Books and Tea

Books. Tea. Cats. Scribbling.

New Spaces, New Hobbies

It’s a week into the new month. Let’s celebrate with some random brain vomit.

Twitter and Alternatives

So. That Guy now owns Twitter. I’m still using it for now, but I’m investigating other options in case things continue circling the drain. Currently, I’m experimenting with Mastodon — catch me through @cvasilevski@Wandering.Shop. Wandering.Shop is home to a lot of SF/F people and Annalee Flower-Horne is one of the admins, so I feel fairly confident about its code of conduct and moderation policies.

Still, this whole thing sucks. Twitter was my most-used social network. I made friends through it. I got my (admittedly small) toehold in the SF/F community because of it. It helped me find jobs. I honestly think I learned more about feminism and activism and intersectionality through it than I did through getting my entire goddamned BA in Women’s Studies.

Plus, Twitter is the only platform that really prioritized text over everything else. It allowed weird, happy collisions between different disciplines. It kept me on top of the latest news around Covid-19 when the mass media decided that we should all “return to normal”. I really don’t know exactly what’s going to fill the void that it leaves.

Part of me wonders whether Twitter’s takeover will lead to a resurgence of blogs and RSS feeds. I kind of hope so! I mean, I’m still using the self-hosted RSS tracker I installed on my other domain in 2013 to keep track of blogs. (Speaking of which: yes, I have an RSS feed here! Please feel free to use it!)

Drumming and My Magpie Brain

A Rav Vast drum. It's round, made of steel, and coated with a blue coating and finished off with a rim made of brass. It's shaped kind of like a lentil or flying saucer. It's resting on a snare drum stand, most of which is obscured by the drum itself.
My new Rav Vast drum in the A Marmara scale.

I’ve found a new ADHD hyperfocus: playing steel tongue drums. In particular, I’m teaching myself how to play the Rav Vast. I bought a pre-owned drum in September, and now I’m slowly making my way through the Rav Beginners course on Master the Handpan.

I’m deep in the “Learn All The Things Phase” of this interest, and now I’m at the point where I want a second drum in a different scale. The thing is, these drums cost a lot. It’s going to take me months to save up for a second one. So I’m trying to tell myself to be patient and learn how to play well on the one I already have.

What’s really interesting is that now I’m listening to music — not just other Rav Vast players, but all music — in a new way. I’m thinking about the amount of effort all the musicians I listen to have put into their craft, and that there’s a huge gulf between imagining a melody and actually working out the kinks.

I think this is hitting me so hard because it’s the first time in a while that I’ve tried to learn something genuinely new. I’ve been an editor for so long that working with words and fixing grammar has become second nature for me. I’ve worked in the corporate world for so long that I’ve forgotten what it felt like to be unskilled at something, to feel all the bumps and potholes in the road. Well, learning the drum is bump city.

I suck, but right now I’m giving myself permission to suck. I’m giving myself permission to take things slowly. In other words, I’m trying to be ok with not being perfect. This is a huge development for me, because I’m so used to trying to be The Best At Things, and because my line of work prioritizes accuracy and speed.

Ontario Politics

Have I mentioned that Mr. BooksandTea is a member of CUPE? Well, he’s a member of CUPE, which went on strike last week to protest the Ontario government’s new legislation stripping him and his fellow educational assistants of their right to strike.

Premier Ford seems to have underestimated the amount of backlash Bill 28 would provoke among the public. Earlier today it was announced that he would repeal the legislation. This is good news, but I’m still skeptical. He’s shown in the past that he’s willing to backtrack on his own promises, like what’s going with developing the greenbelt.

For now, Mr. BooksandTea goes back to work. But negotiating a new contract for the entire union is still underway.

Back from Can-Con 2022

This year, Mr. BooksandTea and I went to Can-Con for the first time since before the pandemic. Like many things over the past few months since pandemic restrictions have dropped, doing this for real for the first time in a few years felt weird.

This is not Can-Con’s fault. In fact, compared to many other in-person social and professional events that I’ve seen shared on social media, Can-Con had a fairly robust set of safety protocols:

  • They offered both virtual and in-person sessions. The virtual panels were pre-recorded and available on YouTube; the live readings through Zoom.
  • They capped the number of in-person attendees to 250.
  • They required attendees to provide proof of being fully vaccinated when checking in at the registration desk.
  • They required all attendees to wear masks on-site in public except for when eating or drinking.
  • They offered colour-coded wristbands to let attendees indicate what level of physical contact they preferred from others (red meant maintain a social distance of 6 feet; yellow meant limited phyiscal contact; green meant handshakes/hugs were welcome)

Even so, it took some time for me to get comfortable with the idea of socializing again with so many people. In the Before Times, I had no trouble being a social butterfly for a weekend. I’d have a huge crash the day after getting home, of course, but still — I was able to keep that flip switched and stay “on” for a few days while chatting with new people, talking on panels, and trawling the dealers’ room.

This year was not like that. On Friday evening, in particular, after the initial wave of saying hello to people, we holed up in our hotel room and skimmed YouTube and Twitter instead of trying to talk with anyone in person. Eventually we were able to shake this off and get some takeout for dinner, then attend a panel.

It was only when I attended that first panel on Friday night that I felt comfortable getting into that old groove: Oh, this is why I’m here. To hear smart people talk about interesting things.

The rest of the weekend was filled with a similar combination of trepidation and recognition: I forgot how many stores are closed around the hotel over the weekend. Man, there’s some really nice stuff in the dealer room; I need to be careful about what I purchase so I don’t blow all my money at once. There are 2 things happening at the same time that I want to go to, but I don’t know which one to choose. Oh hey, that cool person from that panel on Friday night is sitting right in front of me, I should chat them up! Oh hey, that person is sharing a room with my friend and I saw them speak on a panel about Gothic fiction; I should tell them that I, too, have Lots of Thoughts about “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier.

I bought my fair share of books and trinkets from the dealers’ room in the end. I got some pretty gaming dice. I got a knit headband from Jen and Eric. Also, after attending a reading where Avi Silver described his books as “How to Train Your Dragon meets Princess Mononoke“, I bought both of them.

…And then I came back on Sunday to buy Sienna Tristen’s The Heretic’s Guide to Homecoming, because Avi had described it as “no plot, all vibes” and “about a guy learning with his mentor about how to deal with anxiety. I didn’t know I needed this book in my life, but after downloading the free preview from Kobo, I decided that yes, I did, and that I wanted the author to get my money directly, rather than through a third party, even though the eBook was cheaper. So: Avi Silver, you are very good at hand-selling.

Of course, I also visited my favourite tea shop in Ottawa to get more of that good stuff. I was all out of Lao Shan and I wanted more of their Bi Lo Chun to offset the small (and extremely pricy) quantity I bought on my trip to Montreal.

Despite all these lovely interactions, being at Can-Con this year felt different, like the volume was turned down. I took part in fewer spontaneous conversations and I didn’t run myself ragged trying to Attend All The Things. I doubt I was alone in feeling this way. Presumably, this will change as we all get used to attending events in person again, but I’m wistful for how things were before.

The Our Lady of Grace Mural in the Notre-Dame-de-Grace neighbourhood.

Summer Wanderings: Montreal

This summer, I did what everyone else seems to be doing, and I went travelling. On multiple trips, even! And we didn’t catch Covid-19 or Monkeypox either time!

The first one was to see my sister in Montreal for Canada Day. This was one of the first times she and brother-in-law have had guests over since moving to the city right when the pandemic started.

Myself, I last visited Montreal over a decade ago, and, my memories of that trip having faded, I was struck with a sense of jealousy over its dedication to not making itself a sucky place to live. Multiple mixed-income neighbourhoods! An abundance of missing-middle housing types, like lowrises and duplexes! Huge public murals! A functioning subway system! (Toronto could never.) Technically, I don’t live in Toronto anymore, but I am aware of its shortcomings.

We lucked out with the weather: sunny, hot, humid — perfect for outdoor dining. My sister and Mr. BooksAndTea were witness to me making a pilgrimage by shopping at Camellia Sinensis, the grand-daddy of fancy tea shops in Canada, and author of a decent reference book about the subject.

The Camellia Sinensis storefront, near Jean Talon market. The store was considerably smaller than expected.

We packed a lot into that one long weekend: seeing Jean Talon market, getting luscious things for breakfast at a local bakery, eating dumplings, touring the McGill University campus, shopping at Argo Bookshop, walking along the Old Port waterfront, setting foot in Librarie Drawn and Quarterly, watching a short film about the history of Quebec projected against the wall of a multi-story building at night… truly magical stuff.

We closed off the trip on Monday by visiting St. Viateur to get some authentic Montreal-style bagels fresh from the oven and then eating poutine at a hole-in-the wall diner. Looking back, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Growing Things and the Smell of Spring

“That’s fresh air,” she said. “Lie on your back and draw in long breaths of it. That’s what Dickon does when he’s lying on the moor. He says he feels it in his veins and it makes him strong and he feels as if he could live forever and ever. Breathe it and breathe it.”

She was only repeating what Dickon had told her, but she caught Colin’s fancy.

“’Forever and ever’! Does it make him feel like that?” he said, and he did as she told him, drawing in long deep breaths over and over again until he felt that something quite new and delightful was happening to him.


I took a walk around the park over lunch today, and realized things were perfect. Not just the sky — blue, with wispy clouds — and not just the trees — branches waving in the breeze, sunlight glinting off the leaves — but the smell.

Even through my mask, I could smell the smell of good green stuff, of things growing and living and making the world happen. Cedar mulch. Grass cuttings decaying in the sun. Wind. The resinous, incense-like scent of golden currant bushes. I eventually took the mask off, secure in the solitude around me, and continued walking towards the community garden, breathing in and breathing in.

It’s hard for me to get over the satisfaction of seeing this in the distance and realizing I’m part of it. And then, coming closer to my plot and seeing all the plants I can identify, and all the ones I can’t.

The tomato and pepper seedlings have shot up like rockets since I first planted them about a month ago. Some of the tomatoes have gotten so tall that I’m going to stake them tomorrow. Some of the peppers are starting to bloom. Even the lone pumpkin seedling that was struggling after transplantation is making a go of it! And there are masses and masses of dill. I harvested handfuls last week and have barely made a dent. I will need to find a way to use it all up, but I can highly recommend this recipe for maple, mustard and dill chicken. (Bonus: You can tweak the marinade and turn it into a great dressing for pasta salad.)

The first few weeks of June are also when Russian olive trees are at their most fragrant. Their smell is almost impossible for me to describe, floral and sweet and powdery and fresh like rain. If someone could bottle that smell, I would buy it. I’d daub it on my wrists and neck in the wintertime, to remind myself that the seasons will change eventually.

They will change. But right now, I’m happy with the light and the smell of late spring, and the promise of pumpkins and carrots and tomatoes.

Steerswomen and Social Contracts

Way back in 2016, I read The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. I’d heard about it through word of mouth from a friend, and had no idea when I started that it was the first in a series of books. I also had no idea, musing over those first pages, that it would swiftly become one of the books I recommend most to my friends, along with The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.

In my initial review, I was struck most by the book’s casual, unforced feminism, as well as its exploration of the value of knowledge:

Some books pay lip service to the Bechdel Test. The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein takes that well-worn idea, expands it, and tailors it into a compelling mix of fantasy and sci-fi that feels intelligent, sharp, and yet as comfortable as an old leather coat.

Bel and Rowan are fascinating, complex characters with an easy inteprlay, and the central question that The Steerswoman engages with is surprisingly multifaceted: who is allowed to control knowledge? How is it categorized, and how does control over it benefit or hinder society?

I have since read all the available sequels, and earlier this month finished the most recent one, The Language of Power, which came out in 2004. What’s interesting is that the books continually analyze this question from several perspectives. We see multiple cultures, we learn about them and how they interact, and we see how they value knowledge equally but share it in different ways.

For instance, the order of steerswomen fastidiously document everything. While they share knowledge across communities as best they can, they still have centralized archives where every steerswoman’s recordings are transcribed.

The Outskirters are secretive about their culture to Inner Lands inhabitants, but they value bravery and fighting prowess. Most importantly, while some Outskirters like Bel are literate, their knowledge is heavily based on oral traditions. They recite the names of their forebears when inducting new members into a tribe, and when Bel realizes that she needs to unite the Outskirters against an external threat, she composes an epic poem. She travels from tribe to tribe to recite the poem and gain their support for the potential battles that are to come. In the process, she becomes the closest thing to a single unifying leader that the Outskirters have ever had.

These two cultures lie in contrast to the wizards. Wizards, in this world, hoard knowledge. They have magic, but they don’t share it with anyone, and even people who manage to enter their ranks by showing promise are treated as outsiders — it appears that you really have to be born into the wizarding community to be taken seriously, even if you have innate talent.

However, the other way that wizards set themselves apart in this world is their lack of regard for the social contract. The series’ chief antagonist, Slado, is implied to be a sociopath. Almost every other wizard we encounter throughout the series shows either disdain for the common folk around them or a casual, unthinking willingness to inflict harm on others.

This is made even more more remarkable when you remember the social contract built around steerswomen. They travel the land and research both everything and everyone. There are only two iron rules: if you ask a steerswoman a question, she must answer your question truthfully, and if she asks you, you must also be truthful. If you deny information or tell lies, then you’ll be put under a ban, under which no steerswoman will ever answer your questions again in the future.

This is a rule that everyone upholds without question. People contemplate the prospect of being denied a steerswoman’s knowledge with dread. But consider: this is a world without mass automated knowledge or travel. Everything — trade goods, information and people alike — moves at the speed of horses, ships, carts, or feet.

So theoretically, it’s entirely possible for someone to invoke the ban, and then travel far enough to a new place where no one knows the ban is in effect. Steerswomen are few, and itinerant. It’s possible that not even every member of the order knows who is under a ban and who is not. However, no one in their culture takes advantage of this fact! No one even considers the difficulty of sharing knowledge as a potential loophole for getting around the social contract that the steerswomen have put in place.

And this is the thing I have found so astounding after reading The Language of Power. Despite all the wonderful praise this series gets for its understanding of the scientific method, and even for its implicit commentary on violence in fantasy narratives, what strikes me right now, so fresh upon reading it earlier this month, is that the characters we care about succeed because they live in a world with a strong social contract. And the wizards, in their hubris, have no idea that their continual use of rule through fear is starting to backfire on them.

Or, in one of the most famous quotes from Discworld, courtesy of Granny Weatherwax:

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things . . . ”

Terry Pratchet, Carpe Jugulum

In The Language of Power, Rowan travels to the city of Donner to find out what happened when a previous wizard there died over 40 years before. She goes there on the slimmest of possible leads, but she thinks that the facts surrounding this wizard’s death could lead her to Slado, and thus potentially to the truth surrounding his plans to destroy the Outskirters.

At first, when she approaches the townsfolk of Donner, they’re hesitant, and she gets only cursory answers. But as she keeps tugging on different strings and taking part in town life, people open up to her. The more they open up to her, the more pieces she fits together, and with her uncanny powers of recall, she’s able to remember names and streets and events in a way that grudgingly gains the townpeople’s respect. But in between, she’s not too proud to shovel manure in an orchard, or sing a ballad in an inn, or express delight in a potter’s drawings and delicate teapots.

It is this simple pleasure that Rowan takes in the presence and skills of other people that saves her, time and time again. When the current wizard confronts the people of Donner at a local inn about the rumours that there’s been a steerswoman sticking her nose into his business, they keep her identity secret from him, even though both she and the wizard are in the same room while it’s happening.

In the end, when Rowan and her allies learn more about wizardly machinations (in both the metaphorical and engineering sense), the town decides to help her out even further by engaging in a collective mission to make the next local wizard’s life a living hell. Even after losing friends, even after knowing what a threat Rowan is to their town, they decide to help her.

That’s the power of a social contract when everyone respects each other and values each other. And I really want to see more fantasy books that display that sort of communal thinking.

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