Monday, June 30, 2008

Well Wishing

Title: Diary of a Fairy Godmother
Author: Esme Raji Codell
Bookmark: the flag from a Hershey's Kiss. Have you noticed they don't all say "Hershey's" anymore?

There is exactly one thing wrong with this book: there's no Newbery Medal on the cover. No awards, accolades, or high recognition of any kind, and that's just tragic, because this book is fantastic.

Hunky Dory, a promising young witch, accompanies her Auntie Malice to crash the christening party for the new baby princess. There she first encounters FGs, each of whom has bestowed various gifts for the new royal baby. After Malice curses the child to die at 15 from a spinning wheel prick, Hunky amends "death" to "100 years sleep." Thus begins the greatest career path story ever.

As much fun as it is to watch Hunky Forrest Gump her way through every fairy tale you've ever read--and many you've probably never heard of--it's just as great to see Codell's take on witch culture and language ("oh, my badness!"), including the best tea party scene in all of literature. The clever language , storyline, and weaving of every witchy tale in our collective consciousness (ever wonder where the good witches in Oz originated? or wishing wells?), make it worth a read for anybody, but what elevates it from Really Great Children's Literature to Medal-Worthy Children's Literature is the wisdom, observation, and general advice sprinkled throughout the book, usually quoted from the famous witch text Be the One With the Wand, but also often instilled through the characters' own insights. These are gathered in a handy index at the end of the book, just before a list of other great books about witches (I was happy see that I had read, or was familiar with, nearly a third of the list). Even though it's good for everyone, the preponderance of female characters (and yes, themes) forces me to add a label that I'm shocked hasn't already been created by my cohorts... and to recommend Diary to my evil little cousin.

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posted by reyn at 9:58 AM


Saturday, June 28, 2008

I Have Met the Enemy, and It Is Corn

Title: The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Author: Michael Pollan

What is perhaps most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections. To go from the chicken (Gallus gallus) to the Chicken McNugget is to leave this world in a journey of forgetting that could hardly be more costly, not only in terms of the animal’s pain but in our pleasure, too. But forgetting, or not knowing in the first place, is what the industrial food chain is all about, the principal reason it is so opaque, for if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.

I’ll come straight and admit it – I have a deep fondness for Chicken McNuggets. They’re crispy (sort of), easily-chewable, and perfectly designed so that I can eat them with one hand while driving. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma won’t stop me from scarfing McNuggets during my next visit to a Pennsylvania Turnpike rest stop. But I will feel guilty about it.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as Pollan himself says, is a very long answer to a very short question: What should we have for dinner? For humans, this is a serious question deserving serious thought. A koala doesn’t think about what to have for dinner. It’s all eucalyptus, all the time. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert. Eucalyptus. But we humans can eat many things – flora, fauna, fungi. We’re omnivores (just like rats). Therefore, we have to exert considerable brain power deciding what to eat, so we don’t chow down something that poisons us.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan traces the origins of three different food chains: the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer. It’s a fascinating journey, full of surprise twists and turns. For instance, I learned that almost every strand in the industrial food chain leads back to corn. Corn sweetens our foods (high fructose corn syrup), feeds our meat (animals raised in factory farms are fed corn), and provides many of the incomprehensible ingredients on processed food labels (lecithin, triglycerides, and even citric acid). To eat a Chicken McNugget and Coke, Pollan points out, is to have corn with your corn. And because corn produces a unique carbon isotope, scientists can determine how much corn-generated carbon is in an individual’s diet by measuring the amount of that isotope in their hair. One biologist performing this experiment said, “We North Americans look like corn chips with legs.”

Also included is the incredible story of Fritz Haber, who developed the process for fixing nitrogen, a key ingredient in synthetic fertilizer. Before Haber’s invention, the Earth’s population was strictly limited by the nitrogen that could be fixed by legumes and fungi. Some call Haber’s invention the most important scientific development of the 20th century, and estimate that 2 out of 5 people alive today would not exist but for Haber. And yet, no one celebrates him. The reason? Haber threw himself into the WWI German war effort, developing synthetic nitrate for bombs and, later, poisonous gases. One day, distraught that her husband had turned into Dr. Death, Mrs. Haber, also a chemist, killed herself with her husband’s army pistol.

So much for the industrial food chain. The organic and hunter-gatherer trails are just as interesting. Just how organic is that apple from Whole Foods? How much food can an acre of sustainably-farmed land produce? And just how far will a passionate mushroom hunter go to protect a good porcini spot?

This book presents many good reasons why we should change our eating habits. But I found one particularly convincing, and it has nothing to do with the environment or animal cruelty. It has to do with taste. Pollan mentions several interviews with people who have made the conscious decision to eat organic. Among the older individuals, a common theme was, “I just want to eat food that tastes like I how remember it. Chicken doesn’t taste like chicken anymore.”

Have Americans forgotten tastes? Do we eat so much bland, processed food that we don’t notice how flavorless everything is? Perhaps. All I can say is that this summer I have visited three different grocery stores in search of watermelon, only to find that the only variety available was personal-size “seedless” watermelons. I’ve eaten two of these monstrosities now, and both were nothing like the red juiciness I crave. Where are all the normal watermelons? Makes me wonder.

Highly recommended.

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posted by Elizabeth at 12:00 PM


Friday, June 27, 2008

Less Man, More Dog, Please

Title: The Art of Racing in the Rain
Author: Garth Stein


Enzo is a dog who dreams of being reincarnated as a man (never, interestingly, a woman.) Enzo figures it’s about time he advanced to the next highest life form, since he’s gained vast knowledge from hours spent watching tv. (Television apparently has opposite effects on people and beasts.) His owner’s name is Denny Swift. And in case you were wondering, yes, Denny wants to go fast. He’s a race car driver.

Yeah, this is the kind of book where the author – without the slightest bit of irony – names a racer “Swift.” That alone should tell you a lot.

The book is narrated by Enzo, as he gleans life lessons from Denny’s singular talent for – you guessed it – racing in the rain. (Robert Pirsig performed this “art of” trick much better.) And Enzo does have some wise/cute reflections on humanity’s condition. I just can’t really remember any at the moment.

But despite the story being narrated by a dog, the entire action is propelled by Garth Stein’s human characters. And that’s unfortunate, because Denny et al. are straight out of a Lifetime Sunday night movie. The big conflict in the book is when Denny’s wife dies, and he has to battle her rich, snobby parents for custody of his daughter (because, you see, they can give her opportunities that a struggling race car driver never could). Throw in a false sexual harassment accusation, and you have a perfect recipe for “heart-wrenching” goopiness.

The Art of Racing in the Rain desperately needed more doggishness. Enzo is mostly a passive observer who speaks as a well-educated human, and the plot doesn’t rely on the presence of a dog at all. Without Enzo, almost everything would have turned out the exact same. So what was the point?

A clever idea, just one that went to the dogs. Garth Stein is not nearly clever and witty enough to have pulled this off.

If Oprah ever got her claws on this book, I’m sure it would become a nationwide bestseller. Sensitive book clubs would swoon. It just wasn’t for me.

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posted by Elizabeth at 9:56 PM


these are not the people I know and love

Mr. Darcy Presents His Bride: A Sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
by Helen Halstead

I love P&P. I've read some good books that continue the story, or expand on it (really enjoyed Pamela Aidan's trilogy). This one, not so much.

Somehow the characters just grated on me. Elizabeth was annoying, Darcy was a stoic jerk, Georgianna was a wuss, Lady Catherine was a bitch, and so forth. I kept reading, hoping it'd improve (rather, that they'd improve), but never really enjoyed it (it probably helped that I was traveling at the time, and didn't want to waste a book that I'd taken the time to bring). My favorite part? (SPOILER) Wickham dies of untreated syphilis. Poetic justice at its best.

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posted by ket at 1:20 PM


Not really all that strange

Strangers in Death
by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts)

Nora's written like twenty of these "mystery" novels featuring Detective Eve Dallas, and I think I've read them all. I don't really remember the details of this one's plot anymore (most importantly, how the bad guy pulled it off), but it followed the same pattern of murder, Eve knows almost instantly who's to blame, various conflicts, Eve's right and bad guy goes to jail. Really, I just enjoy not thinking for the few hours it takes to read these, and the interactions between Eve and her husband are always amusing.

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posted by ket at 1:16 PM


Thursday, June 26, 2008

I didn't write the book yet, but I read it

Title: The Pocket Guide to Mischief
Author: Bart King
Bookmark: the gift receipt

I was delighted to receive this book in the mail, but also immediately puzzled. Why would someone who knows me well enough to realize that I’d love this book doubt that knowledge enough to include a gift receipt (unless they suspected that I already owned it?)? When I posed the same question to Elizabeth, she had a different angle: why would somebody who knew me so well even think that I needed such a book? “It’s like giving a book on microbiology to Louis Pasteur—he wrote the book!” I’m paraphrasing here, to give her a cooler line than whatever she said and I forgot, but that was the gist of it.

Granted, the book is aimed at a younger audience than me, and some of the Mischief detailed in its pages is tame, or older than the hills (at least old enough to be forgotten by the generation between that which invented it and that at which the book is aimed), but give the guy some credit; in his free time, Bart King is a middle school teacher. He may have to someday reap what he has sown, so he has to be a little careful. Besides, there’s still a lot of fascinating stuff, like Mischief of the Rich and Famous, including jokes played by celebrities as diverse as George Clooney and one of Genghis Khan’s conquests. Including when these pranks drastically backfired (moral: don’t play a prank on Genghis Khan).

Since I read the bulk of this book on planes, I’ve decided, as a bit of an homage, to give a watch-pocket-sized guide to mischief: Air Travel Edition. I’ve spent a lot of time on planes in the past two months, and I’ve given this great thought, even before starting the book.

  1. The easiest thing to do (and least likely to get you on a No-Fly list) is make sure other people see you reading this book. Don’t bother hiding the cover, and make sure they can see the title. For the more neurotic people around you, the mere possibility of mischief is enough to get them all worked up without you having to do anything at all. To ensure they suspect something, giggle a lot while reading, and try to look like you’re picking marks.
  2. No matter what line you’re in, ask if it’s the line for the bathroom. If it is the line for the bathroom, ask instead whether they’ve started pre-boarding yet.
  3. On my way to Columbus, I got pulled out of the security line to go through a “puffer booth”. If you get sent through one, there are two options, based on gender. Guys: turn towards the wall, stand very close to it, and when the door opens again, act like you’re zipping up before you step out. Ladies: storm out, declaring loudly, “Why, I never!!
  4. During takeoff and landing, hold your arms up and yell, “Wheeeeeeee!” roller-coaster style.
  5. During taxiing, make engine noises and act like you’re steering.
  6. Don’t forget to get some exercise on long flights. I crossed the Atlantic a couple times in April, and had to walk around the cabin a little bit to keep from going crazy. I actually discovered two different first class cabins. One of them had chairs that turned into beds. I was wedged into a quilted bucket between a Bulgarian woman and the elbow-crushing drink cart, and these assholes had entire ROOMS to themselves. On your flight, take a tour to check out first-class accommodations. While you’re there, fart.
  7. Harmonize with crying babies.
  8. If any food or drinks are served, ask your neighbors if they’re going to finish theirs. Have them ask the people you can’t reach.
  9. Every time a flight attendant goes by, ask for another sick bag. If someone notices this, wink and tell them, “this is gonna be HUGE!!”
  10. Tell everyone how the in-flight movie ends.
  11. Sing along with in-flight radio. If they don’t have one, sing anyway. Something really infectious, so it will be stuck in everyone’s heads for the rest of their travels.
  12. Build a fort out of those little pillows and blankets.

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posted by reyn at 9:42 AM


Saturday, June 21, 2008

We are so screwed.

Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet
by Mark Lynas

I think my heading pretty much sums it up. Lynas read hundreds of research papers and journal articles relating to what scientists think will happen as the world's average temperature goes up. You may not think one degree would make a difference, but it does. The book is organized by degrees of change, up to 6, describing what will most likely happen to various ecosystems, the climate, and the earth in general for each degree the temperature rises over the next hundred years.

One degree is pretty much unavoidable at this point; if we reach three degrees of change, it'll start a positive feedback cycle.

If, as Chapter 3 showed, we cross the "tipping point" of Amazonian collapse and soil carbon release that lies somewhere above two degrees, then another 250 ppm of CO2 could pour into the atmosphere, yielding another 1.5C (2.7F) of warming and taking us straight into the four-degree world. Once we arrive there, the accelerated release of carbon and methane from thawing Siberian permafrost will add even more greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, driving yet more warming, and perhaps pushing us on into the five-degree world. At this level of warming, as Chapter 5 showed, oceanic methane hydrate release becomes a serious possibility, catapulting us into the ultimate mass extinction apocalypse of six degrees. The lesson is as clear as it is daunting: If we are to be confident about saving humanity and the planet from the worst mass extinction of all time, worse even than that at the end of the Permian, we must stop at two degrees.

Again, screwed. The only way to stop at two degrees is to put drastically lower limits on carbon production/release, which doesn't seem to be anywhere near happening.

Lynas also doesn't point fingers, but does note that Americans use ridiculously disproportionate amounts of energy. Sadly, reading about all the things that will disappear off in the near future (a secluded ecosystem in Australia, the Great Barrier Reef, all kinds of atoll islands in Asia) makes me want to FLY OVER THERE and visit. Um, I think that may be part of the problem.

There was a similar global warming episode a few million years ago (at the end of the Permian, mentioned above). It killed off 3/4 of the plant and animal species. And it took about 10 times as long for the temperature to rise as it's currently going now.

So do your part, use a little less gas and electricity, and maybe if enough of us do so, we might make it to the year 2100.

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posted by ket at 9:49 AM


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Planet too Far

Title: Steel Gauntlet (Starfist Book 3)
Authors: David Sherman and Dan Cragg
Bookmark: receipt from seafood dinner and hot chocolate.

It became apparent very early in this book that the writers were both military men. It was left at my place by a visiting friend who was done with it in exchange for a Ludlum. I got hosed on the trade.

Glancing at the cover, even reading the back, assured me that this was pulp sci-fi, and would soon prove to be bad, if not terrible. Who says you can't judge a book by its cover?

Synopsis: Nobody uses tanks anymore, so all of the anti-tank weapons have been dismantled and recycled except for the 11 museum pieces. When Marston St. Cyr, a pathologically insane industrialist who thinks "hostile takeover" involves shooting everyone else in the boardroom (and their families, staff, and business allies plus THEIR families and staff) uses his extensive R&D budget not to research new mining methods, but to build several battalions of tanks to aid in his takeover of a corporate-controlled resource-rich planet, nobody has anything that can stop him. A history prof is recruited to train Marines in antiquated technology while somebody else gets busy making shitloads of anti-tank missiles, then they all get dropped on this planet to blow up tanks and get incinerated by plasma weapons in turns.

Lessons learned (and heavily hammered home, over and over, as bluntly as possible):
  1. Marines are awesome. They can do anything, and always win, even if they lose a few men, or are insufficiently armed. They may even attack a tank with only two men carrying sidearms, and win.
  2. Army screws things up for marines
  3. Many high officers are boneheads, cannot be trusted, and make extremely poor decisions. Except Marine officers.
  4. Diplomats are pompous gasbags who don't like Marines.
  5. War is hell.
  6. Violence solves problems, and is an acceptable means of vengeance.
It's heavy-handed and ham-fisted. Imagine a description of a months-long war in which every skirmish is described, with names of vital participants, full radio chatter, details of every shot fired, and post-shooting grumbling of poor management decisions. I gave up trying to keep all the characters straight in the fourth chapter, and just let everyone shoot each other until it was over. The closing chapters involving a hostage situation in an abandoned mine (no, really--the villain had a lair in a mountain, just like a James Bond villain. Kinda named like one, too, for that matter) were by far the best and most interesting of the book. The rest was readable, but a little too plodding to really be entertaining.

For the sake of placating anyone who randomly comes across this blog, because we've had more of that lately, let's be clear on a couple points:
  1. Marines are awesome. I'm a big fan of all our armed forces, and fully recognize and appreciate their efforts at putting themselves in harm's way to protect and serve the rest of us. Even if they do occasionally receive asinine orders.
  2. I even like books about the armed forces. (Note the above Ludlum reference, and the Clancy thrillers I read before starting this blog)
  3. A bad book, despite the subject matter, is still a bad book. But often fun to review. Hence the name of the blog.

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posted by reyn at 9:01 AM


Sunday, June 01, 2008

A Novella For the Reader in You

Title: The Uncommon Reader
Author: Alan Bennett

Recently reviewed on this blog, The Uncommon Reader is a wonderful little story about what would happen if the Queen of England suddenly developed an obsession with reading. This novella helps its reader to rediscover all the reasons he or she started reading in the first place, and reminds "one" (to use the term the Queen is forever using to refer to herself) of the all-too-common desire to share one's passion for reading. Since Elizabeth has done a far better job than I ever could, I'll just point you to her review and second her statement that "if you miss this book, you would be remiss."

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posted by Kate at 9:29 PM


Maybe Kings Shouldn't Sleep Around

Title: The Serpent's Tale
Author: Ariana Franklin
Bookmark: neon pink scrap of paper with my name on it (i.e. the hold slip from the library)

Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is back again, this time extremely unhappy to be called away from her comfy home in the countryside where she is living with her infant daughter, Allie. Rosamund Clifford, mistress of King Henry, has been murdered, and Adelia must find out who is guilty. All signs point to Queen Eleanor, but Rowley Picot, newly appointed as the Bishop of Saint Albans, is convinced it must be someone else.

Rowley and Adelia journey to Rosamund's home, a tower surrounded by a treacherous maze. Finally defeating the maze due to Adelia's superior keep-one-hand-on-the-wall-at-all-times-and-follow-it-to-the-end method, they find a frozen Rosamund seated in a chair holding a quill as though she is about to write a later. The letter, found nearby, states: "To the Lady Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine and supposed Queen of England, greetings from the true and very Queen of this country, Rosamund the Fair". Things do not look good for Eleanor, who now has motive - to suppress Rosamund as a threat to her throne.

Then Queen Eleanor arrives, eager to see for herself that Rosamund is dead. Soon, Eleanor, her party, Adelia, Rowley, and others journey to a nearby nunnery where they find themselves stuck for the duration of the winter due to an incredible snowstorm and continued cold weather. More murders occur. Adelia struggles to solve the crimes while trying to keep herself and her daughter safe.

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posted by Kate at 9:08 PM


The Dead Can Talk

Title: Mistress of the Art of Death
Author: Ariana Franklin

Set around 1170, Mistress of the Art of Death introduces Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, a female doctor in a time when female doctors were more commonly feared as witches. King Henry II sends a letter to the school of medicine in Salerno asking for a doctor who can ascertain causes of death. There has been a rash of brutal murders of children in Cambridge, and the people are blaming the Jews. And the Jews just so happen to be an excellent source of taxes for King Henry.

Adelia, being the best coroner Salerno has, journeys to Cambridge with Mansur, her Saracen eunuch servant, and Simon of Naples, a Jewish spy who is very good at acting oblivious while ferreting out the truth. Mansur, pretending to speak only Arabic so Adelia can function as his "translater" and assistant, poses as the doctor to prevent her from suffering the superstitions of an ignorant England.

Along the way, Adelia meets Rowley Picot, first a prime suspect but later discovered to be Henry's right hand man. And Adelia's love interest.

A good book, with, to me, an unexpected ending. But then again, I am rarely good at figuring out whodunit.

I would have to add that the descriptions of how the children were murdered were quite disturbing. I always wonder at authors who go into such great detail about that type of thing, and for that matter, come up with it in the first place. I'd still recommend the book though.

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posted by Kate at 8:29 PM