Wednesday, March 26, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 34-36

34) The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success by Megan McArdle

Using recent high-profile examples like the sub-prime mortgage crisis, along with personal anecdotes of dating relationships gone sour and the time a hospital almost misdiagnosed her mother's appendicitis, McArdle looks at failure with a view to convincing readers that being forgiving and flexible--of themselves and others--is the best way to cope. I liked it, but I was hoping for a little bit more of a self-help focus. You know, "Feeling like a failure in Area X of your life? Here's 10 questions you should ask yourself."

35) 101 Reasons to be Episcopalian by Louie Crew.

This very quick little book was a gift from our rector to everyone who was confirmed in the Episcopal Church when our bishop visited in December. Reading it A) made me regret skipping church this morning and B) reminded me why I made the right decision to become Episcopalian instead of leaving the church altogether or continuing to force myself to stay in a more conservative denomination that was no longer a good fit.

36) The Blythes are Quoted by LM Montgomery.

I still haven't decided whether I'm glad or sorry I read this book. It's the very final work of LM Montgomery, turned into her publisher on the day she died in 1942 (quite possibly suicide). This is the manuscript essentially as submitted, with very little editing, and while it wasn't badly written, it didn't have the sparkle and polish of the rest of her work that I've read. It's mostly short stories, none of them about the Blythe family, though they're regularly mentioned, usually with praise as just about the best-looking, most intelligent, and wisest people around. (Which got a little annoying, because it didn't feel natural.) Interspersed with the stories are poems, purportedly by Anne and Walter, with comments and reflections from the family, in which we see the family continue to mourn Walter and become more cynical about WWI. Just as I always calculated when reading Rilla of Ingleside, Anne and Gilbert's grandchildren are just the right age to fight WWII, and we learn that Faith and Jem's sons have joined, that Ken and Rilla's son is in the RCAF, etc.

I think I would've been more interested if this had been a novel about the Blythes instead of a bunch of short stories about people I didn't have a prior attachment to. I tend to be less of a fan of short stories for just that reason--you don't have time to really know and become attached to the characters, so they're usually more about an idea or a plot gimmick than people. Also, it's one thing to realize myself that the Blythe grandchildren will have to fight WWII. It's another thing to see it on the page, somehow.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 31-33

31) Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan.

Michael Pollan is known for his writings about food, but before writing this book he didn't consider himself much of a cook. So he apprenticed himself to an assortment of culinary masters of the ancient elements of fire (in the form of whole-hog barbecue), water (braised meats and stews), air (yeast bread), and earth (fermented foods, e.g. sauerkraut, cheese, and beer). As always, he's an engaging storyteller, and reading his description of North Carolina whole-hog barbecue while eating a particularly dire Healthy Choice meal at lunch was almost enough to make me weep. (Don't try the Healthy Choice spaghetti and meatballs. It's disgusting--the pasta is mush and the meatballs are all but flavorless.)

The book is a giant hymn to the joys of slow food. Pollan understands we can't cook like this all the time, but I still would've liked to see him acknowledge how fast-but-real food is also a legitimate use of say, fire and water--I can do a nice quick stir-fry, f'rex. I'd also LOVE to see one of these writers who claim you can cook a meal in the time it would take to heat enough frozen meals for a family or wait for your pizza to be delivered factor in the time it takes to clean up your kitchen afterward. I love cooking. I hate cleaning up and washing dishes.

All that said, I did enjoy this book quite a bit. I can hardly wait till my current writing deadline is past, not least because I'll have time to do a lot of cooking again. And one of these days I want to invest in the right technology and take the time to learn to make my own barbecue. There is NO place in Seattle that makes 'cue that fully lives up to my Alabama definition of the word.

32) A Song at Twilight, by Pamela Sherwood.

One of the better historical romances I've read in a long time. It's set in the 1890's, an era that doesn't inherently grab my interest--if I go outside my Regency home turf I'd rather go earlier than later--but this is just a lovely, romantic story with beautiful writing. I especially liked the three-dimensional feel of the hero and heroine's world. They and the secondary characters felt solid and developed, and there was more to the characters' lives than just their romance--something you don't always get in the genre, but that I always appreciate for making the story feel more textured and plausible.

33) Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham.

Wrangam posits that the key to our transformation from relatively small-brained upright apes to humans may have been triggered by learning to master fire and use it to cook food. Cooked food is much easier to digest than raw--which means we spend less time chewing and digesting to get the calories we need. This allows us to "afford" a small gut and use that energy toward big brains instead. He also sees cooking as a key to the human social structure and as possibly more important to the development of marriage than sexual exclusivity. I.e. men may have wanted wives not so much to be sure of the paternity of their children (since that's never reliably worked and isn't even important in some hunter-gatherer societies) as to be sure of having a cooked meal waiting for them regardless of how the hunting went that day. By the same token, the woman with a husband gained a protector of her hearth and a share of any big kills the hunters made for herself and her children.

Certainly thought-provoking, and it's a short, quick read for a book on science.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 28-30

Most of my energies continue to be focused on the post-Battle of New Orleans book, but I do manage to squeeze in some reading time.

28) Daughter of the Sky, by Michelle Diener.

I tend to be wary of self-published books unless I have a lot of experience with the author. There's too much poorly edited or downright unedited work out there, and I'm sensitive to such things. As noted in my post on Rita Book #7, for me bad grammar or inept writing in a good story is like a singer who doesn't have the range for it attempting "O Holy Night" or "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's nails-on-a-chalkboard painful, and I can't hear past the voice to the story or song.

But Daughter of the Sky got a positive review from a site I trust, and I decided to give it a try largely for the sake of the unusual setting. I'm glad I did. While my inner copyeditor "tsk-tsked" in a few spots, it was smoothly written overall, and the story of an English girl orphaned in a shipwreck, taken in by the Zulu, and then caught in the middle of the Anglo-Zulu war is thoughtfully told. At least to my white, American eyes it seemed to avoid the most obvious pitfalls--the British are clearly in the wrong as the colonialist power invading a sovereign nation under a flimsy pretext, but the individual British characters are varied and often sympathetic, and the Zulu are portrayed sympathetically without ever seeming like Noble Savages.

My one major issue with the book echoes that of the review I linked above--the resolution feels a bit too hasty, and I would've liked to see more about how the hero and heroine coped with the trauma they experienced in the war and built a life together.

29) Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation - 1838-1839, by Fanny Kemble.

In 1834 the noted English actress Fanny Kemble left her stage career behind to marry an American, Pierce Butler, apparently unaware that he was heir to plantations in Georgia, and therefore to slaves--or at least without having fully thought through the implications. I'm not clear on that part. In any case, they spent the winter and spring of 1838-39 on their rice and cotton plantations on the Georgia Sea Islands, and Kemble was appalled by what she saw and learned. I don't have time or space to do the book justice here, but I'd recommend it to anyone interested in a first-person account of American plantation life and the conditions of slavery by a thoughtful, sensitive observer. (Though in proper 19th-century style, she often stereotypes and patronizes even when she's being remarkably forward-thinking. E.g. when she's saying there's every reason to believe blacks could take their place as equal, self-supporting and upstanding free citizens if only they had more education, better nutrition, etc., she says something along the lines of, "Look at the Irish! You should hear how they're talked about in England, and just a generation or two in your country makes them a thrifty, industrious addition to your laboring class!" And as a descendant of Southern "poor whites" myself, I bristled a bit at some of her descriptions of my people.)

30) Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Rift Part 1, by Gene Luen Yang, Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Dave Marshall.

An altogether lighter read...albeit still focused on culture clashes. More filling in the gaps between Avatar and The Legend of Korra, and it looks as though this series will focus on Toph as the previous one did on Zuko.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Relatively quiet on the blog, and 2014 reading, books 25-27

As you may have noticed, this blog has been quiet of late. That's likely to continue through April 30, when my next manuscript is due to my editor. At that point, I plan to return to my Random Cookbook feature, and possibly also to posts about everyday cooking and how I try to balance nutrition and convenience as a busy author, wife, and mom with a full-time day job.

But to keep this place from going utterly silent, I will at least keep up my reading diary:

25) Rita Book #7: A particularly frustrating read, because despite being from a major print publisher it was very poorly edited. This is the first year self-published books have been allowed in the contest, and I was dreading the possibility of getting a sloppily written, unedited self-pub. But I was even more dismayed to find repeated grammatical errors and generally awkward writing in a traditionally published work. I know some readers don't mind that kind of thing as long as the story is compelling, but to me that's like saying it doesn't matter if the soloist can't carry a tune as long as the song is good.

26) Hild, by Nicola Griffith.

Hild is historical fiction, but set in an era so unfamiliar to me as to feel more like fantasy. Griffith has taken what very little is know about the early life of St Hilda of Whitby, paired it with what appears to be exhaustive research into the cultures, politics, and lifeways of 7th century Britain, and woven it into a lush, meandering, and ultimately captivating story.

27) Rita Book #8: Nice voice, but the pacing dragged and dragged.

I am finally done with my judging for the year! For the next 11 months, I get to CHOOSE what to read again! Don't get me wrong, I enjoy judging the contest, and this year I found two authors whose work I'll probably seek out in the future. But it's still a bit of a slog to push through eight books not of my choosing in as many weeks, and to be obliged to finish them even if I'm ready to set them aside by the end of the first chapter.