30 January 2012

Post 474: The Portrait

The Portrait by Iain Pears. ISBN: 9781573222983.

First off, I would like to thank Stephen Colbert for his inadvertent Colbert bump of my blog. His recent interviews (1 and 2) with Maurice Sendak have given me some seriously awesome hits on my post regarding the banning of In The Night Kitchen. Check out the interviews, and my blog post. Naked boy penis Colbert Stephen Colbert Bump Herman Cain. At least I'm blatant about my search result manipulation.

This book. It was surprisingly good. No doubt it is probably more pretentious than some people will care for, but I rather enjoyed it nonetheless. It's the one-sided conversation of Henry MacAlpine with his subject and art critic William Naysmith, a central figure in MacAlpine's life in terms of influencing both his art and his personal life. While it may sound like a fairly dry read, Pears manages to write MacAlpine in such a way that the reader is constantly trying to figure out how justified MacAlpine is in addressing Naysmith in alternately placating and accusatory tones. The relationship is not so different from what most of us are familiar within the context of the child-parent relationship where the adult or soon(ish)-to-be-adult child is struggling to define the power dynamic of said relationship in order to break free from it.

Granted, many of us are unable to fully escape from the restriction of the child-parent relationship, although ideally there is an eventual realization on the part of both parties that old roles have to be abandoned in order to have a more sustainable adult relationship. Most of us are still working on that with our parents, and many of us never actually get there, certainly not while our parents are alive. Of course, death ends the struggle, but does not resolve the problem. It seems that it is harder to resolve conflict or come to terms with a parent who is especially critical. I have witnessed this in my own family, both with myself, and with my mother's father.

In any case, what Pears has exposed in this monologue of a conversation, is that it is difficult for the "child" to achieve or even feel they are capable of achieving success in their lives until the conflict with the critic has been resolved. Some people suffer from the very inability to resolve this relationship, either because they have waited too long and the critic has passed, or because the critic is unreceptive to being confronted. In Naysmith's case, he was a passive and captive audience, silenced once and for all by MacAlpine to accept a dose of his own medicine. For this reason, it doesn't even matter if MacAlpine's assessment is accurate or particularly harsh, because it is critical to MacAlpine's development as a full-fledged and well-rounded adult artist to first reject Naysmith's previous behaviors and judgments found lacking, and then to confront Naysmith with them and ask for retribution. While MacAlpine's final tactics were more extreme than most of us will take with our own personal critics, perhaps he has the right idea in theory, if not execution.

I greatly enjoyed Goodreader Mike's review of this book. Bookmarks Magazine also give a wonder, and short, review.
LibsNote: Bought with personal funds from library table.

26 January 2012

Post 473: A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin. ISBN: 9780553897852 (eBook).

You guys, my blogging schedule is all sorts of messed up. I was working on a post for Holding Our Worlds Together when I realized that I need to post that in February and not January because the publisher asked me to hold review until publication date. D'oh. And so I'm not quite finished with this book, but since it's a big long epically epic ...epic, I am going to be pretty general anyway... or at last try to. So, warning, if you are overly sensitive about anything even remotely spoilery, I will be talking about things that happened in the previous book in as generic terms as possible.

So at the beginning of the book there is lots of discussion about this big red comet that has appeared in the sky and what it means. At this point the realms has dissolved into chaos for... reasons I can't tell you, but let's just say that a situation has arisen in which Who Is The Leader has been thrown into question. So all of these potential leaders see this comet and say to themselves, "Oh look, it's a sign." Which is bad pretty much anytime your leader relies on signs and whatnots to tell them what to do.

Now, I'm not totally against taking signs into consideration. Certainly it's no worse than flipping a coin to determine what you're going to do if it's between two more or less equal choices. But uprooting an entire people and dragging them across a continent or picking a fight with another country because God Told You To really only works out in the Bible (or similar texts), and that still usually only works well for the people in power.

Fighting wars has always been at the discretion of people with money power money. Someone with money who really wants to take advantage of a certain kind of market will create that market, and nothing is more certain than needing a whole shitload of stuff to go hurt other people in other places. That's why people with money and/or power who believe in signs on top of wanting to manipulate the market/other people/anything are so scary. Not only are they willing to do whatever is necessary to carry out the perceived will of the wind switching directions, but they are actually capable of doing so and fucking the rest of us in the process.

I have always found the idea of god communicating through signs to be somewhat questionable to begin with. Signs are easily interpreted in a variety of different ways by many different people (such as Martin's red comet for instance). If we have a few too many such people in high positions relying on signs who also have influence, they could very well bring about the end of the world just by proclaiming that they see the signs for it. But it seems to me that if god were truly to communicate through signs, at the very least he would want us to interpret them in the way that would be best for everyone and not our own benefit. Which raises the question of the usefulness of signs to begin with.

You know what, you don't need a link to a review, because there are so damned many of them. So far I like the series and would recommend it to most everyone.
LibsNote: Library copy via Overdrive Media.
So, uh, I totally wrote this at 11:15PM the night before, it's probably going live unedited. I apologize in advance.

24 January 2012

Post 472: a general update

Hello. You missed my birthday.

No worries, I spent Saturday with my mom, her boyfriend, and my brother eating friend chicken, asparagus, lima beans, biscuits, and chocolate cake. Sunday I had plans to spend it with people I've been kid/house/pet sitting for. Last week I made sugar cookies with the four year old. That was fun times. It's sort of weird being of the age to have children, yet not having them and having no possibility of having them and not really wanting them anyway. Er, yeah. I kind of have no reason for living right now, so on second thoughts, it's okay that my birthday was ignored.

Enough with the quarter life crisis.

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin.
I am making progress in this series. The books are long so it's kind of hard to find time to read them, even though once I start I tear through pretty quickly. This is a library eLend, so I have to finish it up by the 23rd, or else get put at the back end of the list which is currently (as of the 12th) 28 patrons long. It could be worse, but let's just say this is near the top of my git-r-done list.

Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto.
This was up for grabs on a swap shelf I sometimes peruse. It looked interesting enough, and while Hitchcock films are usually a bit slow paced for my tastes, I still enjoy them now and again. In any case, I'm always interested to know a little bit more about Hollywood before bat-shit crazy became a thing. Okay, so that was always a thing, but let's just say it's at a whole different level nowadays. Winning.

The Portrait by Iain Pears.
Another of those authors that people seem to like/talk about that I haven't read.  grabbed it from the library sale table for 25 cents. I'm interested to see how Pears tackles the Critic-Artist dynamic, especially given the loose friendship the two subjects have.

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns.
Another library sale table grab. This one was on my feed for a while last year as it was handed around to various book bloggers by word of mouth. Since I am in small-town The South, I will be able to judge, at least somewhat, its authenticity as being a book that "deftly captured the subtle crosscurrents of small-town Southern life."

23 January 2012

Post 471: Dan Walker (guest blogger)

The Book of Tomorrow, by Cecilia Ahern. ISBN: 9780061706301.

Our narrator almost redeems herself right off the bat by telling us that she realizes now, cast out of her previous, glamorous life into relative squalor in the countryside, that when she was living in a huge mansion with all the stuff she could ever want, she was pretty much an insufferable, spoiled brat. That redemption didn't pan out for me in reading the book, but at least it gives me a jumping-off point to talk about the one thing that gets me angrier than anything else: economic inequality.

The tl;dr is: I hate rich people. I kind of can't help it. Racism, sexism, oppression, environmental destruction; they don't get under my collar nearly as much as someone suggesting that anyone at all can solve their problems with money. I encountered this a lot in college, and the worst part is, I don't think that these people do this to be mean. They're thoughtless, yes, selfish perhaps, but they simply are ignorant of the problems that people without a lot of money have to face. Things like, "I can't get that book for my class because I have to feed myself this week." And that lack of malevolence is the hardest part, because you can't hate someone for not knowing. For not trying, yes, but first you have to educate.

Unfortunately, no one's doing the education. Rich kids get brought up in gated communities and private schools with other rich kids. They never have to go anywhere outside their little spheres of money because everything is provided for them. When they grow up, they expect everything to be provided for them because that's just how they were brought up. It takes a serious wake-up call to break someone out of that mindset.

This is what I say to people when they suggest things like, "We shouldn't overtax the rich because they made that money and they deserve it." Well, when mommy and daddy buy them everything all their life and they just inherit the money, do they really deserve it? Someone on a message board cheesed me off big time once by suggesting that, yes, they do, because they "carry on the family name." Ignoring the fact that only sons would be worthy of such an inheritance, I found that statement unspeakably ridiculous. Carry on a family name? So they get rewarded for simply being born? No one cares what your name is if you lose everything and wind up on the street. The American dream is not to be born into a wealthy family, but to build an empire and become rich through hard work and dedication.

Of course, the American dream is dead. It's a myth at this point, and its perpetuation just leads people to set their dreams high and suffer disappointment as they crumble. We may all be created equal(ly), but that doesn't mean we all have equal opportunities. The circumstances you grow up in are the ones you're most likely to stay in. We like focusing on the success stories, the people who rise from nothing to become these famous stars or lead multimillion dollar corporations, but they stand out because they're the exceptions. For every one of those people are hundreds of thousands more who are in the ghetto, who will have kids who stay in the ghetto, and the cycle will continue.

And that's what's always made me so angry, I think. My family was working-class, not so poor that we couldn't afford to have nice things every once in a while, but often living above our means and too poor to do things like save money or buy really nice things, like say, extra cars. And now here I am, stuck in a crap, dead-end job that just barely pays enough for me to make payments on my student loans, with no real out in sight, while some bimbo who can't be arsed to remember her teacher's name is going to go through college -- paid for by mommy and daddy -- go into business and make a ton of money while never having to lift a finger. Yeah, I think that would make anyone a little mad.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no way around this except to make these people go from ignoring the poor to hating them. I'm a big proponent of wealth distribution, but honestly, I don't think that goes far enough. I want to see salary caps. No one really needs to make more than $100k, as far as I'm concerned, maybe $200k if I'm feeling generous. Because, yeah, I'm sure running an entire company is hard work, assuming you're actually doing some kind of work, but you sure as hell don't deserve hundreds of millions of dollars a year (plus multimillion bonuses!) for working your slaves to death and exploiting everyone you can lay your hands on just so a room full of rich stockholders can get richer.

Dan Walker (pseudonym) is a writer from Northeast Ohio. He received a BA in Creative Writing from Wright State University in 2004 and a Masters in Teaching English as a Second Language from Kent State University in 2009. He is currently the editor of Lib's LIB

LibsNote: This post was originally written January 30, 2011 to give the regular blogger a break. 
Dan Walker received a review copy from the FirstReads program at Goodreads.
This was posted late because I totally planned to get something written, but SHIT HAS HAPPENED that needed taking care of. Should be back next week.

19 January 2012

Post 470: Dan Walker (guest blogger)

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. ISBN: 9781594487569 (advanced reader copy).

The whole illegal immigrant debate is still raging in this country, and if there's one thing that really gets under my nerves, it's a single phrase that keeps being repeated by those who are seemingly anti-immigrant: "They should learn English!"

There is, frankly, a war on foreign language going on right now. I keep reading anecdotes of Americans being offended by the fact that others are speaking languages that are not English around them. This is completely ludicrous. Worse are the related movements trying to keep government documents and voting ballots from being printed in anything but English. Should immigrants learn English? I would say yes; I certainly wouldn't want to live in a country where I couldn't understand the predominant tongue. But the one thing that these people do not understand is that it takes a lot of time to learn a language.

This is one thing I really liked about Girl in Translation, is that we get to see the parallel language development of Kim and her mother. They emigrate from Hong Kong speaking very little English; by the middle of high school, Kim is talking like a native speaker and still has to translate for her mother. Her mother tries learning English around that time, so she can take the naturalization test, but it's a real struggle. I don't know if she actually passes the test, but at the end of the book, she's still not speaking it very well.

The struggles of immigrants to learn English if they've had little or no training in it in their home country are really poorly understood here. Even if they've learned English already, a second-language setting does not provide the cultural context and constant immersion in the second language necessary for someone to really be able to function in a society that speaks that language. Plus, there's cultural shock, differences in body language and inflection that are not always taught, and things like having learned British English and then trying to survive in America. So shouldn't we throw these people a bone, so they can function in their native tongue while they're still learning, especially considering that it's much harder for adults to learn languages than it is for children? Isn't it more important to make sure that people have their civil rights properly explained to them than to push an agenda of "our language or the highway"?

I think for those with the latter sentiment, their viewpoint comes from a lack of understanding and sympathy. This comes directly from the piss-poor status foreign languages hold in the US. For most Americans, foreign language class is something to be tolerated for two years during high school, and maybe another two years in college to satisfy liberal education requirements. They have no need to get anything but a passing grade because even if they go to another country, "Everyone speaks English anyway." This isn't necessarily untrue, but the fact is, few appreciate the cultural understanding that can stem from a serious study of a language, and that lack of seriousness leads to a lack of understanding about how hard learning a language can be (not to mention, they learned theirs while their minds were still plastic enough to absorb it all).

With our current focus on math and science education, I'm sure foreign language is going to continue to fall by the wayside, and I don't know what could really be done to change cultural views on language. What I will do with these last few sentences is give a little advice to any American who wants to make a language-learning decision that will actually be useful to them. Here are a few good languages to try and learn if you have to learn any:

  • American Sign Language. No, it's not just making hand gestures to substitute for English words. ASL has its own grammar, which can be bizarre and complex to someone who's only familiar with English. Even if you never leave the United States, ASL is the one language that will most benefit you at home. You will always encounter people who can't hear very well or at all, and there is always a need for interpreters.
  • Spanish. Kind of a no-brainer, and another "I don't want to leave the country" language. The importance of Spanish is of course increased the further West one travels.
  • French. Less important, but hey, maybe you'll go to Canada one day. There are even places like Louisiana and Maine where people still speak French. French can also teach you a lot about English, because we've got a TON of French loanwords.
  • Mandarin Chinese. Now we're in the category of "useful for business." A billion+ people speak Chinese, and Mandarin is the prevalent dialect. If you're going into something like international affairs or business, this is an A-1 doubleplus good choice for a language. It's hard to read, sure, and sometimes hard to understand, but the grammar is easy at least. I don't know much about Cantonese, but it's another good choice (and completely different from Mandarin, despite being called a 'dialect').
  • Latin. Some consider it a cop-out, since it's a dead language and all, but it's amazing how much you can learn about English from another language, just like with French. Latin formed about half the building blocks of English, and it's still very useful in the sciences.
  • Arabic. Duh. No language right now can get you employed faster. I'm pretty sure the government even has programs where they'll pay for you to learn Arabic so you can be a translator.
So there's a sampling. Just remember, learning another language is far easier when you're well acquainted with your own, so pay attention in grammar class!

Dan Walker (pseudonym) is a writer from Northeast Ohio. He received a BA in Creative Writing from Wright State University in 2004 and a Masters in Teaching English as a Second Language from Kent State University in 2009. He is the current editor of Lib's LIB. 

*This post was originally written December 9, 2010 to allow the regular author a break and/or a chance to catch up on her own reading. Because A Clash of Kings is a long ass book, okay, guys?
**Danny received the ARC from me, I received it from my public library and they g0t it directly from publishers.

You can see Amy's thoughts on A Girl in Translation here.

16 January 2012

Post 469: Scarlet

Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen. ISBN: 9780802723468 (eGalley - publishes February 14, 2012).

I rather like the inclusion of women in stronger-than-they-normally-get roles in stories with Medieval settings. There were actually quite a few women who held powerful roles, though normally as high ranking noble women with extremely dead husbands or as pre-beatified saints. The latter were women who often fasted, or hid their eating habits, as proof of their religious purity, that they could sustain themselves strictly on the spirit of Christ... or sometimes his body, as a few were known to eat only Communion wafers. The noble women were often seen as far more threatening, as hardly anyone really wanted to live the life of a saint, which by definition was difficult and full of burdens. Therefore more women were inclined to want a life of nobility, preferably with a weak and gullible, or at least permissive, husband... old or dead were good too, so long as there was an heir.

I found it interesting then that Gaughen combined these two archetypes of women into one "Will" Scarlet. Although I doubt it was done purposely, the combination of eating disorder and noble birth was intriguing. At a time when the Roman Catholic church was still the only game in town, Scarlet might have been the pinnacle of womanhood, except that she ran away from her family, dressed in men's clothing (for which she could have been killed), and joined a band of randy men living in the woods.

Yet somehow she has found not one, but two men to fawn over her and one to obsess over wanting to capture, kill, own, and marry her... in no particular order. We have the commoner who treats her like a loose woman by positioning himself in a physically aggressive manner, often backing her up against a tree, leaning over her, etc. Then there's the "dishonored" honorable nobleman who calls her a whore and a tease. With choices like these, it's a miracle that Scarlet has any desire at all to be with a man, much less that she'd actually have a preference for one. But lucky for us, dear reader, Scarlet has a guilty conscience and believes she is unworthy of a "good" man, so of course that is exactly what she ends up with.

There was a lot of potential in this book, and while I don't expect my heroines to be so blindingly perfect that they aren't humanly possible, it would have been nice to see Scarlet have the balls she claimed to have and actually stick up for herself.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Advance Reader Copy provided by Netgalley.

12 January 2012

Post 468: The Last Werewolf

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. ISBN: 9780307595089.

I've mentioned previously that I like monsters because they show the monstrous parts of our humanity: the lust, the violence, the lack of control over our emotions and impulses, etc. Werewolves more than most monsters speak to our primal and "out of control" nature, the beast lurking just beneath the surface, so you would think that a book that explored not only that topic, but what it means to be the end of a species, a cornered wolf if you will, would hit all the sweet spots for me. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Rather than wanting to spend more time with 200 year old Jacob Marlowe, I found myself giving a shit about as much as he did about his death.

But unlike most monster novels of yore (and why did he not deign to reflect at least on Dracula?), Marlowe doesn't attempt to cope with the monster while trying to remain human. Instead, he separates himself even more so from humanity, not by removing himself from it physically, but emotionally. He willingly, and even proudly, recognizes that he has done so, but assures us, dear reader, that he makes amends for it monetarily. 
No worries, he can check out of humanity and slaughter a person a month for the 400 years (or more) he is pretty sure werewolves can live. Here, I will math for you. That would be 4800 people, assuming he killed only one a month and did not turn anyone else into a werewolf. This is by no means a holocaust, but there have certainly been pre-bomb battles with lower death counts. But Marlowe is not a particularly introspective werewolf despite his unusual-for-the-species journal keeping habits. He is more logical than anything, which further separates him from his human-animal nature, as if he can conquer both by providing us with sound reasoning as to why he prefers to fuck women he hates and drink/drug himself into a stupor more often than not, oh yeah, and the killing, totally justifies that he kills innocent humans.

I suppose part of my disconnect from Marlowe, besides his general disconnect for his former species, is that he is able to control himself as a werewolf, at least to a certain extent. Most werewolves are presented as fairly mindless (but intelligent), hyper-vicious, and over-sized anthropomorphic wolves. Duncan presents his werewolves as being aware of what they are doing in wolf state, and able to time and even plan attacks. That Marlowe stalks and stakes out his prey in human form is somewhat questionable. If he feels he can and should offset his karma financially, why does he not target people who are likely to irreparably harm others?

Marlowe's hyper logic does not seem to extend to this particular question, and certainly with 175 years of killing as a werewolf it must have occurred to him at some point, but the fact that the topic isn't even broached just makes him feel like even more of a detached sociopath than he sets himself up to be. Which makes the rest of the novel fall completely flat on its ass when Marlowe all of a sudden finds himself wanting to live again because he can feel again. I just don't buy it. You don't get to be a sociopath for over a hundred years and all of a sudden find yourself falling in love and wanting to live again.

Meanwhile, Duncan ignored the more interesting tidbits he threw at us, such as a potential explanation for werewolf existence, which Marlowe might then have actually reflected on in relation to his soon-to-be extinction. But no. We get bloody sex romps and passive journal entries instead. That all being said, I didn't absolutely hate the novel, but a more involved narrator would have been nice.

I think I was interested in the novel more for the author than the actual work. Rewatching this interview, you can kind of see why (he kind of looks like he'd be a werewolf). Sadly, Greg Zimmerman and New Dork Review of Books pretty much nailed the meh-ness.
LibsNote: Library copy.

09 January 2012

Post 467: When She Woke

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan. ISBN: 9781616201180 (eBook).

Spoiler Alert: This is going to be a compare and contrast post, so if you haven't read this book or The Scarlet Letter, I'm going to go almost straight to the Maury Moment with the Baby Daddy reveal.

Although When She Woke (WSW) covers more topical issues of persecuting children out of wedlock, I think The Scarlet Letter (SL) is still the stronger, and more relatable story. For one thing, Hester Prynne (SL) is forced to keep her child and live with the emotional and financial burden of raising a child without a father in a time where that was nearly impossible. The fact that Prynne was able to make a living for herself and avoid more than social ostracism within the Puritan community is more of a testament to her resourcefulness than Hannah Payne's (WSW) access to resources (namely family and funds). Where Payne is able to tap into her baby daddy's influence without revealing his identity, Prynne was unable to do the same in such a small, close-knit, and pre-internet society.

I felt like Dimmesdale from The Scarlet Letter was a much more sympathetic tragic character than his When She Woke counterpart Aidan Dale. Dimmesdale was just as isolated from the community as Hester Prynne by his position of moral authority as minister, so much that it took a physical toll on his well being. Meanwhile, Dale actually has a wife and gains even more prestige while Payne is hidden away and "chromed" red. While I'm certain Dale must have suffered some guilt and remorse regarding Payne, we don't see him much in WSW, and so it's harder to connect to him sympathetically, and sometimes he even comes off almost villainous, even when he's paying off assisting Payne so she is better able to endure her years of chromitude.

In short, I like The Scarlet Letter more because the relationship between Dimmesdale and Prynne is far more complex than that between Dale and Payne. For one thing, Pearl adds a whole new level of complexity that Dale/Payne's aborted child doesn't, and while Dale has a wife, Jordan presents Dale as someone who could very easily leave his lustless relationship for the more exciting one with Payne. I don't really regret reading Jordan's work, and I don't think it's a horrible story, but I would much rather have gone into it without constantly being reminded that it was a derivative of The Scarlet Letter. In this way Jordan almost set herself up to fail, because it needed to be 300x better than the original in order to blow me away, and it didn't even come close.  But, it did make me want to reread The Scarlet Letter, so I'll be doing that soon.

Also, I apologize, but this is definitely a half-assed post. I read WSW about a month ago and just let it sit because I wasn't particularly moved by it. Also I wrote this the day before posting. I'd totally give myself a generous C- on this.

A glowing review from Bookalicio.us for those of you who think Hawthorne is a pretentious schmuck who couldn't write his way out of a paper bag. Goodreader Jeanette pretty much sums up my feelings about the book.
LibsNote: Library copy via Overdrive.

07 January 2012

Post 466: a general update

News! There's not a whole lot of it, other than my awesomest Christmas present was getting my teeth cleaned. It's a big deal when it's been ... so long I don't want to tell you how long it has been. Dental place was hella shady, they didn't do x-rays but told me I had a dozen cavities. My mom and I were all *eyeshift* uh... So I just got back (Jan 5) from a place we decided to follow up with and they were all, "lol no, those are stains, but your gums are lookin' rough." So hurray for no cavities! And... well, let's just say my New Year's resolution is to fuckin' floss like a god damned adult already. Serious business. Floss you guys, it's important. ಠ_ಠ

Reading is also important. Do that too.

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan.
I read this a while ago and its been sitting in my brain for a bit now. It's a dystopian take on A Scarlet Letter. It did some interesting things, but it probably would have been better had Jordan just used A Scarlet Letter as a jumping off point and written a completely new work of fiction. I'm a big fan of the Letter, and this did not hold up. I'll discuss my reasoning in my post. There will obviously be spoilers, mostly involving Dimsdale torture... you did have to read this book in high school, right?

Holding Our World Together by Brenda Child and Colin G. Calloway.
I have a weakness for Native American history, particularly when it is written by Native Americans. Particularly when it focuses on the often neglected contributions of minority women. So this hits a bunch of triggers for me. I am excited to read it. 

Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen.
One day I will read the original Robin Hood stories (or at least the written version of them). In the meantime, this is a version in which Will Scarlet is a fiesty pants wearin' lady. If there is a love triangle in this I will be disappoint. Ladies like more than men falling over themselves and beating each other up for female attention. Anywho, it looked interesting. Am hoping it is not Mary Sue'd like crazy.

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan.
I've been interested in this book for awhile now. So when I actually saw it on the shelves of my local library in Alabama, which traditionally has almost no investment in books containing sci-fi or supernatural elements, I was excited. Also, Justin Cronin (The Passage) did a great write up of it in the New York Times Book Review, and a good portion of the blogging world was excited about it. My first impressions of it are, "Eh, this is probably more of a dude book." Not that I am into "chick books," but the emotional detachment of the main character is just sooooo appealing and makes it soooo easy for me to invest in the book. He's kind of a big wet dog-smelling blanket with a constant hard on. I'm sure someone on the internet actually sells those.

05 January 2012

Post 465: Ragnarok

Ragnarok* by A. S. Byatt. ISBN: 9781847670649 (eGalley - publishes in US February 1, 2012).

In high school I did a paper on the Uncle Remus stories examining frame tales, or stories within stories. In the case of Uncle Remus, you had the story of Uncle Remus telling the stories to the children, and then the "framed" stories of Brer Rabbit. Byatt has created more of a simpatico story.** The Norse mythology has almost nothing to do with the additional narrative of the "Thin Child." Yet, she is dealing with her own generation's brand of chaos in being young during World War II, with a father in a particularly dangerous military position. So while this is not exactly a retelling of Ragnarok myth, nor is it a complete story regarding the Thin Child, it does offer emotional context to stories that might otherwise seem "dead" to our current state of mind or being.

I think children tend to be drawn towards the stories that make sense to them emotionally. I know I found this to be true as I was growing up. I wasn't interested in the books that contained facts and figures; the idea of reading non-fiction for pleasure was eye-rollingly bad. But books about pets dying were some of my favorite from 3rd grade up until about 5th. Shiloh, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Yearling; these were all books that I could relate to on an emotional level. Even though I hadn't lost a pet at that time, I was still able to sympathize with and connect with the main character's loss. As I grew up, I was able to expand on the emotional ranges I could relate to, but when it comes down to it, the simplest emotions are the best.

I think this is why myths, and religious texts, appeal to us. The ones that have endured are those that are most inline with our emotional centers. We love the stories of Jesus Christ because we are beings capable of loving, but more than that, we are beings who need love. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of that love, and so we are drawn to his stories because if he loved the most wretched of us, surely he could also love the rest of us even better.

In the case of the Thin Child, and others who have gone through particularly tumultuous times, the myths of Ragnarok may speak to the confusion experienced. Myths were created to make sense of our physical world. As a species we chose to do so through a very emotional means, and therefore we have also attempted to explain our emotional state along with earthquakes, tornadoes, and the creation of mountains, rivers, and snakes. That the Norse created and were drawn to a trickster god and a myth that ended with the destruction of the world tells us more about their state of mind as a people than I think we realize. That their myths still resonate with some of us is both encouraging and disappointing. Encouraging because they are still with us and have survived thousands of years, disappointing because our society still seems to be a mass of chaos despite our best efforts.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: eGalley provided by Netgalley.
*I cannot spell Ragnarok for the life of me, I keep wanting to spell it "ragnorak". This is totally important information that you needed to know.
**I made this literary term up (I think), there may be a more accepted term for it, but I can't be arsed to look it up.

02 January 2012

Post 464: The Kitchen as Laboratory

The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking edited by Cesar Vega, Erik van der Linden, and Job Ubbink. ISBN: 9780231153447 (eGalley - pubishes January 31, 2012).

Although this was a bit more science-y than I was expecting, it was easy to at least get the idea behind the article, even if my eyes glazed over the jargon and scientific concepts I haven't encountered since my Chem 1 class in 2003. In any case, I've always loved cooking and baking and the balance of science and art needed to make something that would satisfy a basic need if done adequately and lead to exaltation if done exceedingly well.

One of the things I learned to make this year was a fairly excellent cream of mushroom soup.* I have played quite a bit with this recipe, trying to determine when the best time is to add the flour and the mushrooms and which alcohols to use, etc. While sherry is a common flavoring, added at the end of cooking the mushroom soup, I have found that adding a bit of gin in the broth does quite a bit for enriching the umami of the broth and earthier mushrooms like portabellos.

In my experimenting, I have also found that using a mix of mushrooms creates a better flavor, and also lets me buy cheaper mushrooms, while allowing the more expensive ones to create a better flavor. In other words, I tend to use two parts button mushrooms and one part portabello or oyster mushrooms.

In my experimenting, I have also found that using a mix of mushrooms creates a better flavor, and lets me buy some cheaper mushrooms while allowing the more expensive ones to create a better flavor. In other words, I use two parts button mushrooms and one part portabello or oyster mushrooms (I have also used shiitake, but find haven't quite figured out the best flavor pairings for it). This gives me a bit more flexibility as the button mushrooms are a more common flavor for our palate, which is easily identified and therefore makes my mushroom soup that much more "mushroomy" despite the fact that they usually have a more delicate flavor than portabellos.

Since I usually rely on bouillon instead of homemade stock, I have found that cooking with two pots in the initial stages is useful. One pot contains the broth, herbs, and gin. In the other pot I start with butter, garlic, and onions to make a roux. Having the broth as a standby allows me to add extra moisture if too much of the butter has cooked off and/or if I have added too much onion. At this step I also add finely diced mushroom stems. This way there is no waste of the mushroom, and it acts as an additional thickener. While adding the flour at a later stage does not take way from the taste of the soup, for whatever reason it does not thicken and become creamy. Instead it tends to form tiny flour dumplings which are a pain in the butt to try to break apart. Luckily, if this happens the soup is still entirely edible.

This is a little bit of my own kitchen chemistry. Are there special recipes you enjoy experimenting with? If you could work with any food, recipe, or cooking technique, what would you most like to work with?

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: eGalley provided by Netgalley.
*Want my recipe? Leave a comment with contact info. I'm currently house sitting, so I'll get it to you when I get back on the 3rd or 4th.
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