Monday, March 23, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 34-36

34. Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle by Douglas Emlen

More popular biology, this time comparing animal weapons to human weapons across military history. An interesting, quick read, though not the best book of its kind I've ever read. I could've done with fewer pictures and realistic line drawings of insects (you know how I mentioned above that I hate spiders? I really prefer my animals with four legs or fewer, thank you), but that was unavoidable given that the author's research specializes in dung beetles!

35. When Britain Burned the White House by Peter Snow

And my non-fiction binge continues, though I really need to get on the stick if I'm going to make ten books on the month... ::looks around for some SHORT books, whether fictional or otherwise::

Anyway, I recommend this book for anyone who'd like to know more about the War of 1812--though it doesn't get into the causes, the overall sweep of the war, or the peace negotiations except tangentially--it's strictly about the invasion of Washington and the bombardment of Baltimore. It's even-handed and sympathetic to both sides, which you'd think would be easy to do 200 years after the fact when writing about countries who are now firm allies, but you'd be surprised how many War of 1812/Napoleonic histories can't pull it off.

It's also a contrast to a lot of the military histories and biographies I've read because both sides were so plagued with indecisiveness, mediocre or downright incompetent commanders, etc. A nice reminder that the Napoleons and Wellingtons, the Hannibals and Scipio Africanuses, etc. are the exception rather than the rule! (Though it's an interesting exercise to imagine how the campaign would've played out if Andrew Jackson had commanded the American forces and Wellington had been persuaded to take on the British command. IMHO Wellington was by far the better commander, but Jackson was no slouch and home-field advantage counts for a lot in war.)

36. Ms. Marvel Vol 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

Maybe I'm finally getting the hang of reading graphic novels, because this one completely blew me away. It's about a 16-year-old Pakistani-American girl in Jersey City who's suddenly bestowed with shape-shifting superpowers--and then has to figure out how to control them and make use of them even while grounded. And the characters and setting are SO vivid.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 28-33

Wow, I hadn't realized it had been THIS long since I'd updated. Life has been a little crazy of late, especially the past week after a misstep on uneven pavement led to a faceplant, three hours in the ER, five stitches holding my lip together, and a face full of scabs.

But I'm now mostly recovered and trying to get caught up on everything that took a back seat to napping between doses of the good Tylenol. I'll have more to blog about later, but for now here's six books instead of three:

28. Rita book #8

This one came out in a near-tie with #4 as my favorite of this year's slate--and, as it happens, both are from the same imprint of the same publisher. Neither was necessarily the kind of book I rush to read in terms of setting, character type, etc., but both were strong enough that I think I'll be looking to the imprint in question for change-of-pace/palate cleanser reads in the future.

And that's it for Rita reads for the year, though I expect to be back in 2016 with more vaguely worded and cryptic contest commentary.

29. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Well, that took forever, but I finally completed my first book for March. (It wasn't this book that bogged me down--I spent too long on a book that just wasn't working for me because it's one enough other people have raved about that I kept plugging along thinking I'd eventually appreciate it. Didn't happen.)

But this book proved fascinating. It's a complex and intriguing debut SF novel, a bit more cerebral than my ideal for leisure reading, but compelling and impossible to put down for all that.

30. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

A book that manages the neat trick of being a compelling page turner despite its depressing subject matter--how we as humans are driving an extinction event that's beginning to rival that of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.

31. The Nile by Toby Wilkinson

A sort of historical travelogue traversing the Nile from Aswan to Cairo. The book assumes a certain familiarity with the basic outline of Egyptian history, but as long as you have that I recommend it as a way to better tie that history to the geography. And it will never not blow my mind to reflect on the fact that the pyramids are more distant and time from Jesus and Julius Caesar than we are from them.

32. The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman

This is more of a coffee table book than the kind you'd ordinarily read straight through. I did read it quickly, but only because A) I got it from the library, and B) in my current wounded state, a book like this hits just the right spot. It's a photography book, with each set of pictures accompanied by a short essay on the ancient subjects and Sussman's experiences visiting and photographing them. Most of the life forms--trees, along with some lichens, mosses, corals, and the like--aren't all that impressive to gaze upon, though there are some striking exceptions, like the sequoia and baobab trees. And it's striking how many of the long-lived organisms are in bleak environments like deserts or the Arctic/Antarctic. Overall, the book is a testament to both the endurance and fragility of life, since many of the ancient lives recorded here are threatened by climate change.

33. Unbound by Jim C. Hines

Third in the Magic Ex Libris series, which continues to be one of my favorite current fantasy series. Hines continues to expand his world and bring added nuance to his core characters even while the plot races along at breakneck speed. And he's finally convinced me to wish I had a fire spider like Smudge even though I hate hate HATE spiders.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My artistic daughter

My daughter drew this for a fan art contest, and I'm hosting it on my blog so she can enter it.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Making me happy, week of 2-22-15

1) OK, so I promise to stop with the babbling about Sleepy Hollow soon. If nothing else, the season finale airs tonight, at which point I won't have anything left to gush about until (hopefully!) the show is renewed and comes back in the fall.

But really, if you're a former fan who's been put off by the show's sophomore slump, you want to come back. They've got the pacing and the focus on the core characters back. The promo for the finale looks AMAZING:

And those lucky souls who've seen the early screeners are all raving from what I've seen.

Watch it! You want to watch it! Help me get my show renewed!

2) Pitchers and catchers have now reported. Baseball is back!

3) Jo Walton's The Just City isn't a perfect book, but it's one of the more fascinating ones I've read in a while.

4) Want a great comfort-food recipe for the lingering winter? Try this Chili-Cheese Mac from Cooking Light. I up all the spices just a smidge, use regular cheddar cheese instead of reduced-fat, and spicy Ro-Tel diced tomatoes with chiles instead of the mild kind.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 25-27

25. An Age of License by Lucy Knisley

The Year of the Memoir continues with a graphic memoir of a month Knisley spent in Europe in 2011. It's something of a coming-of-age travel diary, and one that I liked but didn't love. I got it to see if it might be a good read for my daughter as we're preparing for our month in Europe this summer and ended up concluding it wouldn't work for her. I'm fine with her reading above her age level--best and safest way to try on adulthood IMHO--but I don't think she'd connect with Knisley's writings the way she does with, say, Liz Prince.

26. Rita book #7

Not the best nor the worst of my slate this year. I only have one left, which I'm saving for next weekend--it's one that was already on my wish list by an author I've never read before but have heard nothing but good things about, so I'm hopeful.

27. The Just City by Jo Walton

Jo Walton writes thinky, idea-driven books, and this fantasy novel about a time-travel attempt to build Plato's ideal city of philosopher-kings (with the backing and participation of Athena and Apollo) is no exception. But unlike many idea-driven writers, she creates characters who are believable and human, not just mouthpieces for her Big Idea, and I enjoyed this very much, with two caveats:

1) It ends abruptly, though I've been told a sequel is in the works.

2) Much is made out of a robot spelling out the word "No"--whether it really happened, or was a prank by one of the teenaged "children" being raised according to Platonic ideals. There's talk of it being the English word, which none of the children should know, as they were brought from around the Mediterranean from no later than the Renaissance...only the kid everyone suspects most is Italian, and from late enough that he considers himself and his native language Italian rather than Roman/Latin. And the word for "no" in Italian? Is "no." Just like Spanish, another Mediterranean language. I'm stunned to think someone as well-educated as Walton wouldn't know that. Maybe there's some detail I'm missing, and she's right and I'm wrong. I'd be glad to hear it, if so.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 22-24

22. Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

A fun and occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious imagining of assorted literary characters conversing via text. I think my favorites were Hermione frantically trying to keep Ron from disaster via hopeless cluelessness and gullibility WRT such Muggle matters as credit cards and Nigerian prince spam schemes and the idea that Prissy of Gone With the Wind was faking her stupidity all along in the interests of sabotage.

23. Rita book #6

I am not the target market for this book. Which made it a challenge to judge, because my not being its intended audience doesn't necessarily make it a bad book, you know? But I did my best to evaluate how well it succeeded at what it was trying to do, and to imagine how a reader who was looking for something different from a love story than I am might perceive it, so hopefully I was fair.

24. Getting Lucky by Beth Bolden

A fun, sweet read that I especially appreciated for having likable characters not prone to overreacting or misunderstanding each other just to drive the plot along. That said, I didn't like it as much as Bolden's previous book in the same series because it's not so much a baseball romance as a small town romance about a character who happens to be a baseball player, and contemporary American-set small-town romances are not my personal catnip.

Monday, February 16, 2015

On enthusiasm

Instead of a What's Making Me Happy post for this week, I decided to write something about the importance of allowing yourself to be happy--especially when that involves being a fan.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
                                                                                  --C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
I’m by nature an enthusiastic person. Even an intense one. If I care about something at all, I throw my whole heart into it. If you’ve ever been on Twitter while I’m live-tweeting an Auburn football game or if you’ve seen my recent gushing about Sleepy Hollow, none of this will be a surprise to you. Given the right prompting, I can wax equally enthusiastic about the pizza at Serious Pie, my mother’s stuffing recipe, the military merits of the Duke of Wellington, or the beauty of the Episcopalian liturgy. In my world, if it’s worth liking, it’s worth loving.

And yet until very recently I was trying to suppress that side of my personality. That suppression grew out of a laudable desire to maintain a professional and self-disciplined persona, especially while wearing my writer hat, and especially but not exclusively online. While I don’t have any truly embarrassing internet incidents in my past, in my younger days I had a bad habit, albeit one hardly unique to me, of treating the internet as a sort of diary that talks back. I overshared. I spoke without thinking first.

Once I realized what I was doing, I over-corrected. It’s good that I’ve learned that the internet is public and forever, and that I should therefore step away from it when I’m feeling ranty or needy. It’s even better that I didn’t become published until I was mature enough to force myself to stay offline at all costs upon receiving bad reviews, at least until the urge to rage and cry has passed.

But somehow as a side effect of all that praiseworthy self-control, I started holding in my passions and enthusiasms too. Part of that is my habit of defensive pessimism that I use to protect myself from heartbreak by expecting the worst--like how if the Mariners are ever up by 10 runs with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 of the World Series, I’m STILL going to be cautioning everyone not to jinx things by celebrating before the final out, and honey you better put that champagne right back in the fridge because remember Super Bowl 49? Of course you do.

Yet it wasn’t just a coping mechanism. Somehow I’d got it into my head--though I never quite spelled it out to myself--that I should’ve outgrown my enthusiasm by now. I’m over 40, after all. Shouldn’t have I outgrown the urge to scream for joy over a football game, or being so caught up in a TV show that I race downstairs to catch it the instant it airs, DVR notwithstanding? Is it really seemly to get a physical rush from singing Handel? And isn’t everyone kind of tired of foodies now? So I tried to deny that part of myself, or at least to keep it under a tight rein.

Only I recently realized that holding back my fangirl enthusiasm was hurting my passion for my own life and creativity. If I didn’t let myself care too deeply about the season-long real-life saga of a beloved sports team or get caught up in shipping characters on a favorite TV show, I struggled to awaken that passion when I was the one inventing the saga and the romance. And my love of cooking and trying new things in the kitchen is at least in part fueled by my passion for eating, of being That Person Who Tweets Her Restaurant Meals in the most cliched of foodie fashions.

Which is where that CS Lewis quote at the top of the post comes into play. Sure, fan-love isn’t on the same level as love for family, friends, God, or the greater good of humanity...but it still matters. It’s part of what gives joy to all those deeper loves. And there’s vulnerability in being a committed fan. Maybe some people are shaking their heads and thinking, “Aren’t you too old for this?” And, you know, FOX might cancel your favorite show, or your baseball team might miss the playoffs by one game, or your football team might pass on 2nd and goal at the one when they could’ve just handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch. None of that would hurt if you didn’t let yourself care. But I don’t want to live like that--it’s as flat as room-temperature soda that’s been sitting out in a half-drunk open can for days. So I’ll keep caring even if sometimes it makes me look like a fool or drives me to rage and weep. Life is better that way.