Six Cells

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I first met you in the sterile chamber,
between white walls, under neon light.

It was strange to think you existed
outside of the human body,
six cells, pristine
in your transparent cradle
with the eyes of science
spying your very first
hours in the world.

I look down at the surface
of my abdomen, wondering
if under all the surgery scars
and injection bruises
something is actually coming
to life,
something resilient and stubborn.

And while philosophers and clergymen,
politicians and the man in the street
discuss whether you are or are not
human yet,
I like to think you’ve accepted
the challenge
and are already making a statement
through your daring to live
against all odds.

Black Hole Reads: Foundation

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Foundation is the first volume of Isaac Asimov’s well-known series. In the book, psychohistory is a discipline whose goal is to predict future events through a mathematical model applied to large groups of people. Such an approach adds up to the originality of the novel, because its focus is not on the quest of a hero but on general dynamics of history: masses are at its center, not individuals.

To some extent, the activity of the psychohistorian is similar to that of the science fiction writer trying to imagine a future.

The Galactic Empire history seems to mirror the evolution of society in the middle age, with the clash between religious and secular power and later the rising of the merchants and the middle class.

The initial idea is good, but I’m not impressed. Characters are not well described, nor there is enough psychological insight. Hari Seldon and the others are merely names with a public role attached. There’s too much politics and no room for the individual background of the charachters. Decades pass by too fast and the reader has no time to get used to them. There can’t be much involment on the reader’s part when there is no one in the story he can identify with.
This is supposed to be a classic of science fiction, but it didn’t click with me. I had high expectations which were disappointed. But I’m not giving up on this author. I’ll try and read something else by Asimov before I decide whether it’s worth to continue the Foundation cycle or not.

Black Hole Reads: Stranger in a Strange Land

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Valentine Michael Smith is born during a mission to the red planet, and gets raised by the Martians. When a human airship comes and takes him back to the Earth 25 years later, he’s completely innocent and confused, knows nothing about his own people and planet and has to learn everything from scratch. Also, he finds himself with a immeasurable inheritance that causes the goverment to segregate him in order to lay hands on his patrimony and political privileges. He’s lucky enough to meet a bunch of shrewd but well-meaning friends who help him shake the goverment off his back and move to a safe home. Thanks to his supernatural powers, charisma, good looks and, of course, money, he soon adjusts and finds his place in the world.

This novel seems to have influenced ’60s counterculture and inspired the free-love revolution. The main charachter is an individual who is completely estranged from human behaviour codes, and his naive reactions prompts his mates, as well as the  reader, to reflect on how arbitrary and artificial morals are. There are no absolute ethic values; even truth is relative.

The movement founded by the man from Mars looks like a hippy commune. But are the women really liberated? They’ve definitely lost their inhibitions in favour of sexual freedom, but their role is still that of a helper to the man: they all look like Barbies, do all the cooking and the most they can achieve professionally is becoming a nurse or a stereotyped sexy secretary. The book sounds hypocrite and still full of the petty bourgeois values of conformist ’50s America. After all, an author who has a female character state “nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped it’s partly her fault” can’t be very progressive.

However, although I would not certainly define Heinlein’s novel a masterpiece, I’ve quite enjoyed it in spite of the sexist mentality, because it has the light tone of a comedy, but is also an excuse to discuss philosophy. With a heavier tone, all those pages and pages of debating on various moral issues would be unbearable.

Black Hole Reads: Gods of Riverworld

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The final chapter of The Magic Labyrinth looked like a happy ending: every obstacle seemed to have been overcome, but it was by no means so. Nothing was solved. Our eight heroes have settled in the tower, deeply paranoid and haunted by an ubiquitous past. Moreover, they now have to face the responsibility that comes along with power. The enemy was defeated, but is it really so?

There is less adventure and more philosophical reflection in this last volume of the Riverworld saga. If you were in a position to kill Hitler, would you do it? Would it be ethical? Are spouses, parents and children still bound in the afterlife? How much time people should be allotted to save themselves? How do you establish when a soul is beyond redemption? Do men have free will, or is everything predetermined? These and more questions must be answered by Burton’s “team” as they realize that playing God is not much fun.

Black Hole Reads: The Magic Labyrinth

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This is the book in which all puzzles are solved except one: what happens to the wathans after they finally break free from the reincarnation cycle? However, the expedition gets inside the tower and the identities of the mysterious stranger, X, is revealed, as well as that of the Operator.

I think the description of the boat battle is too long and detailed, and as usual there is too much repetition of explanations already present in the previous book about the peculiarities of life in the Riverworld. Apart from that, I’m still being dragged on by the compelling action and the affection I developed for some characters. Sadly, not all of them make it to the destination, but this makes the story more engaging.

Black Hole Reads: The Dark Design

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Resurrections have stopped in the Rivervalley, and someone is starting to notice there are very few people who died after 1983. Some new characters are introduced, and some of the old are not quite what they claim to be.

The Dark Design is the third instalment of the Riverworld series. The book is as thick as the first two put together.

It could have been shorter if there wasn’t so much repetition of how things work in the hereafter. This is probably for the benefit of readers who haven’t read the other books, but spoils the reading experience for those who are reading the whole series. Once again, Farmer stands out as a very inventive author who sometimes goes too far with digressions. Also, he could avoid being too technical and converting metrical to imperial and vice versa every time a measurement is given. However, it doesn’t get too dull, thanks to the intriguing subplots and the shift in the point of view from one character to the other, unlike the previous volume which was mostly centered on Sam Clemens.

I’m by no means saying that The Dark Design was disappointing. Like in every saga, one can’t expect the writing to be excellent 100% of the time. The story still holds my interest, for several reasons: it’s difficult to tell the bad from the good in this series, and this is an excellent way to keep up the suspense in adventure stories. Also, Burton and Clemens – the heroes of books one and two – are both back, and this makes you expect that at some point in the novel they will finally meet, thus allowing for their storylines to merge.

I had a moment of sheer intellectual pleasure when Alice quoted a few lines from Chile Roland to the Dark Tower Came. This confirms my theory that Riverworld and Stephen King’s The Gunslinger were both inspired by Browning’s poem.

I’m at the third book of the Riverworld series and still enjoying it: the idea at the base of it is original but I suspected the novelty would wear out after about 1000 pages. In spite of some minor flaws, that hasn’t happened. “Towerward ho!”

Tome of the Month: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is having an enormous success worldwide. As I am attracted to minimalism, and am now adjusting to what might probably be my final and permanent home, this book came just at the right time.

The idea behind it is very simple, and can be summed up in a few points:

1) The discarding process must be done in one session, and only once in a lifetime.
I see her point and agree. The operation must be on a large scale and quickly completed in order to cause two shocks:

First, it should leave you wondering at how many things you own, and admitting with yourself that most of them are unnecessary. This is only attainable by taking everything out and piling it up in the middle of the room, because you don’t actually realize how many things you own as long as it is stored inside the furniture.

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Why did I even buy all these clothes, when I have almost no social life?

Second, the shock of seeing how much space has become available, and how calm they feel being in that room after the visual clutter has disappeared.

It is a healthy little trauma: if it makes a lasting impression, it is more likely that the process will lead to a change of habits. Discarding a few things a day, as suggested by other decluttering experts, won’t make a difference. The person will lose motivation and fill the void with new stuff.

2) Another good point is that you should not involve your family, unless they want to take part in the decluttering “festival”. In doubt, it’s better to avoid interference, at the cost of not getting any help. Many of our possessions that we would gladly let go continue to take up place in our houses because we feel obligations to dear ones who gave those to us. You don’t need more guilt-provoking complaints by your mum who tries to talk you into keeping that horrible coat because it’s such a good quality fabric.

3) Don’t organize; just toss. It’s no use buying more containers to effectively organize things: it will only prompt you to buy more stuff. You need to let go of a large portion of your possessions, and what’s left will fit in the furniture you already have. It’s much easier to keep things in order when you only have few: that’s a no-brainer. It’s amazing that we needed a book to tell us so. The solution may appear simplistic, but it’s probably the only one that works in the long run.

It may also seem elitist, because not everyone can afford to keep only what “sparks joy” and dispose of, donate or recycle the rest. But what is more of an economical waste? Throwing away several bags of crap that will eventually dumped anyway when we are dead, that’s not a crime in the face of the poor. The real crime would be replacing it with new stuff. It doesn’t matter if you get rid of 30 bags of clothes or just one, as long as you break the cycle of buying new things that you’ll only wear once or twice before they end up at the bottom of the pile and are forgotten. I am skeptical that putting away every object after use will alone keep the house tidy. What’s missing from the book is advice on shopping more wisely after the purge. Hopefully, there will be a sequel?

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The glossy feel of this green top definitely sparks joy…

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…and so does the checkered pattern of this shirt.

I was appalled to find out that there are adults out there who need to be told that clothes must be folded and not thrown loosely inside the closet. Skimming reviews and comments on the web I saw so many grown-ups who can’t be bothered to fold socks. They claim they have no time for that. Seriously, people?  Performing this very simple action literally takes 2 seconds, you only have to juxtapose the two of them and fold them in half. If you’re not convinced, think of the time lost trying to reunite the pair when you’re rummaging in your drawer of random underwear while getting dressed in a hurry in the morning.

Folding clothes is, again, a no-brainer: but there is obviously a market for that kind of tutorials, and Kondo made a couple videos that provide the practical explanations which are completely absent from the book. People can’t take care of themselves and use children as an excuse for their bad housekeeping. Starting from such a mentality, it’s quite easy to make a dent for Marie Kondo’s system.

I didn’t read this book because I have an organizational issue: my house is certainly not perfect, but everything has a place, more or less. Even so, it feels wrong. Let’s just say that I’m good at playing tetris. For instance, I can’t exercise because I have no space to place a mat on the floor and move comfortably, without being in the way between my family members and the TV. Also, my precious books had to be boxed and exiled downstairs, until I finally decided it was too much stuff even for the garage. Last year I threw away a large number of tomes, but I’m still very, very far from Kondo’s 30 books (which is not my goal – I DO value culture and education).

So, I did the purge. Did it work? In part.

Taking clothes out of the closet and mixing them kind of put them “out of context”, so I saw them in a different way. Spreading clothes on the bed enabled me to see flaws in two garments that I couldn’t have noticed by going quickly through the wardrobe racks. Also, touching an old, faded pajama top I was about to make into dusting rags made me change my mind and realize it was a keep. I wore it the following night and now I’m sure it was the right choice. It’s so comfortable!

However, the number of discarded clothes amounts to only 30 items. That is, one garbage bag and a half. The photos show there is no big difference in the closet, except the pile of sweaters on the left side has disappeared. It seemed a success at first, because I had managed to fit everything except the boxes in the right section of the wardrobe. Unfortunately, the comeback of a tracksuit and a few T-shirts form the laundry messed up everything again, and I had to occupy the empty space with those.

before KonMariafter KonMari

Books were even more difficult. I filled a large shopping bag, but 33 volumes out of several hundreds is a drop in the bucket. The author says you should get rid of unread books because if you haven’t read them yet chances are you will never have the time or will to do it in the future. But I don’t “stock” on books. I have read every single book in my collection, and the dull ones have left this house long ago.

There are also individual reasons why the method hasn’t worked wonders in my case:

– I moved 3 times in the last 7 years, so I’d already had the enlightening experience of seeing the totality of my belongings scattered through the floor in all their impossible abundance;

– I had already thrown away some stuff before each move;

– I tend to dress in a classic style rather than following the latest fashion, which means most of my clothes don’t become outdated so quickly;

– I hand-wash clothes that are meant to be hand-washed, which results in a longer lifespan of the item.

I’d recommend The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to fellow aspiring minimalists because the simplicity of the method is what makes it effective.

However, I believe this self-help book will only work for people who buy on impulse big time, are extremely untidy or have never tried at decluttering systematically before.

If you’re just someone who has realized he or she has too many things and is affected by the psychological burden of owning too much stuff, the KonMari method is not likely to have a big impact. The change will be more noticeable in a house that is overwhelmed by chaos, than in one that’s simply too full.

P.S.: I would like to know more about the author. Does she cook? Does she have a garage? Are the Japanese not required to keep important papers such as receipts, payslips, warranty, documents proving you own your house? Hopefully she will translate more of her site into English soon.

Tome of the Month: The End

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It’s official: I’ve set a new world record in ineffectiveness and inconsistency. My plan to make Tome of the Month a regular feature hasn’t worked out. Yes, I know: after only two instalments.

My time management issue has not been solved. In fact, it’s getting worse. Before I get so distracted that I make a huge mistake at work, which might result in getting fired, or before I burn the breakfast milk (again), which will result in a revolting smell all around the house, I must take measures. I need to further downsize my 2015 reading list and not feel compelled to review every book I finish. My need to revert to a healthy, active lifestyle collides with sedentary hobbies and interests like reading and writing.

Moreover, I’ve realized lately that I lack some practical skills. There are vital things I should learn from my mother before she’s gone, such as gardening, making hand-made pasta and cooking “advanced” dishes like fish and rabbit chasseur. Also, I know I’ve delegated too many tasks to my husband (especially car-related ones), and they’re all things I’d better learn or re-learn. As long as I was single, I had gotten used to take care of myself quite well, but after he came into my life I’ve become lazy and let him take charge. Should anything happen to him, I’d find myself quite lost. Survival skills are certainly more important than writing skills!

This blogger was thrown in a natural environment out of the blue. He has obviously no clue what to do with all that grass. He’s lost, so he reverts to the screen.

It was exciting and reassuring to see that the writer in me still remembers how to hold a pen in her hand, after all these years of dumb office work. But I did a reality check, and had to admit blogging is not a priority. So I have to limit my activity here to poetry. I won’t stop posting book reviews and other things, but I will do that occasionally. Sadly, I can’t seriously commit to writing: trying to become an author means dedicating at least one hour a day to that goal, and I just can’t fit it into my schedule.

A rabbit stew. It doesn’t quite match my mother’s recipe, but it’s the closest I found to a rabbit chasseur.

As I realize my liberal arts background has brought me nowhere – and if it hasn’t done anything for me so far, it never will – I have come to see my education as a burden that weighs me down and as mental clutter, rather than a useful asset which might help me pursue a satisfactory career. It’s time to face the fact that I have failed to become an intellectual like in my childhood dreams, and took an ordinary job that pays the bills instead. No deep thinking required there. I must come to terms with it. I must finally let go of that chapter of my past, archive it and close the door, keeping a receptive attitude and be confident that new doors will open. Throwing several boxes of old textbooks and notes seals it.

So be it. I know this is the wisest thing to do right now.

Black Hole Reads: The Real Story

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Let’s face it: this book is BDSM porn disguised as science fiction.
A few sex scenes can contribute to make a story more realistic, but as I hit page 70 I realised there had hardly been anything else so far.

It’s a pity, because the style is flowing and quite concise, and I appreciate the originality in adopting the bad guy’s point of view: however, I find it disturbing to be in the maniac’s mind  all the time. I decided to endure until the end because of these two features and also because it was only 158 pages.

Well, I was rewarded. The value of this novel is in the last few chapter, where it becomes clear that the author is playing with the traditional triangle of drama roles, mixing them up. He writes extensively about this in the afterword, where he also deals with the creative process and explains how he got inspiration from Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

The Real Story is part of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Gap saga. I might try and read more of the series, just to see if they’re all alike, but not now. For the moment, I think I’ll dive again into that Riverworld – pun intended – for a while.

The Konmari Method

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It’s time to end the tyranny

of things.

 

All that’s gross

will be tossed.

Half the stuff

is enough.

 

Family members who tend to hoard

will be thrown overboard.

 

You’re allowed to destroy

all that fails to spark joy,

and you will have to drop

unrealistic expectations

while you conquer your space

and rebuild your foundations.

 

The clutter on show

is the source of your pain;

you must let it go

then you’ll breathe once again.

Spread it all on the floor

and consider its volume;

then imagine right there

a relaxing, clean vacuum.

 

The room’s in a jumble,

you’re going to stumble.

You’re feeling the urge

the closet to purge,

but please do not start

too near to your heart.

 

The meaningless clothes

will first leave the nook;

then off to the rows

of precious, dear books.

Then paper and bills;

by now you can safely

address your mementos

without grieving painfully.

 

Get rid of the mess

of goods in excess.

Recycle, donate

but don’t ruminate.

 

You need only do this

once and for all;

what’s left then is You,

your self-made Future,

the white canvas of a wall.