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Dec. 3rd, 2016



Went to see Moana yesterday! And it was gorgeous, really stunning animation and beautiful songs - quite different from the usual Disney song style; more epic maybe? I'm not sure how to define it, but it was a lot of fun, very epic sounding, quite appropriate to a magically intrepid ocean voyage.

Other things I enjoyed: the underwater sequences, the beautiful lush jungles, Moana practicing her speech to give to Maui (and the way that speech changes over time, gathering emotion like a snowball rolling down a hill gathers snow), Moana just in general, in particular Moana's beautiful hair, Maui's moving tattoo that talks (or I guess gestures) back at him when he's making bad life choices, and Spoiler I guessCollapse )

Dec. 2nd, 2016


Book Review: Bloomer Girls

I need to be pickier in the books I get from Netgalley; I've hit a whole string of duds in a row. The latest one is Debra A. Shattuck's Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers, which is both boring and unconvincing. How do you write a boring book about early women baseball players?

It's possible that Shattuck just doesn't have the sources to write an interesting ones. Most of what she's got seems to be newspaper mentions of either women's baseball pick-up games, or the occasional touring women's baseball team, which is interesting in the limited sense that it shows that some women did play baseball, but doesn't give much insight into how they thought about it themselves.

It might, in different hands, give quite a bit of insight into what nineteenth century white American culture thought about women baseball players, but it certainly doesn't in Shattuck's, because she's intent on proving that baseball wasn't seen as a "men's game" until around 1900.

That would be super interesting if it were true, but Shattuck's own evidence totally disproves this. The newspaper articles she quotes make it very clear that baseball was seen as a masculine pursuit (possibly a masculine pursuit more suited to boys than grown-up men - this seems to be the loophole that Shattuck is hoping to shove her argument through - but still masculine). Many of them heap scorn or condescending amusement on women and girls playing baseball, and the ones that favor it do so with an argumentative air: they know very well that they're going against the tide of public opinion.

The fact that many women did play baseball doesn't mean that it wasn't considered masculine. You wouldn't have tomboy stories if women doing something automatically meant society considered it feminine!

Did Shattuck come up with her thesis and then run with it, actual evidence be damned? It's really too bad, because I think someone without that axe to grind probably could write an interesting book about women baseball pioneers - but this is not that book.

Dec. 1st, 2016


Count of Monte Cristo: Chapter 75

I'm about two thirds of the way through this book, and at last the Count's carefully laid plans are beginning to bear fruit! At least, his plans against Villefort and Danglars are; I'm not sure what his plan against Fernand is, and it's making me nervous.

And CLEARLY Spoilers!Collapse )

Still no word from Caderrouse, but given how tightly everyone in this novel seems to be bound together, I'm sure he'll show up again sometime.

Nov. 30th, 2016


Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

I’ve finished the first two books in Pamela Dean’s Secret Country trilogy, The Secret Country and The Hidden Land, and these books, you guys, these books are so damn weird. Actually I think you could say this about all of Dean’s books - they are shaped differently from the usual run of books, which is one of the reasons I love them but also means that I spend a lot of time going “Wait, wait, what just happened? What is happening? What even is the nature of this magical land and why is it full of people quoting Shakespeare?”

I am partway through the third book, The Whim of the Dragon, but dragging my feet on it because the death of one of my favorites has been not so much foreshadowed as fated, but in such a way that I keep hoping against hope that it won’t happen and am going to be terribly upset when it does. A VERSION OF HIS DEATH IS DESCRIBED IN LITERALLY THE FIRST CHAPTER OF THE FIRST BOOK, WHY DID I GET SO ATTACHED.

What I’m Reading Now

God, so many things. Too many things, which is honestly part of the problem: I need to buckle down and finish a few because I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed by my partly read pile. Aside from The Whim of the Dragon, I’m also reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I’m also dragging my feet on because it’s about the Vietnam War and nothing good ever happens in Vietnam War books.

And I have two books from NetGalley. First is Debra A. Shattuck’s Bloomer Girls, which is about the history of American women in baseball in the 19th century and so far mostly seems to consist of iterations of the fact that women played baseball. The second is John Kim’s The Angry Therapist, which I think I would enjoy more if Kim didn’t strike me as super full of himself and yet also bizarrely insecure. He keeps saying things like, “When I began my blog, where I talk about therapy and also my motorcycle and my tattoos because I am just that cool, I had no idea that it would one day have a million zillion bazillion hits and also revolutionize therapy” (I’m paraphrasing, he’s probably not actually this bad), and it’s like, c’mon dude, there’s no need to be so modest; you’re not that great.

Maybe once I’m past the introduction he’ll start talking more about his theories and less about himself.

What I Plan to Read Next

I found a book on NetGalley called Speaking in Cod Tongues, which is about Canadian cuisine. How could I say no to a food memoir/possibly road trip book? NetGalley speaks to all my worst impulses.

And then NetGalley had a book called How to Be Ultra Spiritual, which is about… the commercialization of spiritual stuff I think… anyway it looks hilarious, of course I had to request it.

Nov. 29th, 2016


Book Review: What Slaveholders Think

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick's book What Slaveholders Think is in some ways quite misnamed: he's very careful not to speculate about what slaveholders think, but instead reports what they have told him with a large grain of salt. Although not quite large enough; as the slaveholders nattered on about respect and reciprocal duties between landlords and bonded labors, I kept thinking about antebellum southern slaveholders, who could turn on a dime between enthusing about the paternalistic nature of slavery to shrieking about the looming possibility of slave insurrection and the necessity to treat disobedient slaves with utmost harshness.

Choi-Fitzpatrick is writing about contemporary bonded labor in rural India, so of course the landlords might have a slightly less bifurcated consciousness than antebellum southern slaveowners. But I nonetheless came away with the feeling that he hadn't really gained his interviewees' trust and they didn't tell him what they really think - the kind of thing they would say at a dinner with like-minded men, once the ladies have left the table and the men are relaxing over bourbon and cigars.

This is slipping into the American South again. Possibly the problem is simply that my frame of reference is so different than Choi-Fitzpatrick's.

Although Choi-Fitzpatrick does have some countervailing interviews from former bonded laborers, which show that their former landlords would in fact use threats of violence (and occasionally actual violence) to keep them in line. I guess I feel that without getting even an acknowledgement of that violence from the perpetrators - not even their justification, just an acknowledgement - the interview data from the perpetrators is more or less a puff piece.

The book also suffers from the fact that Choi-Fitzpatrick is trying insistently (one might also say repetitively) to correct a movement that has gotten bizarrely out of touch with reality in some ways. Why else would it come as a surprise to anyone that "resources and opportunities shape the decisions made by targeted incumbents" (that is, slaveholders)? Yet Choi-Fitzpatrick repeats this many times, as if he expects his readers to be amazed that slaveholders don't exist in a vacuum of pure evil.

The book picked up a bit in the final chapter, when Choi-Fitzpatrick begins to talk about the way that unjust systems become normalized: "oppression is not pathological: it is instead embedded in broader cultural systems and legitimizing myths that render the horrible somehow normal and everyday and banal." Humans tend to accept that whatever is, is right; and that's part of why injustice endures so tenaciously.

But I've read this before, and said better, in Hannah Arendt and Solzhenitsyn (whom Choi-Fitzpatrick actually quotes) and Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams. Unless you're very specifically interested in bonded labor in India, there's no reason to read this book.

Nov. 28th, 2016


Caldecott Monday: Once a Mouse

The cover on Marcia Brown's Once a Mouse doesn't really do justice to the book: it's a quiet, static picture, and the illustrations in the book are full of tension and movement. A hermit saves a mouse from a crow, only for it to be threatened by a cat - so he turns the mouse into a cat, and then a dog, and at last into a tiger, at which point the mouse-turned-tiger becomes extremely vain of its stripes and its size.

I think there's a message here about remembering your roots and/or the people who helped you along the way: no one turns into a tiger all on their own.

Anyway. I particularly like the scene where he turns the mouse into a tiger: he's got his arms stretched wide, the tiger appearing beneath them, and the other tiger is cowering away at the side.

Nov. 27th, 2016


A couple of photos

A couple of photos! On Thanksgiving, my dad and I drove over to the new buffalo reserve to see the buffalo... only the buffalo did not want to be seen. They couldn't be seen from any angle at the buffalo viewing area; they also couldn't be seen as we drove around the reserve. Finally, we saw another car stopped, and we also pulled up there and stood on the running board...

And there they wereCollapse )

My roommate and I have been planning an herb garden for next spring. She's already got basil and rosemary (well, we'll need to replant next spring, but she's got places for them), and I wanted to add thyme - "And we could do parsley and sage too, and call it a Scarborough Fair garden," I joked.

And what should I find at Trader Joe"s but...Collapse )

Nov. 25th, 2016


100 Books That Influenced Me, #43: The Moorchild

Eloise Jarvis McGraw's The Moorchild is dedicated "To all children who have ever felt different." I don't believe I read this dedication the first time round - I was not in the habit of reading dedications when I was eleven - and it is perhaps just as well, because I already identified with the book so hard that I might very well have picked it as my desert island book if anyone had asked me at the time.

At the center of this of course is Saaski herself, the moorchild of the title: a member of the fairy Folk who is exchanged for a human child because she's half-human herself, and therefore can never fit in the Mound. And yet she doesn't fit with the humans either, with her dark skin and dandelion fluff of hair and overlong fingers (I latched onto this finger detail so hard that I gave it to my OC at the time) and her habit of forever running away to the Moors. "Freaky odd," the village children call her, and her only friend is the tinker's boy Tam, who comes sometimes to the moors with his pipes.

Saaski's journey to find - not a place she belongs, but a person she belongs with - resonated with me terribly. The book still hits me emotionally when I reread it now. I'm even more conscious of the pervasive sense of loneliness in this book: not just Saaski's but Tam's, Old Bess's, even Saaski's parents Anwara and Yanno, who love their child but can't understand her.

But I have enough distance from it now to admire the beautiful craft of the book too, not least of which is the marvelous grasp of historical detail. Saaski's daily chores (milking the cow, setting the bread), and the yearly chores of a small village farm - swarming the bees, retting the flax - are woven into the narrative with perfect naturalness, as are the thick swarms of herb names that dance across the narrative as Saaski brings them to her grandmother, Old Bess.

I loved (and still love) Old Bess almost as much as Saaski: a tough, tart-tongued village healer, who holds her peace and keeps her counsel and watches over Saaski, and loves her even though she knows from the start that Saaski is a changeling child - perhaps because she sees something of herself in Saaski. Old Bess is not one of the Folk herself (in fact, the Folk have written runes on her door to warn each other of danger: even they know Old Bess is a force to be reckoned with!), but she's an outsider too, and yet has built up a life in the village despite that.

There's also a lot of beautiful, beautiful description in this book, as vivid and absolutely unobtrusive as the historical detail: the simple images of the moor as "broom-gilded" (broom being a yellow flower), or the scene where Saaski and her one friend Tam play their pipes together and Saaski's bagpipes sing "over and under his little pipe's shrill melody like a bramble vine twining a sapling."

And the metaphors McGraw uses to describe mental states, too, are beautiful vivid and apt. After a bad start to the day, Saaski rushes up to the moors to "let the music mend the jagged edges of the morning"; or Saaski's struggles with her mostly-submerged memories of her time with the Folk, which she strives to push away and yet sometimes yearns to remember, so that when someone mentions a familiar name, it "streaked across her memory like a shooting star and vanished into the general dark."

God, what I would give to write a metaphor like that. There are a lot of books I admire without wanting to have written them, but this one - I would give anything to write a story that means as much for other people as this has meant for me.

Nov. 24th, 2016


Happy Thanksgiving! and various sundries

Happy Thanksgiving for my fellow Americans! This has not been a month to inspire much spontaneous gratitude - hell, it hasn't been much of a year for inspiring gratitude - but we did have a very nice duck for dinner, and I have at last discovered a recipe that fills the hole in my heart left by the grocery store that discontinued its peanut butter chip chocolate muffin lo these many years ago, so those are two things to be thankful for I suppose.

I haven't gotten very far in The Count of Monte Cristo this week, but I did find out that the telegraphist who the Count coerced/bribed into sending a false telegraph escaped ahead of prosecution, so phew. I was worried about the poor guy.

In other news, PBS is showing a new movie version of Anne of Green Gables tonight! With Martin Sheen as Matthew, which is either terrible or brilliant, depending on whether I can resist shouting "OMG IT'S PRESIDENT BARTLET" at the screen. We'll see!

Nov. 22nd, 2016


Book Review: 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution

It took me a long time to get through 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, because like any story collection the quality is varied, and I found the poems in particular a slog. I’m not sure if it’s that poems in translation almost invariably lose something - you would need, I think, a great artist to translate a poem into another language without losing something; and how many great artists want to devote themselves to translating someone else’s work?

Or if it’s because the Kindle is simply a very bad medium for reading poetry, because it doesn’t properly preserve the line breaks. (I read this book as file from Netgalley, so Kindle was my only option.) Either way, I bogged down a long time on poor Alexander Blok and his ilk.

The stories are a mixed bag too, but some of them are gems. Two in particular stick in my mind: Teffi’s “The Guillotine,” a satirical story about a group of people who head to their morning guillotine appointment as if they were going to an open-air lecture (complete with complaints about the crowd: why’s everyone shoving so much? So rude!).

And then there’s Yefim Zozulya’s “The Dictator: The Story of Ak and Humanity,” in which the Council of Public Welfare running the city of Ak issues a decree that they have decided to liquidate all “superfluous persons.” “Those who lack the courage to terminate their existence, if ordered to do so by the COUNCIL OF PUBLIC WELFARE, will be aided by the COUNCIL. The sentences will be carried out by the friends and neighbours of the condemned, or by a special military detachment,” the poster announces ominously.

It’s black, black, black humor, a grimly hilarious commentary on human nature. Worth getting your hands on the collection to read this story alone.

An extra note of interest: “The Story of Ak and Humanity” is translated by Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman’s boyfriend who was deported to the Soviet Union with her during the Red Scare post-World War I. So the story is not only written by someone who witnessed the Russian Revolution, but translated by a man who saw it too, and grew so disillusioned that he wrote The Bolshevik Myth to outline the flaws of the Revolution.

And now I want to read that too. Goddammit, there are just too many books in this world and not enough time to read them all.

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