31 December 2011

2011: Later, gator!

Well, 2011 has crept out of my life.  The year was chuggling along smoothly with surprising new reads (I finally hopped on the A Song of Ice and Fire bandwagon and remembered that romance novels aren't quite that bad when I need a reading boost) and surprising talents (I wrote a book - almost done with draft 6 and feeling like I might, just might, let other people read it) when December hit. 

My world shattered into a thousand tiny pieces when my mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor December 4.  Things still haven't settled after three weeks of crazy but we are moving forward.  The surgeons did a fantastic resection, Mom is recovering well, and the radiation and chemotherapy schedule is set to start January 4.  The path ahead of her is uncertain but she has good doctors and therapists and we're going to put up one hell of a fight.

In the middle of all this, the poor little book blog gets neglected.  I still haven't caught up with my reviews.  Oops.  Being a reader I was presented with a dilemma.  I could (a) write my reviews (which takes about 30-45 minutes/review depending on what I have to say), (b) read a book, or (c) edit my own book.  It's safe to say that (b) and (c) won out, with (c) taking a bit of an edge because I almost didn't finish the biggest, but simplest, challenge I ever signed up for.

The Goodreads Challenge

I said I would read 100 books this year.  I've wanted to do this for several years now and always fell short.  Goodreads's little challenge seemed well within my reach...until I started writing.  I didn't read a book for weeks unless you count constant re-reads of my own poor manuscript, quibbling over the placement of a "her". 

But I did it.  I read 100 books.  In fact, I read 102 books.  *cue trumpets*

I liked most of what I read (five stars is "amazing", four stars is "I really liked it", three stars is "it was good/ok/readable", two stars is "meh/uninteresting", and one star is "I really wanted to light this on fire" - I have no one star books because those books I usually don't finish reading and don't bother to review most of the time):

According to Goodreads the longest book I read was A Storm of Swords (according to me, I think it was A Dance with Dragons, but that's probably a quibble over format and the ebook format didn't have any pages listed for ASOS so I had to make do with the MM format just to get page counts).  My favorite book this year is either One of Our Thursdays is Missing, Shatter Me, A Game of Thrones (probably that whole series because I went on a serious binge), or The Wierd Sisters.  I never can decide. 

Also, according to Goodreads I read 32,330 pages this year.  Excuse me while I peel my contact lenses out of my dry little eyes.  I actually read faster on my nooks (yes, I said nooks because there are several...pardon me while I go beat down Mr. Collins) - if I don't have to turn a real page then I don't have to move my eyeballs and, somehow, that turns into reading faster.  Craze-balls.

I finally read some Jane Austen off-shoots (thanks to Sourcebooks' wonderful ebook sales during December - JA's birthday month) and remembered that, while I really, really still don't like Austen variations/sequels/straight-up modern re-tellings, I do like clever adaptations (cf: Bridget Jones's Diary and Clueless).  I find that I enjoy stories that use JA as a jumping off point (like A Weekend with Mr. Darcy) rather than one of her novels as a skeleton.  My reading of the collection Jane Austen Made Me Do It added more evidence for that conclusion.

I did some re-reading, too.  I picked up Thurber's The Thirteen Clocks (the NYRB Classics re-issue) and read it aloud to my kitty-boys one evening during a storm.  I pulled out my D'Aulaires (also re-issued by NYRB Classics) when I needed some inspiration from Norse mythology  I turned to Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series (with Eloise and Colin and flowery Regency spies) because Letty and Arabella are good friends in a pinch.  And my beloved Jane bolstered me with Pride and Prejudice when I inclined to insomnia due to worrying over Mom.

Other challenges...well, I sorta failed.  The Booker Challenge?  I had good intentions but barely scratched the surface.  I only read one Newbery book (yet to be reviewed).  Only one Best American.  Boo.  Fail, fail, fail.

My trouble is the writing.  What I read seeps into what I write.  Not a bad thing, necessarily (I generally find that authors who cop to the whole "I couldn't possibly sully my process by reading other people's stuff" attitude have the most ghastly prose), but when one realizes that she has unconsciously appropriated key words and phrases from well-known authors...and those words/phrases are unique to said authors' worldbuilding...one starts to sweat just a little.  And stop reading.  (This is where the romance novels come in...they somehow don't affect the writing and saved my bacon with the Goodreads challenge).

But enough about 2011.  On to 2012!

I, Juan de Pareja

I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de TrevinoI am woefully behind in my Newbery project!  Only one book this year!  The 1966 winner of the Newbery Medal.

I, Juan de Pareja is the imagined autobiography of real-life painter Juan de Pareja.  Juan was born a slave of mixed-race in seventeenth-century Spain and willed to master painter Diego Velasquez on the death of his mistress, becoming Velasquez's assistant. He was later freed and became a respected painter in his own right (The Calling of St.Matthew is his most famous work, apparently on display at the Prado but I can't get a link for it). 

de Trevino's rendition of Juan (or Juanico, the diminutive used for much of the book) presents him as a an open, good-hearted boy, a good Catholic, and an earnest servant with some self-awareness that he is different from Spanish servants.  As a young man he becomes more aware of his situation as a slave.  Although he does not actively rebel against "the system", there is some feeling of injustice or unfairness in how he can be owned simply for being dark-skinned and born of a woman enslaved. 

The best passages of the book come from Juan's budding fascination with painting and his attempts to learn to paint as Velasquez does although the slavery laws forbid it.  Juan's awe at how Velasquez used light and dark in the paintings, how the colors were mixed, can be shared by the reader.  I don't paint or draw and I felt awestruck just reading the imagined depiction of Velasquez's studio.

This book is not a fast read despite being fairly short.  I think it would be of good use in a unit on slavery to show that the concept was not limited to certain parts of the world and to introduce the historical foundations of racism and slavery.

Now for the vocabulary - there were so many words!  Some are in Spanish or have a religious or historical origin.  Definitely a good book for making word-lists:

laboriously, siesta, sweetmeats, mantilla, mangy, urchin, rosary, melodious, vestments, deceit, maravedis, constricted, cipher, ignominy, conviction (idea, not jail), sullenly, niggardly, coddled egg, morsel, frugal, Damascu paper, capricious, dictated, "Ay de mi", taciturn, fretful, portended, premonition, miser, penury, Romany, subservient, crony, scourged, real (coin), zaguau, prophetic, intuitive, retching, ravenously, "Quien?", pattered, magistrate, tottering, convent, mortars, apprentice, obligated, commissions, taffeta, azure, schemer, copyist, scrivener, dais, vulgar, frivolous, inconspicuously, corpulence, puritanical, parasite, stripling, indefatigable, sanctity, shriven, manumission, slap-dash, departure, jovial, craggy, impetuous, retinue, unguents, encysted, despondency, repentence, temerity, wallowing, miasma, ominously, swart, obeisances, coolly dispassionate, Regent, cosset, meticulous, adulation, communicant, scrupulous, treachery


29 December 2011

Bonk: a mini-review

Bonk is a really good general-audience science book, not only for the information it conveys but also for highlighting the issues of pure research vs industry-driven and the fact that homo sapiens still have a lot of hang-ups (for realz). When you (and your spouse) have to volunteer as subjects for a 4D ultrasound of human sexual activity just to see what goes on, you deserve a medal.

Bonk also has an interesting dichotomy in the scientific material Roach quotes and presents and the hilarious footnotes highlighting some of the crap she found surfing the 'Net.

28 December 2011

Geek Girls Unite: Mini-review

Saw this on the non-fiction new paperback table at work and I was like, "My people, yes, we must unite!!"

And then I read it...this is not a uniting-type of book.  Should have read the reviews first.

I'm feeling a combination of "meh" and "I feel trivialized by the very book that is supposed to celebrate my peeps".  I did NOT appreciate the snarkiness of the quizzes and frenemies sections (and, for a book that asks in the introduction that we all be more accepting of one another, it gets pretty mean at times).  The chapters were really repetitive and this felt less like a celebration of geek-girl culture and more like a humorous attempt to put us into neat little boxes.  It has excellent lists of websites, books, and movies (although some did start to feel condescending at times) but loses over the annoying footnotes.

Still not sure how we will take over the world. That part wasn't very clear.

25 December 2011

God bless us, everyone!

Merry Christmas!

My family was so thankful this year for one very good reason:

Mom (and yes, that's the hat I started knitting when she was in the SICU).  We got to have her for about six hours today for the Christmas holiday and it was so nice to have her home for a little while - it was the best present of all.  She'll be discharged from rehab on Wednesday!! 

So to quote Tiny Tim:  God bless us, everyone.

22 December 2011

'Tis the Season: Are we there, yet?

The bookstore has been batshit crazy as of late.  People have suddenly remembered THEY NEED TO BUY CHRISTMAS PRESENTS and RIGHT NOW!  Which is a) a good thing for business, but b) kindergarten rules apply at the bookstore:

1.  If you (as a customer) see me (a bookseller) woking with another customer (showing him/her books, listening as the customer describes what he/she is looking for, looking something up on the computer while said customer looks over my shoulder, etc) DO NOT butt into the bookseller-customer conversation by saying "I just have a question."  Congratulations, so does the person I am currently helping.  Now you look like an inconsiderate jerk and makes me not want to help you at all.  The only exceptions are emergencies like "Call 911!", "I think there's a fire!", "I'm having a heart attack!", or "I lost my child!"  Trust me - I, and my fellow booksellers, will drop everything to help you in those situations.  Your need to find Paula Deen's Southern Cooking Bible does not constitute an emergency.

2.  Remember having to line up to go to the lunchroom?  The same principles apply to queue lines during Christmas (or any time of the year, really, and are totally not limited to bookstores).  Line-jumping because you are "in a hurry" only gets you redirected to the back of the line.  Pretty sure the people who lined up politely are also "in a hurry" but will be put-out because you budged in front of them.  And some of those polite customers are vocal if you do!

For the chuckles, some random gems from the season:
  • "I need a copy of Wine Spectacular."  (How about Wine Spectator?)
  • "Does the Elf on the Shelf come with the shelf?"  (Er, no.)
  • Related:  "Elf on the Shelf looks like it was resurrected from my Grandma's garage sale." (I completely agree...tacky and creepy...yet, I must sell them, boo.)
  • "Do you sell Wal-mart gift cards?"  (No, Wal-mart's up the road.)
  • "Do you sell Amazon gift cards?"  (This one always tempts me to just be really rude.)
  • "Do you have my class textbooks?"  (It was finals last week.  Some college student just assumed we would have copies of her $300 economics textbook on hand for her to use.  Because we're the library, donchaknow.)
  • "I need the book for the TV show."  (For serious, which TV show?  Game of ThronesThe Walking DeadSimpsonsMad MenDownton Abbey?)
  • "Do you have books about South Carolina ghost stories?"  (Says the customer with the "Shop Locally" button from the Chamber of Commerce; dudes, we are in IOWA...unless you want Flannery O'Connor, which is about as close as I can come with on-hand stock, we have to get that from one of the stores in South Carolina.  It took nearly 10 minutes for me to convince her that paying for the item in store and having it shipped directly to the recipient from our warehouse was equivalent to "Shopping Locally".)
  • "I need a book for my [insert middle-grade age here] grandson/granddaughter.  He's/She's an advanced reader."  (They're ALL advanced readers, every single one of them, yet when I actually get books that would be high school level - which is the level claimed - for a fifth grader those are always "too hard"; be honest with yourself and pick out something the child will actually read.)
  • "Do you have an abridged version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone?"  (Considering thsi is a children's book, written around a 4th grade reading level...no...but I do have a Sparknotes if you'd like that instead.)
  • "I want the English translation of Romeo and Juliet for my daughter in high school."  (Must. Control. Fist. Of. Death.  Please, take this No Fear Shakespeare edition and run before the literature snob comes bursting out of my chest to hurl vitriol at you.)
  • "Do you sell athletic socks?" (Not yet.)
  • "Do you have The Self?" (This was a toughie...after going around and around with some questions, I figured out she wanted The Help.)
  • "Do you have the book I Killed Lincoln?"  (Close...so very close....)
  • "This book is too long."  (It's George RR Martin, what did you expect?  We've only been waiting for YEARS for it.  Also, this was said about the new Stephen King...nothing out of the ordinary there, either.)
  • "This book doesn't have a Lexile score."  (Take it up with Lexile - and then tell your child's teacher to stop relying on a computerized system that downgrades Hemingway because he uses short sentences and won't score books in blank verse because the computer can't "analyze" them.)

Bonus:  Overhead at the hospital on Hanukkah:  "That's a mariachi band - it has an accordion." (No, that's a klezmer band - accordions are not exclusive to South of the Border.)

Gratuitous Cat Picture Friday (6): Stuck on you

Poor Dante.  He's so staticky right now - rolling around on the floor caused all the paper bits from punching my own gift tags to stick to him (there're lots more on his tummy but he wouldn't let me take a picture).

21 December 2011

Surprises from my Secret Santa!

I received my Secret Santa package about a week ago but I've been really remiss in blogging about it (particularly as I would remember while at work and had no picture of what I actually received).

Well, my SS was Jill of Book, Books Everywhere and just look what was in my package!

Talk about getting spoiled!  I almost cried when I opened the box.  She sent EL Doctorow's Ragtime (something I keep thinking I have then get home and realize I don't have it), Tasha Alexander's And Only to Deceive (my SIL says those are good), Richard Paul Evan's The Christmas List, and Patricia Miller Mauro's Safe from the Past AND chocolate (yum, yum).  Thanks so much, Jill!  This December has been hard, what with Mom's diagnosis and surgery and all (she's doing so well, we're all so thankful), so a lovely box of Christmas cheer and book love was just what I needed. 

Thank you many times!  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

A Weekend With Mr. Darcy

Having read through two Austen-inspired books - and been rather underwhelmed - I tried out a third purchase from the Sourcebooks sale.

Victoria Connelly's A Weekend With Mr. Darcy follows Jane Austen addicts at a conference.

Huzzah, these are my people!! An Austenesque novel that neither a) fails miserably in execution or b) stuffs enough sex scenes into the narrative to make even a Regency Rake want to take a powder (because that's what an Austen variation/re-telling needs - lots and lots of uncomfortable sex).

At first, I wasn't quite sure where Robyn fit into the narrative (and the beginning was a little pokey) but once all the characters got to Purley Hall for the Jane Austen Conference things started to pick up. It's easy to teAt last. An Austenesque novel that neither a) fails miserably in execution or b) stuffs enough sex scenes into the narrative to make even a Regency Rake want to take a powder (because that's what an Austen variation/re-telling needs - lots and lots of uncomfortable sex).

Oxford professor of English Katherine Roberts is off to attend the Jane Austen Addicts...and to meet her favorite author, Lorna Warwick.  The famously reclusive Warwick writes the Regency bodice-rippers Katherine is addicted to but Katherine is in for a surprise - the author she corresponds with is really Warwick Lawton...a man.

Robyn Love is saddled with a big problem, two actually: a Jane Austen addiction and a dead-beat boyfriend.  She feels unappreciated and jumps at the chance to attend the conference, a weekend to find other kindred spirits.  Can she find herself, too?

At first, I wasn't quite sure where Robyn fit into the narrative (and the beginning was a little pokey) but once all the characters got to Purley Hall for the conference things started to pick up. It's easy to tell Connelly is a Janeite - she knows all the books, variations, adaptations (and they're almost all named-checked in the book as are the real books/movies) - and she gives the reader the best and worst of the breed. The narrative nods to the plot of Pride and Prejudice in places but takes the bones that it needs for plot and leaves the rest. Kudos also to keeping the falling action of the book from becoming overlong, stopping at just the right place.

If you're like me, and have been wondering where to start to find an entree into Austen-inspired fiction, definitely take a look at A Weekend With Mr. Darcy

20 December 2011

A Life in Stitches: Knitting My Way Through Love, Loss, and Laughter

It's strange how my reading and my life intersect.

I picked up Rachael Herron's A Life in Stitches on a whim because it has writing about knitting (I'm an easy mark). 

And somewhere in the middle it hit me in the gut.  She was writing about her mom and my mom was sick...wow, too much coincidence.  But this is a short book and other essays - making a canary-yellow sweater, an afghan for a boyfriend which backfires, pets - held me over when things started becoming too much.

This is a great book of essays about not just knitting but finding an activity that impacts your life in a positive way.

The Man Who Loved Price and Prejudice

Austen birthday sale book number 2!

Now, The Man Who Loved Pride and Prejudice is billed as a love story with a Jane Austen twist.  I can handle that.  The story of Cassie (marine biologist) and Calder (his father is a senator...one of those senators with Old Money and a big ego) falls squarely in the category of contemporary romance:  she's mega-smart, has a unique job, and is effortlessly gorgeous, he's standoffish, rich, and HOT ergo they will have some sort of conflict and then wind up together.

Pretty nice, right?  And it was a nice story with a good writing style...until a zillion loads of dirty laundry got in the way (his and hers).   At some point the storyline gets really complicated with pen names, social/class issues, spousal abuse issues, research funding problems, and so on - I really couldn't keep track.  The falling action was so drawn out that the last 50 or so pages seemed unneccesary.  It definitely could have used some cuts.  (I also thought that Calder's book - it supplants Darcy's letter to Lizzy - could have been much better written if all he was doing was modernizing Austen to apologize to Cassie).

Unless I missed it, I don't think it's explained why Calder is "The Man Who Loved Pride and Prejudice"....

15 December 2011

Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star: in which I start dabbling in Austen-derived fiction

So, Sourcebooks had a "Jane Austen's birthday" sale (which I posted about) and I decided to try on JA inspired fiction/fan-fiction/modernizations for size.  Which I lump together as "Austenesque" books for lack of a better term.

I had heard bits and bobs about Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star in the blogosphere so I decided to try this version of rich-nineteenth-century-gentleman-translated-as-rock-star first (and, for the record, I'm just going to assume that everyone has read Pride and Prejudice so none of the actual plot points are spoilers).

So, Darcy, Bingley, and their cousin Richard Fitzwilliam (the cousin who appears at Rosings in P&P) make up Slurry and they are in desperate need of an opening act for their tour.  Lizzy, Jane, and Charlotte front a "girl-band" (hate that term) called Long Borne Suffering (haha) and, conveniently, Slurry is near-enough to see them play a gig.  Conveniently for the plot, LBS is booked for the tour and the major character quirks (Darcy is standoffish, Jane and Bingley have instant attraction, Lizzy enjoys needling Darcy) easily translate from the book.  Tour and marriage plots ensue.

What I enjoyed most were some really good plot changes.  Charlotte and Richard are fleshed out, Mr. Collins is actually called-out for taking advantage of a situation, Lydia's subplot is downgraded since she only appears in a handful of scenes, and Caroline Bingley is a much nicer person.  I think the stressors of a new band jumping into the deep end with a major tour were shown adequately and Rigaud didn't shy away from the anonymous sex-and-drugs pull of the music world.   

And then there were some plot decisions that really made no sense. Wickham's prediliction for "ladies with learner's permits" (a la Georgiana's story, which is retained for the book) turns into a drug problem out of nowhere (and gets an FBI plot thrown in for good measure).  The Bennets' marriage issues are only alluded to (the Bennet parents and younger siblings hardly figure in the story) and could have done away with entirely and saved about 20 pages in total.  Richard gets a sex addiction plot (hey, Lizzy/Darcy and Jane/Bingley have built-in conflict courtesy of P&P, he and Charlotte have to fight about something).  Original names are retained (Fitzwilliam? Really? Lady Catherine is still, inexplicably, referred to as Lady Catherine yet she's not referred to as English in any way).  And the triple marriage plot is really unbelievable in a modern sense.

And then there are the sex scenes.  What's that you say?  Yes, there is a LOT of well-described sex in this book.  Far, far more than what I was expecting and enough to make me wonder why this book is merchandized in Fiction as opposed to Romance.  Adventurous boots-knocking occurs with regularity - Jane and Bingley, Charlotte and random person, Richard and random person(s), Richard and Charlotte, Darcy and Lizzy (and then they fight, then have more sex) - and also so discussion of previous sexual experiences (novel gains points for allowing heroines to have sexual experiences prior to the acquaintance of the heros).  The writing-style of the scenes changed, too, to a style more generic to the bodice-ripper genre.  I wouldn't have minded as much except there was a multitude of man-will-teach-woman-how-sexytimes-are-properly-done schtick...totally out of place in a contemporary novel (loses points previously gained).  The power of the Magic HooHoo and the Mighty Wang of Lovin' made obvious appearances (I've started following the Smart Bitches on twitter).

If you like a more adventurous contemporary romance novel, this is definitely for you.

14 December 2011

Sourcebooks is the place for goodies on JA's birthday!

In honor of Jane Austen's birthday (December 16) Sourcebooks is offering the ebook editions of Darcy-inspired fiction for $1.99! 

There's a "Darcy for everyone":

Darcy and Fitzwilliam
A Darcy Christmas
The Darcys and the Bingleys
Darcy's Voyage
Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star
The Man Who Loved Pride and Prejudice
Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy
Mr. Darcy Goes Overboard
Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife
Mr. Darcy, Vampyre
The Pemberley Chronicles
Pemberley Ranch
Searching for Pemberley
The Trials of the Honorable F. Darcy

I picked up Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star, The Man Who Loved Pride and Prejudice, Searching for Pemberley, and Weekend with Mr. Darcy (not listed on the Sourcebooks page but found for $1.99 when I ran "sourcebooks+darcy" into the B&N search engine).  I find that I enjoy the Austen-inspired stuff more when they use the works for inspriation as opposed to writing "sequels" or "variations" with the original characters and settings.

The special pricing runs through December 30 so get 'em while they're hot!

(I also picked up Penguin's Holiday eSampler for free...just in case you're looking for more holiday deals.)

09 December 2011

A hat for my mother

I am knitting a hat.

I am knitting a hat using a pattern I like.

I am knitting a hat using a pattern I like out of a yarn I loathe. 

I am knitting a hat using a pattern I like out of a yarn I loathe because I am sitting in the waiting room of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit waiting to go back and see my mother.

I am knitting a hat using a pattern I like out of a yarn I loathe because I am sitting in the waiting room of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit waiting to go back and see my mother because my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor less than a week ago and underwent brain surgery yesterday.

My mother needs a hat.

My mother is allergic to wool.

This yarn is acrylic. I hate acrylic.  It's a royal pain in the ass to cable with and it feels wierd.

But my mother needs a hat when she goes home because it is December in Iowa.  It is cold and I don't want her head to be cold. 

It took two hours of searching through my stash two days ago trying to find a non-wool yarn because I didn't have time to go to the yarn store.  It took two hours because I was crying so hard I couldn't see.

My mother has one of the best neurosurgeons available.  I know he does great work.  I know he does great work because I work at this hospital.  I know the SICU nurses are the best nurses you could find anywhere.  I know because I have worked with them on some of our research studies.  I know they will take good care of my mother.  I work here and I have made sure she is getting the best care anyone could ever find.  I know all of this and I am scared as hell.

I am wearing my staff ID and pager like a shield.  I slept with my pager last night, a talisman against the phone call in the night.  I work at this hospital and they will take good care of my mother.  They will.  I tell myself that with almost every stitch of this yarn that sticks to my fingers as I knit.  I tell myself this as I struggle to make this inflexible yarn work a C10F or C10B.  Every single stitch of this infernal yarn keeps my mother here.

This yarn is acrylic. I hate acrylic. It's a royal pain in the ass to cable with and it feels wierd, but it is going to be a hat for my mother whether it wants to or not.  When it's a hat, I will find time to go to the yarn store and get some natural-fiber, warm, non-sheep yarn and do the hat over again.

Because my mother needs a hat and she is allergic to wool.  I take a deep breath at the end of each row of stiff stitches and give thanks that my mother has come through surgery with flying colors.  The road ahead is still bumpy, though, and she will need a hat.  Many hats.  As many hats in as many colors as she wants, as fast as I can knit them for her.  Because she's my mommy and I still need my mommy.

So....I am knitting a hat using a pattern I like out of a yarn I loathe because I am sitting in the waiting room of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit waiting to go back and see my mother because my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor less than a week ago and underwent brain surgery yesterday and she will need a hat when she goes home.