Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns (Book #86)

I rarely read literary fiction and especially tend to flee any book whose buzz cries, "Coming soon to a book club near you as soon as it's out in trade paperback." But I made an exception for A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini, 2007), because I heard the author interviewed on NPR and was curious enough to give the book a try. I'm very glad I did--I loved this poignant, harrowing, but surprisingly hopeful story of two women in Afghanistan. The action covers roughly 1973-2003, and part of what made it such a compelling read was the constant reminders that this WAS happening during my lifetime, that women my age (I'm about a dozen years younger than Mariam and eight years older than Laila) lived like this.

Good book. Really good book.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Mindless Eating (Book #85)

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Brian Wansink, 2006) isn't your ordinary diet book. The author is a market researcher, not a nutritionist, and his focus is on what behavioral research tells us about how we make decisions about food. We can then harness those insights to work for our health instead of against it. He recommends a "mindless diet"--simple behavioral changes to improve our eating habits without making people feel the deprivation of a diet.

In theory I've been on Weight Watchers since July, but I haven't exactly been sticking with it. I mean to get back on the WW wagon tomorrow--but I'm also following this book's suggestion and making a list of three habits I'm going to follow. That way on days where it's too hectic to track points or I just fall off plan, I'll have a back-up to keep me from just binging. Here is my plan, posted on my blog for all the world to see in hopes that it'll keep me accountable:

1. Maximum of one non-diet soda per day.
2. I will only eat potato chips on weekends.
3. I will have at least one serving of fruit or non-potato vegetable per meal. (In theory this should trick me into making generally more nutritious choices, though probably some days it'll mean a banana or apple with a grilled cheese and fries from the cafeteria.)

There. We'll see how this works.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Distant Magic (Book #84)

A Distant Magic (Mary Jo Putney, 2007) is part romance, part fantasy, and part history lesson about the 18th century British abolition movement. It's an unwieldy combination at times, but it's also much more ambitious in theme and scope than your average romance novel. I noted that several of the Amazon reviews it's gotten so far complain that it's not escapist enough, that they don't want sermons about the evils of slavery or politics in their romance novels. I suppose I might be something of an oddity among romance readers, but to me a love story becomes MORE compelling when the hero and heroine care about something larger than themselves and have a cause beyond sorting out their feelings for each other. This isn't my favorite of Putney's books--I thought the timeline-hopping element made it a bit disjointed. But so many of the romances I've tried lately and set aside unfinished have felt claustrophobic in their narrow focus on the hero and heroine, with the historical setting nothing more than an excuse for the glamor of pretty dresses and a hero who's a duke or earl. And that doesn't work for me, because the literary escape I crave isn't glitz and glamor--it's adventure, and sometimes the idea that a person like me could make a real difference in the world. A DISTANT MAGIC delivers my kind of escape.

The Footman's Directory and Butler's Remembrancer (Book #83)

As I continue to research the life and duties of servants ~200 years ago for my WIP, I just finished reading The Footman's Directory and Butler's Remembrancer (by "Onesimus," 1823, reprinted in 1998). Fascinating stuff, and more reminders of how much work it was to live 200 years ago! What surprised me a bit, though it shouldn't have in an Advice to Young Men book of this sort, is how thoroughly the author accepts the then-current idea that God has assigned us all to our stations in life and that we must be content in them. I always figured the gentry and the nobility were the only ones who actually BELIEVED all that, since their "assigned station" was so pleasant and convenient, and that the "lower orders" might have given lip service to the concept to keep the peace, but that deep down they knew better. I know I'm being very 21st-century American here, but it's just hard for me to believe, deep down, that anyone ELSE could believe they deserved anything less than the best they could earn on their own merit.

On a lighter note...there's a section of recipes, cleaning tips, household remedies, etc. Some of them are fascinating. I'd love to try old-fashioned ginger- or spruce-beer, for example. But I'm baffled by toast-and-water. Basically, you take stale bread, toast it fairly dark, put it in a jug and fill it with boiling water. When the water is quite cold, you then strain it through a sieve and drink it. I'm completely failing to see the appeal of that one...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Rules of Gentility (Book #82)

I can't remember when I last read a book that's simply as fun as The Rules of Gentility (Janet Mullany, 2007). It's a spoof of both Regency romance and chick lit that's laugh-out-loud funny while somehow striking the delicate balance of taking its characters seriously enough amid the slapstick and parody that the reader cares what happens to them. The voice makes it--it's told in first person, alternating between hero and heroine, and with tons of charm and wit.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Complete Servant (Book #81)

The Complete Servant (Samuel & Sarah Adams, 1825, republished in 1988 with an introduction by Pamela Horn) is one of the earliest domestic advice books. I got it to research a footman's duties for my WIP, in which two of my characters go undercover as footmen. It came to me courtesy of interlibrary loan from Linfield College, which I'd never heard of before but now know is a small liberal arts college in NW Oregon.

The book details the work of all the servants in a well-to-do early 19th century English household, from the butler down to the scullery maid. Reading it makes me want to go home and hug my vacuum cleaner, microwave, dishwasher, etc. Any one recipe in the cook and housekeeper's sections makes me feel tired. I'd never bake a cake if I had to go to that much effort. Not sure I'd like the cakes, anyway. Chocolate was only a drink then, and vanilla doesn't show up in the recipes, either. Lots of almonds and lemon zest, which is fine, and currants everywhere, which isn't. (I've never been a big fan of dried fruit in my desserts.) Currants in pound cake, even! Blech! One of the few recipes that sounded wholly appetizing to my modern palate was one for "East India Curry," which, allowing for changes in technology, sounds a lot like a modern curry recipe, not even especially blanded down for the English palate. But the rest? You can keep your boiled beef and currant-festooned cakes, English people 200 years ago.

Really, it's a fascinating window on a bygone world...that I wouldn't want to eat in.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Patriot Battles (Book #80)

When I was growing up, we were taught that the American Revolution was all about scrappy frontier riflemen beating the robotic soldiers of an empire against incredible odds, mostly because the soldiers were so, well, robotic. You know, too stupid to realize that wearing bright red coats made them targets for those daring riflemen and so on. As an adult, and particularly an adult who's becoming something of an expert on the Napoleonic Wars, I'd figured that school history was a myth. The British were far from stupid, after all. 18th century battlefield tactics actually make a lot of sense when you understand the technology available then. E.g. rifles of the time had serious disadvantages compared to a musket--a much slower rate of fire, and frontier hunting rifles couldn't be fitted with bayonets, leaving a sharpshooter vulnerable when unloaded. Ideally you want a small number of rifles to supplement your musket-armed infantry with their sniper mojo. Which is what the Americans actually had during the Revolution, and what the British used so successfully in the Napoleonic Wars.

Anyway. That's one small myth of the many busted in Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought (Michael Stephenson, 2007). A larger one is the idea that the odds were against the Patriots, what with Britain being one of the great superpowers of the day and all. Actually, the odds were stacked against the British to begin with, because they never had anything like enough soldiers available to garrison a large, hostile territory far from home. Sound familiar? It should. Stephenson draws the obvious parallel and gets excoriated for it by Amazon reviewers, but I think he's right. It's not an exact parallel, but there is a lesson there to be learned.

Oh, and it's a good, readable introduction to the realities of 18th century warfare, if you're interested in such things.

What the Lady Wants (Book #79)

What the Lady Wants (Jennifer Crusie, 1995) is vintage early Crusie--a quick, frothy, but utterly intelligent read. I read it on the plane coming back to Seattle and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The English (Book #78)

While living in England I became inordinately fond of Jeremy Paxman's work on Newsnight (basically, Nightline with a bit more bite), so I snapped up The English (1998) when I recently discovered it in a used bookstore. It's a good read. If I weren't limiting myself to brief posts, I could go on about it at length, but what stood out to me was in how many ways the English and American peoples are more alike than different--individualistic, independent, in their hearts more rural than urban despite living in cities and suburbs, etc. Basically, Americans are Englishmen, given a whole continent to be individualistic and independent in, and with more religion and less aristocracy. Which, of course, is exactly what you'd expect.

Redcoat (Book #77)

A very brief review of Redcoat (Bernard Cornwell, 1988), since I'm still in the land of slow dial-up modems and am trying to keep all my internet usage brief.

It's a standalone Revolutionary War story set in and around Philadelphia in 1776-77. As you might expect of a novel in this era written by an Englishman who married an American and became a US citizen, he neither lionizes nor demonizes either side, which I generally like. It's a bit sweeter and more romantic than most of Cornwell's work, and I can't help wondering if his own experience of True Love with an American blonde came into play. :-)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A week in an oven

My husband, daughter, and I are at my mom's house in Alabama this week. She's having chemo for lung cancer, so it's not the happiest visit, but I'm glad we came. The internet connection here is a terribly slow dial-up, so I'll be posting less frequently and with more brevity than normal till I'm back in Seattle.

As for the title of the post? It's been over 100F every day since we got here on Tuesday, and it's forecast to continue for at least one more day before "cooling" into the upper 90's.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Women and Money (Book #76)

Despite having a spicy brain and a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School, I tend to go running in the opposite direction when asked to contemplate long-term financial planning. Hearing Suze Orman on NPR a few months ago convinced me that this was a Bad Idea. Ignoring retirement planning, debt issues, etc. will not make them go away. So I checked out her Women & Money (2007) to get a sense of her approach. And I'm convinced. I'll buy my own copy. I'll shop for a better bank, find lower-interest credit cards, and re-evaluate how I've allocated the money in my 401(k). I promise. Because she's right. I'm too smart to be stupid about money, and it's too important to ignore.

Princesses (Book #75)

Did you know that George III and his queen had fifteen children, six of them daughters? If you didn't, it's because by royal standards--I take that back, by ANY standard--those daughters led dull, restricted lives. Because of that, Princesses: the Six Daughters of George III (Flora Fraser, 2004) is a strange read--compelling, but depressing. The novelist in me wants to find a way to write the girls out of their predicament--which, basically, is that they reached marriageable age just as their father's grip on sanity was loosening and the long upheaval of the French Revolution/Napoleonic Wars got going. Since George III didn't approve of his children marrying even a little bit below royal rank, they had no opportunities to marry in England. For the most part, they were conventional young women who wanted families, and they just didn't get a chance. Though four of the six eventually married, they married late and left no legitimate descendants. (One of the two who never married gave birth to an illegitimate child by a commoner lover while a young woman.)

Anyway, it was an informative read, if you need information on British court life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.