this new compatriot had also been female.)

As the action (and I do mean action!) continues, there are more car chases, lots more blood and gore and a bit of suspense to lead into the second book in the trilogy. I can definitely see where middle school boys would love this book and if I were still teaching, I would definitely buy it (and it’s sequels) for my classroom, but on a personal level, I just hated how much it felt made-for-Hollywood. Knowing that popular YA books translate into massive bucks when they are released in theaters, it felt like Rice was pandering too much to the exes who might buy his stories. With that in mind, I give Arena One by Morgan Rice only:

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