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the agony and ecstasy of a reading life
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The new issue is up! You can find me there today, Reading for Other Worlds with, I hope, fun and interesting science fiction recommendations. Most of them are older so if you are looking for something besides Station Eleven or The Martian, check it out! And don’t forget to browse all the other fun bookish goodness while you’re at it.
Filed under: Books
Back in the distant past, about two or three months ago, someone commented on a book review about not reading books on certain topics and perhaps that might be something I could write about sometime. This being in the murky past, I have no recollection of who made the comment nor on what book review post it was made. I thought it was a great idea at the time but had so many other fascinating things to write about I never got around to it and soon forgot about it. Until this morning when I was dredging my brain for something to post about besides links to interesting articles. So tonight’s the night! Avoiding books because of subject matter.
I’m not talking about book genres here so there’s no, “I never read romance novels” or some kind of blanket thing like that. It’s more like, “I can’t read books with child murders in them.” There’s a difference, yes? My first thoughts were that there is absolutely nothing I wouldn’t read about. But of course, that’s not true. Nonetheless, I had a hard time with it because it is such an automatic response I am not even aware of it most of the time. And sometimes I might make exceptions for one reason or another.
This list then, I’m not sure how accurate it is. I might have left something off. But I can say that this is a list of topics/plots/things I tend avoid when reading:
- Books about women whose main goal in life is to shop their way to happiness or find the perfect husband. I never read The Devil Wears Prada because I thought it was this sort of book. I never saw the movie either until this last fall after a coworker told me it was totally not what I thought. And she was right. I liked the movie quite a lot. I have no plans to read the book because it seems the movie covered it all and I didn’t like it that much.
- Books that will give me nightmares. This is one of those “I know it when I see it” sorts of things. It’s usually a horror-type novel. I will never, for instance, read The Shining. But it’s not a blanket horror ban because I really liked Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. I can do psychological horror such as Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House. Loved that book. I guess it’s more of the graphic supernatural violence/horror that gives me problems. But not only that. It’s also the idea of a threat without having any kind of predictability. If there are rules like “don’t blink” I can handle it. But if it is random or unexplainable, no way will I go there. You are all welcome to psychoanalyze me now.
- Books that are overtly misogynist and deliberately degrading and cruel to anyone, especially to women.
- Books with dogs. These tend to fall into two categories. The worst are the emotionally manipulative smarmy ones. If it’s not one of those I still won’t read it because I will at some point during the book break down into a sobbing mess usually in the last chapter when the dog inevitably dies. My trauma around this began when I was in third grade and read Where the Red Fern Grows. Twice. And then the second time having my mom walk into my room when I was in the midst of a glorious sobfest and she was, briefly, very concerned and a bit scared about why I was crying. So perhaps it’s not about the dogs at all but a personal concern about scaring people who might find me sobbing. Because I do sometimes make an exception. However, while reading those exceptions when I come to the crying part I try really hard to make sure I’m alone.
There you have it, the books I will pass by if they are any of these things. I think I got them all but as soon as I push the “publish” button I will probably remember one I forgot. Or Bookman will read this and say, “and what about …?” That’s what updates and comments are for, right?
What about you? Are there topics or plots or other things you will not read?
Filed under: Books
Just a few things tonight. First, the silly.
The folks on the east coast of the US who are being bombarded by a blizzard should totally have an army of awesome Japanese snow robots that scoops up snow and poops out snow bricks perfect for building snow forts. I’m sure there will still be plenty of snow leftover for the epic snowball fight that all those snow forts will require.
Next, Books as obstacle course, which Javier Marías makes sound rather appealing. The walls of his parents’ apartment covered in books with art hinged to the shelves, what a magical place it sounds!
Remember Dirty Chick? The book is now available on audio read by the author. You can have a twenty minute sample listen at SoundCloud. It’s from the beginning of the book when she is taking care of her parents’ chickens and duck and the duck sexually assaults one of the chickens. It will give you a good flavor of what the whole book is like.
Finally, can books change the world? Sure they can! Darwin’s The Origin of Species anyone? What about 1984? Or Jane Austen’s entire oeuvre? Rick Kleffel offers Nine World-Changing Books from 2014 (via). I’ve heard of some of them, others not at all. And there are several I’d really like to read and a few I’m content just reading good essays about them by others who have read them. Are there other books from 2014 that should be on the list? Are there books there that shouldn’t be? Is there a book from 2014 that changed your personal world? I had a number of books that rocked my world in 2014 but none that changed it. Still, several large book-quakes are nothing to sneeze at.
Filed under: Books
This has not been the bookish weekend I had hoped it would be. Well, there was some bookishness yesterday but it wasn’t the fun relaxing kind. I had to finish up reading a nonfiction book of comparative literature for a Library Journal review that is due by tomorrow. The book is called An Ecology of World Literature From Antiquity to the Present Day by Alexander Beecroft. It’s an interesting way to compare literatures but is entirely aimed at an academic audience so wasn’t exactly easy-going fun. Finishing it took far longer than I expected and left little time for more pleasurable reading. Then of course today I had to take the time to write the review. I only get 200 words, which is not so very easy to stick to when assessing an academic book. But I managed with about five words to spare. We’ll see what my editor thinks.
After yesterday was a wash on my own personal reading I thought I could indulge today but that didn’t happen either. The morning was given over to chores of various kinds and the afternoon got eaten up with switching to a new phone and mobile carrier. Bookman and I discovered recently that our mobile carrier was charging us for phone and unlimited texting as much as AT&T would charge us for iPhones with a small data plan. So we switched. I finally have a “smart” phone. Since I have an iPad and a Macbook they all sync up which is kind of convenient. Of course the switching has not gone as smoothly as it was supposed to. Getting our phone numbers switched over to the new phones from the old carrier is still a work in progress and we’ve been promised it will be completed within the hour. Fingers crossed. And of course I’ve had to transfer phone numbers from my old phone to the new and choose ringtones and set up my morning alarm clock and all the other stuff that an iPhone requires one to set up. But it will all be good, right? I won’t regret finally giving in and getting rid of my not-smart phone? That question mark tells you I am not entirely certain on the matter.
My ban on placing hold requests at the library is going pretty well. I have been really good at resisting, though it has not been without pangs from time to time. I did borrow a few cookbooks, however. Since these are not books one sits down to read for hours over the course of a few weeks, I decided it was allowed. They are all vegan cookbooks I have never heard of before. Of course I started with the dessert, Lickin’ the Beaters: low fat vegan desserts and Lickin’ the Beaters 2: vegan chocolate and candy. Recipes for chocolate donut holes and gingerbread chocolate cookies just seemed so much nicer to swoon over this weekend than recipes from North Africa and India. I’ll drool over those next weekend.
I’ve had so many book finishes lately I now find myself in the middle of a good many books and nowhere near the end of any of them. I am enjoying each one and don’t have that “I’m not getting anywhere” feeling I often get when I find myself in this kind of situation. The only thing this time around I’m having trouble with is coming up with post topics since I have nothing to review. I’ve managed so far but I don’t yet know what the week ahead holds. We’ll see. If posting is spotty you’ll know why!
On a side note, all those seeds I ordered last weekend got delivered on Friday. I didn’t even open the packages because well, snow-covered garden. It would just be too depressing to have to look at those colorful seed packets.
Enough pointless rambling for one day. Our phone numbers still haven’t transferred, there’s another what the heck is the problem phone call to be made.
Filed under: Books
There have been some really interesting articles on reading around the internet lately. I’ve seen one on reading ebooks, there was the one on the canon and the one about easy and difficult books. I’ve seen articles on YA books and several on books and children. The ones on books and children could be playing a match at the Australian Tennis Open for all the back and forthing. Do we crack down on kids and make them read? Do we let kids choose their own books?
Has there always been so much anxiety about children and reading? I don’t have kids so I generally don’t pay attention, but at the moment is seems to be particularly volatile. Personally, I agree with Max Ehrenfreund’s blog post at the Washington Post, If we stop telling kids what to read they might start reading again. There have been some recent surveys that suggest kids who get to pick their own reading material enjoy reading more and as a consequence, spend more time reading. Kind of a no-brainer, really. As an adult I wouldn’t want anyone telling me what to read, why do adults think kids would like it?
Now and then when I read one of those bookish memoirs of people who grew up with the gentle guidance of adults directing them toward The Iliad or Jane Eyre at the tender age of ten, I sometimes wish that had been my experience. But if I think about it longer than a few minutes and I consider what I was reading when I was ten, I’m glad I was left to my own devices.
About that time is when I began venturing out into fantasy and science fiction. I loved all things unicorn and Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn was totally awesome. And then I discovered science fiction with A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle and read it because it had a unicorn on the cover. But it turned out to be the third book in a series so after I read it I started at the beginning and wow science and space travel and time travel! I found these books on my own because my mom let me wander around in a bookstore and choose them for myself. Never once did my parents tell me what I could and could not read; never once did they frown at my choices and tell me I should be reading something else. They let me explore on my own and discover for myself what I liked and didn’t like to read. I got plenty of assigned reading at school, they didn’t need to give me assignments too.
My reading choices were an eclectic mix of age appropriate teenage angst novels by Judy Blume and generally adult fantasy and science fiction. Being able to choose my own books helped me develop into a self-confident reader willing to try any kind of book at least once. If my parents had ever told me I couldn’t read something because it was too easy or too hard or silly or any other way not right or good or appropriate, if they had put limits on me I suspect I would be a very different kind of reader today.
I appreciate what my parents did for me. I want kids these days to be allowed to have the same opportunity. Let them choose their own books no matter what those books might be. Let them explore and discover. It will help them love reading and it will help them be better readers because of that love.
Filed under: Books
I’m in the middle of reading Ann Leckie’s fantastic book Ancillary Justice. One of the things I like about it so much is that it plays with our gender expectations. The story takes place in a fictional universe in which the Radch regularly annex planets to their empire. The language spoken by the Radch has no gender, it does not recognize male or female anything. This presents a conundrum for Leckie since English requires gender designations. How do you translate? Leckie has decided to make the default pronoun “she” serve for everyone.
The story is told from the point of view of Breq who used to be a starship. She knows many different languages but she is Radch and as such always has trouble figuring out gender when speaking a language that requires it.
What is super-duper fascinating is to read everything through the “she” pronoun. I picture all the characters as women and there is nothing in any of the characters’ actions that give away what their biology might be. Nor does anyone get described as curvy or beautiful or brawny or any of the other myriad ways gender and biology get marked. Everyone is just people who happen to be referred to as “she” when a pronoun is required. But, as I said, I keep picturing all the characters as women because that is what “she” asks me to do in English.
So you might be able to imagine then how disconcerted I was while reading last night to discover an important character is actually a biological male. He was only referred to as “he” once in a conversation Breq was having with someone in a gendered language and then it is right back to “she” again. My brain went all wobbly trying to replace a she with a he but it didn’t last long. The further I got away from “he” and the more “she’s” that got piled on in referring to this character, my mind reverted right back to picturing a woman.
The cool thing is there is no reason why all the characters couldn’t actually be women. In the context of this world, there is no question about whether a woman can lead an army or captain a starship or beat the crap out of someone or rule the empire or do anything else. Gender is not recognized and when there are no gender boxes to fill it is amazing what kinds of other things can be focused on instead.
Reading a book in which “she” stands in for the universal gender points out how fallacious English is to insist that “he” can be used as a universal pronoun meaning men and women. It can’t and it doesn’t and I never believed that it did. Whenever I’m reading and come across a “universal he” I am always brought up short. I have to stop and take the time to mentally insert myself into the equation because “he” is not me. I wonder, any men reading this, when you come across “universal he” do you think, oh that means men and women? When you see “he” standing in for everyone do you picture everyone as being male? And if you are a male who has read Ancillary Justice, what was your experience reading a book where everyone is “she”?
I can’t begin to say what a pleasure it is to read a book like Ancillary Justice. It’s no surprise Leckie won the Nebula and the Hugo for it. I can’t wait to find out how it ends and I am greatly looking forward to reading the second book, Ancillary Sword.
Filed under: Books
, In Progress
Tagged: Ann Leckie
Did anyone catch the recent Atlantic article Readability is a Myth? It’s an interesting take on what constitutes an easy or difficult book. The author, Noah Berlatsky, suggests that difficult and easy are not good terms to describe books because, as we have all likely experienced, a book I find difficult you might have found easy and vice versa. It’s completely subjective.
Plus, these descriptions often come laden with value judgments. Literature is difficult and because it is difficult, or rather, can be, it is worth our time and effort. It’s the take your vitamins approach in disguise. The books we label easy often fall into the commercial fiction category, who could possibly find The Da Vinci Code difficult to read? Easy means fluff, means a waste of time, means if you find easy difficult then you must be braindead. I imagine we have all made value judgments about people based on our perceived difficulty of their reading material of choice.
I used to work with a woman who was one of the nicest people I have ever known. She tended to like Dan Brown sorts of books and it was so very hard to not hold that against her. It’s not that I thought she was dumb, I just couldn’t understand why she would want to spend her time reading thrillers and conspiracy theory kinds of books. She always asked me what I was reading and once, out of her mouth popped, do you ever read anything that isn’t hard? And I was so surprised because I didn’t think the books I mentioned were hard at all and I didn’t know how to respond to her question.
Recently someone asked me if I like music and if so what kind of music I liked to listen to. When I replied that I like a lot of different kinds of music but mostly rock and pop she was surprised. She thought given the kind or things I like to read that I was too highbrow for Katy Perry and she expected me to say I only listened to Mozart and Vivaldi. And then I worried all day whether people think I am a snob.
Berlatsky asks us to try and remove the value judgment from easy and difficult and try to think of them differently. He, for instance, says that Fifty Shades of Grey is one of the most difficult books he has ever read. Now we can say, yeah, that’s probably because it is such a bad book, but is that fair to all those readers who loved it? I don’t like it when someone sneers at a book I loved, I need to really work at being better about not sneering at books other people like. We all readily admit that “good” is a subjective opinion but for some reason it is harder to agree that difficult is also subjective even though we all know that it is.
Berlatsky makes a good point even though his argument is a bit weak in the end. To equate easy with bad and difficult with good is downright silly. Yet maybe because it has been so ingrained it’s hard to separate them, at least it is for me. It will take work, but it seems worthwhile to try and break it all apart.
Filed under: Books
Just because there is snow on the ground doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about the garden. In fact, I just put in my seed orders this afternoon. I didn’t calculate the order totals beforehand but I knew just from the quantity it was not going to be cheap. However, when all is said and done, I am pleased that it didn’t cost as much as I imagined! Plus, listen to how we justify it:
“$2.50 is not much for a packet of seeds for heirloom golden beets, I mean think about it, if we were to buy organic golden beets at the co-op it would cost us that much for two of them so even if we only get two beets out of the garden we have broke even.”
See how that works? Pretty slick, eh?
One of the big steps we decided to take this year is to start many of our own seeds. I’m talking tomatoes and peppers here mostly, the warm weather plants that have to be started early because my growing season is too short to accommodate them any other way. I’ve done this before but not for a very long time because I don’t have grow lights and it is so much work. However, the trade-off is being able to grow varieties that we cannot buy as plants and to ultimately save money because the cost of a seed packet from which we can grow more than one plant is about the cost of one already growing plant. The whole sprouting thing will be easier than in the past since we have a mini-greenhouse into which we can place the seedlings once they have sprouted up. Our only concern now is that the greenhouse might be too small for all the seeds we are planning to start. It’s hard to tell at this point, but we’ll find out for sure at the end of March.
Our seed order is also larger than in the past because I included cold weather seeds for fall/winter planting. Bookman and I will be building a cold frame this summer so we can harvest fresh greens from the garden in the middle of winter and start greens super-early the following spring. We will also be building a small hoophouse to extend the growing season well into the late fall.
We also decided to give potatoes and sweet potatoes a try this year. We ordered two pounds of Irish Cobbler seed potatoes and three Molokai Purple sweet potato plants. We will be using our old plastic compost bin to grow the Irish Cobblers in. Bookman has agreed to create a planter with a trellis that we can install on the south side of the house for the sweet potatoes.
In addition to all that I have already mentioned, I also ordered flax, amaranth, okra, cowpeas (aka black-eyed peas), purple cabbage, a dark purple radish, red cippolini onion, Black Beauty zucchini, strawberry spinach (not really a spinach but a spinach-like green that likes the summer heat and gets little red flowers that are also edible), a whole bunch of different kinds of greens, a couple different varieties of bush beans, and, instead of sweet corn, Dakota Black popcorn. There are also beets, parsnips, basil, and peas. And I completely forgot to order carrots so I’ll be picking up a packet or two of those later on at the farm store.
All this will be added to seeds we have left over from last year like turnips, parsley, radish, broccoli and a few others. Plus, seeds we saved from things we grew to plant again like dill, coriander/cilantro, black cumin, parsley and pumpkin.
Yes, the garden is going to be huge. It will take up all of the backyard and will be extended into the front yard. So excited!
And for those of you who are looking for some excellent gardening books, I have a few for you!
- The Year-round vegetable gardener: how to grow your own food 365 days a year no matter where you live by Niki Jabbour. Many of these kinds of books are disappointing because they are written by people in much warmer climates than mine, but Jabbour is Canadian and while her temperatures don’t get quite as frigid as mine, there are plenty of photos in the book of her shoveling snow off her cold frames and picking lettuce and carrots while wearing mittens and a parka. It gives me hope for what might be possible and makes it seem worth a try.
- The Wild Wisdom of Weeds by Katrina Blair. Blair focuses on 13 of the most common weeds and what you can do with them in the kitchen. Even non-gardeners might like this one since you probably have these weeds growing in your yard! Instead of pulling them out or spraying them with pesticide, why not eat them? Dandelion pesto anyone? Chickweed, knotweed, plantain, thistle, purslane, grass, and more. What, wait, grass? Yup. Did you know that all grass and grass seed is edible? Some grasses taste better than others but it’s really interesting all the things you can do with grass and grass seeds. I’m not sure that I am going to be a grass-eating convert, but I just might venture into giving my native grasses a taste this summer.
- Homegrown Tea: an illustrated guide to planting, harvesting, and blending teas and tisanes by Cassie Liversidge. Oh my is this a fantastic book! It turns out I already have quite a few plants that are good for tea growing my garden. Now there are lots more that I plan on growing, many of them perennial so that will be fun. The growing information for each plant is rather vague, so I wouldn’t count on her providing good advice for growing black or green tea, but she provides lots of fascinating historical and medicinal use information as well as excellent harvesting and blending how-tos. She actually tells you how many fresh peppermint leaves you need to make a good cup of tea. And if you have dried the mint she tells you how much of that to use too. And her instructions are for just that, a single cup of tea. Herbs, seeds, fruits, flowers and roots, she covers them all. I am amazed at how many plants can be used to make tea. I will definitely be trying some of them!
An interesting side note to all this gardening stuff, there is a a strong probability that the monarch butterfly will be placed on the Endangered Species List in the United States. This will provide protection not just for the butterflies but for their habitat. It will take a year before the EPA completes its review and issues its decision. It is a mixed thing, isn’t it? Good that they will be protected, terrible that their numbers are so diminished that they need protecting.
Filed under: gardening
It’s one of those posts filled with a variety of goodness — or badness depending on how you look at it. Maybe not filled, maybe only partially filled. And maybe not a lot of variety but only some. And — oh heck, you’ll see.
Under the heading of blame it on postmodernists, the internet and book bloggers, comes an essay at the Chronicle of Higher Education What We Lose if We Lose the Canon. Yes, apparently the cannons are still firing on the canon war. There is still a canon to lose according to Arthur Krystal who worries that without it our poets and novelists will have no one to test themselves against, no one to supplant, no inspiration to work out new “aesthetic or philosophical precepts.” And somehow the “dismantling of hierarchies is tantamount to an erasure of history.” I’m not quite sure how that is the case since I’m pretty sure history of any kind isn’t bound exclusively to hierarchies unless of course you mean the history of literature as written by white western men.
Everything was hunky-dory until the postmodernists committed murder:
A few decades ago the modernists themselves became precursors when a loose confederation of critics and philosophers decided that modernism consisted of work that was too oblique and too self-consciously “high art” while remaining at the same time innocent of its own socio-semiotic implications. But what made the postmodern charter different was its willingness to discard the very idea of standards. Starting from the premise that aesthetics were just another social construct rather than a product of universal principles, postmodernist thinkers succeeded in toppling hierarchies and nullifying the literary canon. Indeed, they were so good at unearthing the socioeconomic considerations behind canon formation that even unapologetic highbrows had to wonder if they hadn’t been bamboozled by Arnoldian acolytes and eloquent ideologues.
That heretofore inviolable ideal of art, as expostulated by Walter Pater and John Ruskin, by T.S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling, by the New Criticism, was shunted aside.
I dunno, I’m not an expert in postmodernist theory, but I suspect that it wasn’t standards that were tossed overboard, but the values behind those standards that were brought into question and revealed to be constructed of the subjective opinions of a few rather than the universal objective truths everyone was pretending they were.
Then — horrors! — without the canon and aesthetic standards “every reader could become a person with unimpeachable taste” as if that’s why people read in the first place. Ok, some people read certain books to prove they have good taste, but I’m pretty sure most people who love reading don’t give a fig about taste. Into this wild devil’s brew add the internet and blogs and Amazon book reviews and suddenly “every autodidact with a bad teacher [is able] to address the world.” General readers have the audacity to express their personal opinions on how they thought Fifty Shades of Grey was the best thing since sliced bread. This causes the world to tilt, the poles to flip-flop, fire to rain down from the sky because literature has become “what anyone wants it to be.”
It’s okay to read authors like P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler for a little light fun now and then, to call them Literature with a capital “L” just won’t do. And for books like George R.R. Martin’s to even be mentioned in a classroom let alone seriously discussed just reveals how low we have sunk.
As Krystal says, “Some books simply reflect a deeper understanding of the world, of history, of human relationships” than other books. To that I say yes, yes they do. And those books will continue being read even without there being a canon to shove them down a reader’s throat. If he spent any time reading book blogs at all he would know that book bloggers are really into the classics. Our definition of a classic is broader and more inclusive than his, I’m sure, but he will still find plenty of readers eagerly reading Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hugo and a boatful of other superstars. That we dare read them for pleasure and share our opinion, isn’t that what readers are supposed to do?
With so many things we could be doing besides reading, it seems to me that those who are still so tied to there being a canon created by mysterious and unknown literary gatekeepers are doing literature a huge disservice. No, George R.R. Martin is not James Joyce but I can see how there is value in teaching Game of Thrones in a literature class on the genre of fantasy. I can see there is value in teaching a class on the fantasy genre. Genre is an important part of literature and literary history. If you want to talk about erasing history, let’s have a conversation about how hierarchy and the canon of dead white men erased quite a lot of literary history that we are still in the process of rediscovering.
Well okay, sorry about the soapbox rant there. Here are a couple of things to lighten the mood:
- The American Scholar has a list of Ten Neglected Classics (via A Different Stripe). Angela Carter and Elizabeth Gaskell made the list as did several books I have never heard of before. What fun! Take that literary canon!
- For something a little silly, at The Toast, How to Tell If You are in a Henry James Novel. I laughed out loud several times while reading the list but I think my two favorites are the first one, “You’ve done something in a piazza that renders you unfit for polite company,” and number 21, “You may be someone else who the narrator is referring to and you may also be yourself; it is impossible to say at this junture just who ‘you’ are.” Though number 18 is pretty awesome too: “If only someone would die, you’d get everything you’ve ever wanted.” Heh, if only.
That’s enough fun for one blog post, I don’t want to over do it.
Filed under: Books
And now for something a little different, a graphic story/comic featuring a group of four female mercenaries who are tough, sassy, smart, funny, like to drink and eat and carouse, and know how to handle weaponry and magic. Rat Queens, Volume One: Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis Wiebe is a hoot and a half.
There is Betty, a Smidgin thief. I’m not sure what a Smidgin is, but she’s little and cute, great at breaking and entering, and enjoys being tossed at goblins, swords blazing. There is Dee, a former acolyte of N’rygoth, a giant flying squid. Dee is black, has some good magic, a great purple and black outfit and awesome thigh-high boots. Violet is a solidly built redhead with great armor and big attitude. Turns out she is a Dwarf who shaved her beard off and left her family. We aren’t sure why she left her family but I suspect in later stories we might find out. And finally, there is the leader of the group, Hannah, who is a magic user and, I believe, an Elf, but don’t quote me on that. She’s tall and curvy and looks a bit like Betty Page.
The Rat Queens and four other mercenary groups have been banned from the town of Palisade after their last pub brawl unless they all perform assigned services to the city. The Rat Queens are tasked with clearing out a goblin cave. Peaches are assigned to empty a camp of bandits. The Four Daves have to go deal with the restless dead at the cemetery. The Brother Ponies (four big, brawny men with long ponytails) are given the job of getting rid of the ogre. And finally, Obsidian Darkness, who look sort of like goth ninja elves, have to clean the toilets at the military barracks.
The jobs turn out to be a setup. The Rat Queens survive, a bit battered and bruised, but all in one piece. The other groups aren’t all so lucky. Who is behind the setup to have them killed? Will the Rat Queens and the remaining mercenaries from the other groups be able to stop brawling long enough to band together and save the city of Palisade? Will Betty and the cute Fay with the nose ring hook up? Will Dee be able to get her nose out a book and get over her social anxiety long enough to realize she has a few admirers? What’s with all the bluebirds in one of the Four Daves’ beards?
Part of the fun of this book is not just the women kicking ass, but that they are friends and care about each other without having to go shopping for new shoes or weep together over a bucket of ice cream. There are also many moments about accepting other people for who they are, getting past being different and seeing the individual instead of the Zombie or the Dwarf. And it’s just plain silly fun. There is currently only one volume. It looks like volume two will be out in May. Yay!
Filed under: Books
, Graphic Novels
With all the excitement that buzzed around the internet over the publication of the final installment in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy I decided that it might be worth giving the books a go. I borrowed the first book, The Magicians from the library and eagerly began to read.
The book had an interesting start, high school senior Quentin Coldwater and his two friends, all three extremely smart and planning on being admitted to top universities, are dressed up to attend interviews for said universities. Quentin and James each have an appointment with the same interviewer but when they arrive at the house in Brooklyn they find the man dead. But something doesn’t add up. They call the police and one of the paramedics hands the pair large envelopes as she leaves. James refuses his, too freaked out by the day’s events. Quentin takes his and so begins the first step of his new life.
Besides being smart, Quentin is also gifted in slight of hand magic tricks and obsessed with Fillory, a series of books he has read over and over again since childhood. Fillory is very much a Chronicles of Narnia sort of series of books. But the children are named Chatwin and instead of Aslan there are two rams, Ember and Umber who oversee Fillory. It all felt very silly to me and I kept wishing every time Fillory was brought up that Aslan would come bounding in and liven things up with a few swipes of his big lion paw.
But I get ahead of myself. In the envelope Quentin receives is in invitation to sit for exams at a wizard school, Brakebills. Quentin passes and instead of attending Harvard or Yale, he is now going to college to learn how to be a real magician. There were some interesting bits but as with Fillory, I couldn’t stop thinking Harry Potter does this better. While Hogwarts is a grade school thing, Brakebills is college. Instead of Quidditch there is Welters. Instead of houses there are specialized areas of study which are their own kind of “house.” Quentin is a “Physical kid.” Physical magic being one of the more difficult areas, the group is very small. With the addition of Quentin and the smart and talented and pretty but introverted Alice, the group numbers seven.
And so we follow Quentin and Alice through their four years at Brakebills which would normally be five but they are so smart and talented they get jumped ahead a year. There are minor adventures and some interesting things that happen but it kind of all drags on a bit.
At this point I was debating whether I should even bother finishing the book. I decided to keep going. I thought there must be some kind of payoff since the series is so popular. And the last third of the book did pick up and get pretty good. I can’t say that it redeemed the first two-thirds of the book, but I ended up feeling okay about it instead of wondering why I had bothered. Besides the story in the first part of the book feeling unoriginal, the writing itself is frequently clunky. It manages to get better by the end, or maybe the plot just got better so I wasn’t paying as much attention to the writing itself?
I am far from loving the book and being excited enough about it to tell everyone I know to read it. However, I liked it enough to be willing to give the next book, The Magician King, a go. I won’t be doing this any time soon, I need to get a little distance from The Magicians in order to make a fresh approach at book two. Perhaps over the summer.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Lev Grossman
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay has been popping up all over the place it seems these last several months and now I have finished it I understand why. Since I read Laurie Penny’s book just before picking this one up I can’t help but make a few comparisons. Both are essay collections but where Penny focuses on gender and patriarchy, Gay is more wide ranging with essays on competitive Scrabble, teaching, race, gender, books and movies. Penny is pissed off and doesn’t give a rat’s ass if she offends anyone. Gay is more measured, moderate, questioning and even funny. Both women have been raped. Penny almost died from anorexia. Gay struggles with being overweight. Both understand that feminism is a bigger issue than women having equal opportunity to make money. Gay refers to this as feminist essentialism and it is why she calls herself a bad feminist.
Feminist essentialism is what second wave feminism from the seventies got boxed into — humorless, militant, pornography-hating, hairy-legged, no make-up allowed women with unwavering principles and if you waver, you’re not a real feminist and you’re kicked out of the club. Second wave feminists also had a hard time addressing racial issues as well as heteronormativity. All this morphed into the kind of feminism Elizabeth Wurtzel writes about in a 2012 Atlantic article in which “real feminists earn a living, have money and means of their own.” And later that same year in a Harper’s Bazaar article she added that real feminists also work hard to be beautiful and would never “misrepresent the cause by appearing less than hale and happy.” If that’s what feminism is, no wonder Gay calls herself a bad feminist. I’m bad too!
Gay admits to being a bundle of contradictions. She often finds herself singing along happily to songs that are blatantly misogynist but the tune is so catchy she just can’t help herself. She dates men she knows are not good for her and she has, and probably will again, fake an orgasm because it is easier than taking the time and effort to get what she wants from a man who she is sure she will never have sex with again. She really likes to watch bad reality television.
Feminism is not perfect, she says, but that doesn’t mean it is not worthwhile. We forget that feminism is powered by people and people are flawed and
[f]or whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.
Gay’s favorite definition of feminism was offered by an Australian woman named Su in 1996:
feminists are ‘just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.’
Gay has a fantastic essay, “Peculiar Benefits,” about privilege. Most of us who live in western industrialized countries have privilege of one kind or another. I’m white, middle-class, educated, able-bodied, and in a heterosexual relationship that allows me to be married (Minnesota allows same-sex marriage — yay! — but that didn’t happen until 2013). I probably have other privileges I haven’t even thought about. They are nothing to be ashamed of. They are to be recognized and acknowledged for what they are. I know there are people in my city and all over the world who don’t have half the privileges I do. I don’t have to do anything about it, but I try to in my own imperfect way. As Gay says,
You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about. …You could, however, use that privilege for the greater good — try to level the playing field for everyone, to work for social justice, to bring attention to how those without certain privileges are disenfranchised. We’ve seen what the hoarding of privilege has done, and the results are shameful.
I could go on and on about how wonderful this book is. Gay’s writing on rape culture is excellent and her essay on trigger warnings, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” is a thoughtful discussion on the topic. Her examination of racism, especially in books, film and television, is also fantastic.
I read an interview with Gay recently (sorry, I don’t remember where!) in which she expressed her surprise that Bad Feminist is doing so well. This is her first foray into nonfiction, she considers herself a novelist, and this book was outside her comfort zone. I’m glad she wrote it and I hope there will be others. If you’ve not had a chance to read the book yet and are wondering if you should, yes, definitely give it a go.
Filed under: Books
, Roxanne Gay
I have to give myself a little public pat on the back because I did something today that was really hard and once I tell you about it you will completely understand.
All but five of my library hold requests out of something like eighteen have come home to roost in the last three weeks. Most of these books are not renewable because there are others who also want a turn at them. My little reading table is buried beneath books and it is so bad I am having a hard time pulling books out of the piles to read without knocking several over onto the floor. Also, there is hardly any room for a glass of water or cup of coffee or tea. It is out of control. But with the two books that are currently at the library waiting for and one more for which my turn will come quicker than I want it to, the remaining hold requests all have me at number 40 or higher.
So I determined the other day to not make any further book requests from the library for two months. That will give me a chance to get through all my current library books and, I hope, a few of the books on my reading table that I own that I really want to read but have been buried under all the library books. I made this determination before around Thanksgiving in November but didn’t tell anyone because the next I placed hold requests for two books!
Today, however, today I resisted! I had my mouse hovering over the “request” button at my library but I remembered my book table and my determination to not place any holds for two months. The devil and the angel on my shoulders had quite the brawl and this time the angel won. Personally, I think the angel has been doing some serious lifting since Santa left her some weights for Christmas. Or maybe it was the strength of moral superiority guiding her and giving her the power to finally overcome. Then again, she’s had so much practice she may have finally perfected the art of guilt and shame and made the devil feel so bad she didn’t stand a chance. Whatever the case, instead of clicking “request” I clicked “add to list” and added it my library list.
If the angel manages to keep the devil down for two months then I will allow myself to request a few books off the list. I don’t want to get ahead of myself though. I resisted today. Will I resist the next temptation? Very likely I will find out tomorrow. Until then, I get a pat on the back and a victory dance. Yay me!
Filed under: Books
, In Progress
I finished Ali Smith’s How to Be Both on December 30th, just in time to land it on my top five favorites of 2014 list. If I hadn’t finished it until January I am certain it would be on my 2015 favorites list. It’s that good. I really loved this book which makes it hard to say anything about it because I just want to gush and squee and say things like, wasn’t that part where George and H held hands in George’s room wonderful? And George’s mother. What do you make of her? Smart for sure. Do you think she was really under surveillance? And who is Lisa? And what about del Cossa being a woman? How awesome is that? And all the art stuff? And all the different ways of “being both” the book mulls over. Oh, oh, and what about the minotaur and labyrinth stuff? And all the stuff about looking and being looked at? Seeing and being seen? Which beginning did you get? The one that begins with del Cossa or the one that starts with George? How do you think which beginning you got affects your experience of the book? Do you wish you could erase it from you mind just long enough to read it with the other beginning and then remember so you can compare?
Got all that? No? Let’s go for coffee and spend the afternoon talking about it. What do you say?
If you haven’t read the book you’ll have no idea why I am burbling on with all these questions and a big desire to chat about them. So, for those who haven’t read it, a little about the book with the hope it will be enough to get you to read it so you can come back and chat and toss out questions of your own.
The book is broken up into two sections, each titled “One.” One section begins with sixteen-year-old George (Georgia but everyone calls her George) on New Year’s Eve just a few months after her mother suddenly died. George’s story moves backward and forward. Backward with flashbacks to conversations with her mother and a trip to Italy they took earlier that year to look at some art and a fresco partially painted by Francescho del Cossa. Forward with her little brother, her father who is drowning his grief in alcohol, George’s new girlfriend H who becomes more than just a friend, and sessions with Mrs. Rock, George’s therapist.
Then there is the other section narrated by del Cossa’s ghost who is called back from the dead it seems by George spending so much time looking at one of del Cossa’s few surviving works. Del Cossa follows George around so George’s story progresses into the future beyond the end of George’s section. We also get del Cossa’s story. The painter turns out to be a woman who has been living disguised as first a boy and then a man since she was a young girl so she could learn painting and become a painter. Her time being the 1460’s she would not have made it as a painter unless everyone thought she was a man. Her father is the one who suggests this not long after her mother dies.
These two sections can be read in either order and in fact, half the books printed have George’s story first and half have del Cossa’s story first. Mine had George coming first. This might seem like some kind of gimmick, but there is a point to be made. What is the point? As George’s mother says:
But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?
The picture below came first George says. Because it was done first.
But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all?
Or, if you prefer, this is how del Cossa expresses it in her section:
how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up-rising through the skin of it
Whatever section you get first affects the way you see and experience the entire book. It’s like what George says about an element of a painting she and H are looking at:
It is both blatant and invisible. It is subtle and at the same time the most unsubtle thing in the world, so unsubtle it’s subtle. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t not see it.
Once you’ve read the book one way, you can’t unread it and read it a different way.
There is also much playfulness with language throughout the book, puns and words with more than one meaning and it made me want to play along.
In spite of the book being serious with a thick vein of grief running through it, Smith manages to create an overall effect of tenderness and resiliency, almost a lightheartedness. A beautiful book I will not soon forget. Please read it and come have coffee with me so we can talk about it.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Ali Smith
One of the books I was reading while having an existential crisis brought on by seed catalogs is Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer by Antonia Murphy. Far from helping me through my crisis, this book served to make it just a bit worse. I want a farm in New Zealand! Granted, Murphy doesn’t do much in the way of food growing, she is more into eclectic animal collecting. And while her adventures with vicious roosters and alpacas launching gobs of green spit at her are hilarious, I was just a tiny bit jealous of her good fortune.
Murphy and her husband were urban dwellers in San Francisco before they moved to New Zealand. Her also city living parents went on vacation and asked her to take care of their very much pet chickens and lonely duck, his mate having recently died. The chicken coop has to be one of the most well appointed around, it had a small chandelier! But her chicken and duck watching ended in disaster when the lonely duck raped one of the chickens to death. So when Murphy and her programmer husband decided to pull up stakes and sail their boat to New Zealand (Hobbits!), she did not have farming on her mind.
Months later when they arrived in New Zealand, Murphy was pregnant. Her husband got a job in Invercargill where they lived before moving to Purua where they rented a small farm from a German couple who were going to be out of the country for a little over a year. Her husband got a job in the city not far away and Murphy stayed home writing and taking care of the two small children they now had and the farm. They decided to move to Purua because her firstborn, Silas, was diagnosed as developmentally delayed. In this small town her son could be integrated into the regular school and not be made to attend a special needs school.
Murphy’s farming adventures are hilarious. She has no idea about anything and as a result is continually making unpleasant discoveries. Sometimes her humor can be a bit crude, but when the two calves you are transporting in the back of your station wagon have a sudden attack of diarrhea, well, the brand of humor is understandable.
I laughed when I read this book. A lot. From the very first page:
As I watched my goat eat her placenta, I was mostly impressed. I did experience some other feelings, such as horror and revulsion, and also a hint of nausea. But Pearl had always been a strict vegan, so her sudden craving for raw meat showed a real taste for adventure. Some vegetarians who broaden their menu choices might spring for an egg, or a soup made with chicken stock. But my goat, Pearl, went straight for the autocannibalism. Which was disgusting. And also worth some respect.
A goat and eventually two kids, chickens, a couple of lambs, a couple of calves, a couple of alpacas, and three turkeys that cost so much to feed that by the times they killed them for a proper Thanksgiving Murphy estimates them to been worth $85 each.
Murphy and her husband quickly make a few friends but have difficulty really fitting into the community at first:
Hamish’s skepticism about our credentials was perfectly fair. Farming was his livelihood, and we thought it was some kind of lark. You don’t see dairy farmers moving to the city with big ideas about being cardiologists for fun. ‘How hard could it be?’ they might chortle, spitting tobacco and hitching up their jeans. ‘I’ll just git me a book from the library.’
Which is what Murphy does quite frequently, raiding the local library for every book on raising goats or desperately searching the internet for advice. She also had a tendency to be a bit weird. When you live in a city there is so much more that is permissible than when you live in a small community. Murphy had long hair and she discovered the cat ears she had from a Halloween costume worked great at keeping her hair out of her face. So she ended up with a collection of various sorts of animal ears as well as devil horns. She’d wear these all the time, not just while on her farm. At first she couldn’t understand why people looked at her the way they did when she showed up to get her kids at school or shopped at the local market or visited Hamish across the road to plead for help or colostrum to feed her baby lambs.
Eventually they do manage to fit in and as their time renting the farm from the absent Germans races toward an end, they are frantic to find another farm nearby they can buy for themselves. They find one in the nick of time and all their neighbors help them move their animals to their new home. They end up having a sort of animal parade and after they are settled in to their new farm, they host a big party for everyone.
The writing isn’t always great and sometimes the crude humor is just too much, but as a whole, the book is highly entertaining. Along with the farming adventures we get a glimpse into what seems like a close-knit, friendly and sometimes eccentric community as well as some more serious notes regarding Murphy’s son. If you are looking for something lighthearted and want to laugh at the silliness of someone who thinks she can farm without knowing a thing about it, then, Dirty Chick is your book.
Thanks to Gotham Books for sending me a copy.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Antonia Murphy
Day two of 2015. How’s it going so far? Good I hope! I’ve been visiting blogs and reading yearend wrap ups and New Year plans and it is all so very exciting. January 1st is an artificial new year date imposed by our calendars because when you think about it, ever day can be said to be the first day of a new year which means every day provides the opportunity for a fresh start. Just something to keep in mind when the excitement from making fresh goals begins to wane. I have all sorts of plans for 2015. The ones you will want to know about are my reading plans.
I like my 2014 plan so well I am going to do it again this year:
Read good books.
Part of reading good books is a project my friend Cath and I are doing for the year. We both love poetry and keep up an enriching correspondence around it. This year we decided to each focus on two poets in depth and make a study of them. The two poets I chose for my study are John Keats and Elizabeth Bishop. Keats will start off the year. I’ve got his letters and complete poetry making their way to me through the mail from online bookshops. I’d like to read a biography of Keats too. Can anyone make a recommendation of a good one? The second half of the year will go to Bishop. I have her complete poems and I’ll be reading One Art, a book of her letters. I know she wrote some prose too but I don’t know that I will get to that. Perhaps I will be able to dip in, but it’s her poetry I am most interested in. I’d like to read a biography of her too. Can anyone make a good recommendation on that?
Besides Bishop and Keats I will continue working my way through Euripides’s plays. If I am remembering and counting correctly, I have six of his plays left. A couple of the remaining ones are of disputed authorship but I’m not sure that matters so very much since the number of complete Greek tragedies is so few to begin with. I doubt I will get to all six of them this year, but you never know.
That’s the broad outline for 2015.
January’s reading is going to be a pile-on of all sorts of things and I am exhausted just thinking about it. Currently I am in the midst of:
- The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I am almost done with this. Have about 130 pages left.
- The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. I am enjoying this very much.
- Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay. A wide-ranging book of essays not completely what I expected but extremely enjoyable nonetheless. I read about her competitive Scrabble playing a few days ago and I am still giggling about it. Gay has a most excellent sense of humor.
- This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. I’ve not gotten far but so far this is really good. It is an approach to climate change that is not about the environment so much as it is about the economic structures and wealth distribution we have created that are at the root of the problem.
- Guermantes Way by Proust. Oh Proust, Proust, Proust. This is my second attempt at this book and each time I pick it up I am reminded why I didn’t make it through the first time. Our Marcel is such a whiny social-climbing wanker that he makes me want to slap him. Hard. A lot. Plus he is a stalker and uses people. And while Proust is a beautiful writer, sometimes his descriptions that start off lovely go on far too long and I find myself yelling at him to hurry up and move on. Nonetheless, I am determined to finish the book. It just might be a long and painful process.
- Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Bookman has been raving about this one to me for forever so I finally started it last month. It’s getting a slow read since it is my work/commute book and I have been on vacation for almost two weeks. I will be returning to it when I return to work on Monday.
- Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I’ve heard so many good things about this book and the sequel just came out so why not? I am really liking it so far even though I am less than fifty pages in. What I like best is that there is not much in the way of gender distinction, the language and culture in the world of the book doesn’t have it and so the story has everyone being called “she” no matter their biology. It’s kind of nice to read a book and have “she” be the default for a change.
There will also be some Virginia Woolf making her way into my reading pile in January. And I am going to start reading A Clockwork Orange along with Danielle. In addition, I have, gulp, four books to pick up at the library. Two of them are graphic novels, one is a gardening book and one is a nature book. We’ll see how or if I manage to actually fit them in.
Now, given all that reading and my quickly dwindling days of vacation, I had better hop to it!
Filed under: Books
, In Progress
Here we are on the last day of 2014 which means it’s time for me to look back over my year of reading. There was a bit of excitement with the Kindle Rebellion during which I killed two Kindles. Happily Kobo and I are living in peace if not harmony (it’s a good ereader but there are things about it that frustrate me). I also began doing reviews for Library Journal and did a review for Shiny New Books as well. I managed to read a little of everything — essays, history, gardening, poetry, short stories, plays, fiction of all kinds. Nothing to complain about there! I set no reading goals other than to read good books and I can report it was a success! I very much liked not having a list hanging over my head all year and simply making plans from month to month. I ended up reading a lot of just published books but I still read older books too, though admittedly there is an imbalance but is that really so bad? I wonder.
I had thought it was a record breaking year in terms of number of books read until just before I started writing this when I looked at past years. I completed 75 books in 2014. Last year I read 69 but the year before that I read 78. That year was the most read ever. So no record, but pretty close. Still, I try to always remind myself that it is not about the numbers but how much I enjoyed the books that matters most. And wow, were there some really good books! Let’s break it all down.
Books Completed: 75
Books begun but abandoned: 2
Fiction: 31(3 fewer than 2013)
Nonfiction: 31 (one more than 2013)
Poetry: 8 (twice as many as 2013)
Plays: 4 (3 more than 2013)
Breaking it down even further (there may be some overlap across genres)…
Books about Books/Reading/Literature: 5
Social Science: 5
Books about Gardening/Nature/Environment/Climate Change: 11
Short story collections: 3
Graphic novels: 3
Books by women: 38
Books by men: 33
Multiple mixed authors: 3
Number of authors whose books I read more than one of: 6 (Euripides, Hilary Mantel, Bryan O’Malley, Claudia Rankine, Rebecca Solnit, Robin Wall Kimmerer)
In translation: 13 (French, Dutch, German, Japanese, Greek, Vietnamese)
Ebooks: 10 (one of these was an ARC)
Library: 49 (several of these were ebooks)
2010 – 2013: 17
2000 – 2009: 11
1950 – 1999: 3
1900 – 1949: 4
19th Century: 5
17th Century: 1
Favorite Poetry (a category all its own because it is neither fiction nor nonfiction):
Well, there it is, 2014. I am surprised by the number of rereads and the number of authors I read more than once. I am a bit startled by the number of books I borrowed from the library and the number that were published in 2014. I knew both would be big but I wasn’t expecting they’d be that big. The higher library count though also means I didn’t buy as many books as I might have. However, there were a couple of books I bought after borrowing them from the library.
All in all, a good year. Thank you for sharing it with me. I wish you a Happy New Year and I hope your 2015 is filled with oodles of great books!
Filed under: Books
, Year in Review
Into the pile of books I am in the midst of reading I managed to spare an hour or so to read Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. This is the second volume in the series. I very much enjoyed the first volume not long ago. This second volume was fun but not quite as fun. It suffered from second child syndrome. The characters are established, the storyline is in motion but things just sort of swirled around and didn’t go anywhere.
Oh, yes, Scott fought evil ex-boyfriend number two but it was too easy. Scott knew who the guy was ahead of time, was expecting to fight him, actually set a day and time to fight. When the fight came he won the battle with hardly a hitch. The best part was the unexpected fight between Scott’s recent ex-girlfriend Knives Chau and Ramona, his current girlfriend whose exes he is having to fight. The fight between Knives and Ramona took place at a library. It was a draw so they will be meeting again another time I’m sure.
There is nothing else to say about this one. Light, fun fluff.
So let’s pad out the fluff with the titles of a couple books I recently acquired from doing a little bookstore shopping.
- The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami. I love Murakmai so there was no way I’d pass this one up. I already acquired Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage back in October. Have I mentioned that? I think I may not have. I was hoping to read that one over my vacation but *embarrassed shrug* some things just don’t happen like we want them to.
- A new cookbook, Mayim’s Vegan Table by Mayim Bialik. You may recognize her as Amy from the TV show Big Bang Theory. She has recipes in here for kugel and even challah. Yum, yum, yum! I will be keeping Bookman busy in the kitchen asking him to make me this and make me that.
- The Martian by Andy Weir. Bookman actually got this one but I told him to. Ulterior motives? Yup, I want to read it too. A mission on Mars goes wrong and the crew is forced to evacuate. They think Mark is dead and leave him there. But he isn’t dead. Now he is stranded alone with damaged equipment and supplies that will run out long before a rescue mission could reach him. Sounds tense, doesn’t it?
- The Canterbury Tales “translated” by Peter Ackroyd. Back in college I had to read some of the tales in the original old English and it was like reading a foreign language. I enjoyed the stories but man, I was certainly never going to read any more of these than I had to. Ackroyd’s update is written in prose but from the beginning passage I read in the bookstore it seems like he does a fair job of keeping it updated but close to the original.
- My friend Cath in the Netherlands and I regularly exchange poetry through the mail. We have decided for 2015 to each make a study of two poets. I chose John Keats and Elizabeth Bishop. I will be starting off the year with Keats since I already began dipping into his letters. But that was a library book. I wanted my own copy to keep and mark up and refer back to. The Selected Letters of John Keats is out of print so I had to track down a copy online. It promises to be like new and is working its way to me through the postal system.
- Since I will be reading all of Keats’ poetry, I thought perhaps it was a good idea to actually own it. I have some of Keats as part of a huge college textbook of Romantic poets from a seminar I took back in the day. But it doesn’t have everything. Sadly, none of the bookstores had Keats on their shelves. I’d cry unbelievable but it’s really not given the minuscule size of poetry sections these days. So I have resorted to ordering the Penguin Complete Poems edition from Barnes and Noble online. That too is making its way to me through the post.
A Bit of a book buying binge for me. Haven’t done that in a while. What fun!
Filed under: Books
, New Acquisitions
Tagged: Brian O'Malley
One of the really awesome things some public libraries have started doing is creating a seed lending library. Patrons “borrow” seeds from the library to plant in their gardens and then in the fall they save seeds from what they grew and return them back to the library. Great idea, right? It promotes community sharing, healthy food and good exercise, what could be wrong with that? Back in June of this year the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture told the Mechanicsburg public library it could no longer distribute seeds. The seed-exchange program violated a law passed in 2004 that required anyone distributing seeds to conduct quality tests, adhere to labeling and storage rules, and to have a license.
This makes sense for companies that sell seeds for profit. But for a library seed sharing problem?
Now the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has gone after the Duluth public library for its seed sharing program. They cite the very same reasons as they did in PA. You don’t have to have license here but apparently anyone who sells, trades or exchanges seeds in Minnesota must follow state rules and proper labeling. One of those rules is having the seeds tested to make sure they will germinate. It costs $50 for each germination test. Typically, about 400 seeds have to be tested for a valid result but what do you do if you are looking at one to two dozen seeds? The Ag Department said they’d allow the library to have a gardener in Duluth test a smaller sample size.
This means the Duluth program is not going to be shut down, it just means they have lots of hoops to jump through every year to continue the program. And it’s a big program: 200 members borrowed 800 packets of seeds in the first year of the exchange.
Even more ridiculous is the law applies to everyone in the state. So should I give my neighbor some flower or bean seeds from my garden and I don’t first test them or label them I am breaking the law. Supposedly the law is meant to protect consumers and create a level playing field for seed companies which to me means make free seed sharing programs difficult so people will have to buy seeds from companies more often than not.
Don’t worry though, there are some laws worth breaking and this is one of them. If you ever come visit me and my garden and want some seeds from my calendula or coneflowers or zucchini, I’ll gladly provide them to you. Seed sharing is part of what gardening is all about and I am not going to let short-sighted laws that protect companies keep me from it.
On a bookish note, I have five days of work and then two glorious weeks of vacation. I have a little pile of gardening books that I have accumulated from the library that I plan on enjoying as part of that vacation:
- Preserving by the Pint by Marisa McClellan. This is a marvelous book that I am going to buy myself a copy of. It is filled with recipes for small batch canning. And by small batch I mean one or two small pint jars. The book is intended for gardeners and farmer’s market shoppers who want to preserve small amounts of in-season produce. In other words, you don’t need five pounds of strawberries to make jam, just a few cups. If you have a gardener on your holiday gift list or you are a gardener with a wishlist, this is one you will definitely want to take a look at.
- Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison. Because a plant’s Latin name contains lots of information, this book is intended to help the Latin ignorant like myself to figure it out.
- The New American Herbal by Stephen Orr. Herbs, herbs and more herbs. And what to do with them from culinary to medicinal to the purely ornamental. It’s a hefty A-Z book with more herbs than I have ever heard of, how to grow them and what to do with them. I get the feeling after just a quick browse that I am going to want to own a copy of this. Also, my herb spiral is going to be crammed full next summer and likely overflowing into the rest of the garden.
- The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour. Rumor has it that I might be able to extend the growing season into January or longer using the right equipment and techniques. I had thought I’d like to try it in a couple of years. Bookman says, we should totally try it next winter. Guess who gets to be the one who figures out how to do it? Bookman says he’s just the muscle. So I have some learning to do. Most likely I will be buying myself a copy of this book too. Glancing through, it seems like it will be quite a bit of work getting it all set up so we’ll start small, make lots of mistakes and then expand after we (I) learn how it works in my own garden. Even though it is daunting, I must say the thought of having fresh lettuce from the garden in December is rather appealing. Have no fear, you’ll be hearing all about it!
I have been happily reading the giant seed catalog I bought. I limit myself to reading it for short periods of time. I am looking forward to utter indulgence during my vacation. I might have to check in to a rehab center afterwards. But it will be totally worth it.
Filed under: Books
What is it with books and exquisite plotting lately? Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Jane Austen’s Emma (write up to come on that one!). I generally call myself a character novel person. Not that I don’t enjoy a good plot, I do! Most of the time though it seems that the best books are the ones centered on character with plot happening in order to provide the character with something to do. The meaning of the story lies in the character’s development. Books with meaningful characters and tight, meaningful plots that aren’t clunky or forced are hard to come by. At least in my experience.
But now to the list above I can add a fourth book, F by Daniel Kehlmann. Four books within two months. Unheard of!
F is about what happens when Arthur Friedland abandons his three sons to pursue a writing career. Arthur has a son, Martin, with his first wife whom he divorced. He has two sons, twins, Eric and Ivan, with his current wife. He has regular outings with his three sons and on this occasion he has taken them to see the Great Lindemann, a hypnotist. Arthur is certain he cannot be affected by hypnotism but when Lindemann calls him up on stage something happens. Was he really hypnotized or did Lindemann just manage to hit so close to the bone that Arthur could no longer remain in his mediocre life? Whatever the case, Arthur drops all three boys off at Martin’s house and disappears out of their lives. He doesn’t completely disappear, however, because he eventually becomes a best selling author.
Martin grows up and becomes a priest who doesn’t believe in God. Eric grows up to become a financial manager who begins an honest man but through a number of large investment errors ends up running a ponzi scheme in order to keep himself and his company afloat. Ivan sets out to be a painter but instead becomes a forger of paintings.
The story is told in sections. The first is the events with Lindemann. The second section belongs to Martin. This is followed by a section that is a portion of a book Arthur wrote about his family history which may or may not be fiction. The next section belongs to Eric and events in this chapter neatly coincide in places with Martin’s section while also moving forward in time. The fifth section is Ivan’s and it continues to move the story ahead while also fitting in with events that happened in Martin’s and Eric’s sections. The final section brings them all together again with the addition of a third generation, Marie, Eric’s daughter. This too, ties in with events that happened in earlier sections but also moves forward in time.
There is much in the book about work, choosing a path or having it chosen for you, determination and lack of it. Also, what happens when you aim for big things but discover you are only average?
What does it mean to be average — suddenly the question became a constant one. How do you live with that, why do you keep on going? What kind of people bet everything on a single card, dedicate their lives to the creative act, undertake the risk of the one big bet, and then fail year after year to produce anything of significance?
And what is work and all the things we do in life about anyway? Is it all just meant to fill up time until we die?
All the same, a day was a long time. So many days still until the holidays came around, so many more until Christmas, and so many years until you were grown up. Every one of them full of days and every day full of hours, and every hour a whole hour long. How could they all go by, how had old people ever managed to get old? What did you do with all that time?
Something only a child can ask.
The “F” of the title is never defined. It could mean all kinds of things: Friedland, family, faith, fate, forgery, fraud, father and probably a few others. The writing is fairly unadorned, there is no fancy styling here, just good, competent prose.
F has gotten a bit of buzz. While I was impressed with the plotting, I didn’t especially love the book. It might be because it has a rather bleak outlook on life. No one in the book is happy about anything. And when there are moments of happiness they tend to be fleeting or arise from escaping punishment. It all kind of feels pretty close to nihilistic. Of course the gray skies I have been living under for the past two weeks probably didn’t help matters. If the sun had come out once or twice I might have felt differently. I think it’s time to pull a more upbeat book from the reading pile!
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Daniel Kehlmann
I first read Jane Austen’s Emma in an undergrad literature class. I read it for a second time in a grad school Jane Austen seminar. I wasn’t thrilled with the book either time. It all seemed so bland. Even Frank Churchill’s deception was dull. Out of Austen’s six novels this one was solidly ranked as number five for me with Mansfield Park at the bottom. On this my third reading of the book something happened. Maybe it was because I wasn’t expecting much. Maybe it’s because I have been rereading one Austen a year and this is year six making Emma last. Whatever the case may be, I very much enjoyed the book this time around. I enjoyed it so much I can’t decide if I should move it up just one notch to fourth or all the way to third. It doesn’t matter since no one cares but me, but it does help me give you an idea how much I suddenly liked the book.
I don’t have to like the protagonists of my books in order to like the book, but there has always been something about Emma herself that just rubbed me the wrong way and made me grind my teeth. Snobby, self-centered, privileged meddler about sums up how I saw her. That hasn’t changed but I found myself more sympathetic to her. A good amount of that sympathy is because of her hypochondriac of a father, Mr. Woodhouse. Oh my goodness, he sometimes made me want to break something in order to relieve my frustration over all his little worries. Emma is infinitely patient with him and should be considered for sainthood.
I believe I also unknowingly primed myself to like Emma by reading Being Wrong, a book about all the various ways we can be spectacularly wrong regarding anything and everything. And Emma turns out to spend so much time being wrong that it is almost funny especially since she prides herself on being so perceptive. Because she is a lady, however, she, for the most part, admits her errors with grace and good humor even while completely mortified by them.
I still have a problem with Mr. Knightley who is 37 or 38, even Austen can’t say for sure. Emma is 21. Mr. Knightley always talks about watching Emma grow up and even says he’s loved her since she was a girl. Isn’t that just a bit creepy? Plus, for 95% of the book he acts like he, to put it in a vulgar way because I am no lady, has a stick up his butt. Or maybe he’s a robot? No, it’s a stick since he eventually does display enough human feeling to pass the Turing Test. Mr. Knightley has all the reserve of Mr. Darcy without the wit. Even when he does declare his love for Emma and begins to act like a living person, I still can’t picture them as married. I mean, he has spent the whole book frowning at Emma, correcting her every wrong and expressing his displeasure when she violates social rules that I can’t imagine he would behave any differently once married. How insufferable to have a husband who is always right and always correcting you on everything! Since Mr. Knightley is moving into Hartfield so as not to upset Mr. Woodhouse, I frankly fear for Emma’s sanity, trapped in a home with a hypochondriac and a control freak.
What won me over with the book is the tight plot. Austen is a pro with the red herrings. All the twists and turns of who likes whom is delightful. And since the story is told mainly through Emma’s eyes we are fairly limited to her view of events which means we believe the wrong things too unless you’ve read the book before like I have and know what happens or you are an extra perceptive first-time reader. The clues are all there. Even more fun, since this is Austen we know there will be a happy ending; there will be weddings. But we are kept in suspense for most of the book about who will be marrying whom. It’s all so expertly done.
These last six years rereading one Austen novel every year have been enjoyable. At first I thought when I was done I should do it all over again, but no. Much as I liked it I think I will wait a few years before doing it again. That I will do it again I am quite certain.
Filed under: Books
, Jane Austen
On this, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, Bookman and I have a holiday celebration. As many of you know, Bookman is a wizard in the kitchen and does all the cooking. Except on Winter Solstice. Way back in the murky past when we began celebrating Solstice, Bookman, being in the retail biz, often had to work during the day. Therefore in order to have a special celebration dinner, I had to dust off my cooking skills and whip it all together.
The whole process actually begins two to three weeks before Solstice when I comb through recipes looking for something just right. We never have anything that we have eaten before, the recipes are always entirely new. As you can imagine this might sometimes backfire like the year I thought Salisbury tofu steaks would be great. It was so bad the leftovers went into the trash. Or the time I attempted to make little tarts with filo, something I had never used before. Instead of lovely little flute-edged pastry cups filled with fruit, I served a mashed up crumble. It tasted good though, so that was something.
Sometimes parts of the meal end up being integrated into the regular dinner repertoire. Black bean burgers when we still newish vegans were a miracle that saved us from having to continue to buy those horrible frozen burger patties from the grocery store. And the year I made breakfast for dinner that included vegan sausage. Bookman has since put his own spin on it and has turned it into an even tastier sausage but he used the recipe to create his own version of hot dogs too.
As Bookman tried really hard to stay out of the kitchen today and only help when I asked, he kept saying things like, “oh this gives me ideas.” Happy words.
This year’s dinner was flavorful and pretty simple. In recent years I’ve spent all day standing in the kitchen chopping, chopping, chopping, mixing, simmering, stirring, chopping some more. This year there was very little chopping and only a moderate amount of grating.
The meal begins with a green salad: lettuce, mung bean sprouts, raisins and a sprinkling of sesame seeds with “Ninja ginger carrot” dressing. Bookman was sitting at the kitchen table keeping me company while I had the food processor going blending this up. Why is it called “Ninja”? he asked. At that moment I had stopped the blending to open the lid and check on the progress. I turned around, I can’t see! I’m blind! I cried, tears streaming down my face. I’d been Ninja-ed by the potent miasma of fresh ginger, white onion and vinegar that wafted out when I opened the food processor. That answered Bookman’s question. Lucky for us, eating it was a different matter.
The main course for the evening was tempeh katsu. This is tempeh marinated in ginger and garlic, soy sauce and mirin all day, then battered and coated in sesame seeds and panko and baked for half an hour. Served with homemade tonkatsu sauce, buckwheat soba noodles and green cabbage with lemon. We’ve had tempeh many times before but never cooked like this. We have also had soba noodles before. Nonetheless, I had no idea what this was going to taste like. Wow, was it good! And it was easy to make too. This is a meal that will definitely be making more appearances.
Dessert. In keeping with the Japanese flavors, I made red bean vanilla ice cream mochi dumplings. Bookman made the coconut ice cream from scratch yesterday. This morning I stirred in mashed sweetened red (adzuki) beans. I made the mochi dough in the microwave. The dough gets cut out in little circles and then wrapped around a small scoop of the ice cream and put back in the freezer. We’ve had adzuki beans before but not like this. We’ve had mochi before too that we bought at the store and then puffed up into sticky treats in the microwave. These little dumplings were so simple and so very tasty. Paired with a dark roast coffee it was pretty close to heaven.
And of course there are leftovers of everything for dinner again tomorrow.
In honor of the Winter Solstice the weather tried to snow but could not decide whether it was snow, sleet or rain so it kept changing back and forth all day. It is odd “warm” weather we are having. But at least we got a little snow. No bonfires in the city but we lit a candle at dinner to call back the sun. And now, ever so slowly, the days will start to get longer again.
It has been a nice day; relaxing and cooking with Bookman and sharing a delicious meal together. The best kind of day. The best kind of celebration.
Filed under: Food
It actually began at 4:00 on Friday last week but it hasn’t felt like vacation until today. That’s because somehow I’ve been pretty busy. There was regular grocery shopping and Solstice ingredient shopping. There was cooking. There was the dentist. Other things I can’t seem to remember but that sucked up time. Oh and the library. To pick up books I did not expect to be getting until next year. Which means my vacation reading plans have been all messed up because these books can’t be renewed. Story of my life!
The books? How to Be Both by Ali Smith and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. These are okay things to have mess up my reading plans. I began reading Smith today and am really liking the book a lot. I have not read Smith before, have always meant to, but you know how it goes. Now, of course, I find myself wondering why I didn’t read her sooner! The good part is she has lots of books I haven’t read.
Vacation reading also includes Dirty Chick, which is proving to be hilarious, Proust, which is not hilarious, and finishing The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Oh there are plenty of other books on hand but these are the ones I will be focusing on.
I am also wallowing in the pleasures of seed catalogs. Man, do I need some acreage!
Also on this vacation time, I am playing catch up with my book database. I have been pretty good all year at keeping my Books Read page updated but not so much my personal database that allows me to track books at a glance across the years. I spent a couple hours today entering books and I am only up through July. Halfway, right? It appears I have had a personal record breaking reading year. But more on that later.
Other events this vacation will include: a trip to a bookstore or two and a viewing of the final Hobbit movie. The movies have been pretty good, but I am so glad this is the last one. There is absolutely no reason they had to take this mediocre book and turn it into three movies. Oh wait, there is a reason: money. And I couldn’t help but give them some of mine. Sigh.
It will be light posting through the New Year. I’ll pop by with books I finish and an end-of-year roundup, but blogland gets quiet this time of year anyway and I’d like to take a mini-vacation from my computer. So in case I don’t manage to get round in the next day or two, I hope all of you celebrating Christmas out there have a wonderful day filled with love and good food and lots of new books!
Filed under: Books
, In Progress
A book-sized box was delivered to my door yesterday afternoon. Not an uncommon occurrence, except I wasn’t expecting anything. I am expecting a couple books for review but had accepted them just before Christmas and I thought, wow, those got here awful fast.
The box was heavy. Someone from Oxford University Press in the U.S. sent it to me. What could it be?
I opened it up to find two annotated instructor’s copies of a college-level writing textbook called How Writing Works. I believe I might have squealed after that. Why would I get so excited over a freshman composition textbook?
Turn to page 742 and you will find my blog post Eating Animals. I got a tiny biography, and after the essay there are three discussion questions and a writing assignment directing students to write an informal response to a book or article they have read recently.
I think I might has squealed again.
I knew my essay was going to be in the book. I had gotten an email from someone at OUP over a year and a half ago. At first glance I thought it was some kind of scam. On second glance I thought maybe it was legit. So I replied with my address and about a week later I got a contract in the mail. Shut the front door! I yelled, this is for real! Except I am pretty sure I used profanity because that’s what you do when you are shocked out of your gourd. I signed it and sent it away. On the line for payment I said two finished copies of the book. And then I pretty much forgot about it.
Yesterday I got paid.
Every time I see the book on my desk I start giggling. My essay is going to be used to torture college freshman. I feel like I have hit the big time.
Filed under: Books
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I have seen the face of evil and it looks suspiciously like a seed catalog.
Just before Christmas my Baker Creek Seed catalog sent me into an existential crisis. I want to grow heirloom wheat! I want a field of flax! A field of oats! Amaranth! Vegetables coming out my ears! A root cellar to store potatoes and winter squash and all my beautiful jars of canned veg and fruit. I could come pretty close to never having to set foot in a grocery store again. The only problem: I live in a city with a small urban lot. Bookman and I have full time jobs so we can afford our urban lot and the small house that sits on it as well as other things like books and computers. The idea that I’d have to wait until I had saved enough money to retire before I could spend my days growing and preserving and doing something that I really, really love, well, that’s twenty years from now at least. I don’t want to wait that long!
I planned it all out. Buy 10 – 15 wooded acres with a creek running through up north. The internet told me this could be done for a very reasonable $30,000. Build a Tiny House. Dig a root cellar. Sink a well. Install a gray water system and composting toilet so I wouldn’t need a septic system. Install a solar panel system. Learn how to chop wood and manage a woodlot and a wood burning stove as this is what would keep my tiny house warm all winter. Build a greenhouse. Build a chicken coop. Establish a couple of beehives. Start digging and planting. In two to three years, sell my house, quit my job and move. By the time climate change starts ruining the economy, making food more scarce and creating general chaos, I will be happily established and self-sufficient. Also, I will be prepared to survive any other kind of civilization-ending disaster. But all that would be a bonus to spending my days working in the garden and tending my chickens and bees.
I barfed this up all over Bookman when he got home from work. He wasn’t sure what to think of it. He doesn’t want to be a farmer, he said. It wouldn’t really be farming, it’d be more like having a gigantic garden. Well, that was okay. But he still wasn’t keen on the idea. He likes gardening but I think the idea of spending most of the day every day outdoors working in this gigantic garden is not his perfect day.
Can’t we just plant more in the garden we have? he wanted to know. Sure, I said, but it’s not big enough. Well what about the front yard? We can grow stuff out there too. And these chickens you want, what’s that all about? They are good for the garden. Chicken poo makes great compost. And then I really freaked him out by saying we could eat the eggs. But we’re vegan! he protested. Well, yeah, I said, but these would be our own chickens and they are going to lay eggs no matter what and we need to do something with them. But we’re vegan, he said again.
This from the man who plans on going zombie should there ever be a zombie apocalypse. You know, brains aren’t vegan. It will be fine, he assures me, I’ll only eat the brains of vegans. Right. Eating eggs from our own pet chickens however is just too horrifying. Okay, forget the chickens then, we don’t need chickens, I just thought it would be fun to have a few.
But Bookman has no special interest in moving to the country. So I am thrown into making the most of the small plot of land that we have. In a few years we will need to rebuild our slowly sagging detached garage. It will be rebuilt with a flat roof upon which we can grow things. Bookman is fine with this. That’s a few years away though. In the meantime, we have a couple hot, sunny places in the front yard where I am going to try growing okra, cow peas, strawberry spinach, possibly tomatoes and peppers (though I don’t trust passersby won’t help themselves to these) or maybe oats or flax.
At the back of the evil seed catalog is an ad for geodesic dome greenhouses. Portable, space efficient, and one person can put it together in an hour or two. I imagined plopping one of these babies down in the garden in the fall and using it to grow stuff all winter long. The smallest one is just over $3,000 but worth it for fresh food all winter, right? Imagine, fresh-picked tomatoes in January! Except not.
Because I am reading a book about growing food year-round no matter where you live and there is this thing called sunlight that turns out to be really important. I could have a lovely tropical greenhouse but without more than ten hours of sunlight it will do me no good. Turns out plants pretty much stop growing with less than ten hours of sun. Given how far north I live, how low the sun is in the sky during the winter and how short the days are, if I am generous in my calculations, I can eke out eight hours of daylight. So unless I want to run electricity to grow lights on a timer in this beautiful geodesic greenhouse, tomatoes in January are never going to happen. This means there is no point in spending $3,000 on a greenhouse. Part of me is crestfallen — no big beautiful greenhouse — part of me is happy — thank goodness I don’t have to spend all that money.
Still, the evil seed catalog has me planning on buying seeds for all sorts of things I have never grown before. And the book on year-round gardening has me analyzing plant descriptions for extra cold tolerant varieties of things I can grow under hoop houses and possibly in cold frames. I may not be able to go out and pick a tomato in my greenhouse in the middle of winter, but I should be able to pick carrots, kale, mache, lettuce, radishes, and a good many other things.
How I’m going to cram everything in my small urban yard, I have no idea. A dozen acres would be so much better. How I’m going to manage a year-round garden and a full time job, I have no idea about that either. But I will figure it out.
All this because of a seed catalog. See what I mean? Evil.
Filed under: gardening