Sunday, March 30, 2008

The First Day of the Blitz (Book #33)

The First Day of the Blitz (Peter Stansky, 2007) focuses on September 7, 1940, the first day the Germans bombed civilian targets in London. I thought I knew a lot about the Blitz, but I learned new things from this book--e.g. the government was caught off guard because they expected bombing on that scale to be much more lethal, so all their preparations were for dealing with massive mortality, disposing of bodies, and the like, rather than finding shelter for living people whose homes had been destroyed.

Stansky tries to draw comparisons to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, but neither quite worked for me. Dreadful as 9/11 was, it was one day, one attack. It just doesn't compare with the Blitz for sheer scale. And his Katrina parallel is that the government hadn't made adequate provisions for housing survivors rendered homeless by the bombs, and how the bombings, which more heavily impacted working-class areas, highlighted poverty and class differences. As for the first part, I can cut the British government a lot more slack for guessing wrong on the impact of major bombing raids than our government for not being prepared for a hurricane devastating New Orleans. Also, I really, really can't imagine Winston Churchill praising an incompetent subordinate for doing "a heckuva job." And the British government, to its credit, adjusted on the fly while nightly bombing was still going on.

As for the class issues, the Blitz at least brought lasting changes in the form of a vastly improved social safety net. Katrina...NSM.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Genghis: Birth of an Empire (Book #32)

A more accurate title for Genghis: Birth of an Empire (Conn Iggulden, 2007) would be Genghis: The Coming of Age of the Man Who Would Be Emperor, but that would be a little long to fit on a book cover. It's a page-turning adventure story, richly researched, and very macho. I enjoyed it much the same way I enjoy Bernard Cornwell's books, though their voices are quite different.

Temujin (the future Genghis) is hard and ruthless--sort of like Napoleon, only even more so. And yet Iggulden managed to make me root for Temujin, even though I never root for Napoleon for precisely those reasons. I've already got Book Two on hold at the library, and then I think I'll go back and try his Caesar series.

Happiness is discovering a new author with a backlist.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

After the Ice (Book #31)

After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC (Stephen Mithen, 2005) covers what anthropologists currently know about the period between the peak of the last ice age and the earliest civilizations. It's informative, especially since in general there are more books about the times before and after.

However, it's also an exhaustive, and exhausting, read. Mithen uses the device of a time-traveling anthropologist observing the cultures, but he carefully maintains his nonfictional status by not speculating much beyond the archaeological record or allowing his time traveler to interact with the people he watches. And there are only so many times he can follow the men on their hunting/herding or the women on their gathering/gardening before it gets a bit old.

The Sharpe Companion: The Early Years (Book #30)

The Sharpe Companion: The Early Years (Mark Adkin, 2005), is a guide to the Sharpe "prequels"--the pre-Peninsular War part of the series where Sharpe serves in India, happens to be at the right place at the right time to fight at Trafalgar, and takes part in the expedition to Copenhagen. It covers much the same ground as my last research read, Wellington in India, only on a much simpler level and with summaries from the novels woven in. The simpler level isn't necessarily a bad thing--I'd often read Adkin's description of some facet of military life or Indian culture circa 1800 and think, "Oh, THAT'S what Jac Weller was talking about." If you're only going to read one, you want the Weller, but this book is a great help if you want really large, clear battle maps, detailed discussion complete with diagrams of uniforms and troop formations, and the like.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

VeggieTales: Three More Days

I got out of the habit of blogging my vegetarian Lent experiences while my laptop was in the shop, but we've been sticking with it, mostly. I've cheated a few times, often involving bacon. (Oh, bacon, how I love you!)

As Lent wore on, I got less creative and experimental. After having a couple of experiments go wrong, my instincts turned conservative. Why slave over the stove for an hour with a recipe that might turn out bland or outright awful when I know I can throw together pasta with a tasty quick homemade tomato sauce or bake a few potatoes and serve them alongside a salad?

With recipes that turned out terrible, I tend to assume the problem is me, and if I like the idea of the dish enough, I might even try again. I'm not an expert or naturally gifted cook, and sometimes it takes me a few tries to get the hang of a cooking technique. But when food is bland or boring, I blame the recipe. And I want the results of cooking to match the time and effort I put into it, somehow. If I spend an hour and a half chopping and sauteeing and stirring, I want that dish to taste an hour and a half better than the baked potato I threw in the oven and walked away from for that same time period or the grilled cheese I threw on the Foreman and had ready in ten minutes. And usually it doesn't. Often it tastes worse.

Maybe I just wasn't meant to be much of a cook...

Anyway, I'll be glad to add meat back to my menu on Sunday. I think my husband is going to cook a ham. Mmm, ham. Nom nom nom. And my grilled cheeses and pasta sauces will taste much better with prosciutto back on them.

I'm glad we tried this. If nothing else, it reminded me of the pleasures of a simple baked potato and taught me how easy and quick quesadillas are. But those potatoes will taste even better sharing a plate with a steak, and a bit of shredded chicken or pork will perfect the quesadillas.

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw (Book #29)

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw (Bruce Barcott, 2008) explores the tension between conservation and economic development in the developing world through a battle over a hydroelectric dam in Belize. It's a sobering but valuable reminder that things that seem black-and-white thousands of miles away look more complicated on the ground. I still would've sided with the conservationists on this one, no matter what, but I understand better how such efforts can look like a new form of imperialism when coming from the citizens of a rich country that, for example, dammed most of its own rivers decades ago.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Wellington in India (Book #28)

Wellington in India (Jac Weller, 1972) covers the early military career of the Duke of Wellington back when he was just Colonel and then Major-General Arthur Wellesley, serving British interests in India 1797-1805. This highly detailed work gives early hints of Wellington's remarkable gifts for handling infantry, reading terrain, and keeping his army supplied, not to mention the first time he ever had infantry lie down for protection from artillery (a surprisingly unusual move, given how effective it was). It's a work for geeks, either of the military history or Wellington specialist variety. I'm both, so I enjoyed it.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Serenity: Those Left Behind (Book #27)

Serenity: Those Left Behind (Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Will Conrad, 2006) is a comic book designed to fill in the gap between Joss Whedon's late, lamented TV series Firefly and its cinematic sequel, Serenity. I adore Firefly, and I enjoyed Serenity, but I was a little disappointed in this graphic interlude. It worked well enough to explain what happened to some of the characters in the interim, but the story itself didn't really capture my interest or stand alone.

Also, and this is a COMPLETELY random issue, but the way the artists drew Mal is messing with my head. You see, Jack in my WIP is physically based on Nathan Fillion, who played Mal, only he's morphed a little as the the character has developed. This is hard to explain, but Comic!Mal is shifted in a different direction away from Fillion's actual appearance than my Jack is, and it's warping my mental picture of Jack. He'll go back to normal soon, but every time I looked at Mal, I thought, "Something's not right here."

Route 66 A.D. (Book #26)

It turns out that tourism, like so many other things, was invented by the Romans. Particularly during the Pax Romana at the height of the Empire, well-to-do Romans traced the path of the civilizations that went before them, visiting Athens, Sparta, Troy, Alexandria, and the like. In Route 66 A.D. (2002), Tony Perrottet follows their route, producing a book that's half travelogue, half history. I'd love to take the same trip, though I was somewhat appalled at what Perrottet's wife, who was in her second to early third trimester of pregnancy during the journey, endured!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Pink Think (Book #25)

Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons (Lynn Peril, 2002) is about like James Lileks' Gallery of Regrettable Food for women's advice manuals of the 1940's-70's, only with much more social analysis. Page-turning, funny, but sad too--especially since I doubt there's a woman alive in this country today who hasn't been pressured to conform to some degree to these ideals of "feminine" consumerism. In an afterword, Peril points out that "pink think" is still with us, in everything from The Rules to The Surrendered Wife to the fundamentalists at Vision Forum and their truly appalling sex-segregated lines of toys. (Not that I'm saying boys and girls are just alike. It's just when I look at their idea of appropriate books and toys for girls, I'm appalled at the idea of parents limiting girls as naturally bold and spirited as my own daughter to such a tame, restricted vision of womanhood. I mean, my daughter has dolls and stuffed animals...AND a set of pirate gear, including a sword and a cunning tricorn hat. She prefers sunglasses to an eyepatch, though. She's curious and she wants to have adventures. And...I just can't imagine telling her that swords, or dinosaurs, or puzzles, or anything else she likes are just for boys.)

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Sword-Edged Blonde (Book #24)

The Sword-Edged Blonde (Alex Bledsoe, 2007) is a genre-bender--fantasy crossed with noir whodunnit. It's a clever combination, and I think it works, though I liked the book rather than loving it.

Having established a precedent of griping when I dislike a cover, I can't let this one go by without comment. Obviously the publisher was going for a sort of campy retro look, but I think they could've gotten that effect across more attractively.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Nasty Bits (Book #23)

Normally when someone is brilliant at something I'm mediocre to merely pretty good at, I console myself by saying, "Sure, that's a brilliant chef, or a gifted singer, or whatever, but I bet they can't write as well as I can," and I feel better. Because while it would be nice to be able to create brilliant meals, as opposed to adequate ones, or to be a professional singer-songwriter instead of a decent choral alto, I'd rather be a writer than a chef or a professional musician.

But this doesn't work with Anthony Bourdain. Not only is he far superior to me in front of the stove, I have a sneaking suspicion he's a better writer than I am, too, though at least the gap isn't as large. The Nasty Bits (2006) is a collection of his essays on food, travel, and traveling to eat, and it's snarky and wonderful and often made me hungry.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Big Boned (Book #22)

Big Boned (Meg Cabot, 2008) is the third, and I believe the last, in Cabot's frothy mystery series about an ex-pop star turned assistant dorm director. As usual with Cabot, this is a well-tuned fun read with a solid voice, but I did think the romance subplot got short shrift and was too hastily resolved.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Sea Venture (Book #21)

Sea Venture (Kieran Doherty, 2007) tells the story of the eponymous ship, which saved the Jamestown colony and inspired The Tempest. The Sea Venture was part of a fleet of nine ships bringing settlers and supplies to the beleaguered colony in 1609. Caught in a hurricane, it ran aground in the reefs surrounding Bermuda, where the survivors spent the winter and built two smaller ships to carry them on to Virginia. (All but one of the other ships in the fleet made it safely to Jamestown--where most of the passengers died as part of the Starving Time crisis that nearly destroyed the colony. Ironically, the shipwreck on Bermuda is what saved both the Sea Venture passengers and the colony itself--Bermuda had plenty of fish, birds, and edible plants and no hostile natives, so the shipwreck survivors landed in Virginia well-fed and healthy enough to hold out till another relief fleet arrived from England.) It's a short, readable history, though it would've been more focused if the author had stuck to one or two threads--perhaps John Rolfe, the Sea Venture passenger who married Pocahontas and established tobacco cultivation in Virginia, or else the colonization of Bermuda that followed the Sea Venture survivors' account of how healthy and fertile the islands were.