22 June 2013

LeakyCon Book Reading and Reviews

I'm going to LeakyCon in Portland next week, and there are going to be several authors there. I read quite a few books in the past few weeks so that I would know who they are (and maybe get some books signed), but I didn't even read books by half of the authors. So here I'm going to put short reviews of a the ones I read, while the videos have slightly different thoughts, and my Goodreads reviews have my longer form thoughts (click on the titles below to go to that review).

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
This book gets four stars instead of three because of the awesome cover. It was engaging enough, but I didn't think the world was explained or described adequately. There was a sheen of "Russia" over the whole book, but I've seen fictional Russia done much more convincingly. Maybe this will get fixed with more books in the series. I was intrigued by the magic system, but it was not as well developed as I would have liked. 

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo
The sequel to Shadow and Bone, this book developed the magic system a little more (much appreciated) but suffered from what I felt was inconsistent pacing. This book was fine. But it was somehow unsatisfying. There were parts that were excellent and exciting. The beginning and the end. But the middle seemed to drag on forever. The problem with this book, and the previous one in the series, is that the plot is carried out in short bursts with long stretches of world building and setup without the building anticipation and excitement. Don't get me wrong, I love me some world building, but I want it to do something for the plot.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
This book started off REALLY slow. It took 250 pages until the main story/plot/conflict really got started. The last 150 pages though, I read in one fell swoop, staying up til 2:30am. Of course, there were hints and little bits of the plot from the beginning, but the first half of the book was pretty much just the main character, Quentin, living his mundane life. And how you could make going to a secret college of magic mundane, I have no idea, but Quentin sure figured it out. This may have been intentional. Quentin, like any college student, is unsatisfied with how awesome his life is, and no matter what childhood dreams come true, he knows this isn't what he's *meant* to be doing with his life. Where are the quests and epic battles between good and evil promised by his favorite childhood books (which bear a striking resemblance to the Chronicles of Narnia)?

Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
Someone is reenacting Jack the Ripper killings in modern day London, starting just as the protagonist, Rory, arrives at boarding school in London (she's from Louisiana). Who's the killer? How can Rory survive culture shock and still get good grades at this competitive school? And why can she see people no one else can? It's a delightful mix of English culture seen through the eyes of an American teenager, with some London history thrown in. I love Maureen Johnson's dry humor and outsider observations of English culture (as an Anglophile, it's sometimes good to take a step back and see how the things I love are actually a little weird.)

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
I started reading this book at dinner and only put it down to go to the bathroom. I don't remember the last time I read a book in effectively one sitting. And this book was outside of my normal range of books. No scifi or fantasy elements at all. It wasn't historical fiction (though it is set in the 80s). The two main characters, the titular Eleanor and Park, meet because Park is too nice to haze the new girl, Eleanor. They sit awkwardly on the bus for way too long, but then an adorkable romance blossoms over Eleanor's interest in Park's X-Men comics. It made me want to be a teenager in the 80s so I could read the comics "live" like they did. The story is told in alternating view points (written in 3rd person. Hallelujah.) It's adorable and I couldn't put it down.

06 May 2013

Book Review | Redshirts - John Scalzi

Here's my video version if you'd rather I talk at you instead of you reading the review (the video doesn't have spoilers, the text does):

Redshirts was recommended on so many of the blogs I follow, so when I saw that the author John Scalzi was going to be at the Festival of Books, I picked up a copy at his publisher’s booth and started reading. It really only took about two nights to finish, and that’s because I had schoolwork to do.

Normally “adult” books take longer to read because the author tries to be fancy with their prose and make it more literary or something. Scalzi writes in pretty much spoken English so I didn’t feel like I was struggling through a philosophical science fiction book, though there was plenty of philosophy behind all the jokes.

Redshirts is set in a Star-Trek-like universe, with the protagonists being low-ranking, probably red shirt wearing crewmen of a ship very much like the Enterprise. There’s something weird going on on the ship though. The crewmen keep dying on away missions and on certain decks when there is a battle, but certain high-ranking crewmen seem to be immune from damage, or have unnatural healing powers. There's also some dubious "scientific" machines that even the characters can't explain. It turns out that the whole setup is a tv show from the early 21st century, and the crewmen who can't die are the main characters, and the dubious science is the writers having stuff happen off-screen that they don't want to/can't explain. So a few of the red-shirt-wearing crewmen time travel to present-day Los Angeles to get the show shut down, and convince the writers to stop killing off extras in their scripts so unnecessarily.

It's like if JJ Abrams made a scifi Stranger than Fiction with a budget smaller than the original Doctor Who and added in some Princess Bride humor. Which is like combining a bunch of my favorite things into one fairly short book. It sounds ridiculous, and Redshirts was definitely ridiculous, but here's the thing: it worked. Scalzi was able to take all the most ridiculous parts of bad sci-fi and self-aware literature and make an awesome book that’s not bad sci-fi anymore, though it is very self-aware. The fourth wall is broken a couple of times at least, depending on where you want to draw the fourth wall.

If you’re not afraid of making fun of classic tv scifi a little, the humor is spot on. I didn’t know much about Star Trek before the 2009 movie got me into the fandom, so I’m not sure I got all the jokes, but I was laughing most of the time. There were also some pretty good zingers about Los Angeles. The genre criticism ala Princess Bride or Douglas Adams was perfect. I feel like Scalzi would be a great guy to hang out with and criticize the Hobbit or the Ender’s Game movie with.

04 May 2013

Finals Procrastination: muffins!

So it was the last week of classes. And instead of working on papers and presentations, I made muffins.

Here’s the recipe:

Cranberry-walnut zucchini bread/muffins:

Makes two 9x5 loaves or 24 muffins

Preheat the oven to 325 (degrees Fahrenheit. 325 degrees Celsius or 325 Kelvin would be ridiculous.)

Forgot to put the craisins in the ingredients picture
Mix the dry stuff together:

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Mix the wet stuff with the sugar:

3 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2 1/4 cups white sugar
3 teaspoons vanilla extract

“Fold” (whatever that means) in the zucchini/walnuts/craisins:

2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup craisins

Mix the wet stuff with the dry stuff and put into your preferred baking receptacle. 

For loaves bake for 45 minutes, for muffins, about 20 minutes. I used the "toothpick comes out clean" test, but I think they were a little overdone. 

While you're waiting for them to bake, do anything except schoolwork: dishes, mopping, clean the bathroom, watch youtube videos. This is procrastination time, not "get your work done" time.

I also made some lemon/zucchini bread, from this recipe. It was REALLY good, but the glaze makes it very hard to pretend it’s healthy.

10 April 2013

Am I Irish?

Someone recently asked me if my family was Irish. I looked at them for a second and said, well, yeah, I guess so.

The thing of it is, the direct male line of my family was traced my great-grandfather, Darrel Harmon to a John Harmon who seems to have been born in Massachusetts. In 1650. That’s over a hundred years before the Revolutionary War. His GREAT-GRANDSON fought in the Revolutionary war and was at both Ticonderoga and Valley Forge. There is no conclusive record of John Harmon’s father. But he perhaps came from England, you know, since that was fairly early in the Massachusetts settlement period. So I’m American, as far as I can tell.

Darrel Harmon’s great-grandmother Diadama (née Mackie), or perhaps her parents, emigrated from Ireland though. Does that make me Irish? I suppose.

My grandfather’s maternal grandfather was born in Scotland. So I’m Scottish too, then? And that’s even more recent. But even he came to Colorado before Ellis Island even opened.

My grandmother’s family seems to be somewhat Irish. Or maybe it’s just because my grandma was born on March 17th and her mom named her Patricia. She has had a green cake for every birthday. We have corned beef and cabbage every year. But only on St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t consider my heritage to be Irish, not really. We don’t keep Irish traditions. (Except celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, but really, that’s my grandma’s birthday.) I don’t look particularly Irish, though my hair tends to lighten in the summer to almost-reddish, and I get sunburned easily.

I don’t consider my heritage to be English either, even though that’s the oldest ancestor I know of. John Harmon was born in America the colonies over a century before America the country was even a dream. I can’t claim “English” heritage. It’s been way too long.

Maybe it’s because I’m from California, where all sorts of people are all mixed up and living together, but people keep asking me what my family is. And I don’t really have an answer. I don’t identify with really any heritage except “white Protestant American.”

I know I’m privileged, as a middle-class, educated, white American, and that the dominant culture in my country is my own. I appreciate people from other backgrounds. That’s why I love living here, in California, in the United States, where people are not all the same, and we can take a carload of people to Ethiopian food and none of us are remotely Ethiopian. I appreciate other people who keep their cultures and traditions. I study linguistics, remember? If everyone had the same culture and language, I’d have to find a new career. It makes my life so much more interesting that not everyone is the same as me and I can have all sorts of experiences basically in my backyard. (For real: Easter morning I was woken up at 7am by Spanish praise music.)

But that is not my story. When people try to get me to pick a heritage, whatever I say feels a little fake. I’m not Irish or English or Scottish or German. I may be all of those things, but the sum of those parts is something else entirely. When I’m forced to choose something, it feels like I’m stealing something from people who actually keep their heritage cultures alive here. I feel like I’m diluting what it means to be Irish or German if I claim to be those things. I know it’s cheesy, and it might sound callous or insensitive, but I can’t truthfully call myself anything other than American. Those vices that are stereotypically American, arrogance, stubbornness, lack of empathy, are things that I see and fear in myself. But other things that are stereotypically American, enterprising spirit, idolization of democracy, confidence, are things that I prize in myself. That is my story. 

Here's the paternal side of the family tree I made when I was 12. We were assigned to trace our ancestry as far back as possible, hopefully getting to the first generation to come to America. So that's why Thomas Harmon, a sailor (also the Revolutionary War vet), and Nathaniel Sr. have little explanations about sailing from England: it's the closest I could get to an emigration story.

30 March 2013

Book Review: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

It's March book review time! I already recorded a video review, which you can watch if you prefer to listen to me talk.

When I got this book after Christmas, I was a little surprised at how large it was. It’s not really like other fairy tale collections. There are NO pictures. Just 400 pages of stories. And a bit of commentary after each one, which provides some historical context about the original storyteller or other versions or about other things Pullman could have done to change the story.

There’s a long introduction to the book where Pullman talks about different views of fairytales, from psychological to literary to anthropological. He cites the famous sources that all folklore literature cites, like Zipes and Bettelheim. But he’s coming at these stories as an author. He wants the stories to be good stories.  With a beginning, middle, and end that are logical as far as anything in fairytales is logical. But fairytales aren’t always coherent. Pullman complains that the characters in fairy tales are flat, either good or bad, and that there's not really character growth. 

There’s more going on than just entertainment, these stories were originally told orally to a specific audience. The original storytellers never imagined that their words would be preserved and read centuries later. Writing down these stories preserved the words, but not all the original context and meaning. Some things that would have made sense without explanation were not in the original telling. Sometimes people had a little story bit they wanted to tell for a specific reason, maybe someone in the audience had a similar thing going on in their real life. These missing parts and little threads that don’t quite meet today’s literary standards or expectations of complexity and logic. 

So Pullman takes some liberties with the original Grimm versions and weaves the bits together into a stronger thread. Which makes this an excellent book to read before bed. It’s like someone is telling you a bedtime story. Remember when that happened? Childhood was awesome. Sometimes I think Peter Pan had the right idea. I started out reading no more than three stories before bed, which would have kept me occupied for a month, but by the end I was reading until I fell asleep. I read the whole thing in under two weeks.

Pullman is excellent at storycraft. These aren’t “modern” versions of the Grimm stories, but basically English translations. His English is clear and fairly timeless. I did find some of his commentary fairly dubious. He seems to be trying to hard to justify his changes to the stories. But here's the thing: the stories were always being changed, with every retelling, with every new audience and situation. It's the frozen Grimm forms that did something unnatural to the oral stories. I can see this book being read to children at bedtime and then being read by their parents long after the children are asleep. Which is probably the highest praise that can be given to a book of fairy tales, that it can delight and fascinate both the young and the old, as the oral versions did for millennia.