Reading Journal Entry: Myth-ion Improbable, by Robert Asprin

Asprin's MYTH series was a wild best-seller in the eighties. It's light fantasy, heavy on the puns. His 'Phule' series was also well-received (humorous SF) and he co-edited the very successful 'Thieves World' series with Lynn Abbey, his former spouse.

The MYTH books started off with a good head of steam. The premise and setting (apprentice magician paired with grouchy cursed mentor/dimension hopping fantasy adventures) were original enough to provide a mine of situations for Skeeve and Aahz to claw through. As the series progressed, however, the quality declined along a swift arc mirroring the quality of life for Asprin and his characters. Happy-go-lucky Skeeve, the apprentice, became a victim of his own success and an incipient alcoholic. Asprin, meanwhile, got divorced, got writer's block, and got into a huge mess with the IRS over, allegedly, unreported income. He wrote almost nothing for almost ten years. Concurrently his publishing company declared bankruptcy, and the MYTH books went out of print.

Meisha Merlin, a small press, bought the rights to the original MYTH series and is reissuing them. Asprin is apparently back in the saddle and has, according to the introduction to MYTH-ion Improbable, 'resolved' his IRS problems. MYTH-ion Improbable, published 2001, was his first contribution to the MYTH canon since Sweet MYTH-tery of Life in 1993.

Also in the introduction he explains that he was having difficulty resolving the threads created in the last installment, and a friend suggested he write a 'fill-in' novel set between two earlier books. Hence Improbable is a self-contained adventure set before Skeeve became a wildly successful interdimensional traveler and started hitting the bottle.

It really shows that Asprin has been off his feed. The writing is stilted and the characters lack much of their original charm. Skeeve and Aahz aren't particularly nuanced characters, but Tanda, their green, buxom partner in crime, was delicately balanced between ditz and manipulator. In Improbable she's entirely wasted.

This was not a good book. It will be of interest to completists, but not really to anyone else.

I'm more interested to read Something MYTH Inc. It's been ten years since Asprin left a lot of balls in the air, and I want to see where they land.

Reading Journal Entry: Barren Corn, by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer is most well-known for creating a genre - the Regency Romance. Her Regencies are impeccably researched and sparklingly witty, so much so that they spawned legions of imitators.

She also wrote several modern-day novels. This is the first 'modern' Heyer I've read. It's a love story set shortly after the first World War (pub date: 1930). Laura and Hugh, two Britons, meet and fall in love in France. She's thirty-years-old Briton from a respectable bourgeois family; he's the slightly spoiled nephew of a Baron. Their class differences concern Laura but Hugh convinces her to marry him.

After an idyllic honeymoon, eventually they must go back to Britain; to Hugh's 'smart set' and Laura's dismayingly stultifying family members. The class conflict is both old-fashioned and very un-American; I'm not sure whether Hugh was supposed to come off as quite so much of an ass. He can't stand her family - why? I don't know, but it 'just won't do'. Laura conversely can't enter into the interests of Hugh's life, riding and hunting (aside: what an ass). She's concerned when they run into debt and this irritates him (ibid). She doesn't get along with his friends, who are over-educated snobs (see above).

The great weakness of the book is that the conflict is not entirely class or education-based. Heyer seems to conflate class and intelligence. The problem isn't that Laura holds the coffee-pot wrong (<---not kidding), it's that she's stupid. She doesn't get people's jokes. She can't make conversation. She's boring. That's not the same thing as being middle-class. It kills the premise. This isn't a love doomed by social inequity; it's a love doomed by mental inequity. I just can't have much patience with a heroine who initially is portrayed as sensitive and principled, but six months later can't find anything to do while her husband isn't at home.

Best Chocolate Ever

Seriously. I am not kidding. This IS the best chocolate ever.

Look at it!

It tastes even better than it looks, I tell you.

Sandra Scoppettone and proofreading

I guess Sandra Scoppettone decided not to worry about being seen as a complainer....

Great Books: Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

I read this book in high school, and have seen various movie versions. My memories were not very complete. I remembered the great passion Heathcliff and Catherine have for each other; the latter part of the story, taking place after her death, seemed like a mere coda. In fact, it makes up the bulk of the narrative and is where the real action happens.

Lockwood, the narrator has rented a house from Heathcliff, and is told the family history by a servant, Nelly Dean, after a puzzling encounter with the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. This double-narration, and the jumps in narration over time (from the past to the present, then back, etc.) give the reader a uniquely long perspective on events - at the beginning of the book you know, for example, that Catherine will die young.

Catherine Earnshaw was the daughter of a well-to-do family owning the titular house, Wuthering Heights, placed on barren and forbidding moors. Heathcliff is a foundling her father brings home from a trip; they are twin spirits, linked by their wild ways and their love of nature.

When Catherine's older brother Hindley becomes head of the family, they are separated. Heathcliff is relegated to a servant's status. Catherine grows into a beautiful young woman, and develops a friendship (soon romance) with the scion of the other prominent family in the district, Edgar Linton. She confesses to Nellie that her love and loyalty for Heathcliff is unchanged, but that he is degraded and beneath her in his current condition. Heathcliff overhears this conversation, and disappears.

Catherine falls seriously ill, but recovers and after a long engagement marries Edgar. They are happy until Heathcliff returns, wealthy and educated. Heathcliff proceeds to destroy Catherine's older brother Hindley, encouraging him in his drunkenness and gambing with him until everything he owns, even the home they both grew up in, belongs to Heathcliff. Hareton, Hindley's son, is now penniless, and grows up in the same state of servitude and squalor to which Hindley had condemned Heathcliff.

He and Catherine cannot stay apart - but Edgar objects to the presence of his rival. They quarrle, and Catherine's basic instability comes to the fore. Her illness returns. Meanwhile Edgar's sister Isabella elopes with Heathcliff, who marries her to punish Edgar and to gain the property she owns.

Catherine dies after giving birth to a daughter, also named Catherine; Isabella escapes from Heathcliff, later giving birth to a boy named Linton who is raised elsewhere.

The second generation grows up under Heathcliff's long shadow. Hareton grows up strong and handsome, but ignorant and rude. Linton, Heathcliff's son, has delicate health. He is first raised with excessive indulgance by his mother and then, after her death, treated brutally by his father, who despises his weakness. Catherine the younger is raised with love by Edgar and Nellie Dean; she grows up headstrong but kind-hearted.

Heathcliff's plans for revenge dictate their lives. Catherine is tricked into marrying Linton, her ill cousin, so Heathcliff can gain control of her property. Catherine originally had developed some love for Lynton during surreptitious correspondence and visits; this love is soon extinguished as his true character is revealed. Far from protecting her from Heathcliff, he colludes in keeping her from her dying father. Linton's illness worsens, and Catherine is given the task of caring for him alone. He dies within months of their marriage.

When Lockwood takes possession of his rental house, young Catherine strikes him as a beautiful shrew. She ridicules Hareton, her cousin, for attempting to learn to read. Heathcliff hates her for being Edgar Lynton's daughter, and hates Hareton for being Hindley's son. He is waiting for death, so he can rejoin Catherine. They are presided over by the vulture-ish Joseph, and fanatically religious old man who constantly berates them for their sins.

Quite a menage! It's no wonder Lockwood lights out of the neighborhood after hearing the bulk of the story. When he comes back, at the end of a long summer, he finds the situation has changed; young Catherine and Hareton have fallen in love. Hareton is being taught by Catherine how to read and comport himself. Joseph is relegated to the fireside. And Heathcliff is dead, lying in the churchyard next to his beloved Cathy.

Ah, the drama! Windswept moors....gypsy boys....stolen inheritances.... There's no better gothic than this. Heathcliff is the original tall, dark, and handsome - totally obsessed with the woman who gives meaning to his life, totally without scruples or pity. Nelly even wonders if he's a devil set on earth. No, it's just that his moral compass points straight at one person, and halfway through his life that person is laid underground.

What struck me most, in this re-reading, was Catherine's wild emotional state. She's firmly loyal to Heathcliff, but not to the point of insanity like his love her her. She loves him, but her wildness is internal. She cannot be controlled by others, nor can she control herself. The happiest times in her life are in childhood, when she has free reign, and in adulthood, before Heathcliff's return, when Edgar and all around her make a point of appeasing her and going to any extent to avoid provoking her wrath. Once that wrath is provoked she is undone. Emotionally and physically, she is devastated by the effects of her uncontrolled passions. Any opposition merely provokes her emotions to more violence.

I know how that feels. I know what it is like to feel rage. When Bronte writes that Catherine felt such rage that she dashed her head against the couch, that Nelly Dean felt that she decided to act madly - I know what that feels like.

It's a problem I've struggled with for a long time. Better over the past three years. I made a deliberate effort to deal with my out-of-control emotions in various ways. I do a lot of yoga now, among other things. I am luckier than Catherine.

Notes on this audio edition: I have decided, after listening to this and Jane Eyre, that Flo Gibson's old lady voice annoys the heck out of me. Not recommended.

20 must-read Scottish books....

Via The Literary Saloon.

The Scotsman has compiled a list of 20 Scottish books everyone must read.

My grandmother was Scottish. I've a tendre for the place. How many of these have I read? Just one.

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark: As much a time and a place as a character, Spark's Jean Brodie came to embody a generation of Edinburgh women. Her unconventional ways and blatant favouritism made her both terrifying and alluring."

Read it. Did. Not. Get. It.

I've read works other than those selected by Alexander McCall Smith, Iain Banks, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Reading Journal Entry: The Bridge, by Iain Banks

One of the best books I've read all year. And that's saying something.

The Bridge is a psychological tour de France. It begins with a car crash. The novel proceeds with the protagonist (named John Orr by his rescuers) a victim of amnesia, trying to create a life for himself in a strange society existing entirely on a huge, seemingly endless bridge.

His psychologist seems to be able to read his mind and his TV isn't working. No-one knows where the bridge leads or who built it. The semaphores worked into the text are endless and wonderful; this was a real joy to read.

Banks has an uncanny ability to evoke the disorientation that occurs when one wakes from a vivid dream. Again and again, reading this, I was struck by intense feelings of deja vu as Orr's emotions (not, of course, his circumstances) struck a chord.


Reading Journal Entry: Silent Partner, by Lee Goldberg

Silent Partner is a tie-in for the TV series Diagnosis: Murder (starring Dick Van Dyke). I think I maybe caught an episode once, about eight years ago. I picked this up at the library because I regularly read Lee's blog. This is pretty typical stuff for a series whodunnit - to his credit he managed to keep me guessing until about two-thirds of the way in. Since I came without any background about the characters, there was a lot of interaction that was lost on me. I assume the 'Jack Stewart' who reappears to do a kidney transplant was someone who left the show, but without that context his introduction didn't make much sense.

Charitable donations selected for 2005 include....

You want to make a difference, but marching isn't your style. Writing letters to the editor doesn't seem to make a difference in Washington, D.C. There's only so much time in the day and you've got to make a living and care for your family before you spend time volunteering somewhere. This is your chance. You can change the world by engaging in what David Brin calls Proxy Activism, "the uniquely convenient, but seldom discussed, ability of a modern person to participate in activism... helping change the world... by the simple expedience of joining some group that is vigorously pursuing that part of your personal agenda."

You have only have one vote in an election. But you have as many votes as you have dollars when it comes to proxy activism. The year is about to draw to a close - this is your last chance to donate money in 2005 that you can deduct from your taxes in 2006.

I've been putting it off for a while. This evening I finally sat down and became a member of organizations that I feel will make the world a better place.

This year we selected several organizations dedicated to supporting our rights to free speech:

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
The CBLDF is currently engaged in defending Gordon Lee, a comic book retailer in Georgia. A summary:
"Lee, the proprietor of Legends, in Rome, Georgia, faces multiple charges stemming from an incident whereby a minor participating in a community Halloween celebration inadvertently received as a trick or treat gift the 2004 Free Comic Book Day offering by Alternative Comics (cover pictured below). That comic book featured a selection from the historical drama "The Salon," by Nick Bertozzi. The scene in question showed the first meeting between Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Picasso is depicted in the nude on three pages in reflection of historical fact."

The Electronic Freedom Foundation
The EFF is a non-profit dedicated to protecting digital rights. Their latest campaign is for blogger's rights.

And, finally, the American Civil Liberties Union.
It's not just about unreviewed phone taps and intelligent design - the ACLU is a major supporter of free speech rights.

And finally, on the saving-babies front:

The Cambodia Fund
The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation is removing landmines and providing prosthetics for the ongoing wounded in Cambodia and around the world.

Do it tonight - I can't think of a better way to honor Christmas and/or Hanukkah.

Hope springs eternal

This chick sent an email to Neil Gaiman's blog about promoting her PublishAmerica fantasy novel.

Note the detailed journal about her 'publishing' experience. I'm wondering at what point she sends them money?

Sorry, guys....

I have to take the rest of the week off. This whole moving thing, combined with an unexpedcted guest, has played havoc with my reading schedule. I'll be back on track soon.

Reading Journal Entry: Lord Pierson Reforms by Donna Simpson

A Zebra Regency Romance. Poorly written, poorly edited, poorly plotted. There's no zip to this one. Avoid!

Reading Journal Entry: Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith by Gina B. Nahai

Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith is the December selection of a local book club I'll be visiting tomorrow. One of my friends is a member and invited me. This should be interesting - I've never belonged to a book group before.

I do a lot of reading, and a lot of writing about reading, but not a lot of talking about reading. I'm not sure what to say about Moonlight. It's extremely well-written, but so, so, depressing.

Lili is an 18-year-old girl whose mother, Roxanna, jhas just returned after 13 years of absence. She flew away on angel wings when Lili was five years old. Roxanna was considered a bad luck child, and Lili relives her mother's tragedies. Roxanna was the latest in a long line of runaway women who brought bad luck to their families and the Jewish ghetto in Tehran. The family history is explored in rich detail, and it's a surprise to find ourselves in the near-modern era with Roxanna and Lili, as they live through Iran's recent turbulence and eventually emigrate to America.

The members of Roxanna's family are visited by one tragedy after another; children die, husbands are unfaithful, security is non-existant. Their recurring flights seem to be attempts to escape this Destiny of bad luck - futile attempts. Even after they fly, they are caught in different tragic webs. No-one in this book is happy. They're all terribly sad; they hate themselves and each other. Any stability is fleeting, soon brutally destroyed. Even love is malignant; mothers abandon or try to kill their children, marital relationships turn people to stone. The message, if there is one, seems to be that even though life is not really worth living, it's one's duty to stick by family members. Miriam, Roxanna's older sister (nicknamed 'the Moon' because of her youthful beauty) perseveres in connecting with her niece Lili and the exiled family in California....her persistent attempts to reach out are the only human warmth in the book, besides Roxanna's disastrous adulterous relationship with her husband's father.

The writing and imagery are outstanding, yet I wish I could unread it. I'm just not into the 'downward spiral of misery' type of storytelling. The 'rich tapestry of Jewish Life in Tehran' bit was good, but at the end of the book the tapestry had burned up. What's the point?

Reading Journal Entry: Rats and Gargoyles, by Mary Gentle

Friday's review. Yeah, I'm behind. I just moved across the country. Give me a break.

Mary Gentle is one of the fantasy/SF authors I most respect. She doesn't play with the conventions, she guts, fillets, and grills them. In Ancient Light, the sequel to Golden Witchbreed, she gives - I won't say the reader, but maybe the reader's expectations - a big 'Fuck You'. In Grunts!, she eviscerated high fantasy with an X-rated look at life in the Orc Marines.

So when I was scooping up books at the Seattle Public Library, trying to get back to my car before the meter ran out, and saw Rats and Gargoyles, I grabbed it gladly.

Prince Lucas, new student at the Invisible College, is our ingenue. Valentine and Casaubon, Gentle's universe-hopping, larger-than-life heros, provide the real pretty pictures. She's a hot sword-wielding bisexual magic-user. He's a poorly dressed, grossly obese Lord-Arhitect. True love!

Mary Gentle's work is multi-layered and demands an active reader. Part of this is the lack of exposition. We're launched straight into a bizarre, weird world without explanation. There are people with tails. Huge talking Rats with swords. Flying lizards, serving incarnate gods. The other part is the lack of internal dialogue - we never get spoon-fed the emotions or thoughts of the major actors. We are required to figure out their motivations and plans from their actions. Which, frankly, is not easy. At the end of the book I still wasn't quite sure what had gone on. That's ok, I was entranced by the pretty pictures anyhow.

Gentle's fantasy (she claims it's SF, but isn't that debate so over?) is as refreshing as a tall, cold, glass of water. In the face.

Recommended for fans of Iain Banks, China Mieville, Gene Wolfe.

Reading Journal Entry: Newcomer's Handbook - Seattle

Thursday's review: Newcomer's Handbook for Moving to and Living In Seattle.

Not actually that helpful. Did not contain in-depth information on the amenities I most wanted to know about. Contained a lot of info I did not want to know about. Other than that, seems mostly accurate (if, inevitably, a couple years out of date).

Yesterday's Review: Reading Journal Entry: The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli

Pietra Rivoli starts with a T-shirt grabbed out of a bin at Wal-Mart and follows it from its birth to its death. She meets cotton farmers in Texas, clothing manufacturers in China, politicians in DC, and used clothing distributors in Africa.

This is one of the best non-fiction books I've read this year. The T-shirt is the perfect vehicle for exploring globalization - everyone owns them, nobody knows where they come from. Rivoli punctuates her economics with portraits of individuals who make the story of a simple cotton garment come alive if a way I never imagined possible.

I consider myself reasonably well-educated about free trade. I didn't really think this book would have much to teach me. I was wrong. Rivoli evaluates the positive and negative impact of every aspect of globalization. In addition, she introduced me to a whole market I wasn't even aware of - mitumba. When you donate used clothing to a charity, a large portion gets sold to used clothes dealers and eventually ends up in Africa. There's a lively and mostly unregulated market in American cast-offs. Who knew?

Love it - highly recommended. This would make a great classroom book.

SO NOT BORING! (<----my favorite new phrase. Watch for it in future reviews.)

Reading Journal Entry: Great Books, by David Denby

David Denby was a forty-eight year old movie critic and writer, and it was the middle of the debates about the 'canon' and 'curriculum' and 'political correctness' of the early nineties, when he decided to go back to school for a year. Denby decided to re-take the Columbia core courses that deal with the classics, Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. His goal: to take the temperature of the current crop of freshmen and sophomores and reconnect with 'the classics'.

Denby keeps himself removed from the classes as much as he's able to, exactly the opposite of Rebekah Nathan's approach in My Freshman Year; he seems to think he'd be somehow cheating the students if he injected himself into class discussion too much. Nonetheless, the class is about the students and the professors as much as it is about the books. Denby tries to understand some student concerns, specifically the protests about the exclusionary nature of the texts selected (the 'dead white male' accusation) and, weirdly, a 'Take Back The Night' rally. Concurrently he reveals his own, sometimes very personal, reactions to the texts. This multiplicity of theme is a drawback; for example, he tantalizingly references one of the professor's method of analysis by dealing with 'structure and theme' without actually explaining what the hell that means. The 'Take Back The Night' episode and other musings on why the students are so (insert adjective here) are, with fifteen year's hindsight, either puzzling or just quaint. Denby was writing from a pre-Giuliani New York City, with all the baggage of the 1980's crime and grime. He seems afraid a lot, very concerned with the downward spiral of civilization that seems somehow to have evaporated.

The upshot is that he didn't engage the books as deeply as I would have liked. His chapter on 'King Lear' impressed me, as did Virginia Woolf, but the focus is really on his experience of the books rather than the works themselves. I suppose that's the only way a book like this (such a meta experience) could really be a success.

Near the beginning of the book he talks about why we read these works. Is he doing this out of (I paraphrase) the 'vanity of self-improvement'? Ouch! Am I doing this reading project out of narcissism? Maybe..... I'll have to see if I can come up with some better sounding justification, like Denby did.

Great Book: King Lear

If you're thinking about complaining that King Lear isn't a great book because it's a play, I don't want to hear it. King Lear made it on five lists, more than any other single Shakespeare work. As a nice coincidence, King Lear is the first book I've read treated in David Denby's Great Books, which I'm reading concurrently. I'd already noted the similarities between Lear and Oedipus Rex (the blindness/wandering with kid thing) but what I didn't know is that Shakespeare probably had no access to the Greek story. Very interesting.

So. Here's the plot.

Lear is going to retire and he's planning to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Regan, Cordelia, and Goneril. But first, he asks them how much they love him. Regan and Goneril step up to the plate and lay it on really thick. Cordelia, youngest, doesn't play nice. King Lear takes his toys and gives them to Regan and Goneril instead. Cordelia runs off with the King of France and Lear settles down to what he expects will be a pleasant retirement living with his daughters. Instead, Regan and Goneril refuse to accord him his former honors and turn him out into the countryside. Meanwhile, Gloucester, the king's loyal supporter, is betrayed by his illegitimate son. Gloucester, blinded, and Lear, insane, wander about the English countryside. Regan and Goneril engage in extra-marital affairs with Gloucester's bastard and kill each other (seriously). The King of France invades and, as usual for the end of a Shakepeare play, everybody dies.

I've read Jane Smiley's Thousand Acres, which kind of freaked me out, and primed me to look at the play from the viewpoint of the cruel Regan and Goneril. Yes, they betray their father. But Lear's insatiable demand for love and loyalty lies at the seed of the conflict. Alas, he is blind (metaphor!) to the poisonous <----) effect of his behavior.

Reading Journal Entry: Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell has been a #1 NY Times best-seller, as was his previous The Tipping Point.

Plus, he looks pretty fly:

Blink is about the swift, unarticulate powers of the mind. We have the power to make judgements in the blink of an eye, although often we don't realize the power of these judgements. That's it, in a nutshell. Gladwell presents a number of examples of people's ability to make very accurate snap judgements. He also discusses why people sometimes make the wrong decision. The crux: more information is not always better. This lines up nicely with the recent stories about research into memory: people with good memories don't remember more stuff, they just remember less extraneous stuff.

Blink is a nice light romp through brain power, which will no doubt make it a darling of the business community.

Great Book: David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, part 1 of 2

David Copperfield is supposed to be the most autobiographical of Dickens' works. It has an intensely personal feel to it. Copperfield is a young boy from a good family who is mistreated and misunderstood, is rescued by a fortuitous encounter with a benevolent relation, must make his own way in the world, etc., etc. David Copperfield is the original Mary Sue of Mary Sues.

This book is immense. Over 20 cassettes. You may be tempted to pick up an abridged version. Don't do it! I can't see any way that an abrdigement would be worth reading. The glory of this book is in the digressions and the connections established between all the various characters from very different chapters of Copperfield's life.

It's easy to see how Dickens made his living as a writer of serialized works; each chapter ends with a snap or a bang and is heavily laced with foreshadowings of dark events to come.

The audio version from Books on Tape is read by a woman, which I found incongrous at first. But she's so good I soon got used to it.

Some quirks of Victorian mentality are displayed to disadvantage here. A woman's virtue is placed far above her life in importance. Several relatives lament that they wish a Certain Someone had died rather than been seduced away by a Certain Ne'er-do-well.

I have only finished 'Part 1'. I got through four cassettes of part 2 and had to return it to the library because, well, because I'm moving 3,000 miles away and they like to keep their books. I'll get on it again once I'm settled down and have my new library card.

I love long movies, long books, and long-running tv shows.... I find these thick classics geared to the popular taste make a fine substitute for the massive fantasy series I used to read. (OK, still read - I am planning on picking up A Feast For Crows after I re-read the first four. But I'm done with Robert Jordan, thank you.) The language used to be a barrier to me but listening to this class of books is just the solution. In sum: I'm still having fun here. The project continues.

Much Obliged, Jeeves! By P. G. Wodehouse

Audio version.

Wodehouse is a priceless treasure. All those who do not know him, get ye to your local library immediately. Listening to a Wodehouse book was a new and very pleasant experience. His humor is so dialogue-based that the addition of a performance with accents and idiosyncrasies really put the cherry on the ice-cream sundae.

This is a later entry in the Bertie Wooster/Jeeves canon. Wooster is the scion of a noble house blessed with an income and several healthy aunts; Jeeves is the manservant plentifully supplied with 'the gray matter' who keeps him out of trouble. Per the usual formula, Wooster is invited to a country house; accidentally becomes engaged to someone he has no desire of marrying; hijinks ensue; Jeeves saves the day. General satisfaction all-round.

Reading Journal Entry: Diamonds Are Forever, by Ian Fleming

My second Bond novel. Once again I'm astonished at the casual racism. I guess that's just the fifties for you.... But how can I say that after reading Another Country, published only five years later (1962)? I can't give Ian Fleming a pass. The weird part is that the racist stuff is dropped in out of nowhere, and prefaced by the comment "Bond had a natural affection for colored people". Whaaaa?

Fleming was obviously trying to deal with the issue of race (America was a new setting for Bond, I gather from context) but fails to address it an adult manner. Also critically neglected are the race issues in Africa, the wellspring of the diamond pipeline. We are introduced briefly to the white dentist who smuggles out diamonds obtained by the black miners, but this potential powderkeg is given the brush-off.

In fact, the whole Africa sub-plot which introduces the diamond pipeline weakens the book; I wish Fleming had just stuck Bond into 'the American mob' in some other way.

Fleming makes no pretense of trying to deal with homosexuality in an adult manner; he just calls a couple of the bad guys 'pansies' and leaves it at that.

Another strong anachronism was all the drinking. Bond drinks at breakfast lunch and dinner; there are cocktails before dinner and after dinner, not to mention the afternoon aperitif. He really knocks 'em back.

I was not impressed with Bond. The pacing is excellent: Bond is swept from one action-packed picturesque American locale to another at breakneck speed. But he does several risky things and mostly reacts to events as they occur to him. He doesn't even rescue himself. Tiffany Case, the hard-boiled criminal with a heart of runny golden yolk, is much more interesting.

In sum: watch the movie.

Venetia, by Georgette Heyer

Cute, romantic, so not boring!

Georgette Heyer is one of those few writers who inspires and embodies an entire genre of imitators (Stephen King and Zane Gray being the only others I can think of). Her romance novels set in the Regency period are fun, banter-filled bonbons. They are a little bit of an anachronism in the current sex-heavy romance market. Those who like to think they would be best friends with Elizabeth Bennett should enjoy them. Highly recommended.

Reading Journal Entry: The Illuminated Soul, by Aryeh Lev Stollman

This is a novel written as a reminiscence and a re-creation. An older man, after writing a book about an experience he had as a teenager, retells the experience and reveals the effects it had on his subsequent life. He imagines and researches episodes in the life of the woman who boarded with them for a short time, and who had such a strange effect on he and his family. This twice-removed structure helps to bring a dreamlike quality to the narrative, and the boarder, Eva Laquedem Higashi, takes on the myterious aspect of a visiting angel.

Joseph is 14 when she arrives, and his family has suffered a series of losses. His father has died recently. His younger brother Asa has been diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease. One of Joseph's few friends has been sent to a mental institution. The book is set in a Jewish neighborhood in post-War Canada; references to what has been lost in terms of people and possessions is a constant subtext. Joseph focuses on religion, taking the task of reading the Torah portion with utmost seriousness (and obsessiveness). Asa refuses to use his eyes, so as not to wear them out. His mother, Adele, is a tall but ungainly echo of the wandering Eva, a European Jew via Japan who in crossing the Canadian border accidentally violates the terms of her visa and is thus ejected from yet another country. Her one treasure is a beautiful illuminated 15th century manuscript, the Augsburg Miscellany, a family heirloom which she smuggled out of Europe. The beauty of this object, and of the woman herself, sheds a golden light on each member of the small family in a different way. She brings them a sense of the possible, a sense of the transcendence of everyday life.

The characters are fully realized in a very little space. Impressively written, fully enjoyed, many-layered.

In the end I was disappointed by the mundanity of Joseph and Asa's subsequent lives. Joseph goes on to become a neurologist who, having made an important breakthrough early in his career, skates on his laurels from then on. Asa works as an illustrator and then goes blind. They take care of each other, do not marry. It seems that they only break through to that plane of existence on which they briefly dwelled when Joseph writes his memoir and spends time speaking about, and seeking for, Eva Higashi. What's the point of this transcendence when it is only fleeting and temporary? I wanted Joseph and Asa to go on to have beautiful, interesting lives. I wanted some positive permanent change to have been wrought. Instead they almost seemed trapped by their fascination with her.

The neatest thing since sliced bread (in publishing, at least)....

I signed up for a couple of weeks ago after reading the article about them in Publisher's Weekly.

The website features a new giveaway every day, usually a business book. Create an account, click on the button, and you are in the running for one of 25 free copies. Why are they doing it? Because publishers are paying them to. So far they've got at least ten publishers on the line.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this is marketing gold. By giving away 25 free copies of the book, the site encourages hundreds of others to look at the book cover, read the copy about it, and click on a big button saying 'I Want One'. Maybe they win one, but probably they don't. If they don't, they've already completely bought in to the idea of wanting and owning the book in question.

I clicked and won, myself, already. I received my free book fairly quickly thereafter, a copy of Petra Rivoli's Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. It was, as promised, wrapped in bubble wrap.

Reading Journal Entry: Three Hearts and Three Lions, by Poul Anderson

A groundbreaking fantasy when originally published in 1953, this Anderson work broke ground that has been tread and retread by many others, and thus will seem derivative to contemporary readers.

The hook: a modern-day man is catapulted into a world where magic is real and finds he is playing a crucial role in a battle between the forces of good and evil.

Yeah, we've only read that one about a billion times.... Let's see. Narnia. Joel Rosenberg. One of the Xanth books. The Spellsinger series. Etc. The difference is that this guy is an engineer fighting in World War II (this one goes way back, people). Anderson did it first.

That doesn't mean it's very good. It's reminiscent of Heinlein's Glory Road in that the protagonist has some fun things happen to him, wanders around an interesting landscape, and then saves the day, with much lack of direction and coherence. The wish-fulfillment is laid on pretty strong, as Holger Carlson finds himself stronger, taller, and more attractive to women of all races than he was in our universe. The female lead, Alianora, is underdeveloped and completely uninteresting. Worst of all, the big payoff - the mysterious identity of Holger's other self - is a complete wash-out.

Interesting for context of F/SF history; otherwise not recommended.

Random House wants its $$$

And more power to them.

From Publisher's Weekly:
"For its part, Random has put its stake in the ground about how it expects to be compensated for books that are viewed online. In outlining what is esstentially its terms of sale for digital viewing, Random said that for general fiction and nonfiction titles it expects to earn 4 cents per page for all page views that exceed more than 5% of the total book, a percentage that Random considers to be a fair "free sample." "

I find the 5% threshold interesting, since the 'fair-use' threshold for copying, etc. of books is, (IIRC) 10%.

"For more reference-type material, such as cookbooks, the price will likely be higher and the sampling threshold lower. The price vendors charge consumers for each page view will be determined by each company. Viewing will be limited to on-screen viewing, with no downloading, printing or copying permitted."

Yeah, that'll catch on quickly.

This is never going to work.

There is a nascent movement in terms of ebooks being downloaded and shared for free online, similar to the exchange of music online about, say, five years ago. Legitamate online music sales never caught on until iTunes, for two reasons: 1) the music was too expensive 2) there were too many restrictions on how consumers could use the product. Random House appears to be steering straight for the same shoals.

By the way, would someone tell me why they would pay money to look at a recipe on a computer screen when 1) they don't have a computer screen in their kitchen and 2) there are probably millions of free recipes online already?

I am in a bad mood

Because I can't get something awful out of my head. This bit of information jumped out of a whole set of pretty awful stuff (Cambodian genocide, land mines) as being particularly bad.

I haven't even told my husband about this, because what's the point? Why does he need to know this?

So, here's my awful factoid:

If a child steps on a landmine, and has a limb amputated (or is an amputee for other reasons, I assume), they need to go back to the hospital every 6 months or so to get their stump re-cut until they stop growing. Because their bones are still growing, and the bones will actually grow out beyond the flesh of the stump and get infected if not properly re-amputated.

This is the most ghastly thing I've ever heard. I can't imagine the horror, the pain, the struggle (especially in developing countries) to constantly re-access medical care.

So, now, maybe, having put it out there, I can stop thinking about it.

Hey, why don't you donate a few bucks to The Cambodia Fund, while you're thinking about it.

Chick Lit

Rebecca Traister wrote this. Maud Newton wrote this rebuttal.. Edward Champion said "Girls! Girls! Settle down!".

The question seems to be:

Are women bad feminists if they criticize chick lit?


Unless they do so as part of a sweeping criticism of all forms of popular literature, like the romance novels, mysteries, thrillers, etc. that are its siblings.

Why? Because the impulse to criticize 'women's fiction' is at its heart a criticism of women.

Being female is a disadvantaged status. Sorry, folks, but it is. It's just not as easy being a woman as a man, if you want to do anything except carry a baby in your body. If you want to run for Congress, run a Fortune 500 company, or even get tenure at a top university, you're statistically better off being male.

Women know this. Everyone has their own way of compensating. One can out of the rat race and choosing a different value structure. One can choose specific industries that are more female frierndly. One can do any number of things.

One way to seek equality with the dominant class is to divest oneself of associations with ones’ disadvantaged group.

‘Chick lit’ is aggressively female. Therefore, women who have subconsiously adopted the ‘join ‘em’ method react aggressively to claims that chick lit represents their life experience. Denigrating this category (and other ‘female’ categories like romance) is a way of separating themselves from the female mainstream and by implication choosing association with the favored male class.

If you're going to call yourself a feminist, you should know better. Criticize individual authors. Criticize escapist fiction. But please, be more self-aware than to criticize 'chick lit'.


Book of the Day is on hiatus during November while I participate in National Novel Writing Month.

Reading Journal Entry: Appetite for Life, by Noel Riley Fitch

Julia Child was a fascinating person. After reading this biography, I understand why she had enough force of personality to attact Julie Powell's obsession in her late book. I have few personal memories of the original Queen of the TV Kitchen - Mom watching rerurns on PBS, and one of my introductory science classes screened Julia making Primordial Soup. I didn't get it - why was this tall lady with the funky voice such a big deal? Now I know. She was the first, she was the best, and she was a warm and genuine person.

Plus, she was a spy during World War II! How cool is that? OK, she wasn't really a spy per se. She worked in the office rather than the field. But still. Spies were involved.

Reading Journal Entry: The Maltese Falcon on radio

Listened to the radio version of The Maltese Falcon, produced after the movie, performed by Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. A short production with much vigor, but a bit hard to follow as it's so dramatically cut down from the novel and book. More of a curiousity than anything else.

Reading Journal Entry Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials

When I got this as a gift as a present, as a sci-fi obsesses teenager, it was a great choice. It's still a great gift choice for teenaged sci-fi obsessed teenagers, which is why it will probably remain in print until doomsday. This is an illustrated compendium of information about extraterrestrials from many of science fiction's classic works - Herbert's Dune, Niven's Known Universe, Heinlein, Asimov, etc., etc., etc. Some authors are represented more than once (probably for rights reasons). Each alien creature gets a lovely painted illustration, with highlighted details, and biographical/xenological summary. A fold-out size comparison is in the center of the binding and the whole is topped off with a generous portion of pencil sketches from Barlowe's workbook. On the whole the pencil work is more vibrant and interesting than the oil porraits and much more interesting.
A nice addition to a sci-fi library.

Great Book: Emotionally Weird, by Kate Atkinson

Yesterday's review

I loved, loved, Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Emotionally Weird is on the 'Great Books' list courtesy of the Harvard Book Store(plebian origin, despite the 'Harvard' in front) whereas Museum is on there courtesy of Jane Smiley's 13 ways of looking at the novel list (she gets letters published in the New York Times, you know). Emotionally Weird undoubtedly suffered from my high expectations, but I think it truly is a lesser work. Museum started off with a bang, a jubilant 'I exist!' that captured my heart. Weird is, well, weirder. More mellow. Longer, more langorous, perhaps to a fault.

Plot, such as it is, such as we eventually gather it to be: Effie is stuck on a remote island with her mother Nora. Effie tells her mother a story about her time at school in Dundee (during which she writes a mystery novel, of which portions are included in the text), which composes the main part of the book, and coaxes Nora to reveal details of her mysterious origins and family mess.

Draped on the skeleton of this family drama is a light-hearted exploration of the power of words and the relevance of literature. The multiple layers of narration (and narratees, as Effie puts it) combine with the lecture-drones of Effie's professors (she is pursuing a degree in English) and the occasional interjections about her, and her classmates, creative writing, to make something of a send-up of analysis and literature altogether.

It took me about half the book to realize that this was set in the early seventies - the lack of computers eventually tipped me off. The narrative is scattered with student protestors, pictures of foreign countries being bombed, pot, raving feminists, etc. but this seemed pretty close to my own student experience. I did wonder why Effy's Star Trek-loving boyfriend Bob never quoted any Next Gen. Aside: There is a minor character named Janice Rand. This is the name of Yeoman Rand, a character on Star Trek (The Original Series) during the first season. A hot, blond character that Bob would have known about. Atkinson never did anything with this, so I think it's just a coincidence.

One false note was the contest among professors for the soon-to-be-vacated department chairmanship. My dad is an academic, and being department chair was always seen as the booby prize because it was so much extra work. Maybe it's different in GB.

At one point Effie calls her narrative a 'comic novel' (although it is littered with dead bodies, abandoned babies, and suicide attempts), but it wasn't very funny. I think probably this was the fault of the reader, Kara Wilson. Wilson demonstrates a wide range in this performance, but the voice she chose for Effie grated on me miserably, as did the faux American accents assummed for visiting professors.

Reading Journal Entry: Dice: Deception, Fate, & Rotten Luck, by Ricky Jay and Rosamond Purcell

A lovely little square volume, very well designed and produced. Short essays about the history of dice, gambling, cheating, etc. are studded with Purcell's beautiful photographs of Ricky Jay's dice collection. The price is right on this one, two, at about $15.

I know it doesn't sound like a great concept, but it is! I swear! The essays are interesting, but it's the photos that grab you. Jay's collection is famous, and these dice must be decades old. I expect he never throws anything out! They've mellowed, cracked, fermented, crumbled and decomposed in fascinating ways I never would have anticipated.

This Google search for Purcell's pictures will give you an idea of the power and beauty of this book.

Reading Journal Entry: Mr. Alexander's Four Steps to Love, by Alexander Stadler with Jennifer Worick

A cute little gift book for the dating depressed (aged less than 27). This is well-designed and friendly, but not exactly deep. Mr. Alexander prescribes four steps for finding 'your dream partner': visualization, showing off, meeting new people, and 'becoming your best partner'. Gay-friendly.

Why, Lord, why?

Of all the BDSM variations out there, this one has got to be the weirdest. Why on earth would anyone want to base their S&M sexual play on a crappy fantasy series that might as well have 'Conan' in the title?

I just don't understand.

This is good

22 comic book panels that always work.

Great Book: Another Country, by James Baldwin

Ah, the sixties. Civil rights & the sexual revolution. James Baldwin's Another Country tells the story of a set of relationship; friends in New York City who hurt each other and love each other. This must have caused quite a scandal when it came out; it's a frank portrait of several mixed-race relationships, and some homosexual ones as well.

It's hard to say whether the format is more a series of personal portraits or more nearly a string of short stories, but it's definitely episodic. We begin with Rufus, a black musician hitting rock bottom after the end of a relationship, trying to crawl out. We continue with his friend Vivaldo (white), who falls in love with Rufus' sister Ida, and move on to Rufus' former lover Eric and their mutual married friends. I found Ida the most fully realized and attractive character; she has a rage and an ambition closely held within her, straining to get out, that struck a chord. She is the only major character whose inner monologue we don't get to see. Perhaps her restraint is as much internal as external.

This small set of friends engages in sex with startling casualness (and yet strange import....) There are four adulterous or cheating sexual relationships or encounters in this short book, and yet the words 'infidelity' or 'betrayal' aren't used once. The word 'guilt' is used only to dismiss its' validity.

They aren't very nice to each other. I don't think I'd like to have these people as my friends. I think that's the point; Baldwin is trying to portray human weakness in the face of the overwhelming forces of emotion and environment. Ida is the only character who tries to exert control over herself, to be actively moving toward her goals rather than reactive to her emotions, but the book ends with the breakdown of her control.

I can't say I agree with his premise, but it's a well-executed concept.

Reading Journal Entry: Female Chauvinist Pigs, by Ariel Levy

Female Chauvinist Pigs has a great cover and contains a lot of anger, so it's probably going to be a big seller.

Ariel Levy examines the genesis and validity of what she calls 'raunch culture' - a world in which women make out with each other or flash their breasts to get 'Girls Gone Wild' hats, and middle-schoolers dress like porn stars. The key element that she examines is why and how women buy into this glorification of exploitation. Why are strippers cool? Why did Jenna Jameson's best-selling book sell to so many women? Why do women want to act like people who are pretending to feel sexy?

The proximate reason is that women want men to want them. The ultimate reason - in a post-feminist culture - is far more obscure. Sadly, she doesn't really come up with an answer. What she does supply is an abundance of titillating anecdotes about women playing up to the 'raunch' expectation, and an abundance of angry, scornful criticism.

The strange thing is that Levy heaps scorn on just about every facet of society that she discusses. From old-school feminists (every faction) to new-school feminists, to lesbians to accountants to porn stars to producers, she doesn't seem to approve of anyone. Good old-fashioned vitriol makes for a satisfyingly blood-boiling read, but it's not very filling. What's the answer? You won't find answers to the questions she asks or to the problem she exposes. You won't even find out if porn is bad or good.

I also wonder who the hell she's interviewing. Jesus Christ, I am hanging out with the wrong crowd. Most of the women (or girls) that I see and know aren't dressed like hookers. They aren't taking off their tops for the cameras. They aren't attending wild sex parties in Manhattan. They don't feel pressured to sleep around so they can brag and feel like 'one of the guys'. So even though Levy bolsters her observations with a lot of reporting, her analysis feels contrived to me. Except when she discusses the media (will Paris Hilton please die already?) it simply doesn't match my experience.

Great Book: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, is on the list of great books not as a literary masterpiece but as one of the Times Literary Supplement's Most Infuential Books Since the War. Of course that's completely accurate; it is one of the best selling popular science books ever, spawning illustrated versions, audio versions, reader's companions, while selling millions and millions (literally) of copies.

It's easy to understand why it is so popular. It's not long, and therefore not intimidating. There are no equations. Hawking promises right up front to address the most basic questions of human existence, and he does, although no definite answers about the nature of God are, alas, available.

Almost twenty years after publication, A Brief History is no longer cutting edge. Observation has verified many predictions and theories about Black Holes and the Big Bang and moved on to bigger (or smaller) things. That doesn't make the material less fascinating. The great gift of this book isn't that it explains advanced theories about the evolution of the universe in simple language (although it does). It's that Hawking manages to make material that is inherently removed from everyday life seem relevant. We want to know about Black Holes because they're cool. We want to know why time runs forward and where the universe came from because, damn it, what the hell was God about, anyhow, and why didn't he do a better job? This sense of wonder and curiously was once the property of each of us - we just grew out of it. Hawking evokes that wonder.

His curious little gossipy asides about his colleagues make nice bonus material.

He evoked more frustration in me, personally, than wonder. I was already familiar with the material. This allowed me to dwell more on those universal questions than was healthy. Why DOES the universe exist? And why in hell can't stupid people understand that God, if it did exist, would not be subject to the flow of time but must exist outside the universe? I used to argue on religion boards for fun, and it's hard to shake off some of those habits. My teeth still tend to meet and clench during certain theological discussions. And don't try to talk to me about intelligent design. I was all over this intelligent design thing before it became fashionable, you johnny-come-laties.

Reading Journal Entry: Fat Girl by Judith Moore

Fat Girl by Judith Moore is not a book about weight loss, eating disorders, body image, or feminism. It's more simple than that; a personal memoir of pain living inside a fat little girl. Fat is the vehicle she used for expressing her pain and loneliness.

The book begins with a short discussion of life for Moore as a fat adult, but quickly segues to family history of fat triggered by loss. Her father lost his mother at the age of six, and immediately became a fat little boy. Her mother was abandoned by her mother and grew up cold, unable to express love or affection for her daughter. They grew up, met, married, and had a child whom they endoweded with their psychological problems and coping mechanisms. Moore is unflinching in exploring her memories and lays out the whole of her childhood epic before the reader without mercy. Her description of her relationship with food reaches both the divinely inspired and the excrutiatingly painful.

The bookending chapters about Moore's adult life blur the laser-like focus of the chapters about her childhood. Is this a memoir about the pain of being fat? The stigma? The inconvenience and shame? Or is it a portrait of an unloved child? The almost obligatory childhood encounter with sexual abuse is an essential building block of the adult Moore's psyche, but what does it have to do with fat, really?

And so the book tries to be two things, perhaps weakening its impact. It rocked me back onto my heels, emotionally, but is it truly successful? I get the feeling that it was, in any case, completely successful as a lancing of the author's inner boils.

Dare I admit that after reading this, I ate a salad for lunch today, and went for a walk around the block afterword? I understand that I'm not fat, really, I'm not thin, but I'm not fat either. That doesn't keep me from wanting to lose about 15 pounds. I know how I think I should feel. I should love and admire my body for all the wonderful things it can do. I should be really proud of myself for being able to go on long hikes, for being able to jog for two hours, for being able to bike fifty miles in a session (and I am). I get it. But I still don't really like the way I look, or the shape of my body.

I want to have a positive self image, but that only happens when the stars align. I'm better about it now at thirty than I was at 20. I was convinced I was hideous and hated just about everything about how I looked until a couple years ago, when I cut my hair short and came to an agreement with my features. At the moment I'm pretty satisfied with the way I look from the waist up. It's the rest of me that nags quietly at the back of my mind when I look in the mirror. Jesus Christ, why am I bothered by the way my feet look? It's not as if I have toenail fungus or as if anyone has ever told me I have ugly feet or as if anyone ever even sees my feet.

But back to fat. I hate falling for the party line. I hate it when I try to lose weight, because I feel like I've failed at being a liberated woman, or a self-aware individual, or both. But I do it anyway, just like I reach for the second bowl of ice cream while telling myself I've had enough. The flesh is weak! And so is the mind!

PS - I just finished a bowl of polenta with tomato bacon sauce. And I think I'm going to have some ice cream with that.

Reading Journal Entry: The Spriggan Experiment, by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Yes, it's an experiment in internet publishing. LWE found that his publisher wanted him to concentrate on fiction set in places other than his well-known fantasy world of Ethshar. So he published it online, serially, and solicited donations to pay for his time. Apparently it was a success, as the book is now finished and, for the moment, is available online in it's entirety.

There have been eight Ethshar novels. They are great light fantasy. This one follows up on a loose end from an earlier work. A misenchanted mirror started spewing out small talking squeaky frog things (the spriggans of the title). About one every few minutes. Continuously. Eventually, as the supply of spriggans becomes an oversupply, this becomes a problem. People start thinking about how much spriggan weight the world-disc can carry. Our hero, Gresh, is assigned to locate and neutralize the aforesaid mirror.

There's not much character development here, it's pretty much a puzzle book dressed up with magic. It still manages to be engaging and fun. Recommended.

Reading Journal Entry: Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women by Ricky Jay

This is a fun book. Ricky Jay is a professional magician and a historian of the medium (rimshot, please). Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women collects information about some of the most outstanding performers/freaks in the history of oddity. From porcine mathematician and people who set themselves on fire we go to mind-readers, daredevils, and performance farters. Lots of fun. My one regret is that since some of these performers lived so long ago, the information about them is scarce. Profiles of the later performers were more in-depth and hence more interesting. I really wanted to know more about the life and times of Toby, the Learned Pig.

With a big fat section of color plates and many black and white reproductions, this is a beautiful book that would make a great gift for that person with the weird sense of humour.

Reading Journal Entry: Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

Julie Powell was a bored-to-tears secretary struggling to survive her lack of enthusiasm when her husband suggested she start a new project. "You could write a blog" he said. "You do know what a blog is, right, Julie?" Ah, the good old days. She decides to cook all of the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking over one year. That's 564 recipes, 365 days, in a New York City apartment.

Apparently the blog was quite a success, although I never heard of it (and if I haven't heard of something, what's the point, really?). I wish I had read it as she was doing the project, it must have been a lot of fun. She also got on the Early Show, the Today Show, etc., etc., etc.! This book takes a bit from the blog, a bit from her life, a bit too much of her friends' lives, and a bit of Julia Child's life, and mashes it all together with a stick of butter.

It was a fun read. Very chick-lit but without so much shopping. Plenty of bitching, though. I wish she'd included more about cooking; the narrative got way off track at times with the trips home and the friends eloping with British rock stars.
There's definitely some substance here. It's worth reading. But perhaps she could have done even better.

Note: Powell includes little dribbles of made-up stuff about Julia Child's life. They weren't particularly effective. But now I want to read that biography of her that came out recently like the dickens.

Reading Journal Entry: Thud! by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel is as funny as ever. Well, almost. See, for a while now his books have had a message. Freedom of the Press. Feminism. Fate. Etc. And in this one seems a bit heavy-handed. Sam Vimes, Commander of the Watch in the fabulous city of Ankh-Morpock, is attempting to deal with two racial minorities who brought ancient grudges with them. On the one hand, we've got the industrious cave-dwelling mine-making dwarves, who live 18 to a room and are busy entrepreneurs. On the other hand, we've got giant trolls made of rock who speak in monosyllables and whose entrepreneurship is of a shadier kind. 'Snot exactly subtle, is it? Thud! delivers the usual Pratchett pratfalls and wraps everything up in a nice tidy bundle at the end (Can't we all just Get Along? And spend more time with our kids?). He even, amazingly for this kind of book, manages to deliver emotional payoff. Vimes is a good character.
I'm not going to say it's not good. Because it IS good. I'm just getting a bit tired of the whole delivering-a-moral-while-pretending-not-to schtick.

Reading Journal Entry: Drawing Cutting Edge Comics, by Christopher Hart

Drawing Cutting Edge Comics promises to take everything to the extreme. This is the remedy to the teen artist dulled by Jim Lee's sixties sensibility - this book teaches you how to draw comics just like Todd McFarlane's Spidey!!!! Of course, that's not what it says, but it's true enough. With McFarlane Mary Jane looked like a porn star and Peter Parker looked like an alien. With the help of this book, you too can draw porn stars and aliens who look like sensitive nineties men with their masks off. Use extreme forshortening! Combine genres in totally new ways, like fantasy + industrial! All right, I'm being too hard on this book. It's probably a good freshener for skilled artists who want to draw more towards the current superhero market. But not much good for anyone else. Nonetheless I'm sure it's very popular.

Great Book: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I wouldn't have believed, before reading Catch-22, how derivative MASH and other war comedies are, in every medium. The ideas no longer seem new, but they're delivered in so riveting a manner that it doesn't matter that they've been ripped off a thousand different ways.

Catch-22 follows the adventures of Yossarian, a bombadier, and his cohort of flying bombers on the island of Pianosa near the end of World War II. Yossarian is either the only sane person in his unit or the only crazy person, depending on who's doing the talking. For example, he insists that everyone is trying to kill him. He starts out in the hospital, with a fake liver complaint that's keeping him on the ground and away from enemy flack. The book ends with him in the hospital again, with a genuine injury. In between the narative meanders in time and space serving up biting satire of military bureaucracy, the wartime mentality, and the general blindness of the human condition.

Yossarian is intent on preserving his life, a fact which does not endear him to his superior officers. He's also a crack bombadier. But fear has infected him and made it impossible for him to function 'normally' - as normal as normal goes on an island inhabited solely by men torn from their familes and loved ones, periodically dropping bombs on strangers who try to kill them back. Yossarian tries everything he can think of to escape flying more missions, but each path in sequence closes to him. Gradually, as the book goes on, he loses his hope and his friends. He only manages to cling to his survival instinct and his integrity.

The reader is wrenched from one day to the next (or previous) without mercy. Yossarian's moment of horror, helping Snowden die over Avignon, pops eerily onto the scene at odd moments. Dreamlike repetitions and confusions lend it all an eery quality of (dare I say it?) deja-vu, punctuated by grisly horrors and absurd comedic moments. There seem to be strong implications that the entire novel is actually taking place in Yossarian's mind as a kind of combination flashback/fever dream.

Reading Journal Entry: Marque & Reprisal, by Elizabeth Moon

Elizabeth Moon's latest space drama. This is her second novel about the Vatta family, a trading concern. And a good thing too, because her last couple books set in the 'Serrano' universe were, ehm, not good. She needed a new universe to play in. Kylara Vatta's family lives in a much less civilized and chaotic place. As evinced by the way, shortly after the novel begins, the Vatta home compound and numerous holdings are explosively destroyed by person or persons unknown. Kylara survives, and she and surviving family members must struggle to preserve their lives and find out who is targeting them and why. The action kept the book flowing, but I was disappointed by several set-ups which did not lead to pay-off - almost as if the book wasn't long enough, so she threw in an extra character or two for spice without bothering to change the plot to accomodate them. I like my conventions unviolated, thank you!
Fun space opera, should appeal to people who like the Honor Harrington series or Bujold.

Reading Journal Entry: Ghost World by Dan Clowes

The graphic novel on which the movie Ghost World, starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi, is based.

The book is a collection of episodic exploration of the relationship between Enid and Rebecca, two girls just out of high school. They drift apart, then closer together. They find refuge in each other from the world that has betrayed them, then push each other away in a struggle for independent identity. They're trapped in a never-ending summer that doesn't seem to have an exit to adulthood.

The dialog is killer. In fact it made me somewhat uncomfortable; I know people who talk like this and it became at times surreal.

Spot on. Very good.

Yesterday's Review: Reading Journal Entry: American Splendor: Unsung Hero, by Harvey Pekar

Some of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor work was adapted into the movie American Splendor. This volume isn't autobiographical. It's an account of the Vietnam experiences of Robert McNeil, a black kid who joined to escape high school and ended up winning a medal. And, thankfully, surviving. Both of those facts we're given right away, as the collection begins with the text of McNeil's citation and a depiction of him being interviewed by Pekar.

I've met Pekar, and he's weird. It's interesting to imagine him interviewing someone.

McNeil was a raw kid who saw almost the worst of Vietnam. It's an interesting depiction of the life of a black soldier of the time; Black Power wristbands, Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. But mostly it's about the pain and fear of being someplace where people are trying to kill you.

This is first of Pekar's work that I've read. He's almost transparent as the author, even though his likeness appears in the work. It reads like McNeil's voice. There's a humor and a strength that are all his.

Reading Journal Entry: Make Your Own Comics For Fun and Profit, by Richard Commings

A more dated comic creation guide aimed at youngsters. There are no drawing instructions at all in this book - it's all about the specific craft of comics as opposed to art. Style, composition, plot, etc. Some good stuff, but a little too basic for today's savvy youth. It differs from the modern batch in its emphasis on comic strips as well.

The best part about this book is the samples - early work from several famous professionals is included. Very encouraging. On the other hand, John Romita could draw very well even at 17, curse his nimble fingers.

The 'Rendering' section is very cute with its information on hectographing, mimeographing, and those new-fangled photocopying machines.

It's a nice friendly little book, but no longer very relevant.

Reading Journal Entry: The Trader Joe's Adventure, by Len Lewis

Poorly written and poorley edited. This story about the cult grocery chain Trader Joe's was not written with the authorization or help of the organization and it shows in the puacity of information contained therein. Lewis manages to stretch out publicly known facts over 200 pages through repetition and general wordiness. There's nothing here that's new, and the glaringly bad writing makes this almost unreadable. Atrociously bad. Really bad. Very, very bad writing. High school english class bad.
I like Trader Joe's, but I already knew that they were owned by Aldi, had a rotating stock of unique products, and treated their employees well. This book was not worth the time I spent reading it and I'm glad I didn't pay any money on it!

Reading Journal Entry: So, You Wanna Be a Comic Book Artist? by Philip Amara and Pop Mhan

So You Wanna Be a Comic Book Artist? How To Break Into Comics: The Ultimate Guide For Kids is pretty much exactly what it promises. This guide eschews basic drawing instructions, focusing on information on set-up, story, layout, character creation, self-promotion, and tips on getting noticed. It's peppered with interviews of kid comic creators and young professionals. Heavy on the encouragement. Contains no unique information but the presentation and tone is very appropriate to the intended audience.

Reading Journal Entry: Lunar Activity by Elizabeth Moon

A collection of short stories by Elizabeth Moon. I like Moon's stuff - she's a workmanlike writer who infuses her military and personal experience into her writing for a gritty, realistic feel. But this is not such a good collection. It has the feel of a bunch of leftovers thrown together instead of a proper meal. There was no stand-out; it just sort of plodded along. Her books are really much, much better. She's not really successful at characterization in these shorter works.

In addition, all the stories in this book were re-issued in another collection of her work, Phases, so Lunar Activity is a total waste of time.

Gimme money!

I'm riding 60 miles for MS this weekend.

I have never ridden that far in one day in my life. This should be interesting. It's across the Tappan Zee Bridge and up to Bear Mountain, so the scenery I won't be enjoying due to exhaustion will be very nice.

If you donate, I'll be your best friend.

Reading Journal Entry: Writers on Comics Scriptwriting

This is a compilation of interviews and work samples from some of the top writers in the comic book industry: Neil Gaiman, Peter David, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Frank Miller, etc., etc. There are some interesting bits on the philosophy of writing and the process at the major houses. I found the samples of actual scripts and preparation documents most useful.

Grant Morrison is either a total wacko or he has a fantastic sense of humor.

Highly recommended for those interested in the craft.

By the way, I've figured out why Marvel books suck (those that suck. This obviously does not apply to te fancy writers like J. Michael Strazinsky and Joss Whedon who can whatever they want).

The way Marvel works, the writers cook up a plot and send THAT to the artist. A 400 word blur that looks like it came off a book jacket. The artist then draws an entire 22-page comic from said blurb without any direction on how the panels should be laid out, where the page breaks should be, how many pages to devote to which plot points, no idea as to what the dialogue will be, etc. The pencilled art goes back to the writer who writes dialogue for it and maybe sends it back to be changed a bit if he doesn't like it.

Talk about subordinating writing to art! I've found a discussion of the 'words per panel' issue where several writers talk about writing 'around' the art. It depends how much room is left over for those unimportant words. It's bizarre to me that anything decent at all gets produced via this method. Surely it totally precludes any kind of subtlety or depth in the writing.

My husband thinks that the reason Marvel comics suck is the lack of editorial control, but that's a whole 'nother topic.

My sister recommends:

Reading Journal Entry: How to Create Action, Fantasy and Adventure Comics by Tom Alvarez

A book intended mainly for aspiring comic artists, as opposed to writers or both. A good run-down of the basic skills necessary, including details like equipment. Also includes exercises and specific advice on practicing to develop your art. With a 1996 pub date this looks a little dated but it's better than some.

The career advice section has some good tips but is also a little odd. The advice is to specialize; pick one thing at which you are skilled and develop it, whether it's lettering, inking, etc. This is a good way to break into the industry but it's not exactly the kind of artistic fulfillment and 'creation' that the title promises. A section on writing includes a stern admonition: "There is no jumping back and forth from writing to art back to writing." Ha. Little did they know how many writers/artists would soon be on the scene proving them wrong.

Fun-squishing aside,this how-to book actually could teach someone how-to.

Reading Journal Entry: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman did a reading at the Union Square B&N and I got meeself a lovely little signed first edition. He held about 400 people in the palm of his hand for an hour. He obviously has a lot of practice as he was very good. No-one flashed him that I know of - I was a bit disappointed.
Anansi Boys is a humorous fantasy story about the son of Mr. Nancy (a god) and what happens when his dad dies and his long-lost brother shows up. Alert readers will remember Mr. Nancy from Gaiman's huge hit American Gods. This is not a sequel, Mr. Gaiman informs us, rather Mr. Nancy was making a special guest appearance.
Mr. Nancy, based on the tricksy spider Anansi, is black, and it's amazing how much more successful Gaiman was at this whole 'modern urban fantasy written about characters of a different race' than Orson Scott Card was in Magic Street. Card's story has a self-conscious air of self-congratulation and study about it. Gaiman just went ahead and did it. Moreover, Gaiman bases the fantasy elements on indigenous African mythology rather than shoe-horning Shakespeare into downtown LA.
But enough about that. Anansi Boys is a lot of fun and a complete success. Buy it.

Reading Journal Entry: Archy and Mehitabel, by Don Marquis

I feel an enormous amount of affection for Archy, not the least because I've recently discovered he lives in Westchester like I do. Dobbs Ferry, to be specific. Many years ago Archy took advantage of a piece of paper left in a typewriter overnight to exercise his poetic art; he climbed up to the top of the typewriter and jumped down onto each key in turn. He had some difficulty depressing the 'shift' key, so his works are free from punctuation and capitalization. The first of his poems appeared in 1916. Since he's a cockroach, he's probably crawling around here somewhere still.

Archy was not a simple cockroach; a victim of transmigration, he was once a vers libre poet. He shares social commentary and tells stories about the lives of his underworld friends; Freddy the Rat, Mehitabel the cat, and other colorful characters. It's bitingly funny and so modern in sensibility it could have been written last year. Although it occasionally descends into doggerel it more often achieves genius.

The audio version I listened to was very well done, with an excellent performance by Barry Kraft (Books of the Road) who manages to sound like a cross between Leonard Nimoy and John Delancie. But the charm of the original typography is lost when it's read. I recommend people read this instead of listening to it as a first introduction to the work.

And now, a word from Archy:

Pete the Parrot and Shakespeare

i got acquainted with
a parrot named pete recently
who is an interesting bird
pete says he used
to belong to the fellow
that ran the mermaid tavern
in london then i said
you must have known
shakespeare know him said pete
poor mutt i knew him well
he called me pete and i called him
bill but why do you say poor mutt
well said pete bill was a
disappointed man and was always
boring his friends about what
he might have been and done
if he only had a fair break

Full text:

Reading Journal Entry: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Two young boys grow up in Kabul in the golden age of Afghanistan's monarchy. Amir is the son of a rich man; Hassan the son of the faithful house servant. They aren't friends, exactly, just constant companions, sidekicks, playmates, rivals. Amir has a difficult relationship with his father and resents the favor he shows to Hassan. Hassan is so loyal and good that he comes to symbolize Amir's own feelings of guilt and inadequacy, and eventually their relationship is split apart by Amir's actions.

Amir emigrates to the US at the age of 12. Years later, after the death of his father, he is called back to Pakistan by an old family friend and given a chance to redeem his childhood sin.

Hosseini revels in Amir's burden of guilt; a moment of inaction becomes the defining moment of his life. Simultaneously, he provides a sad portrait of Afghanistan's deterioration and oppression under the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. The atrocities Amir witnesses as an adult are eerily similar to those he witnesses as a child, and it leaves me wondering whether Hosseini means to give moral equivalency to the oppression of economic inequality and the political, violent oppression offered by religious dictatorships.

Reading Journal Entry: The Stories of Ray Bradbury, read by the author

Ray Bradbury is a classic science fiction author, but most of these shorts come from other genres. He has a real gift for language that, unfortunately, does not extend to the spoken word. He can do an Irish accent pretty well, but he reads with a breathless speed that doesn't do justice to the text. I'm sure this would be of interest to fans, but it's not his best work, so I'm going to give this one a 'pass'.

Reading Journal Entry: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

I finally decided to explore this incredibly popular mystery series about a (duh) a ladies detective agency in Bostwana. The premise is unusual and the execution equally so; there's no big 'case' and no murderer. It's more of an introduction to the main character, Precious Ramotswe, (Botswana's first and only lady private detective), her country, her city, and her friends, as she starts her business and take son her first few cases. It's an enjoyable, meandering portrait of Africa. Ma Ramotswe is an irresistable character - fat, happy, and self-sufficient.

Alexander McCall Smith chose, perhaps to enhance the book's attractiveness to the women who make up the majority of the mystery-buying market, to express a surprising of misandry in this work. Musings on the eternal nature of Africa and the insignificance of human existence are matched by musings how men just keep messing everything up. Very odd.

Fun, but I won't seek out other books in the series.

Lisette Lecat is an excellent reader - she has a perfect round, full voice and really caresses the words. An excellent audio production.

Things we don't do at Book of the Day:

Talk like a pirate.
Calculate what percentage Geek/Nerd combo we are
Participate in all or any blog 'memes'

Reading Journal Entry: Sleepwalk and other stories, by Adian Tomine

Sleepwalk collects the first four issues of Optic Nerve. There's no unified story; it's a collection of vignettes, shorts, and character sketches. Tomine's art is more stylized than photorealistic, almost minimalist in its enjoyment of shadows and lines. Lonely people trying to connect; mysterious moments; regret. Not a feel good experience, not the traditional story arc. Tomine brings the reader right up to the brink, then abandons exposition in favor of suspense.

A surprisingly mature work, considering Tomine began self-publishing it at 16. Recommended.