Thursday, January 31, 2008

Taste (Book #9)

Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking (Kate Colquhoun, 2007) makes social history out of a topic--British cuisine--that's often treated as a joke. It's full of fascinating tidbits about everything from the configuration of medieval banquets to WWII rationing, but you have to wade through a dry, encyclopedic presentation to find them.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

2007 in books

Here it is almost the end of January, and I still haven't posted any kind of summary of my 2007 reading. I was going to just skip it, since it feels way too late for a "Best of 2007" post. But it was an unusually good reading year for me, and I wanted to acknowledge some of my most memorable reads. These are the books that stuck with me. I read plenty of other books that made me smile, that whiled the time away pleasantly, or that gave me useful information, but the books on this list had a deeper impact: they expanded the world of my imagination and/or made me see the world from a new angle.

This isn't a ranked list; I'm simply working my way backward through my blog posts from the year.

It's Not About the Accent, by Caridad Ferrer. A YA coming of age story that made me reflect on how I define myself even thought I'm a good 15 or 20 years past the "coming of age" stage.

Fray, by Joss Whedon. So, it's a graphic novel. It's also a powerful, tight piece of storytelling, and I only hope my own action-adventure WIP will even approach its impact.

The Mask of Command, by John Keegan, and Sharpe's Waterloo, by Bernard Cornwell. Reading these books back-to-back gave my imagination a vivid "Waterloo room."

Here if You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup. Lately I'm drawn to stories of non-fundamentalist faith journeys, as I'm still trying to work out what life means in a world with no absolutes.

Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik. The second strongest outing in the series thus far, and the cliffhanger from hell!

American Band, by Kristen Laine. What it's like to grow up in America today, viewed through one season of a competitive marching band.

Survival of the Sickest, by Sharon Moalem. Popular science in journalistic style, so nothing Deep or Moving, but the examples have stayed in my mind.

Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby, by Allyson Beatrice. Online communities and how they flow into real life.

Swords Around a Throne, by John Elting. An encyclopedic reference to Napoleon's Grande Armee. Sounds dry, but reading it opened my eyes to the French side of the wars.

The Wild Trees, by Richard Preston. Mad scientists who never got over their childhood love for climbing trees.

Born Fighting, by James Webb. The first book I've ever read focusing on the Scots-Irish--i.e. my people.

Gallows Thief, by Bernard Cornwell. I wish he'd turned this one into a series...

Rough Crossings, by Simon Schama. The American Revolution from a completely different angle.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

God's Harvard (Book #8)

Patrick Henry College, the subject of God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America (Hanna Rosin, 2007) is no ordinary Christian college. It's designed specifically for kids from a conservative homeschool background, and its goal isn't to educate students for the pulpit and/or the wide vocational spectrum of modern life: instead, they're training culture warriors for the front lines of the religious right. The founder's stated dream is that in 30 years, the director of the Best Picture Oscar winner will receive a call from his former Patrick Henry roommate--the president of the United States. The only majors are government, history, literature, journalism, and classic liberal arts.

Rosin, a Washington Post reporter, followed a tumultuous year in the life of the still new and experimental college (it's less than a decade old). I wanted to weep for some of the students who were so bright and so ambitious being forced through a system that's ultimately so restrictive, like the brilliant girl who was groomed to be First Lady rather than President, though I also wanted to wring the kids' narrow-minded young necks for seeing the 2006 elections as a case of "evil winning." PHC is emphatically a Republican endeavor. They'd see someone like me, a Christian who votes Democrat and is supporting Barack Obama, as at best deluded and at worst willfully rebellious and evil. it or not, they're here to stay. What remains to be seen is whether they'll remain influential.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Almost French (Book #7)

Almost French (Sarah Turnbull, 2001) is the memoir of an Australian woman who meets a Frenchman while traveling in Europe and ends up moving to Paris to live with him. It's a humorous tale of culture clash and learning to understand and value differences.

Reading it, I remembered my own year in England, which brought its own share of culture clashes and humorous miscommunication. But compared to Turnbull, I had it easy, very easy. England and America are cultural cousins--siblings, really. And for all the "separated by a common language" jokes, aside from some early embarrassments (I can't BELIEVE no one warned me about "fanny") and confusions (I didn't know what a "courgette" was until the cook brought out the pot of zucchini to show me), I never had any trouble communicating. And when called upon to explain or defend some aspect of American current events, I could do so fluently--this was 1997-98, so I was saddled with the Louise Woodward case and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, among other things. Poor Turnbull at first was stuck trying to explain Australia when her vocabulary didn't extend much beyond, "Not all think same. Much change."

I enjoyed the book as a window into modern France. I'm getting to know the France of 200 years ago with some intimacy, and it's illuminating to see what it's become since. Someday I hope to travel extensively there--so much art, so much food, so much history and even prehistory!--but I don't think I'd have the cross-cultural energy to live there. Turnbull's life sounds exhilarating but exhausting. (England I'd move back to in a nanosecond, given the opportunity.)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A girl who reads (and sometimes writes) like a boy?

Last I checked, I'm still a woman. But if you looked at what I've been reading lately, you might be excused for thinking otherwise. Just take the six books I've read thus far in 2008--two nonfiction military histories, three historical adventures by male authors with male protagonists, and one lone traditional Regency romance representing the feminine end of the spectrum. And my WIP is an alternate history/military adventure story starring a pair of decidedly male natural-born warriors, one an aristocrat, the other a blacksmith's son, whom I plan to have defeat their enemies over the course of 3-4 books while bickering and exchanging witty quips in the best swashbuckling fashion. It's not that there are no women in the books--there will be at least three important ones, including a True Love for the blacksmith's son--but the story is about the two men and the bond that forms between them. Well, that, and swashbuckling and winning battles.

Partly this is just my real personality coming out more strongly. I've never been particularly girly, and now that I'm in the back half of my 30's, I feel a lot less need to prove my femininity or to be conventional in general. I'd rather be myself and do what I enjoy than struggle to fit in or impress others.

But part of the reason I'm reading like a boy lately is that I'm frustrated with women's historical fiction. Let me say from the beginning that this isn't meant to be a comment on the quality of the books in question or the taste of the readers who enjoy them. I'm just trying to explain why I'd rather read a Bernard Cornwell than a Philippa Gregory.

When I look at what's being published as women's historical fiction these days, I see two main trends. (By women's historical fiction, I mean books that are by and about women and written for a largely female audience. I'm excluding genre works like romance and mystery.) The first trend is the fictionalized biography, the second is what I call the "I am Woman, Hear My Woe" story. Sometimes they overlap.

Fictional biographies are HUGE. And the thing is, I used to like them. I read my hometown library's entire collection of Jean Plaidy growing up, and before that this whole series on the childhoods of famous Americans (with a few chapters at the end on the adult accomplishments that made them famous). But I've lost my appetite for them of late. I'm usually happier with a good biography biography than a fictional one. For starters, I know enough history that most of the time I already know what's going to happen, so that element of suspense is missing where even if I know there's going to be a happy ending I have no idea how we're going to get there. Also, life almost never follows a tidy narrative arc. In particular, with the exception of your occasional Julius Caesar who's assassinated or Horatio Nelson who dies in a crucial battle, death isn't the climax of a life. And so when the novelist feels obliged to follow her subject to her grave, the books just sort of fizzle out. To sum up, I don't particularly enjoy reading these books and can't imagine writing them because I feel too hemmed in by reality. That's what nonfiction is for, in my world.

(There are real historical figures in my alternate history WIP, but the beauty of an ALTERNATE world is I can put them in situations that never actually happened and play with them.)

And then there's the I Am Woman, Hear My Woe books. These have a certain degree of literary pretension, often including a set of book club discussion questions at the back. (And I have to say, the questions are usually painfully basic--almost more about reading comprehension than provoking thought.) In these books, we learn that in the past, women had it bad and were oppressed by men. We see a girl and her oppression. As she grows up, she often falls in love and/or is oppressed by a lover, allowing the author to work in every bit as much sex as your average historical romance, only she's parted from the lover by the end because that makes it more Literary, don'tcha know? Often she ends the book Empowered, how realistically varies depending on the skill and historical knowledge of the author, though still Scarred from her years of Oppression.

These books bore me. Yes, duh, women in the past didn't have the rights we now enjoy, and I am grateful to my feminist foremothers who won me the right to vote, to pursue any education and career that interests me, and in general to stand equal with men before the law. But since I know women didn't have the same rights in Victorian England or ancient Greece or wherever, I don't see the point of these Hear My Woe books. I'd rather read about women who either take the rules of their world for granted and find a way to find happiness within them (which, I believe, is what most of us do WHATEVER our era and its limitations) or else find a way to defy convention and/or work for change without so much Angst and Woe. I'm probably showing my romance roots there, because most romance heroines fall into one or the other of those categories.

Anyway, for now I'm playing with the boys and having fun that way. At least as a woman writing swashbucklers, I can promise that the women my aristocrat and my blacksmith's son meet over the course of their adventures won't be "Bond girls" who only exist to showcase the men's virility. My women will always have their own lives, and with them their own goals and agendas, even if the men are occasionally too selfish and/or hormone-driven to notice.

Sharpe's Devil (Book #6)

Sharpe's Devil is the very last book in the Sharpe series. I'm going to miss those books. Of course, I can always read them again, and Cornwell has, I believe, three historical series I still haven't read yet. (I've read all the Starbucks, of which he needs to hurry up and write more, plus the standalones Gallows Thief, Stonehenge, and Redcoat.) But the Sharpes are in "my" era, so I have an affinity for them I don't expect to find with his Dark Age and medieval series. So I have to mourn a little.

Devil is set in 1820-21. Sharpe has settled down as a farmer in Normandy. He's happy with the woman he unfortunately can't marry because he can't afford to divorce the wife who stole his money and ran off with another man toward the end of the series, they have two children, and all they could ask for is a little more money to make improvements on the farm. Harper, similarly, is keeping a tavern in Dublin with his Isabella and raising four sons. But when an old friend is in trouble, they're persuaded to sail off to the rescue in Chile, along the way meeting Napoleon on St. Helena and Thomas Cochrane, the rogue naval officer Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey is largely based upon. It's a good read, but I didn't enjoy it quite as much as the Napoleonic War stories, possibly because I know very little about the Chilean Revolution--I seem to remember filling "Bernardo O'Higgins" into a blank on a sixth grade test, but that's about it--and so couldn't place it into context quite as well.

But the series, overall, gets a solid "A" from me, with the best volumes--Triumph, Trafalgar, Waterloo--scoring an A+. I'll miss you on my to-be-read pile, Lt. Col. Sharpe!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Pirate Freedom (Book #5)

Pirate Freedom (Gene Wolfe, 2007) is nearly impossible to characterize. It's a time travel sea adventure (how the time travel happened is never explained) with a protagonist who's the son of a mafia boss but is intended for the priesthood...until he's flung back in time, where he becomes a rather spiritual pirate...and is eventually flung back forward, where he resumes his old life as a tough yet compassionate priest. It's so crazy it shouldn't work, but it does (though it was a bit slow at the start and it's sometimes tough to keep track of the characters).

As an aside, this is the second book I've read this year that had illustrations--in this case little sketches above the chapter headers. Must somehow arrange to become an author with enough popularity and influence to get illustrated someday. Selling a first book would be a start...

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Napoleon and Wellington (Book #4)

Napoleon and Wellington (Andrew Roberts, 2001) is a readable and compelling dual biography/military history...but only if you already have a fair amount of knowledge of the men and the era. If, for example, the names Salamanca and Borodino don't mean anything to you, you'll be pretty lost.

The book is almost a biography of reputations--what Napoleon and Wellington thought of each other before and after Waterloo, history's verdict on both and its accuracy or lack thereof. I agree with Roberts' assessment of their characters--that as much as each one's apologists would like to make them into contrasting types, they were actually quite a bit alike in their sheer arrogance, talent, and ambition. Napoleon was the more ambitious, sure, but who knows what Wellington might've done if absolute power had been an option for him. He did, after all, rise as high as an Englishman could in both military and civilian arenas, and seemed to think it no more than his due. Which, at least on the military side, it was, but that doesn't change the fact that Wellington was the very reverse of a humble man.

So, yeah, Napoleon and Wellington weren't exactly opposites. I still like Wellington a lot more--he was more humane and had a better sense of humor, for starters--and take the minority view that he was the better general of the two.

Anyway, this is a very good read for anyone with a fair amount of knowledge of the era. One caveat, though: unlike most of the nonfiction authors I'm drawn to, Roberts is clearly a conservative. I don't think his politics color his views of Napoleon and Wellington, but I have trouble believing the Whigs were as nigh-treasonous as he paints them. Must find a more balanced book on that particular topic...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Lord Langdon's Tutor (Book #3)

Lord Langdon's Tutor (Laura Paquet, 2000) is a sweet, old-school Regency romance with a woman who wants to marry only for love and a man who thinks love is a waste of time. There's nothing wildly thrilling or unique here, but it reminded me of the traditional Regencies I read in high school, and sometimes that's just the kind of book that hits the spot.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Gentlemen of the Road (Book #2)

I've never read anything by Michael Chabon before, but the subject of Gentlemen of the Road (2007)--Jewish adventurers on the Silk Road about 1000 years ago--made me pick it up. It's a quick, engaging read, a somewhat stylized and deliberately over-the-top swashbuckler. It would film beautifully.

Chabon's working title was Jews with Swords, which just charms the heck out of me. And I'm jealous of him, because the book has old-fashioned illustrations--you know, the ones with full-page drawings of a scene from the book and an identifying line from the text? If I'm ever a famous and powerful author, I'm going to get that in some of my books, because it's just so retro cool.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Napoleon's Egypt (Book #1)

This may be the longest it's ever taken me to read my first book of the new year. It's early days, but I'm not exactly on pace for my annual goal of at least 100 books! I started two books that I abandoned around the halfway mark, and I've even been losing reading time to soggy weather. At least half my reading time is during my commute, and when it rains, I can read on the bus, but not so much while I'm standing at the bus stop. And the past few weeks have been unusually rainy even for Seattle, so...

I've just now finished Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Juan Cole, 2007). I got it from the library for research for my alternate history. While I was hoping for a little more about Napoleon specifically (the book is more Napoleon's EGYPT than NAPOLEON'S Egypt) it proved useful, and I'm much better informed on Egypt and its place within the Ottoman Empire than I was before. And, I did pick up some useful facts and intriguing incidents.

Incidentally, this is another book where the author uses the past to illuminate the present. It's not heavyhanded, but the parallels to the American invasion of Iraq are definitely there.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Class Meme

Normally I save playing with memes for my LiveJournal, but I decided to post this one to my reading/writing blog. I find myself writing about class and social mobility a LOT in my manuscripts, I think partially because of my own blue collar rural upbringing and urban, white collar, elite-educated adult lifestyle. It's not traumatic or something I dwell on a lot, but it's part of me, and occasionally makes me feel like an Other wherever I am--I see people who've grown up urban/suburban elite or who never left the rural South stereotype people Not Like Them, and I cringe, because I know how wrong they are. I've lived in more than one world.

Anyway, without further ado, here's the meme, with items that apply to me bolded.

* Father went to college
* Father finished college
* Mother went to college
* Mother finished college
* Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor

* Were the same or higher socio-economic class than your high school teachers
* Had more than 50 books in your childhood home
* Had more than 500 books in your childhood home
* Were read children's books by a parent - Only until I could read them myself. Then I lost patience with being read to--it's too slow.
* Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18
* The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively. - People who are like me NOW are portrayed positively. People from where I grew up, NSM.
* Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18
* Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs
* Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs
* Went to a private high school
* Went to summer camp
* Family vacations involved staying at hotels - We camped.
* Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18
* There was original art in your house when you were a child
* You and your family lived in a single family house - We lived in the country. EVERYONE lived in single family houses.
* Your parent(s) owned their own house(s) or apartment before you left home
* You had your own room as a child
- Yes, but I was the only girl, and my brothers all left home by the time I was 5. THEY had to share back in the day.
* You had a phone in your room before you turned 18
* Participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
* Had your own TV in your room in High School
* Owned a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
* Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16
* Went on a cruise with your family
* Went on more than one cruise with your family
* Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up
* You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family