Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Wellington's Army in the Peninsula (Book #108)

Wellington's Army in the Peninsula, 1808-1814 (Michael Glover, 1977) covers much the same ground as Sir Charles Oman's earlier work, which I read a few weeks ago, though it's a bit shorter, more modern in tone, and kinder to Wellington's character (and fairer, I think--in all my reading, it's pretty obvious there's a thoroughly decent and in many ways likable man hiding under all that snark and arrogance).

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Book #107)

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Diana Gabaldon, 2007) in true Gabaldon style combines elements of many genres in one volume. It's a mystery (sort of), a bit of a family saga, occasionally reads like a military adventure story, and has strong romantic elements (male/male) without quite qualifying as a romance. And it's a cracking good read, though it had been so long since I'd read the Outlander series that I was a bit rusty on Lord John Grey and his family and how they connected with Jamie and Claire and all their people. (It doesn't quite stand alone, IMHO. At least, if you'd never read the first three Outlander books, you'd be pretty mystified by who this Jamie Fraser guy who occasionally appears is and why Lord John is so obsessed with him.)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Body Clutter (Book #106)

Body Clutter: Love Your Body, Love Yourself (Marla Cilley, Leanne Ely, 2005) is by the FlyLady, who's best known for her system, complete with lots of motivational cheering, for de-cluttering and cleaning your house. Body Clutter applies the same basic principles to eating and exercising. It's less about a diet system than about adjusting your attitude to deal with whatever fears and needs make it hard for you to change your eating and exercise habits. It also stresses the problem of perfectionism--we expect too much of ourselves, try too ambitious a plan, and then give up completely and pig out on junk food as soon as we fail to live up to one part of our perfectionist scheme. And I recognize that in myself. As in, I do it all the time: "Oh, well, I had a regular coke instead of diet or water at lunch, guess I might as well have a big bag of potato chips and another coke for my afternoon snack!" Instead, we're supposed to forgive ourselves, love ourselves, and make gradual changes--baby steps.

The book is really too rah-rah motivational, emotional, and downright girly for cynical tomboy me, but that insight about perfectionism hits home. I'm trying to make some lifestyle changes, and I think the lessons in this book will help me stick with them.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Here If You Need Me (Book #105)

For the past few months, I've been working with hospital chaplains. I'm the Operations Manager for a hospital chaplaincy and chaplaincy education department, which basically means I wrestle the bureaucracy so the chaplains don't have to.

Here If You Need Me (Kate Braestrup, 2007) gave me greater insight into what my coworkers do. It's a memoir by a Unitarian minister whose vocation took an unusual form--her first husband was a Maine state trooper who'd been planning to go to seminary and become a law enforcement chaplain, but was killed in a car accident. His widow, Braestrup, decided to take his call upon herself, and she ended up a chaplain to the Maine Warden Service--i.e. lots of search-and-rescue for lost children, missing snowmobilers, and the like. It's moving, and gives me a better picture of how a chaplain operates ecumenically as she tells stories of supporting people of no faith at all and of faiths considerably more conservative than her own.

It reminds me a bit of Take This Bread, which I read a few months ago, in that it's the story of an intelligent adult coming somewhat belatedly to a religious life, a life that's more about doing than about believing. It's appealing, but I have trouble wrapping my head around it, coming as I do from a background where faith is largely accepting a set of intellectual propositions about God and then trying to live in a way consistent with that belief scheme. Being as I am sort of an agnostic believer--"I believe, Lord, help my unbelief" is probably the Bible verse I identify with most easily--every time I find out about one of these smart adult converts, part of me hopes they've found The Answer. I want them to have some airtight bit of logic that will prove to me that yes, there IS a God and there IS an afterlife, for sure, and here's how you go there, and I will see my dad again and get to meet all these fascinating dead people I research and try to bring back to life in my books. But so far, my quest for The Answer seems fruitless--but I'm pondering what it means to have Faith without Answers.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

My Lady Judge (Book #104)

My Lady Judge (Cora Harrison, 2007) is a cozy mystery, likely the first in a series, about a woman judge in the Burren, an Irish region still free of English dominance and following Celtic traditional law in the early 16th century. I don't know the history well enough to know if a woman really could've played the role, but Harrison makes it seem rare but plausible.

Anyway, it's a very cozy mystery, as sweet as a story can possibly be and still involve the investigation of a rather grisly murder. It's not my usual taste, but worked well as a palate cleanser.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sharpe's Revenge (Book #103)

Having finished Sharpe's Revenge (Bernard Cornwell, 1989), I now only have two books left in the series, and then where am I supposed to go for my Age of Sail/Flintlock adventure fix? Other than writing them myself, which while satisfying is also time-consuming. And sometimes you want to be taken along on someone else's ride rather than having to build the roller-coaster yourself from the ground up, you know?

So. Peace after two decades of war--hard on soldiers. Jane--sneaky shallow little bitch, though I have to say that double standards SUCK. Lucille--more appealing in the book than in the movies, though she's still not quite Teresa or Lady Grace. General Calvet--made of awesome. Ducos--evil, but how many times can one man's glasses be broken? One of these days I'm going to write a nearsighted historical hero who's a bespectacled badass, just 'cuz. Myopic Pride, or something like that.

Anyway, I'm really going to miss this series when I'm done. I've still got most of Cornwell's books set in earlier eras to get to, but it's just not the same for me, since the Napoleonic Era is my main "home" in the past. Anyone else ever get the dread not that they'll run out of BOOKS, because that's impossible, but that they'll run out of GOOD books that hit their readerly sweet spots? Especially because the older I get and the more I write myself, the more persnickety and hard to please I become.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Wellington's Army (Book #102)

Wellington's Army, 1809-1814 (Sir Charles Oman, 1913) is a thorough overview of the personalities and organization of Wellington's Peninsular Army. I wish I'd read it years ago when I first started researching the military side of the Regency era. While it's not quite as encyclopedic, I think it makes a good companion to John Elting's book on Napoleon's army, Swords Around a Throne.

That said, I couldn't help noticing Oman's Edwardian point of view in spots. He pays more attention to the relatively few Methodist and Evangelical soldiers and officers than more recent accounts do, praising their pious and patriotic response to the atheism and destruction of tradition of the French Revolution. And he's shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you, and APPALLED that soldiers and even officers brought their WIVES along and generally collected female camp followers. He doesn't quite come out and say that war is no place for a woman and the ladies should've stayed back in England being Angels in the Home, but the implication is there. Which amused me, because one of the reasons I enjoy writing the Napoleonic Wars as opposed to many earlier and later conflicts is that there's so much scope for writing bad-ass female characters. Of course, I expect Sir Charles would've found me shockingly unwomanly--and I am a total tomboy, always have been except for my ill-fated attempts to be popular and girly as a teen.

However, I can't help thinking of something I read in CS Lewis years ago. Paraphrased, he said that it's a good idea to read works written before your own time, because each era has its biases in values and worldview. And you're not generally aware of your own time's skewed perspective, because you're soaking in it. So now I'm trying to figure out whether my view of of the Napoleonic era is more or less accurate than Oman's, and, on a related note, whether the present is more like the world of Oman's time or Wellington's. (My instinct is Wellington's, but I'm speaking from a West Coast, big city perspective. The world might look a little more Edwardian from the heartland.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Nine (Book #101)

Usual caveat: Democrat, albeit more on the Jim Webb than the Dennis Kucinich end of the party. Usually don't talk politics on this blog, but it's partly my reading diary, and sometimes I read politics.

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court (Jeffrey Toobin, 2007) is an intimate and anecdotal look at the justices and decisions of the Supreme Court, roughly during my adult life--the early 90's through the present. It's extremely depressing at points (I don't think I'll EVER be able to revisit the 2000 election without wanting to weep, or smash things, or something), but also informative and engrossing.

And it's made me more determined than ever to see a Democrat elected in 2008, preferably a two-termer. It's likely there will be several vacancies in the next decade, and if they're filled with more justices in the Roberts and Alito mold, we won't recognize our civil liberties ten years from now.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

And Both Were Young (Book #100)

And Both Were Young (Madeleine L'Engle, 1983) is one of L'Engle's lesser-known books, an early work revised in 1983, according to the author's note, to put back some grittier elements that were taken out at her editor's request in days when YA fiction avoided certain harsh realities. It's a YA romance/coming-of-age story set in a Swiss boarding school in the late 1940's, with an American heroine grieving a dead mother and afraid her father will remarry a woman she despises. I haven't read many stories set in postwar Europe, and it's interesting to see how some of the aftermath of WWII plays out in the lives of the students at a multinational school.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Agnes and the Hitman (Book #99)

I thought Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer's first book as co-authors, Don't Look Down, was promising but flawed--their voices didn't quite meld for me. Agnes and the Hitman (2007) is IMHO a much stronger work--tightly written and funny as all get-out. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Once Upon a Quinceanera (Book #98)

Once Upon a Quinceanera (Julia Alvarez, 2007) isn't exactly an anthropological analysis of the quinceanera tradition (and I'd love to read such a book), but it's an intriguing meditation on what it means to come of age as a young woman, especially a Latina woman, in the United States today and in the author's 1960's youth. It made me think about what I hope for my own daughter in 10 or 12 years and the kind of values I want to be passing down to her. Alvarez often repeated a quote from Plato--paraphrased, "Education means teaching our children to desire the right things." I want my daughter to desire knowledge, justice, integrity, and courage--but also joy, laughter, and a good story.

Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon (Book #97)

One of the hardest parts about exploring a new and relatively obscure topic as an adult is figuring out where to start. (Relatively obscure=any subject you can't take a class on at community college or find a basic For Dummies or similar introduction.) It's not always easy to find the bridges that take you from basic, wikipedia-article knowledge to the kind of expertise you need if you're going to write about a topic yourself. I've frequently requested books from interlibrary loan or shelled out my hard-earned money only to find they're barely more informative than a wikipedia article or else are way over my head.

Way back in 2003 or so when I was first developing the plot for The Sergeant's Lady, I realized I needed to know a lot more about all aspects of Napoleonic-era army life. One of the first books I tried was Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon (Rory Muir, 1998). And at the time, it was way over my head. I remember being baffled by the terminology, as if each paragraph was a thicket of thorns I was trying to push through.

Four years later and many research hours later, I tried it again...and found it easy reading. Informative, but easy. So I guess I've been learning something after all. That's encouraging, really--that my mind still has at least some of its collegiate flexibility despite being so busy and out of practice academically.