Best American · stuff I read

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011

Catching up with 2011’s Best American Sicence and Nature Writing.  Edited by Mary Roach – whee!

A good collection, with many good pieces here that need to be read by a wider audience.  Such a good reflection of how Roach is a great writer popular science books with an eye for a great story.  A lot of “famous names” in this volume including Jonathan Franzen, Stephen Hawking, Malcolm Gladwell, Atul Gawande, and Deborah Blum (whose article “The Chemist’s War” was later incorporated into her book The Poisoner’s Handbook).  Roach arranged the articles in alphabetical order by author, so there’s monkeying about with agreement or disagreement of organization.

  • Bhattacharjee’s “The Organ Dealer” about the illegal kidney trade
  • Bilger’s gag-inducing (at the very end) “Nature’s Spoils”
  • Dittrich’s “The Brain That Changed Everything” which brings a very personal sense of history to the story of a man with brain damage resulting from a surgically-absent hippocampus
  • Freedman’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” which highlights how reported medical research oftentimes is later proven incorrect or inconclusive
  • Gawande’s haunting “Letting Go” about the disconnect in the medical establishment regarding end-of-life care
  • Mooallem’s occasionally funny, occasionally stern “The Love That Dare Not Squawk It’s Name” about the long-term mating habits of the Laysan albatross and the ridiculous levels humans go to to apply animal behavior as justification for human behavior
  • Sack’s “Face-Blind” about the neural basis and social complications of face-blindness or prosopagnosia
  • Zimmerman’s elegy “The Killer in the Pool”
movie star drool

Cloud Atlas (on the screen)

Cloud Atlas is a book that has been circulating in my periphery for some time.  As a Booker short-lister, I would likely be reading it as part of my Booker Project.  It was also rumored to be “unfilmable” which really got my attention when the Wachowski’s announced they had finally managed to adapt the novel and turn it into a film co-directed by Tom Twyker (who directed the Perfume adaptation, another novel said to be “unfilmable”).  It had apparently taken years – no studio really wanted it, the funding was unstable, but they had managed to cast good A-list actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving).  The more I read about the film, the more I knew I wanted to see it.

I didn’t care about the reviews (which were kind of a mixed bag, judging from what I saw on Twitter, ranging from “breathtaking” and “beautiful” to “pretentious art-house” and “boring”).  I didn’t care that it was over three hours long.  I saw one trailer and Cloud Atlas immediately went on my “must-see” list for Fall 2012.

Jessica and I chose a 500pm-ish showing of the movie which conveniently gave us the matinee price for a movie that would let out around 830.  Ha. 

Cloud Atlas is one of the best movies of the year.  I thank the creators for pursuring the project throughout all the obstacles placed in their way.  It is beautiful and breathtaking and a work of art.  It is wonderfully composed, shot by shot.  The score by Twyker, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil is so lovely and perfect that I immediately bought it on iTunes.  This is a long movie, so make sure you visit the ladies’ before you settle in, but it didn’t feel like an obvious three-hour movie; it felt like perhaps two hours, but I wasn’t checking my watch like I have with other, shorter films (Transformers 2, I’m looking at you).  The cross-cutting of the six timelines was fantastic.

I liked the multiple-roles-per-actor idea and it worked well on the whole, although it is very apparent that Tom Hanks really isn’t good at accent work (his Scottish mobster role was actually pretty nails-on-chalkboard).  Even though his Zachry character resembled Forrest Gump more than I expected he did make the “dialect” used in those Far Future scenes understandable.  Hugo Weaving was wonderful as the dreadful Nurse Noakes, playing off Jim Broadbent’s indignant elderly gentleman.

Although all the sections were beautifully done my favorite timeline was the neo-Seoul/Sonmi-451 section. It was obviously one of the Wachowskis’ sections with visuals reminiscent of the Matrix and a similar type of rebellion at its core.  I had never seen Doona Bae’s work before and she absolutely blew me away.  There were tears.  She was able to convey so much emotion and compassion just by being so calm and still when there was so much other action around her.  I was also impressed with Jim Sturgess.  I hadn’t yet liked many of his movies and his performance of Hae-Joo was better than I had expected

This isn’t a perfect movie.  Some of the special effects makeup is funky (the “aging” makeup looks too crinkly and dry and the prosthetics used to make the non-Asian actors Korean gave everyone an odd Botox look) and I’ve mentioned the issue with the accents.  I will agree with some critics who said that the message of the movie did tend to bash viewers over the head by the end.  But those things didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film.  Cloud Atlas is the reason why independent films exist, especially those requiring larger budgets – it could never exist otherwise.

1. The Impossible – follows a vacationing family through the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand.  Good cast (Ewan MacGregor, Naomi Watts).
2. Parker – Jason Stathem, doing what he does best, this time with JLo in a plot similar to that of The Italian Job (which he was in, oy)
3. Silver Linings Playbook – looks kind of goofy in a fun way
4. Gangster Squad – Ryan Gosling does LA Confidential?

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

An Infamous Army

Read War and Peace?  An Infamous Army is War and Peace for the Regency romance set.

You have to read this the right way. Even though the book opens with familiar characters – Judith and Worth, Charles, Perry – you have to follow the narrative line with Wellington.  Meaning you have to read it as a history narrative as opposed to a romance. There are huge gaps in the romance – just like there are gaps between the domestic storyline in War and Peace – to concentrate on preparations for the coming skirmish with the French (culminating at Waterloo) and extensive descriptions of the battlefield – also, just like in War and Peace.  Although not QUITE as extensive in the battle sequences as War and Peace. There’s only one – Waterloo – but it’s pretty awful in the recounting of the staggering loss of life. Heyer gives Wellington excellent lines, many taken from his extensive correspondence.  Thackeray’s Vanity Fair also provides a slightly more contemporaneous look at English Society in Brussels in the run-up to Waterloo.  Heyer’s research for this book was extensive and very much respected.

On the romance side, Bab is a typical Alistair: provocative, daring, devil-may-care (she wears open-toe Grecian sandals with nail polishle scandale!!). Charles is a bit in over his head with her behavior but he at least tries to take it all as part of her personality instead of being controlling. I think their story worked out very well. It was nice to see Judith and Worth interacting as a couple since in their book (Regency Buck) Worth was playing the creepy guardian angle whilst Judith was working at being a dandy (since there isn’t really a feminine version of the word) and we didn’t see them actually LIKE each other until the last half-chapter. Also reassuring to see that Dominic (now Duke of Avon) is still as nuts as he was in Devil’s Cub while Mary is just as practical and good-hearted.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Miranda Neville: The Burgundy Club (in reverse)

Once again, I read a series backward.

I can’t remember how I wound up reading Confessions of an Arranged Marriage by Miranda Neville.  I think it was an ebook sale.  Anywhoo, Miss Minerva Montrose, radical politician and bluestocking, develops a migraine at her come-out ball and slips away to the library for a bit of a rest.  The foxed Lord Blakeney, rake, dilettante, and heir to the Duke of Hampton, mistakes her for a lady of his acquaintance who is open for dalliance (Minnie and the lady have on similar dresses, so Blake is an idiot) and proceeds to put his head up her skirt, literally…at which point several prominent guests at the ball enter the library just as Minerva wakes up and shrieks.  There’s pretty much no way of explaining any of that so Blake and Minnie are compelled to marry.  They more or less loathe one another at first – Minnie is pissed her political ambitions are thwarted, while Blake feels like Minnie deliberately makes him look stupid (he’s not a stupid man and he has a secret he fears will ruin him if it gets out).  They begin to thaw toward one another on their honeymoon in Paris but then Blake’s (ex)mistress shows up which rubs Minnie the wrong way then his father suffers a heart attack and dies making Blake and Minnie the powerful members of the aristocracy.

I liked the realism Neville introduced, particularly in the bedroom scenes. Although the genre standard is mad-hot sex straight out of the gate (behold the Magic Hoo Hoo and Mighty Wang in action, terms courtesy of SBTB) Neville chooses to allow Minnie’s first time to be awkward and painful.  She doesn’t like it and Blake also puts his foot in his mouth.  The resolution of Blake’s secret and the development of the relationship between Minnie and Blake mirrors their progress in the bedroom: in fits and starts, a minor setback, but eventually finding harmony.

The previous book, The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, was a 99 cent ebook special over the weekend and I thought, why not? I liked Confessions from an Arranged Marriage.  This volume concerns the courtship of Celia and Tarquin (met briefly at the beginning of Confessions). The set-up is a bit much: Celia is framed as a loose woman, dismissed from her governess position (and one where she might have married her employer because she handled his unruly children so well), kidnapped, robbed, and forced to strip; escaping from her captor’s house she comes upon Tarquin, also stripped to his breeches and boots and knocked senseless. Although she knows perfectly well who he is (because he said she looked like a cauliflower during her debut), she pretends that he’s her finacee just to mess with him. What a ludicrous backstory but whatever – it all works.  The two of them ramble through the English countryside – Celia telling bigger and bigger lies, Tarquin believing her but also feeling that something is “wrong”- until Tarquin’s memory comes back.  Since they’ve been a) alone and b) had hot sex therefore Tarquin (even though he’s pretty mad at her for the lying) feels compelled to offer for her.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the should-I/shouldn’t-I marry dithering but come to find out Celia does have a very interesting upbringing, to say the least. The two visit Sebastian and Diana – Minerva’s sister and brother-in-law – during Diana’s lying-in and eventually work things out to satisfaction (the Burgundy Club, come to find out, was founded by Tarquin, Sebastian, and Chase who are all antiquarian book collectors, an activity that Minnie and Blake don’t take part in but Diana does, which makes me think this was originally a trilogy with Confessions tacked on as an afterthought).  There’s also a good sideplot involving a book of erotic fiction by Aretino (him again) that Celia shares with Minerva.

Knowing a bit more about Sebastian and Diana, I hopped back to their book, The Dangerous Viscount.  The widowed Lady Diana Fanshawe is determined to make a brilliant match.  To that end she is determined to marry Lord Blakeney, a neighbor of her decidedly eccentric parents.  Blake (who is in full-on dickhead mode – glad I read his book first because I didn’t like him here) makes Diana a bet: if she can get his repressed, nerdy, woman-hating (?) cousin Sebastian to kiss her, she’ll win five hundreds pounds.  Diana accepts, thereby making her rather unlikeable for several chapters until she starts to like Sebastian’s love of antiquarian books (which dovetails nicely with her love of history) and his brusque ways.  To top it off he’s got that dark, mysterious, hunky look going for him.  One thing leads to another meaning Diana initates Sebastian into adulthood.  Neville gives us another unique take on a romance genre sex scene by making the hero the virgin.  Well, Diana’s bet essentially blows up in her face when Sebastian finds out – because he has a history with Blake, and I mean HISTORY: Blake and his sisters were assholes to Sebastian when they were young explaining why Sebastian hates his ass so much in Confessions.  Fortunately for Diana and Sebastian (and the reader, otherwise this would be a short book) all it takes is just one sexual encounter to make a baby…and they are Viscount and Viscountess Iverly, trying to find their happy ending.

Thence, I came to the first book in the Burgundy Club series, The Wild Marquis.  Our heroine is Juliana Merton, a widowed antiquarian bookseller.  Cain, the Marquis of Chase – yes, that Marquis who at sixteen was kicked out of his father’s house for doing something “unspeakable” – hires Juliana to represent him at an estate auction of books.  It turns out a priceless family heirloom, an illuminated book of hours, that should still be in possession of the marquessate is included in the auction catalogue.  Cain wants the book back at any price; Juliana wants the money that commission could bring her.  As the two work together to recover the book they grow closer.  Juliana is of uncertain parentage, Cain more-or-less considered irredeemable in the eyes of the ton and they enter into a liaison they can’t back away from – not because of pregnancy or getting “caught” but because it just feels they should be together.  There’s even a bit of death-defying suspense related to Juliana’s backstory (although we didn’t quite need the resolution to make the HEA work).

I liked the very frank take on the first love scene INCLUDING a discussion of birth control, although I believe Cain would be more likely to call condoms ‘french letters’. It was a nice change of pace (compared to Celia and Sebastian – and he totally had beginners’ luck, plus it seems Diana is just one of those women destined to be constantly pregnant since she’s on child #3 in book #4).  Also: ANTIQUARIAN BOOK SALE!! BIDDING ON NICE THINGS!!!! THAT HAPPEN TO BE BOOKS!!! (Although, WTF writing in a Shakespeare quarto…offest slightly by a bulldog named Quarto, awwww).

I’m glad I read this series in reverse order because I was most impressed with the first one and would have been far less enamoured of Minerva and Blake by the time I got to their. I also like the rich colors used in the covers, very appealing.

food · stuff I read

A Feast of Ice and Fire

Who likes interesting cookbooks?  Meet a GAME OF THRONES COOKBOOK endorsed by GRRM himself!!!!!!

A Feast of Ice and Fire had me with the cover art – gorgeous and yummy.  I hope there’s a second volume once all the books are finished.

I really liked the research behind the recipes as well as offering a more “traditional” medieval recipe and a modern version of most dishes. This is apparently based off a blog, The Inn at the Crossroads, which I have since started following.  There are great pictures, too, a must for a cookbook in my opinion (there’s another Game of Thrones cookbook by some other people but it isn’t near as nice).

The authors included some oddball recipes for the more adventurous gourmand, like snake (blech) which I will not be trying.  Lemon cakes and honeyfingers are much more my style.
I baked the modern Wintercake recipe for an autumn-themed potluck at the bookstore – it smelled wonderful and tasted really good.  Thumbs up from the booksellers!  It killed my food processor, though, so I have that on my Christmas list now.

'Tis the Season

‘Tis the Season: Football, School, and *sigh*

Weekends are heating up at the store.  Lots of traffic, lots of questions, and lots of *headdesk*

Related to football season:
– “Why don’t you have books on [insert name of visiting football team from across the country here]?”  Because they aren’t the home team or even in the same state.
– “Do you have a book that explains football to kids?” The child in question is using a teething ring, no lie.
– “Do you have the game score?” And he wasn’t even interested in the game being played in town, which was the game I had up on ESPN.

Related to school:
Customer: “Do you have books on Egypt?”
Me: “Like a travel book?”
Customer: “Uh…sure!”
So we go to the travel section and I get out all six books on travelling in Egypt.
Customer: “My daughter has to write a report on the Sphinx.”
And I turn to see a kid who is maybe ten years old, possibly eleven.  Unfortunately, we do not have books about the Sphinx specifically in the store, at all, or at any store in the area, and none of the books in the history section (adult or child) have much information on the Sphinx at all.
Customer: “Well, how is [my child] going to get her report done by Monday???”
Seriously???!???!!  Perhaps you could try the library since those books are already purchased with your tax dollars.  

Customer on phone:  “Do you have City of Glass?  It’s a graphic novel.”
Checks computer – unfortunately we don’t have Paul Auster’s graphic novel adaptation of his novella.
Customer on phone:  “Isn’t that by Cassie Clare?”
Me: “I believe there are planned graphic novel adaptations of the Mortal Instruments series but those aren’t available, yet.”
Customer on phone: “Oh, yeah, so I guess it is by that guy you mentioned.  Do you know where I could get this? I have to have it read for class by Tuesday.”
*headdesk* Ugh, seriously?  Library?  Has the general population forgotten about this very valuable resource for getting homework and school work done on time?

Customer (walks up to me): “Chaucer.”
Legit, that was the opening to the conversation.  No, “Excuse me” or “Can you help me find something?” just a word.
Me:  “Er, are you looking for something specific?”
Customer: “Chaucer.”
Me (ARGH!):  “Do you need a specific title or translation?”
Customer (blinks a bit at me):  “Poetry?”
Me (not the answer I was expecting): “Er, right.  There are a couple of different major poems.  The Parliament of Fowls or The Canterbury Tales, perhaps?”
Customer:  “Oh, yes, tales!”
And hands me a Post-It with “Chaucer Wife’s Tail” written on it.  And, yes, it was spelled like that.
Me: “OK.  This edition here is probably the cheapest if you don’t need a specific edition.”
Customer:  “I need an easy one.”
Me:  “OK.” (hands her a different volume) “This is the No Fear edition which will have a modern English translation on the facing page.  It’s pretty user-friendly.”
Customer: “Does it have the Wife’s Tale?”
Me:  “Yes, it has the entire set of Tales so that would include the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.”  And I show her where they are in the book.
Customer: “Oh, good.  Do you know where I could get a summary?  I’m a tutor and don’t have time to read this.”
*headdesk*  I hope they aren’t paying her very much.

Customer:  “Where are your Christmas sales?”
Me:  “We don’t have our holiday sales out yet, ma’am.”
Customer (aghast):  “Why not??”
Um, because it isn’t even Hallowe’en yet?  Keep your shirt on, we’ll have them out the first week in November.

And in the “Awwwww” department:
I’m back in the Kids’ section and the cutest little girl with pigtails and glasses comes up to me.
Girl: “Excuse me please, could you show me where you keep the Percy Jackson books?”
(and of course she has the cutest lisp, too)
So I show her where the books are on display.  She very solemnly looks over the table, chooses Percy Jackson #4, and turns to me with a great big smile.
Girl: “I love books!  Don’t you?”
Me: “I do!”
Girl: “When I grow up I want to read books all day!”
She hugs the book and scampers off but turns around and comes straight back.
Girl: “I forgot to say thank you!  Thank you for helping me!”
And off she goes again. Dear parents of this child – your kid is adorable and I hope she stays that way.  Kids like her go a ways toward making a long day shorter.

stuff I read

Judging a Book by Its Lover (mini-review)

I was looking for a funny book to read (I’ve been reading Sandman…no funny there) and was seeing a lot of buzz for Lauren Leto’s Judging a Book by Its Lover.  Worth a shot.

And I’m a bit torn.  I really liked a lot of the chapters: the Twitter reviews of memoirs, bookstore hookups, F. Scott and Zelda having a meal together (which is completely made-up, obviously, and hilarious).  The “Rules of Bookclub” had me laughing out loud. (Side note: Lauren was a co-author/creator of Texts From Last Night.)

But the gift-guide was really long, maybe too long because it ceased to be funny after about five entries.  The “faking-it” guide to book discussion was also pretty un-funny to me: I’d read almost all of the books skewered in the section and we have differeing opinions about them.

On the balance, I laughed a lot throughout the book, so mission accomplished.