Saturday, April 25, 2009

Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste

I never would've picked up Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (Carl Wilson, 2007) if its author hadn't shown up on the Colbert Report a little while back. But I'm glad I did, because it's an enjoyable, thought-provoking book.

The author, a music critic, decides to explore an album and an artist he's always considered the epitome of bad music--Celine Dion, and the 1997 album that includes "My Heart Will Go On." He doesn't "review" the album until the penultimate chapter, spending most of the book exploring strands of North American music history, how Quebecois culture and history shaped Dion and her music, and the function of taste (in music, books, art, food, whatever) as a way of defining our identities and our place in social hierarchies.

Good stuff, though I'm not quite ready to take him up on his challenge and, say, hang a Thomas Kinkade painting above my bed. I wonder what it says about me that Thomas Kinkade is my Celine Dion, as it were, when in general I know and care FAR less about the visual arts than I do literature or music. Most of the time I readily shrug off the popularity of books or music I don't enjoy, including Celine Dion, with a "Some people juggle geese." (Firefly reference) But put me in a Christian bookstore with a display of Kinkades or those patriotic paintings of soaring eagles, and suddenly I'm Absolute Aesthetic Judgment Woman.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Secret Wedding

Apparently I'm not a typical romance reader. In the past few days I've finished one romance and got about a chapter and a half into another before giving up in frustration. I won't name the book I gave up on. As someone who blogs as an aspiring writer rather than as a hard-core reviewer, I have a policy of only reviewing books I can give at least a qualified recommendation to. But I think I can say why the book failed for me without giving away identifying information: the set-up for the hero and heroine's first meeting was one I'd seen too many times, and I didn't like the way the author used the language. There were some misused words, and the word choice altered between overly forsoothly here-we-are-in-Days-of-Yore speech and anachronistic like-whatEVer phrasings. I can accept either style, depending on the overall tone of the work and even when it's set, but veering between the extremes gives me whiplash. But that book gets rave reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, including praise of the author's style and voice. Huh. No accounting for taste, I guess.

However, I thoroughly enjoyed The Secret Wedding (Jo Beverley, 2009). The characters are believable and interesting, the plot moves along at a good clip, and the setting is believable for its time and place (mid-18th century England). But when I look at its online reviews, they're all over the map and tending toward negative. A lot of readers seem to dislike Caro, the heroine, considering her selfish and cold for being so concerned about protecting the property she inherited even though she didn't have relatives or tenants depending on her. And I just can't see it. I feel like those readers are missing the point that unless a woman entered marriage with a specific legally binding agreement to the contrary, every scrap of property she owned became entirely her husband's. I can't blame a woman for wanting some protection--if nothing else, if her husband died and left all his property that was once her property to, say, his brother, she could go from wealthy heiress to penniless widow overnight. And while I'm not generally a fan of insta-sex between the hero and heroine, in this case Beverley made it work. So this one I do recommend.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Weather of the Pacific Northwest

I've lived in Seattle for ten years now, but up until 2006 or so I wouldn't have seen the point of writing a book called The Weather of the Pacific Northwest (Cliff Mass, 2008) "What weather?" I would've said. "July days are only 20-25 degrees hotter than December ones, on the whole, and you get 8-9 months of cloud and 3-4 of sun. How boring must it be to forecast that. Yep, it's November, ten-day forecast is cloudy with chance of light rain and a high of 50 for all ten days...YAWN. This place HAS no weather." I'd grumble about how in Alabama, where I'm from, we got our rain in proper STORMS (complete with tornado warnings to add some danger to life), none of this measly drizzle. And in Philly, where I spent my college years and mid-20's, you have four proper and distinct seasons, and while the city is paralyzed by snow, at least it was proper snow, and not slush that melts by noon. (Here I'd usually boast of the Blizzard of '96.)

Silly pre-2006 Susan. That Susan had never struggled for over two hours to make the normally ten-minute drive from daycare home after getting caught out in the November 2006 rush hour surprise snowstorm, or stood on her deck watching the creek behind the house spill over into the neighbor's yard during the 2007 floods (not to mention the whole bit where I-5 to Portland was closed for DAYS). And I will never, ever complain again that Seattle doesn't have proper snow after spending a week of my life snowbound back in December. I'm sorry, Pacific Northwest. I was wrong. You DO have weather. Lots of weather. More than enough to fill a book.

Cliff Mass's book is probably only interesting to OR, WA, and BC residents, but for us Northwesterners it gives clear, detailed explanations for everything from why Sequim is so dry to how wind patterns create the Puget Sound Convergence Zone to those funny flying saucer looking clouds that sometimes form over Mount Rainier. (I think the mountain looks like it's wearing a yarmulke on those days, but it's possible I have a strange mind.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Big Necessity

The Big Necessity (Rose George, 2008) is, to put it bluntly, a book about shit and how humans deal with it. (For the most part George refers to it as excreta, but says that shit is actually a better word for its blunt matter-of-factness.) At the beginning of the book she includes chapters on toilets and sewers of the developed world, including Japan's luxury toilets and the challenges of designing low-flow toilets in North America, but her real focus is on the struggles faced by the 2 billion people worldwide who still lack even the basic sanitation of a good latrine.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The American Duchess

The American Duchess (Joan Wolf, 1983) is an older traditional Regency romance I found in a used bookstore awhile back, and it has both the virtues and the flaws of its vintage. On the plus side, it's full of lovely accurate historical detail, with real people occasionally appearing in the story or being name-dropped in plausible ways. On the minus side, the heroine was a bit too much of a sweet ingenue for my taste, and I found the omniscient POV distancing.

Outfit yea or nay?

The clothes I ordered for Easter arrived today, and half of them are going back, including the crisp white blouse that gapes just a tad too much for safety pins to inconspicuously fix and the blue skirt that's a lot darker IRL than it appeared online. The sandals work nicely, and I like the cherry tiered skirt I got--only problem is finding something to wear it with! I have a black blouse it looks gorgeous with, but it's not an Eastery color and it's a tad too sheer for church.

So, this was the one option I came up with that might keep me from a frantic shopping trip on Friday or Saturday. My husband doesn't think it works but my daughter does. My husband is maybe a little too shy of anything flamboyant or an unusual color combination...OTOH, my daughter is five, so I probably shouldn't be listening to her fashion opinions yet!

Thoughts? The pictures make the skirt look a tad redder than it is. It's a deep cherry pink.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I'd Rather We Got Casinos

I'm not normally a fan of audiobooks, but I wish I'd gotten Larry Wilmore's I'd Rather We Got Casinos (2009) in audio format rather than reading it. The beauty of Wilmore's appearances on The Daily Show is how dry and deadpan he is, and since he read for the audiobook, I think it would've enhanced the humor. Not that the book isn't funny on its own--if you like Wilmore on TDS, you'll like the book. I think my favorite bit was the list of suggestions for how a president might sneak in an apology for slavery--e.g. bury the lead by putting it in the middle of an announcement about the first brothas to go to Mars!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Marshal Ney: The Romance and the Real

Pretty soon after I started the alternative history WIP, I realized I'd need to have real people as major characters. Because of this, my research involves a lot more time with biographies, memoirs, collections of letters, etc. than in the past. And then I take these people, men and women born 200 years or so before I was, and try to climb into their heads so I can imagine what they'd do in the alternate reality of my novel.

This kind of research leads to a strange sort of intimacy. I don't really think I'm communing with their departed souls--most of the time--but they feel independent and opinionated in a way my purely invented characters rarely do. And sometimes, frankly, I crush on the more appealing ones a little bit. Which I was not expecting to happen when I picked up Marshal Ney: The Romance and the Real (Raymond Horricks, 1982). I'm researching Ney because I decided I needed to add an additional real French bigshot on my next rewrite (which will be the third draft, and I hope the last major one). I didn't know much about him beyond his role at Waterloo. And based on that I didn't expect too much--I mean, repeated unsupported cavalry charges against infantry, especially British infantry? Who DOES that? (Trust me, oh reader who isn't a Napoleonic-era military history geek--that's not smart tactics.)

I realized less than a chapter in that I was selling Ney short by judging him on that single day's performance. No, he wasn't the smartest general in the world. He wasn't even close to the smartest general born in 1769--though it'd be a bit unfair to hold that against him, given that it was also Napoleon and Wellington's birth year! But he was an able and occasionally brilliant commander, Waterloo notwithstanding. He was straightforward, he fiercely loved his country, and he had an old-school sort of honor and chivalry. He loved his wife and had a happy and romantic marriage. As the son of a barrel-cooper who enlisted as a common cavalry trooper, he rose to the highest possible rank on merit. And, when Napoleon called him the bravest of the brave, it was only fitting--I got all weepy reading about Ney's leadership on the retreat from Moscow in 1812.

I...kinda love him. This after assigning him an antagonist's role in my WIP! Oh well. I think my book will be more interesting this way than if he'd been what I expected before I did any research. I never wanted it to be a pure Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story anyway...

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Survival Guide for Working With Humans

I was hoping for more from A Survival Guide for Working With Humans (Gini Graham Scott, 2004) than I actually got out of it. It's a series of case studies discussing common interpersonal and ethical dilemmas in the workplace and how one might navigate through them. Most of the solutions seemed like common sense to me, and I guess I was hoping for some deep insight into human nature or something. Also, the advice tended toward how to go along to get along, which is all very well much of the time, but sometimes you do have to make a stand for who you are and what you believe in.

There was one case where she recommended a course I thought unethical, with a comment along the lines of "Business is like war, and you wouldn't see a general being so fussy about ethics." I disagreed with both parts. At least, neither the industry that currently employs me nor the one I dream of making a living in are inherently zero-sum games where we need to take out our competition. E.g. I hope the already-published authors whose work is closest to mine continue to prosper, because they're building an appetite in their fans for the same type of story, setting, and characters that I write. And as for generals being fussy about ethics...well, what she probably meant is that no self-respecting general would sacrifice a numerical or tactical advantage out of some misguided sense of chivalry. Which is true. But the way she phrased it made it sound like she didn't believe in just war, that generals could be honorable, ethical people, and so on. Not the kind of thing I could read without grumbling while also in the middle of a biography of Michel Ney!

Superhero-size me!

Want to create your own superhero avatar? Go here.