Friday Shorts

Going to the desert and thinking too much about metaphors

Deserts are about getting rid of what you don’t need – you travel through them and leave behind whatever isn’t absolutely necessary. They whittle you down to your bare essentials, and leave you a better, if more battered, person afterwards.

Sand dunes only exist in a small part of Death Valley’s vastness. It was very windy the day we were there.

Let me tell you that a long weekend in Death Valley is neither so romantic nor so transformative. It was lovely and I learned a lot about the different types of deserts, but I also learned that all those rocks and so very little vegetation gets me a bit down.

This is the scene from Dante’s View. Death Valley National Park has lots of scenic points named after either the Devil or Dante.

The desert, the National Park Service would like you to know, isn’t desolate. There are lots of forms of life there, and they are just as deserving of protecting as more verdant areas, like jungles or forests. This is true. But it just seems so damn barren. It was a beautiful place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Golden Canyon, aka, one of several places Star Wars filmed.

Am I a better person for having gone to the desert? I believe that travel always widens your perspective on the world, both in terms of what’s possible to do and what’s out there. But it’s not like we were roughing it. The National Park has a lodge, and we stayed there. It was lovely.

This is all salt, mainly NaCl, the kind you find on your table. I wasn’t brave enough to taste it.

There’s nothing like seeing the barrenness to understand why those literary metaphors of sloughing away what’s not important exist in the first place. You can’t have anything that isn’t necessary if you’re going to survive there. The land can’t support it.

The sunsets are pretty, though.

I would absolutely recommend a visit, though. The land is striking, you can channel your inner geologist, and maybe even pretend that you’re Gertrude Bell or Lawrence of Arabia.

There’s a creek! In the desert! This is Salt Creek, and it’s fed by an aquifer rather than any kind of run-off. The plants and animals in it have evolved to deal with very salty water.

Enjoying more romance novels

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than by telling you about the latest romance novel series that I’ve been enjoying? London Celebrities is a romance series about stage cast and crew members who are thrown together in various ways and have various relationships, and, of course, have swoony happy-ever-after endings.

Act Like It is the first book, and the two leads are persuaded by the people running their production to fake a romance in order to help his reputation and keep ticket sales high. Pretty Face is the second, and an older director falls for a young up-and-coming actress (they talk a lot about how cliche it is). Making Up is about two people, an actress and a makeup artist, who initially dislike each other – and have since high school – but, you know, they’re thrown together and things change.

The books are charming, the romances are fairly believable, and overall, they were lovely stories. I listened to two of them as audiobooks and the narrator did a good job reading them.


World building is important

King of Scars is the highly anticipated (by me, anyway) next book that takes place in the Grisha universe that Leigh Bardugo has so beautifully created. She writes YA fantasy novels that take place in a fictionalized Russia and beyond where some people are magical and those people are called Grisha. (This is a terrible explanation, I know. But it gets the point across.)

There’s a secondary character in those books, Nikolai Lantsov, who the author, much of the fanbase, and me finds very glamorous and charming. King of Scars is the book she finally wrote about him.

It was never going to live up to the hype in my own head – because glamour depends on mystery and writing a book about a glamorous character necessarily means explaining that character, and will ergo make him less glamorous and more mundane. That is not my quibble with the book. She navigates that tightrope as well as can be expected and certainly better than I could have done.

No, my quibble is with the second half of the book where Nikolai and two of his partners in crime are suddenly thrown into a magical netherworld. Everyone else is dealing with the fact that these three people are suddenly gone.

Look, it’s YA fantasy and the author has explained the world in the following way: Grisha are people who interact with natural forces in a way others can’t. This ability gives them rejuvenating energy when they practice it, so they live longer than non-Grisha. This is all basically world building along the lines of: it’s the real world, but with a few tweaks. The previous five books in this world have confirmed and deepened this understanding.

This whole other netherworld thing feels very out of left field and much more fantastical than the rest. Like, this is a nice little bungalow house you have here, where does this door go to, oh look it’s an olympic sized swimming pool that dwarfs the rest of the house. It was jarring.

That said, I enjoy her books and I entrust her world-building and story-telling. King of Scars is part one of two and I’m definitely going to give her the benefit of the doubt and keep going. Besides, Nikolai is still awesome. I want to find out how this ends.

A book for next Halloween

Melmoth is based on an Eastern European myth about a woman who is cursed to walk the world forever. She’s lonely, and so keeps taking people to walk with her, eg disappearing them and maybe turning them into ghosts.

The book was fine. It was darker than I wanted it to be – I’d just read another book about a woman as anti-hero, which is what this is – but I enjoyed that it was primarily about women and how women interact and both support and don’t support each other.

If you’re going to read Melmoth, I would recommend that you read it during Halloween season, when you’re in the mood for something a little darker and a little scarier. It was initially published last October, and that was probably the best time for it to come out.

Growing up and figuring out who you are

Guy Branum’s My Life as a Goddess was funny and charming and wonderful. It’s his memoir about how his childhood was awful, how it screwed him up, how depression probably runs in his family, and how he eventually became happy. Or at least happy-adjacent.

To a degree, growing up is about figuring out who you are and how you fit into the world. His story is that, but on steroids. He extra doesn’t fit in and takes an extra long time to figure out that he’s gay (or at least that’s the impression you get reading the book) and it resonates. I mean, it’s his story and it’s specific, but it’s specific in that way that makes it also feel very relatable and like everyone goes through something similar, if not this specific story.

And since I like a good YA story – also about growing up and figuring out who you are – this one is also good. Very funny and highly recommended.

Horrors told lightly

Get Well Soon was a delight of a book. I very much enjoyed reading about all of the ways nature has tried to kill humanity over the years, from the virus that indirectly brought down the Roman Empire to the Bubonic Plague to the Spanish Flu of 1918, with an epilogue about AIDS.

And while I enjoyed the author’s flippant writing style as a way to offset the horrors of millions of people dying, I would understand if someone else thought it inappropriate or unsuited to the task.

Overall, Get Well Soon is a good way to learn a little bit more history than you knew before.

Myth and romance

I loved The Song of Achilles. It’s a retelling of the Iliad and some other related Greek myths through Patroclus’ eyes. It’s his view of history, his love of Achilles, their relationship, what it was like for them to grow up together, what it was like to go to war together, and what it was like in the camp.

But mostly: it was just a gorgeous love story. I’m a sucker for them, really. And Madeline Miller told this one so well. It’s highly recommended.

Gertrude Bell, badass lady

Gertrude Bell is seated between Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence.

One day, in my spare time, I will write about famous royal women in history. Until then, I will content myself with Anne Thériault’s Queens of Infamy series over on Longreads (which you should be reading). And as a part of that series, I will make an exception for non-royal Gertrude Bell, an Englishwoman who was instrumental in getting the British out of the government of the Middle East.

How to summarize Gertrude Bell? She was the daughter of one of Britain’s titans of industry, independently wealthy, full of energy, and an adventurer through and through. Before she explored the Middle East, she climbed the most difficult mountains in the Alps, mostly because she could.

Once she started exploring the Middle East, she became omnivorous about it, learning not only the languages and the customs, but also the history and peoples and more. Many of her expeditions were to ruins and historical sites that she was the first Westerner to explore, and the maps she created were the best of their ilk.

As WWI broke out, she offered her services and knowledge to the British Empire. They eventually took her up on the offer (of course there was sexism and having to prove she deserved to be in the room before anyone would start taking her seriously), and her knowledge of the tribal structures and people in the Middle East was a great asset during the war.

She was also instrumental in setting up Iraq as an independent country after WWI. She fought to get the best structure for the future Iraqis; the British government back in London was all about doing what was easiest for them. Those two things did not often align.

Basically, Gertrude Bell was a force to be reckoned with and historically important. Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations was a lovely introduction to her. Recommended.