Thursday, January 26, 2012

Podcast Spotlight: Stuff You Missed in History Class

Podcast spotlight on How Stuff Works, y'all... *dah dah*... oh yeah, oh oh yeah!

Stuff You Missed in History Class




How do you get it?: Listed in iTunes by searching "Stuff You Missed in History Class"

How did I find it?: Featured on Flavorwire's best podcasts so I gave it a listen and got hooked

Website?: How Stuff Works

How often does it post new shows?: Twice weekly (Monday & Wednesday)

Do they spoiler the books they discuss?: Mostly nonfiction books are mentioned, so not sure how you calculate spoilers on that... Spoiler! Lincoln gets shot!

Production quality?: Excellent

Can I listen to this with the kids in the car?: Yes, it's encouraged

Should I start at the beginning?: Eh, I don't love the earlier ones... they start getting good once it's Katie & Sarah take over (Candace & Katie are ok; Sarah & Deblina are good). Start in mid-2009

Should I listen to every episode?: If you are a geek or a history lover or both, you'll probably enjoy any of the episodes. If you're not a history lover, this is pretty topic specific, in terms of what will interest you. That being said, they make topics I was lukewarm on interesting. The Turtle Ships? Otzi? Who knew?

What's awesome about this podcast?: This is the epitome of geeky fun. It's the kind of podcast that will make you insufferable to your friends, because you will constantly be poking them to say, "Did you know? Did you know?!" I should start doing this on Twitter so that my friends can get a break... anyways, this podcast basically does exactly what it says: it covers stuff that you missed in history class. They'll take a less well known event and spend 15-30 minutes discussing what happened, why it happened, and what the implications of it happening are. This might sound not so interesting, but I find myself listening to a couple hours of this almost every day at work. Since they have such a huge backlog, you can have new episodes to enjoy for weeks. I also appreciate that they cover a very wide range of periods, cultures, and types of history. One day it will be a story from medieval Chinese military history, and the next day it will be about the cult of beauty in the 19th century Austrian royal court. They just got through doing H.H. Holmes' murder castle, which was fascinating and got me pumped to read The Devil in the White City (thankfully it's a part of the 2012 Challenges plan!). Basically, it doesn't matter what the topic is - they find a way to keep your interest and teach you something at the same time. Plus, they have a thing for exhumations, so you get to find out just how many famous dead people get dug up. I also love that by listening to so many of them, I've started to get a much better sense of the timeline of history - I see much more clearly how the history of country A relates to what's happening in country B. This has enriched my nonfiction and fiction reading alike. And I've gotten so many ideas from stories from this podcast for my own writing. Bottom line is that I really enjoy this podcast and would recommend it to just about anyone, but especially for parents who want to foster a love of history in their kids and adults who have never lost their love of learning.

What's not so awesome about this podcast?:  Like I mentioned, the earlier ones just aren't as good as later ones. Some of it's the hosts, but it's more about the format. They hadn't quite found the special sauce of finding semi-obscure events or a different angle of well-known events and taking a deep dive. Rather, they have a brief overview of the surface details that you didn't miss in history class. It's just not as interesting - may be a good refresher for those who are studying the topic in a class or for those who happened to miss something like the Salem Witch Trials, but most folks aren't going to get too much new info from them. As I said, start around July 2009, which is when they hit their stride. 

Highlight?: Any time there are episodes about intrigue and plotting (especially royal intrigue and plotting), I lap it up like a puppy. The Bourbon series, Catherine the Great, Catherine de Medici, and Hapsburg series are all really great. My favorite episodes are probably the Mad King Ludwig episode, the Lizzy Borden episode, and the Philip V episode (which led me to discover this horrifying family tree). But I also loved the Vaudeville ones, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, all the ones with naval catastrophes... BAH! I can't pick! I really love so many of these...  

Overall rating?: 4 stars

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Book Business and Amazon's $$ Losing Strategy Explained (aka Winter is Coming)

This is the best postulation behind why Amazon is so willing to slash their margins I've seen:

http://pandodaily.com/2012/01/17/confessions-of-a-publisher-were-in-amazons-sights-and-theyre-going-to-kill-us/

I'm conflicted about this, because I don't hate Amazon the way a lot of people do. I think that anything that makes reading and book ownership more accessible and affordable for people is a step in the right direction. And while I love indie bookstores, let's get real - most people cannot afford to pay retail on hardbacks, or even some paperbacks. The indie bookstore is purveying luxury items, essentially, whereas Amazon is selling books as commodities. I'm okay with the idea that Amazon becomes Walmart and indies become Whole Foods or boutique boulangeries. (I guess B&N becomes Target or Giant in this equation?) So far as this goes, I'm mostly okay with the fact that Amazon is willing to accept very low margins, if the tradeoff is that book ownership is affordable. And, hey, I'm a book addict, so they are basically pushing my drug of choice on me at a rate that I can afford. The question becomes, "At what price?"

I see a lot of people bashing the Big 6 publishers, especially in the self-pub world, acting like they are evil embodied and they are seeking to systematically deprive authors of every last cent, run away with their wife, and kick their dogs. They are big businesses, so this is no doubt true on some level. But I'd rather have a variety of soul sucking businesses to choose from than arrive at a place in the market where there is only one soul sucking business to deal with for both book selling and book publishing. And make no mistake, if we accept that the Big 6 are evil, Amazon is as evil as the Big 6. It is making life good for a lot of authors and readers right now, but that won't last if things continue as is. It seems that the idea is to fatten us all up like Hansel and Gretel and then to roast us once all infringing huntsmen in the forest have been killed off.


To sum up for people who aren't weird book nerds with business degrees, and thus a little nuts about this topic, we're basically in the literary equivalent of WWII. Amazon is Germany, fighting on 2 fronts: Book Selling East and Book Publishing West. Except in this case, they aren't really facing a whole lot of competition on either front. Borders is out of the way, so now their big competition to the east, B&N, hasn't found a way to combat Amazon's disruptive pricing (http://www.thepassivevoice.com/01/2012/average-ebook-prices-kindle-vs-nook/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ThePassiveVoice+%28The+Passive+Voice%29). And the Big 6 allies to the west haven't figured out how to launch their own D-Day to stem the tide of Amazon rising. A dramatic metaphor perhaps,* but helpful, I think, in illustrating that Amazon is not just trying to be the only store in town for book selling - they also want to be the only supplier in town for book publishing (whether through their own imprints or self-published folks).


Amazon is not your friend. The Big 6 are also not your friend. B&N isn't even its own friend. They are all big businesses that are driven by profit first, love of books second (if at all, in some cases... sadly). The great thing about indies is that the order is tied or reversed for the most part. And what I'm really hoping is that the Big 6/B&N will be able to hold off Amazon long enough for some people who are equally motivated by profit and love of books to innovate in a big way- to make a disruptive move that can ebb the slow but steady march towards a monopoly that we are on right now. I really hope that happens.

Maybe you don't care that much about books and are wondering what's the problem with a monopoly? What's wrong with having a single place where you get all your books? The problem is that books aren't like soda or clothes or makeup or oil. Books are our cultural heritage and food. And it's not that awesome that one entity would be responsible for curating that cultural history and access to nourishment from it.

Anyways, that's my little soapbox moment. If you're an eBook reader and you want to support a non-large business, I'd recommend http://www.indiebound.org/. Kindle owners are a little out in the cold on this one (surprise, surprise), but everyone else should be able to get books through this service. A lot of individual indies can sell you eBooks through their own website, so support whichever one is near you. You could also try http://redroom.com/, which allows authors to sell directly to you. The thing is, even if you can only patronize indie occasionally, it all counts. All of it stems the tide.

What do you think of Amazon, Big 6, and B&N? Does the idea of a monopoly bother you? Is there a way to keep books accessible but diverse in sourcing?


*please don't write me angry emails about how Amazon is not the equivalent of the Nazi state - I don't mean in their principles or morality; I'm only trying to describe the marketplace "battleground," which I see as being analogous to the military quandary that Germany found itself in during WWII (Napoleon and France would be a similar situation- moral of the story, kids, don't try to take Russia. Be happy with the Baltics and Poland and get on with your dictatorial life)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Famous Red Wool Coat

On this lovely snowy day, I feel like showing off my fabulous "new" vintage coat.


When I was home for Christmas, I mentioned to my mom that I was probably going to be staffed on a project in Kansas City or Chicago. As previously expressed, both of these locations experience an ungodly freezing cold winter, which my Southern wardrobe simply isn't equipped to deal with. I make do in DC, where we only have a few seriously cold days a year. But in those cities? My coat wasn't going to cut it.

So she mentioned that she had an old coat that she'd gotten at a consignment shop that was 100% wool. In case you doubt:


I was amazed - who knew that my mother had such a diva-tastic coat stashed away! I'm not sure which consignment shop she went to, but it must have been local, because this is definitely from Knoxville:



I didn't know that department stores used to do this- putting the location in? That's so delightful... it says  that Knoxville is the "Home of the South's Great Stores." Hmm- is this like the "World Famous Airport Motor Mile"? Because I've asked non-Knoxvillians about it, and they seem to be unaware of this world wide phenomenon. And I've never heard of a Miller's in Knoxville, so not sure how great it really was. Long time Knoxville residents- please fill us in on this great store of the South!

Anyways, after letting me try it on, we both agreed it suited me. She graciously agreed to let me take it and thank the Lord she did. First, it's the only coat I have that can combat the Windy City's eponymous weather. Second, it has such a distinctive look that the hotel staff and my airline gate hostesses now recognize me at a distance and do whatever task I need without me asking.

And third, I feel so glamorous in it! It's got a full "skirt" around the bottom, presumably to accommodate the poodle skirts and crinolines of yesteryear, and it floats around me when I'm walking around. The collar has real fur (PETA people - this animal has been dead for 60 years and the jacket's already blood red - cut me some slack and don't throw paint when you see me coming) and it clasps with a beautiful button:


I mean, I'll admit, sometimes I feel like a Russian soldier... but most, I feel pretty. Oh so pretty. 

Needless to say, my winter will be significantly warmer and more fabulous thanks to my mom's generosity.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Midwesterners Are Crazy

I have been travelling to Chicago for exactly 2 weeks for work. Now, before you get too excited, let me be more specific - I have been travelling to the Chicago O'Hare airport for 2 weeks. My client isn't in the sexy downtown area (which I still have not seen). Oh no. That would be too glamorous. They are in the super unsexy suburbs.

Perhaps you have seen the unsexy suburbs of Chicago? For those who haven't, let me paint you a picture. First, it is completely flat. No hills, no nothing. For a mountain girl, the flatness is just depressing and boring. On top of that, there are no trees. The warehouses and business parks have evidently deforested the whole area. Any thoughtful strolls you may try to take to get to massively spread out and often non-existent restaurants are shattered by the shrill thrills of passing trains. And the number of titty bars in the area is astounding ("strip joints" is too classy a term for the dilapidated tanning salons that have been taken over). I don't approve of them, but at the same, there really is nothing else to do, so I guess I understand their existence. My favorite name is "Heavenly Bodies." Based on the $5 lunch special that comes with, I assume that it's meant to be ironic.

Okay, but to be fair, I'm describing a huge number of suburbs across the country. In the Northeast, the West, the South... these industrialish suburbs are pervasive.

What makes this suburb and the Midwest at large crazy to stay?

It is so. freaking. cold. All the time - every day. I mean, yes, I've heard that the summers are lovely. But it can't be worth it.

When I get up and go outside, the wind is piercing and you can't escape. Even my super fabulous vintage wool coat (with fur on the collar - so no joke) can't keep it out. When I'm at my desk in the middle of a vast cube farm of likewise exiled consultants, it's freezing. Everyone keeps their coats on inside. When I go into the conference room with windows, the meetings go twice as fast because everyone is trying to escape the even colder temperatures that seep in through the porous glass. It snows constantly - not always heavy, but just drizzly, gross snow that messes up your hair.

This is a cold unlike any that I have experienced, including Snowmageddon. It's the cold that find any possible weakness in your layering defenses and ruthless exploits it. It has that stinging sensation like a wax strip being ripped from your skin. Arrggh. I can't stand it. I know I should get pantyhose to mitigate, but my thoughts on that are documented (http://misadventuresfromthebrink.blogspot.com/2010/12/panty-hose-poem.html). I shouldn't have to do that! It's not like I'm running around outside - I am sitting at my desk, pushing my pencils like a good girl.

And I'm annoyed that Midwesterners pronounce the "wh-" sound so oddly. "Huh-w" like when sounds like "huh-wen."

Okay, I'm done being petulant. Midwestern people are really nice and are good at dealing with snow and are the anti-Yankee (i.e. cold climate people who choose to be cheerful rather than jerky). But they are also a little crazy to stay.

If you are a Midwesterner, please explain yourself. And give me tips on how to survive in this foreign clime.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L. Howard (The Quirky Edition)

Wrapping up my adventures in genre, we have a quirky, genre busting nugget of delight



Johannes Cabal the Detective
by Jonathan L. Howard

Procured from a certain ginormous online bookseller

Procured in November 2011

Finished on January 5, 2011

Format: A really pretty trade paperback that has the great fancy paper for the cover... I am very tactile with my books, I am realizing.

Why I gave it a try: Josh and Jenn from Bookrageous (http://bookrageous.podbean.com/) have both cited this as an excellent "genre buster" - a great example of genre reads that crosses over to readers who aren't as comfortable with those tropes. Josh also said that it had one of the best drawing room reveals ever, so that was enough to persuade me

Summary: Johannes Cabal is a freelance necromancer, adventurer, and general ne'er do well who has found himself at the wrong end of the dictatorial law in the German state of Mirkarvia. He just stole a little old necromancy book from the state library, landing him on death row in a depressing dungeon. We follow him to the executioner's chamber, to a deal with a political devil, to a daring escape, to a voyage to safety that involves him in a disappearance that he cannot help but investigate. Supported by a cast of politicians, aeroship crew, captains of industry, leisured ladies, friends, and enemies, Johannes Cabal wields his own unique blend of cold pragmatism, mysticism, and social awkwardness to get to the bottom of things.

Thoughts: Let's just start with some of my favorite quotes:

"She herself was wearing a red-and-blue tartan gown over a white winceyette nightdress. In purely aesthetic terms, her nighttime apparel made Cabal wonder how the English ever managed to find sufficient motivation to breed." - p. 82

"'Whenever she sees a man who interests her in a certain way, she isn't happy until that man has joined her for an evening of sport.' It was obvious from Cabal's face that he was working down a list of possible sports. The slight expression of consternation indicated he had arrived at cricket." - p.136

These made me chortle awkwardly in front of my roommate.

I don't know where to go with this, because this is just such an odd and weirdly wonderful tale. Howard very successfully strikes a tone of irony and whimsy, which is just my favorite (see above). I love the detached tone the narrator has from the absurdities of the tale - somewhat reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse, in that the author is ironically removed from, but not maliciously inclined towards, his characters. This tone is candy to me and combined with the superior prose, I slurped up every page with noisy delight. I think my roommate thought I was pretty weird, giggling manically on the couch.

What makes talking about this book difficult is that it is playing with so many genres and has so many reference points in the overall canon that your expectations are constantly being set up and thwarted. The first 50 pages read very much like a action/adventure story a la The Three Musketeers meets The Princess Bride. The next bit reminds me of the aeroship scene in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade. The middle chunk is a straight homage to Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express. The ending of the main plot was a Nazi free version of Inglorious Basterds. Then the little short story appended as a coda is The Mummy meets Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, complete with rope bridge.

And even though I've given you a lot of references for the whole book, I really haven't revealed the plot (though if the above were literally spliced together into a book/movie combo, I would be there with bells). Howard succeeds in keeping you guessing in a way that feels genuine and resolves things logically and with a good deal of satisfaction. I've been describing the mood/tone/whatever you want to call the general atmosphere of the book, and this is where it shines. It's a page turner, not driven by the well formed characters and interesting plot, but by the compelling desire to remain engrossed in the world. It was a place I wanted to be, pure and simple.

And we haven't even talked about the fact that it's steampunk! At least, I think it is... corsets + helicopters = steampunk, right? Well, I'll say that it is, and I was surprised by my enjoyment of this new subgenre.

Writing was excellent; characters were fascinating; plot was interesting; world was engrossing. What more could you ask from a book? Loved it and I think this would connect with a wide range of readers.

Rating:

6 - Why are you still reading this review? Go pick this one up NOW


That ends my ventures into genre - quite a success, I think, and makes me excited to dive into more genre offerings throughout the year.

What's your soft spot when it comes to genre? 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Books Like Whoa: A Problem I Hadn't Even Thought About

As with most singletons, I have my moments of feeling mopey about the lack of romance in my life. Especially when both my roommates are sickeningly in love with their man friends. However, every once in a while I receive a dose of "wow, being a relationship would suck". This is once such moment:

http://bookriot.com/2012/01/17/how-to-say-i-do-to-shared-bookshelves-without-ruining-your-relationship/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+bookriot%2FWlRy+%28BOOK+RIOT%29

Um, excuse me? You mean I would have to share bookshelf space? I mean, I know I'll have to share my bank account, my bed, my car, my kitchen, my future. But my books?

This reminds me of why I am not yet mature enough to promise to share my life with someone. The shared bookshelf is the last frontier, and I don't think I'm ready to cross it. Yeesh.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Small Favor (The Pigeon Holed Genre)

Next, let's look at a traditionally pigeon holed genre tome...



Small Favor
by Jim Butcher

Procured from my library through Overdrive app on the iPhone

Procured in August 22, 2011

Finished on September 1, 2011

Format: Audio (over my phone from the library! what technological marvels!)

Why I gave it a try: Jenn from Bookrageous (http://jennirl.com/)(http://bookrageous.podbean.com/) has many times swooned about how much she loves this series and it was the first thing that popped up on my library's suggestion homepage, so I thought, why not?

Summary: This is the 10th book in the Dresden Files series, featuring the wizard (is this the right term? fanboys and girls, correct me if needed) Harry Dresden, who is sort of a magician-turned-gum shoe, living in a slightly altered Chicago. He has an apprentice and duties as a city warden for the magical community, and he is a little surprised that it's been such a long time since someone has tried to kill him. Whoops! Spoke too soon. Old Harry has to overcome Gruffs, fairies, gangsters, demons, and all kinds of weird baddies that are after him, all while paying back a favor to queen of the Winter Court, our good friend Mab. Will he be able to keep all these forces in check, pay his debts,  and save the world? 

Thoughts: I wasn't sure how much I would love this, since I plugged into it in the middle of the series, rather than at the beginning. However, Butcher does a good job of catching you up on enough of the backstory that new readers don't feel lost, without going into so much of it that returning readers would get annoyed. I really credit him for this, because this is often handled very poorly in recurring series. Tip of the hat to you, sir!

I was also floored by how solid the writing is in this. Keep in mind, I was reading this concurrently with The Magicians, and we all know how I felt about that (http://misadventuresfromthebrink.blogspot.com/2012/01/books-like-whoa-magicians-by-lev.html). In contrast to Grossman, who was simultaneously reaching for literary and genre greatness (and mostly failed at both, in my opinion), Butcher is wholly focused on delivering a compelling, satisfying story and uses the appropriate language to achieve that end. Basically, he's not a hack. And let's be real, there is a lot of genre fiction out there that is written by well meaning hacks. They may have interesting plots, but they simply don't have the writing tools they need to get that story across in a competent fashion. Butcher has these tools and then some, and as I listened, I was surprised at how often I enjoyed a turn of phrase or description. He does use the exclamative, "Hell's bells!", a lot, but I'll give him a pass. Overall, very well written - not beautiful, but he avoids cliched use of language and proves that he's not just a guy with a great idea for a plot, but genuinely a writer.

As far as plot goes, I was surprised to find that it reminded me much more of a police procedural than of a fantasy. The whole "urban fantasy" genre is new to me, and I guess my expectations were off. However, that being said, I really enjoyed it! I liked that there were a lot of machinations on all sides, figuring out the best move to thwart your opponent, and general detectivery (yes, I know that's not a real word). There's also some crime boss stuff happening, which adds another level of interest, and there is a lot of discussion about faith and belief, which I thought was handled well. I'm not sure if some folks would be offended by some of the plot conventions in this area (use of religious artifacts like the nails of Christ's cross and the 30 pieces of silver), but this religious person was not bothered by it. In fact, I appreciated having the topic approached with respect and thoughtful discussion. 

Anyways, who would have guessed that such a typically genre offering would have me so hooked? I was amazed at how much more I liked this than other books that were sold as being of a better quality in the genre arena. I'd definitely recommend anyone up for a good romp give this a try!


Rating:

5 - It's really good; well written and pleasurable 

What genre book surprised you with it's quality? Do you feel like most genre books have quality issues or is that just "the Man" perpetuating prejudice against them?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Books Like Whoa: A Counterpoint to the Genre Debate

Here is an interesting article on the genre debate from our friends at the Huffington Post :

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/madeleine-crum/book-genre-alternatives_b_1119520.html?ref=books&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000008

I told you people have strong feelings about this! :)  However, she does bring up some of the suggestions about grouping that other folks have raised in the past. If everyone moved and acclimated to such a system, it would be no skin off my teeth. I'm just not convinced that the current system is as terrible as some people seem to think it is.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Books Like Whoa: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

It's time for a book review, book review, book review! (are you imagining the lights flashing and sound cutting in and out? okay, good)



The Magicians
by Lev Grossman

Procured from Barnes & Nobles (don't judge me - I was weak from Borders withdrawal) from the $5 rack

Procured in Spring 2011

Finished on September 10, 2011 (this was my Hurricane Irene book)

Format: A really beautiful hardcover... one of the best covers I've seen

Summary: Everyone I've heard pitch this has characterized it as a grown up version of Harry Potter meets Narnia. Wow. Intrigued, party of 1! Basically, this Brooklyn kid Quentin finds out that he may have the potential to be a magician, so he is whisked away to take an entrance/proficiency exam for a university of magic. Here's a spoiler: he gets in. Hijinks ensue.

Thoughts: Okay, people, this book was made to be sold to book nuts like me. Grown up version of Harry Potter meets Narnia? Have I ever had a book I was more predisposed to love? I was jonesing to get my paws on this once I realized that it's the first in a trilogy. Alas, this very nearly got thrown across the room within 15 pages. Seriously. I almost gave up 15 pages in, which is my record. Because here's the thing - I hate. hate. hate. the main character. I'll give credit where it's due - I don't think that this is unintentional, at least not totally. I do believe that Grossman is in control of his story enough to purposefully decide that we aren't going to like this kid.

However, I don't think that some of my reasons for hating Quentin are intentional. For instance, the reason that I almost chucked it after barely cracking double digits was that the characters are introduced through showing rather than telling. It would be as if I started my novel by saying, "Oh, Susie, I love that you're my friend because you are so kind and funny, even if my intellectual superiority causes some tensions between us at times, especially in academic settings." No, really. There is dialogue not too far off from this. I also really did not enjoy the way he pays "homage" (and that's a generous term for the blatant take off) to the Narnia books, because Grossman seems to have such raw disdain for the original text. Dude, if you are writing something that is almost an exact replica of another author's universe (not to mention one that is meant to be an allegory for billions of people's religious beliefs), maybe you could not *oh so subtly* spend pages tearing into that author's work and ideology. And actually, I think that the fictionalized author of the ripped off world gets dissed, too, so you're also mocking the author himself. It just came off as kind of rude and creatively lazy to me.

On the other hand... I kept turning the pages. I really could not put this thing down. Grossman has some pacing problems, but weirdly, maybe they aren't problems, because I kept plodding through the draggy parts to get back to the action. There are some lazy, distract-from-lack-of-plot-through-gratuitous-sex moments that I found, well, odd (hint: they involved animals that were poeple. Yeah.), but overall, I did want to know what happened, so that's to Grossman's credit, considering how much I detested his POV character. There were also brief moments of truly beautiful prose; though, those moments were hidden under piles of paragraphs that remind me strongly of the verbiage in my freshman "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" themes.

In terms of genre, I think that this book was sold to me as literature + genre really hurt my ability to enjoy it. I think I would have been much more forgiving of the book's flaws if I wasn't expecting it to transcend tropes or have uniformly excellent prose.

I've been told that the sequel addresses a lot of the issues that I'm bringing up here, so maybe it will be a library read at some point. But right now, I have very little motivation to do that. I think what  said in my Goodreads review sums it up: Overall, I'd say that The Magicians does not really succeed as a work of art and only barely succeeds as a work of entertainment.

Rating:

2 - It's bad, y'all, with tantalizing glimpses of something worthwhile sprinkled in


Tune in next time, when hopefully I'll find something more positive to say about grown up wizards!

I know a lot of people loved this book... so what I am missing? Do you think that The Magicians has more to it than I was able to find?


Indiebound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780452296299
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Magicians-Novel-Lev-Grossman/dp/0670020559
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/magicians-lev-grossman/1100309808

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Books Like Whoa: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

An oldie but a goodie... time for some mysterious genre goodtimes!


The Woman in White
by Wilkie Collins

Procured from my all time favorite bookstore, McKay's Used Books in Knoxville, TN - woot-woot!

Procured in Summer 2009

Finished on December 15, 2011

Format: Mass market paperback with a super creepy chick on the front

Why I gave it a try: I've long heard that Wilkie is the godfather of modern mysteries, so I wanted to see for myself. Besides, how often do you get to read a book by someone named Wilkie?

Summary: Our handsome hero is a gentlemanly drawing master - not gentry, but honorable and in the employ/company of the aristocratic class (think a governess status level). He's walking home one night after securing a new post in the Lake District, when this odd woman dressed, you guessed it, in white, approaches him on Hampstead Heath, desperately trying to figure out how to get to London. Being the stand-up guy that he is, he helps her find her way and leaves her in a carriage, slightly confused but no worse for wear. Suddenly, two guys race past him to the nearby police officer. They tell him to look out for a woman in white who has just escaped from their asylum... dundunDUN. He goes onto his new post, where, surprise-surprise, the woman in white still plagues his life and the lives of the women he's instructing. 

Thoughts: I had a hard time getting going with this one, I'll be honest, because the first 20 pages don't exactly hook you in. I got stuck there and left it lingering for a couple of months, but then I picked it up again, just to get it off my TBR pile. Oh. my. gosh. Thank the Lord I did! Once this story gets cooking, it grabs you by your nose and will not let you go until the end. It's one of those books that I got really upset about because I was so worried about what was happening to some of the characters. I simultaneously wanted to slurp up every one of the 567 pages in one sitting and to leisurely sip it over several weeks - I was torn between my need to know what happened and my enjoyment of the beauty of the language and Collins' observations.

These beautiful observations, to me, were the biggest surprise in my reading of The Woman in White - the fact that there are complex, compelling characters in the midst of what is essentially a suspense or mystery type book. It's curious, in the sense that this is seen as one of the forebearers of the more conventional mysteries from folks like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. My obsession with these guys is well documented, so I am safe in saying that you don't necessarily associate terribly deep characters with their works The characters in this book are, generally, very well drawn and interesting. Granted, we have a Stock Noble Hero and Stock Vulnerable Heroine who, I suppose, are who we are really meant to be rallying around. What we also have, however, is a superbly strong, able female lead who ends up being the true driving force of the novel. You take out Marian Halcombe and you don't really have a story. She is a nuanced depiction of what an independent minded woman of the time could have looked like and you find yourself routing for her all the way through. (As an aside, there are so many insightful and surprising references to the value of strong women in this book! Considering the period of its composition and that one of the heroines is such a typical depiction of fragile femininity, Collins has some fascinating commentary on the societal position of women through several of the characters... I'd love to have a book group discussion about that theme.)

Not only has ol' Wilks given us developed good guys - this has well developed bad guys! I won't reveal who they are, because that's something you won't find out until a couple hundred pages in. Suffice it to say, they are super intriguing and just evil... dastardly is probably the best adjective. This is where the flat Stock Vulnerable Heroine comes in, because she's just pitiful in light of the others, making them even more scary, and making Marian's valiant efforts to thwart them something you just can't help but cheer for. The side characters are pretty great, as well... I freaking loved Mr. Fairlie, their "invalid" uncle, who is just so smarmy and self-centered that you want to get up and smack him. In my mind, he has a waxed mustache and a ponytail... kind of an emaciated, mustachioed Gaston a la Beauty and the Beast. You can take that as you will.

All of this is not mentioning the actual plot aspect, which is fairly predictable, once it gets in full swing, but unfolds satisfactorily and engagingly as you go along. I'll also give Collins his due in mentioning that you don't totally see where things are going and how the crazy lady from the asylum will tie back in until about 150 pages in- by then, you're hooked and you don't care so much if you have an idea of where things are going. He also genuinely puts his characters in conflicts and danger, which adds to suspense, and serves as a good handwaving trick to distract you from one pretty glaringly thin plot conceit.

All this to say, this was a really enjoyable read. I loved it, truly, and I'm looking forward to diving into The Moonstone

Rating:

6 - Why are you still reading this review? Go pick this one up NOW 

Do you generally like "classics?" How does a novel achieving "classic" status impact the validity of its genre?

Indiebound
Amazon
Barnes & Nobles

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Books Like Whoa: On Genre

Genre... oh genre. I read so much out there on the blogs and message boards about the role, ghettoization, problems, glories, and general existence of genre in literature.



So what is genre? And what's the fuss all about?

Basically, there are some general groupings acknowledged by the book industry that are meant to help make "discovery" easier for readers, which is a whole sticky topic in and of itself. If you know that you like Paranormal Romance, it's helpful that all the Paranormal Romances are grouped together in an online store or your local Barnes & Noble, or so the logic goes.

However, a lot of fans of books that fall into a genre, rather than general fiction, can get very touchy about the connotations that the term "genre" carries with it.

Savidge Reads (http://savidgereads.wordpress.com/2011/12/10/in-other-worlds-sf-and-the-human-imagination-margaret-atwood/) had a good post on this topic, and here were my thoughts at the time:

For me, genre is only a comment on quality if a book isn't able to transcend that genre for general readers. Meaning that someone like Margaret Atwood produces books that are both science fiction and literature. Never Let Me Go (how good was that one?! Loved it) was both science fiction and literature."Literature" to me is simply saying that something has a higher level of mechanical competence and thematic sophistication- it has some kind of "X factor" that makes it more than it's plot or characters.
However, if someone says something is "just fantasy" or "just mystery," I take that to mean that it's a book that doesn't transcend the genre's tropes or conventions and that if you don't generally find those types of stories entertaining, it's probably not for you. I'd say that John Grisham is "just legal thriller" - but I like legal thrillers, so I'm game (an example of something that is legal thriller and literature is To Kill a Mockingbird). Whereas I don't generally like "just chick lit," so I'm less likely to read a book that's being sold as that (an example of something that is chick lit and literature is Pride and Prejudice).
People get defensive about things being "just " because they don't want to be perceived as liking something with less quality. But so what? It's fine to read things that aren't going to stand the test of time for the general public. I can't get enough of "The Real Housewives," but I'm not going to try to argue it should get an Emmy. I like "just genre" and literature, and there's nothing wrong with either- they're just helpful for people to find what they are likely to enjoy.

I'll stick with this... Genre is something, to me, that alerts me to the fact that the writing itself might not be so great and/or that it may not have broad appeal. To me, that's helpful. That's something that I want to know about a book before I make the commitment to engage with it... in many cases, I'm okay with the fact that the book might be playing to certain repetitive patterns or that it might not sing with its language. But I do want to know that up front, and I'm okay that the genre terms are used to convey that information to me. 



And as I said, if someone combines genre conventions with a higher level of writing, I really love that. I really love Mystery + Literature, or Fantasy + Literature, or even Western + Literature.

This week, I'm reviewing a couple of books that are pure genre and literature + genre. The results of this experiment are mixed, but telling, I think.

I've said it all now, and I'm ready for the buzz of angry genre readers to attack me. ;)

Do you like genre books? Do you find genre labels helpful or stigmatizing (or both, like me)?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Just Joyful

I have 2 songs in my heart today and they are back to back on the Page CXVI album Hymns IV...

His Eye is on the Sparrow Lyrics

I sing because I'm happy
I sing because I'm free
For His eye is on the sparrow 
and I know He watches me

Don't lose your heart
To doubt and fears
Take His word
and rest in His good
He laid out a path for me that I may see

I sing because I'm happy
I sing because I'm free
For His eye is on the sparrow 
and I know He watches me (x2)

When I feel lost
The clouds arise
I long for a home
As hope within dies
Jesus is my portion - He sets me free

I sing because I'm happy
I sing because I'm free
For His eye is on the sparrow 
and I know He watches me (x2)

Wash Me Clean Lyrics

Wash me clean
In the warm sun dry me
Cleanse my heart from all iniquity
Baptize me in the Holy Spirit sea
Renew my mind
That wickedness may flee

In those days
His Son will save
His Spirit will pour
on all who call on the Lord

In those days
His Son will save
His Spirit will fill
Empty jars of mud and clay

Wash me clean
In the warm sun dry me
Cleanse my heart
From all iniquity
Baptize me in the Holy Spirit sea
Renew my mind
That wickedness may flee

In these days
Barren field will sprout trees
The deaf and blind will hear and see
The dead will raise and begin to breathe
The dead will raise and begin to breathe
The earth will grown in pain to see
The sons of God declare to be
His full and glorious family
The beautiful, perfect bride of Thee

Barren field will sprout trees
The deaf and blind will hear and see
The dead will raise and begin to breathe
From all iniquity
The earth will grown in pain to see
The sons of God declare to be
His full and glorious family
The beautiful, perfect bride of Thee

The barren fields will sprout trees


Like I said - just joyful today.

If you are interested in Page CXVI, they are amazing! Check out their website (http://pagecxvi.com/)... really. I've had them on nonstop for about 2 months and I am a happy Frankie.

PS - If I got any of the lyrics wrong, apologies and I'm open to corrections on the transcription.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Books Like Whoa: All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (Favorites Edition)

Are you ready for my favorite brand of political intrigue? Favorite series continues...



All the President's Men
by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Procured from Borders, back when there was such a thing. Tear.

Format: Trade paperback, the anniversary edition

Why I gave it a try: I saw the Robert Redford/Dustin Hoffman movie from back in the day, and I wanted to revisit the source material. I read this on a family vacation to the Highlands in North Carolina... I remember sitting on the porch and devouring this

Summary: So, you know Watergate? Nixon? All that good stuff? Yeah, these guys are more or less responsible for all the scandal coming to light. Basically, this is the story of two low level reporters who dared to keep asking questions when everyone was satisfied with the wrong answers, and who accidentally brought down a president. 

Thoughts: This is the granddaddy of all modern investigative reporting narrative nonfiction... in the expositive tradition of The Jungle, this account is told from the perspective of the gumshoe reporters who are looking for the truth. The narrative unfolds a bit like a mystery plot, with each strand of the puzzle coming together.

It's a little hard to stay in the moment with the story, just because you do have that historical perspective of knowing the impact of what Woodward and Bernstein were doing. Also, it's a different story now that we know who Deep Throat was (the assistant director of the FBI), and that plays into the reading of the story. All that being said, there still manages to be a lot of freshness to the story and I found this to be a page turner. I wanted to know what was going to happen next.

It is also a great book for those of us who weren't around when the scandal first broke. Since the story is told as an unfolding web of clues, you learn a lot about the various players, their motivations, and the stakes of keeping the illegal activities under wraps. What's really fascinating is the pointlessness of what the Republicans were doing - they had a virtual lock up for the upcoming election, but it was such a pervasive atmosphere of criminality that the scandals basically became a bad habit and illegal machinations became the norm.

Overall, it's a great story, a great history lesson, and by far the best piece of investigative reporting that I've read. 

Rating:

7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

Do you like narrative nonfiction? What types are especially appealing to you?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Books Like Whoa: My Life in France (Favorites Edition- 2011 Read)

I've been think about what makes a book a favorite and what patterns there are in what I dig. The results have been... interesting. And have produced a number of book reviews. Which I will share throughout this year.

So, kicking off my favorite books...




My Life in France
by Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme

Procured from Borders, back when there was such a thing. Tear.

Procured in Spring 2011

Finished on June 25, 2011

Format: Trade paperback with a great picture of Julia and Paul (and there are some awesome/horrifying pictures of them sprinkled throughout)

Why I gave it a try: I have an admitted and growing fixation on the movie "Julie and Julia." I just love it and watch it whenever I feel like giving up on writing and doing something more practical - I love watching Julia's passion and perseverance to do what she loved. And it makes me want to cook whenever I watch.

Summary: Julia Child is a newlywed, going with her husband, Paul, to a diplomatic posting in Paris. She has some rudimentary memories of her school French, but she's far from fluent and has never visited the country before. She was also a mediocre cook, at best, when she arrived. In the midst of going to cooking school and doing everything that she's famous for doing, we get a beautifully recounted tale of Julia and Paul's life together, the troubles of the time, and life in post-WWII Europe.

Thoughts: Oh, how I loved this book. Seriously, it's the perfect memoir and I just gobbled it up with unconcealed delight, probably giggling manically while doing so. I was utterly transported by the simple but beautiful telling of a truly fascinating life.

It's not just that they seem to be leading this glamorous life in a glamorous city, or that they are clearly passionately in love, or that there are interesting political machinations afoot. It's that these events are recounted with a kind of joie de vivre that reminds one of a much younger woman, who hasn't had her innocence robbed by the normal course of life. She has, though. Throughout the narrative, small references are made to hardships large and small. What is remarkable is her frankness in confronting these dark spots, without bitterness, naivete, or cynicism. She takes life as it comes and never loses hope that life cane be something beautiful and exciting.

I loved seeing her slowly grow as a cook and as a person, becoming the bon vivant that we all know and love. She and Paul also have an incredibly romantic marriage, a marriage of equals and partners, who view life as a constant adventure to be embarked upon together. They seem like partners in crime, and you realize that Paul was really the animating force of her life and work. It's an amazing portrait of what a marriage looks like when both people are completely committed to supporting each other and not intimidated by the other person's successes or failures.

Finally, I was truly touched by the story. Julia (and I suspect Alex had a strong hand in this) paints the scenes beautifully and the characters who haunt mid-century Europe are vivid and fascinating. I was so emotionally invested in all of them that by the end of the book, when many of their friends start to pass on, I found myself crying. I missed them. Which isn't really possible, but that's how strongly she was able to get me invested in the story.

Oh, it's so good. Just read it. And love it. And go cook something afterwards.

Rating:

7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

What are your favorite memoirs? What makes a memoir great?