April 28th, 2016
|09:04 am - In which I am unable to turn off the editor-brain|
Lately I have been trying to learn more about poker, and while I'm practically swamped with Twitch coverage, I'm reading books on a "whatever's most easily available" basis—and not that much is easily available; the BPL has been letting me down on this front. I'll have to start asking real people if they've got books.
One book that was immediately to hand for me was Phil Hellmuth's Play Poker Like the Pros, which my cousin lent me. Phil Hellmuth is the all-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner and has won nearly $20 million in live tournament cashes, plus God knows how much money in cash games. In theory, he should be a pretty solid person to learn poker strategy from, which is probably a large part of why he gets book deals.
There are, however, a number of problems with this theory, which become apparent when you read the book as an actual thing that exists now. They fit into roughly three categories: 1 is datedness, 2 is questionable editing, and 3 is Phil Hellmuth. Many of the criticisms I have of this book could be considered type 2 or type 3, in that I think I a tighter editorial hand could have done more to rein in the Phil Hellmuth-ness of the book.
The dated stuff couldn't possibly have been avoided, considering that the book was written in 2002, and back in 2002 that was about as modern as you could get. That said, 2002 is a really hilariously bad year to be dated from, since 2003 was the year Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker Main Event and the "poker boom" went into overdrive. A lot of the numbers Hellmuth throws around look adorably small, and a lot of the people he mentions, while still highly respected, are undoubtedly the "old guard" of poker now. There are also a couple of people he mentions who are, uh, less highly respected now than they were back then (you can probably guess who they are if you know about the Full Tilt scandal). Most cringe-inducingly, Hellmuth spends a fair amount of time plugging Ultimate Bet, one of the online card rooms at the center of the "superuser"/"God mode" cheating scandal. And it's sort of sad how confident the book is that easily accessible online poker will only ever grow more popular and widespread, because what a wonderful thing is the Internet.
(Man, I still can't believe I missed the entire poker boom. It sounds like a fun time.)
The second class of errors I cannot blame on 2002. Editing existed in 2002; it was probably in better shape as a field than it is now. AND YET. There are about eleventy billion exclamation points in this 350-page book. There are way too many parenthetical asides. There is a GLARING mathematical error on page 63, in which a percentage is calculated but the "convert to percentage" step is skipped. (It is a copy editor's job to double-check arithmetic, alas, even though most of us are English majors.) On the upside, I did not catch any hand histories/examples in which the card notations were wrong, which is not necessarily true for all poker publications, I have found. There is a misnegation on page 200, which, considering it is right in the middle of explaining starting hand strength in Omaha Eight or Better (High-Low Split) to an audience who has presumably never played Omaha Eight or Better (High-Low Split) before, is extremely confusing. (After rereading the paragraph I am sure he meant to say that A-2 as a starting hand can't be overstated and shouldn't be underestimated; i.e., that is is an extremely strong hand; not actually that it cannot be underestimated, i.e. that it is a garbage hand and the proper estimation of its utility is zero.)
Bridging the gap from error class 2 to error class 3, it appears that Hellmuth either convinced or stetted his editor into accepting his own personal, idiosyncratic definition of the word "megalomaniac." In the book it is defined as "poker slang" for an extremely "maniac" type of player ("maniac" actually does seem to be a term for people who raise all over the place). Fourteen years later, Phil Hellmuth is still the only person in the poker community I have heard use the word "megalomaniac" in that way, and poker editors far more veteran than myself have grumbled that that is not what that word means, dammit. My guess is still that somebody called Hellmuth that way back in the day and he decided something self-serving about table image instead of looking it up in the damn dictionary, and has just stuck with it ever since.
Error class 3 consists of things that are not really errors so much as reasons Phil Hellmuth is annoying. His nickname is "the Poker Brat" for a reason, and the reason is that he is egotistical to the point of comedy—if you have not already had your lifetime fill of male egotism being passed off as cute and funny, a point that I and every other woman I know has passed by the end of our first year of college at the latest. Anyway: Phil Hellmuth likes to drop names about all the cool people he hangs out with and brag about how much money he has won and lost. He likes relate his internal monologues to himself a lot—and while he usually refers to himself as "Phil," there is at least one occasion where he addresses himself as "baby." He's made up his own system of "animal personalities" to refer to different types of players instead of using existing community terminology, which might not necessarily be a terrible writing crime in and of itself, it's just that the result sounds really freaking goofy.
As far as being an introduction to the games goes, the book is just fine. It introduces a number of different games on a basic level, first the rules, then a little bit of advice on approaching play. This is good if you're totally unfamiliar with the games. The most attention is given to various forms of Hold'em, both limit and no-limit, which also makes sense. The more basic Hold'em strategy given is pretty easily actionable—like, "Here are the 10 best hands"—and it's pretty light on the math, which is probably OK.
The more advanced strategy given seems like it'd be more useful for following the action when watching poker on TV than actually playing, since a lot of it basically comes down to "this works great when you do it right," and in order to get to a point where you can do it "right" you'll probably need to either do a lot more reading or play a lot more poker, or most likely both. Frankly, the "advanced" section is largely just an excuse for Hellmuth to tell stories about tricky plays he's pulled off or witnessed. It is even lighter on the math than the basics section.
I would be unsurprised if some of the strategy advice isn't actually somewhat dated by now too, since the game has evolved so much since 2002, but I'm supremely unqualified to comment as to how. For me, the most useful portion of the book was probably the bits on Hold'em strategy that overlapped with the material covered in Phil Gordon's Poker: The Real Deal, so I could get a sense of what's the same and what was approached differently. For example, the Phils group what they consider to be "playable hands" differently, but overall there's not much disagreement over how strong various starting hands are. It would have been interesting to look at the advice side by side, but I gave the Gordon book back to the library.
To be frank, for me, the most enjoyable aspect of the book was reading the section about playing in fancy high-roller tournaments while simultaneously watching Hellmuth lose his shirt to Cate Hall on Poker Night in America's Twitch channel. I would read the hell out of a poker book by Cate Hall, by the way.
I think this book may be interesting to people for whom poker is an entirely foreign country that they're curious about (and who have a high tolerance for gregariously smug tour guides). But I think my next poker book is going to have to be something a bit more in-depth—and, alas, probably much heavier on math. Recommendations and/or things I could borrow would be most welcome.
April 17th, 2016
|01:02 pm - A great man and a second-rate poet|
For the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising, a lot of new books on the subject are being published. One major set of new releases I saw pretty much all over Ireland when I was there was a series of biographies called 16 Lives, the lives in question being the sixteen leaders of the Easter Rising who were executed in its aftermath. I was tempted to buy all sixteen, but a) that would have been expensive and b) trying to get them all home on the plane would have been awful, especially considering how much other stuff I bought. So I settled for just getting the one on Padraic Pearse -- simply titled 16 Lives: Patrick Pearse, because for some reason they thought the English name was better -- by Ruan O'Donnell.
The book is both well sourced and written in a straightforward, accessible style, but I still bounced off it a bit more than I was expecting to, which was disappointing. I pretty much only have one gripe with the book, but it's a pretty significant one, in that it's "the structure of the entire book." I wanted more material on the development of Pearse's life and career before all the Rising stuff that has been so amply covered elsewhere. My favorite sections of the book were the first two chapters, one on "The Young Pearse" and one on "Republican Politics" that covered the establishment of his career, but after that it slowed down for me a lot -- there are three chapters on the planning and the events leading up to Easter Monday, then a chapter on Easter Week and a chapter on its aftermath, then it ends. The aftermath chapter is gruesomely interesting, but I definitely felt like the story that was being told had far too much middle and not enough setup.
That said, the picture of Pearse that develops in the book is fascinating and human -- committedly idealistic but with a strong pragmatic streak; progressive but devoutly Catholic; a future-oriented man with a strong (if hilariously romanticized) sense of Ireland's history. Buried under the shmaltzy Edwardian dramatics of his writing, there even lurks an occasional sense of humor. He also managed the trick of being highly accomplished in a number of different fields, all of which manage to come together into seeming like one big project. He must have been a very, very interesting person to actually meet.
April 4th, 2016
|07:57 pm - Thirty-one pictures are worth 31,000 words|
Soooo the most recent book I read is probably more properly a pamphlet, but it has an ISBN so it's a book for my book-counting purposes, especially since I am running behind. This is not cheating.
The book is called Dublin After the Six Days' Insurrection and it was originally published in 1916. It is a collection of photos taken in and around central Dublin by a chap called T.W. Murphy, who was apparently a fairly in-demand newspaper photographer back in the day (and whose nickname/pen name/something was apparently "The O'Tatur"? I don't know, but it's on the front cover). The photos are in black and white, but are pretty crisp for photos of that era.
The photo selection seems to be organized by least bombed-out buildings to most bombed-out buildings, and then a chunk of photos of people at the back. While I am sure this was not the point when the book was first put together, it has the effect of aiding any modern reader who has been to Dublin, by situating them among the still-existing buildings before introducing the areas that have since been rebuilt.
The booklet also contains a mostly-illegible handwritten note in the inside front cover, which serves as a useful reminder that people in history were, in fact, at least as bad at doing most things as people are now.
While the booklet's price has been the victim of severe inflation over the past century, costing five euro ninety-five instead of its initial price of sevenpence, it was still a good, cheap souvenir for being in Dublin during the centenary commemorations and is a very worthwhile set of pictures to have on hand for anyone interested in the Rising.
April 2nd, 2016
|12:04 pm - Nil Gaeilge agam, but I'm trying|
Last summer I began studying Irish, and when I went looking for study materials in addition to what was given to us in class, I bought a tiny little pocket dictionary and phrasebook titled simply Irish Dictionary and Phrasebook. The book is about the size of a large index card, and the dictionary portion and the phrasebook portion are each about 70 pages. (The dictionary includes both an Irish-English and English-Irish section, so it is functionally more like two 35-page dictionaries.) I would read this a few pages at a time when I arrived to class early, just to learn and reinforce my basic vocabulary and practice pronouncing things. Because of its brevity, it is not entirely useful for looking up words when reading very often, but it still provides a decent chunk of solid 101-level information in a familiar and easy-to-understand format.
I could quibble a bit with the pronunciation guides provided, but quite frankly, since sounds in Irish are often different sounds entirely from the sounds in English, I can't really be mad that they didn't use the same written approximations that I tend to. I'm also finding that as I try to be more accurate in my pronunciation notes for myself, I am finding it increasingly difficult to figure out how to write down what sounds I should be making. And if I want to write the broad "dh" sound as "rh" because it sounds like a French "r" to me, that doesn't mean the dictionary is wrong for not catering specifically to people who know French sounds.
I think it's a bit cute that the phrasebook adheres so closely to the usual travel phrasebook standards, with phrases for how to book a hotel room and go through customs and all that, when everywhere you go in Ireland you can do basic travel stuff in English. But that's not really the point, is it?
|10:25 am - Sex, love, and the Potato Famine|
For my vacation reading while I was in Ireland, I wanted to stay with the Irish theme (since I was in Ireland) but perhaps deviate slightly from the history books (since I would be going to a million museums, and also I was running short on Irish history books), so I instead packed — among other volumes — the copy of Nuala O'Faolain's My Dream of You that I rescued from my aunt's Irish lit collection over the summer. It turned out to be a perfect choice for reading on the plane, and sometimes in the car while driving around the picturesque sheep pastures of Western Ireland, and at breakfast in cute little B&Bs while eating porridge with honey and cream, and (possibly best of all) in the lounge at the Hotel Aisling in Dublin on a sunny Good Friday afternoon while drinking tea. It's not an especially long book — by my standards at least, clocking in at 544 pages — but most of these reading sessions were fairly short, as we had a pretty busy vacation schedule.
My Dream of You is not the sort of book I tend to read too much of, in that it's a contemporary realism/litfic piece that's mostly about middle-aged people and sex, but if I'm going to read a depressing litfic book about middle-aged people and sex, I think this was a good pick for me in that it also has a lot of stuff about writing and history and travel and feminism (sort of) and being perpetually single, all of which actually are relevant to my everyday interests. And barring some unexpected tragedy, I will be middle-aged someday (I hope!).
Our narrator and protagonist is Kathleen de Burca, a 49-year-old Irishwoman living in London where she has a successful career as a travel writer for a small company that is part of a larger company. When she is not traveling to glamorous locations for work, she lives alone in a basement apartment in London. Kathleen has been single since she broke up with her J-school boyfriend almost thirty years ago, but has a dedicated habit of having unfulfilling sexual encounters with every boring-ass traveling businessman or married douchebag who makes a pass at her in the course of her travels. O'Faolain's writing is engaging enough that I actually felt sympathy for Kathleen's transparently useless quest to find human connection via hooking up with randos in suits, instead of doing what I'd normally do, which is stick my nose into the air and harrumph that a fully independent, nomadic lifestyle is CLEARLY WASTED ON SOME PEOPLE. Part of this is because Kathleen's character is well-developed enough to make it clear that this lifestyle isn't actually totally wasted on Kathleen; she actually very much values her independence, especially having been raised in the stagnation and conservatism of mid-century Ireland by an authoritarian father and a chronically depressed mother. The tension between her desire to love and be loved and her desire to stay way the hell far away from the trap that was Irish domestic life when she was growing up provides a lot of the internal conflict for the book.
When Kathleen's colleague and best friend dies unexpectedly, it precipitates a midlife crisis. For Kathleen, a midlife crisis looks like retiring early and returning to the Irish countryside to do research on an 1840s divorce case that she'd been interested in since J-school, known as "the Talbot affair," in which the young wife of an Anglo-Irish landlord was accused of adultery with a groom. While she is here, she has a brief affair with a married Irish man who also lives in England, named Shay (short for Seamus), and does a lot of musing over her life — both her unhappy childhood in Ireland and the various dramas she's gotten into in England and around the world — and visits what family she has remaining in Ireland (a brother, a sister-in-law, and a niece). But the most fun bits are her interactions with the people of Ballygall (the little town she's doing research in) and the historical stuff she finds and the general low-grade absurdity of her time in the country. The hotel she checks into, the Talbot Arms, is a family-owned affair, and Kathleen quickly befriends the little clan that runs it. They keep putting her up into other accommodations for the weekend due to hosting various larger events: in a little thatched cottage during a teacher's convention, and in a very modern lakeside house belonging to some guy named Felix for a wedding. Kathleen meets Nan Leech, the ferociously judgmental and ancient local librarian, and interviews a couple other elderly locals about what they remember being told about the Talbot affair by their own elders. She pokes around the library and the old grounds of the estate, and writes a draft of what appears to be a historical romance novella about the case, the chapters of which are included within the book as she writes them. (The novella, in my opinion, is pretty good.)
Some people might find the ending of the book not particularly satisfying, since it's a bit anticlimactic from what I think a traditional sort of ending would be, but I liked it. So much of the book is dedicated to Kathleen's mental rehashing of her terrible decision-making throughout her life, and I think she makes a non-terrible decision at the end, so I think it represents her growing up more (there is still growing up to do at fifty) and moving into the next phase of her life where hopefully she will continue to make better decisions.
There are a lot of things in this book that I feel like I ordinarily would complain about, but in this case I think all work for the O'Faolain is telling (see above re: Kathleen's terrible decision-making skills). However, there are two main complaints I actually have. One is that the printing that I have has a big chunk of pages missing and replaced with a duplicate of the next chunk of pages instead — so the book goes from pages 1 to 277, then page 300-something to 330-something, then page 300-something again to the end. Obviously this is not the author's fault, as I am entirely certain she did not write it this way. My other complaint is that the novel eschews the use of quotation marks (although, interestingly, Kathleen does not in the excerpts from her novella). I'm decently used to reading things without quotation marks — French writing conventions universally use the em-dash to introduce dialogue, and My Dream of You is hardly the only English novel to forgo traditional quotation marks — but I still think it's unnecessary and a bit pretentious.
I probably won't dip back into the world of depressing realistic fiction for another several months since I do have an extremely limited tolerance for reading about people who aren't enjoying their sex lives but keep goddamn having sex anyway (JUST GO DO SOMETHING ELSE WITH YOUR TIME, THE WORLD IS LARGE AND FULL OF INTERESTING THINGS), but if all Irish women's fiction comes with such a big dose of tragic history stuff — which I suspect it might — then when I do, that's probably where I'll go. Alternately, I might read O'Faolain's memoir, a copy of which I also stole from my auntie.
March 13th, 2016
|09:22 am - Changed, changed utterly|
In preparation for my imminent trip to Ireland for the centenary of the Easter Rising, I finally picked up a freakin' book about the Easter Rising. Tim Pat Coogan's simply titled 1916: The Easter Rising promised an accessible and decently comprehensive overview of this critical event in Irish history. What I didn't immediately realize was that it was so accessible and overview-y because it is actually a coffee table book, but whatever. I've learned quite a lot of Irish history from coffee table books in my day. And this one was certainly more recent than the last Irish coffee table book I read, Jill and Leon Uris' Ireland: A Terrible Beauty, which was published in 1978. Coogan's book was published in 2001, which is still 15 years ago, although it doesn't seem dated until we get to the epilogue, which talks about the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
I think the book has a good balance for the sort of history book that covers one major event: the first quarter or so is runup to the conflict, providing the "backstory" to the main action and situating it within Irish history generally and the context of its time period more specifically. The middle 50% or so of the book goes into the events of Easter Weekend in enough detail to be compelling, with a lot of pictures and primary documents from the period, eyewitness accounts, excerpts from letters and legal testimonies, etc. The last quarter or so of the book deals with the aftermath, including the infamous executions, and the way in which public opinion turned against the British government and led to the war for independence.
One thing this book does not do is pretend to be neutral in viewpoint. While the editorializing is limited and confined largely to the beginning and end of the book, and while I have no particular reason to doubt Coogan's scholarship, Coogan is clearly 100% on the side of the various factions of Irish nationalists, and has some pretty harsh words for the Orangemen. The parallels between the political rhetoric and behaviors of the Orangemen in the 1910s and the current American Tea Party movement are pretty striking, especially considering the large Scottish and northern English constituencies in both demographics. Apparently, clannishness and the "banding" notion of loyalty are all well and good, but when they combine with settler paranoia in British or formerly British colonies, it morphs into a mind-bendingly Orwellian strain of anti-native, self-absorbed viciousness in which treason is loyalty, authoritarianism is freedom, violent revolution is required to maintain the status quo, and governments listening to their subjects is an abdication of leadership. (Basically, listening to any of those OTHER people who live here besides US is perceived as an act of betrayal. Fuck you, Tea Partiers and Orangemen. You want to be the only people in a country, move to the fucking moon.) (Also, sadly, in the US, the Irish contributed largely to the same sorts of cultural douchebaggery, even though they were the victims of it at home.) Anyway.
I only had one real complaint about the book: the copy editing. More specifically, the commas, although there were a handful of straight-up typos that had apparently been missed during the editing process. But the ways this book uses commas were obsolete by 1916, let alone by 2001. Parenthetical clauses would be set off by commas on only one side. Commas were inserted between subject and verb. The book might as well have been copy edited by the ghost of Charles Dickens. This was enormously distracting to me as a copy editor.
Considering my previous knowledge of the 1916 rising had come in bits and pieces through family, cultural osmosis, mini-lessons from various Irish cultural groups, etc., I'm glad I read this book--it gave me a good deal of new information and helped me organize the information I already did have much better. I do think I would like to track down a lengthier, more scholarly, less coffee-table-ish book on the subject someday soon, though. I'm sure I'll find a bunch of books to buy when I get to Ireland next week...
Current Mood: tired
Current Music: "An Cailin Ailinn"
March 6th, 2016
|02:58 pm - A historical history of gambling|
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for President's Day at work about Presidential betting (you can read it here
) and I referenced Stephen Longstreet's Win or Lose: A Social History of Gambling in America
, which had been quoted in another source. This, however, is not the best research practice ever, and also the tidbit quoted was interesting (it was about T.Jeff), so I checked out Win or Lose
from the Boston Public Library.
This book, I found out, was published in 1977, which is almost forty years ago now. So it covers a period of time from the mid-1500s up through "the present," except "the present" is the late '70s, and things in the late '70s were very different from how they are now, and it's kind of hilarious to read, at least if you are as easily entertained by historical change as I am. I think I now need a book more thoroughly covering the time from the 1970s to the present, but Win or Lose does a reasonably thorough job of getting the lay reader up to speed with the first 400 years after Columbus' men rolled up on shore after pitching their cards overboard in a fit of piety.
The book can be a bit disjointed, progressing in more or less chronological order except when it is progressing by subject, where the subject can be either a type of gambling or a specific location or something else. The bulk of each chapter is mostly stories about individual gamblers who were very important or interesting within the given context; they're usually pretty entertaining stories even if they do seem to jump around with little in the way of transitions. But there's also time devoted to explaining how different gambling scenes worked overall, and the rises and falls of various big gambling resorts (there's an especially big section dedicated to Saratoga, New York).
The funniest bit for me was the chapter on how horse racing is far and away the most popular type of gambling in the U.S., because it really, really isn't anymore. When this book was being written, states were just starting to implement lotteries and Atlantic City was just beginning to be revived as a gambling destination. How things have changed!
Anyway, the books is nearly as good a primary historical resource about gambling as it is a secondary one, but I'm OK with that. I'm not sure I'd really recommend it to someone who only wants to read one book about gambling in the U.S. though; there's got to be something more current out there.
Current Mood: content
Current Music: twitch live streams
February 23rd, 2016
|09:41 pm - It's been a while since I read a good vampire story|
So I was vaguely intending on only reading nonfiction from now through March but then I discovered the Bloodsucking Feminists
podcast and realized I'd never read John Polidori's The Vampyre: A Tale, so of course then I went and read The Vampyre. After listening to the episode about it, because that's how I roll. (That is not how I prefer to roll but sometimes I mess up.)
is best known for being one of the entries in the famous horror story contest between Polidori, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. It... didn't win. Frankenstein
won, in the process basically inventing science fiction generally and the cyborg story in particular. The Vampyre
is also a pretty genre-kicking-off piece of work, being one of the earliest or possibly the earliest instances of vampire prose fiction in the English language, but if you read it you will understand why Frankenstein
is generally considered the winner, even with Percy Shelley's terrible copy edits.
That said, it was a pretty valuable read, I think. It's short, so despite its flaws and the extremely eighteenth-century nature of those flaws, it's not too much of a slog (unlike, say, the thousand-plus-page Varney the Vampire
, which I have been avoiding reading for at least two years now).
The story itself is fairly simple. A good-natured but flighty young dandy named Aubrey is introduced into society and befriends the aristocratic Lord Ruthven, who is a cold brooding sort but very handsome, and who only hangs out with the most virtuous of women. Aubrey and Ruthven go on a trip through Europe, which was a tradition for well-born young men at the time, and during the trip Aubrey notices that the virtuous young women Aubrey hangs out with all have their reputations ruined by the time they skip town. Ruthven also gambles a lot, and while Ruthven doesn't necessarily always win, the people he's playing with all manage to lose, and to exhibit horrendous bankroll management while they're at it. Aubrey eventually grows disgusted with the trail of fallen women and busto family men with hungry children that his friend is leaving in their wake, and bounces to Greece by himself, where he develops a flirtation with an "unspoilt" (this is a term with a large number of very specific meanings when applied to young maidens in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Brit lit) young Greek maiden, who tries to warn him about vampires. But he thinks she is just being adorably quaint and superstitious, so he goes to look at some ancient ruins or something and has to walk back home through the woods in the dark, where he finds a fancy knife and also the dead body of his Greek girlfriend, who has clearly died of being bitten in the neck. Ruthven shows back up and they keep traveling together, then Ruthven is shot by bandits and dies, but first he makes Aubrey promise not to tell anyone anything about what a terrible person he is for a year and a day. Aubrey agrees, and the dead Ruthven's body mysteriously disappears.
Aubrey goes back to England where it's time for him to bring his sister out into society. At one of these society parties he espies Lord Ruthven, apparently no longer dead, and he can't say anything because he is a Man Of His Word and also he is apparently hallucinating Ruthven in his head saying "Don't you dare," which oddly is a thing that happens in the second Twilight book nearly two hundred years later. Aubrey runs away and has a fit, and spends the next several months descending further into the depths of fever, incoherence, and unspecified trauma-induced mental illness. As he gets closer to the deadline where he can finally tell people how terrible Ruthven is, he starts to feel better, and someone tells him that his sister is going to marry the Earl of Marsden, and he's happy for like ten seconds until he finds out that the Earl of Marsden is, of course, Lord Ruthven. Instead of being able to say anything, he has a stroke and his sister marries Ruthven and is promptly et, THE END. Seriously, that's the story. The vampire wins.
The storyline is entertaining enough, I suppose, but the real joy of The Vampyre lies in its epically poor pacing, wobbling unevenly through long atmospheric scenes with actual details and quotations and stuff, and passages that read more like the author's outline or synopsis for a scene rather than a scene itself. And it tends to be all the most important, exciting bits of the story that are rushed through like this, with vague, telling-not-showing sorts of descriptions that add two centuries' worth of dust on top of what are apparently some pretty action-packed chase scenes and intense histrionics. It has an amusingly Plan Nine from Outer Space-y feel to it, sometimes, with a palpable amateur earnestness that renders the clumsy wordcraft endearing.
This story, obviously, is of enormous historical importance to the development of the vampire story generally and the rise of the Byronic anti-hero character archetype in particular, and it also provides a good amount of fodder for discussion of at least two of the four pillars of British Romanticism Fuckery that my British Romanticism class focused on (race, class, gender, and imperialism--in this case, mostly gender and class, although you could have a good time deconstructing the portrayal of the Greeks a bit). For a much more thorough look into the weird gender politics of the story in particular, I strongly recommend checking out the relevant episode of Bloodsucking Feminists.
Current Mood: tired
Current Music: podcasts
February 11th, 2016
|09:38 pm - Women sailors and a bunch of other stuff|
When I was in high school I went through a period of studying pirates very intensely and buying a lot of shirts from PirateMod, back when they actually used to ship me the shirts I bought. (Long story, ask me about it sometime.) One of the best books I read during this period was David Cordingly's classic book Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. It was an excellent resource and an excellent read, so you can imagine how excited I was to find out that Cordingly had also written a book called Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways and Sailors' Wives.
After actually reading it, I'm much more ambivalent. The book is short, but it covers a lot of ground, and sometimes it strays into territory that seemed kind of off-topic at the expense of giving us more details on the stuff that was on-topic. I didn't mind that the whole book wasn't entirely about female sailors; the discussions of the lives of women whose lives were shaped by the sea anyway were still pretty fascinating. The book opens with a look into the lives of the dock prostitutes in the U.S. and Britain who served predominantly naval clientele, and there are other sections that focus on how sailors' marriages worked and on communities like Nantucket, where the women ran nearly everything on land because most of the adult male population was gone at any given time. Unfortunately, there were also some chapters that were just about male sailors who slept with a lot of ladies, which is not the same thing as being chapters about the ladies, especially considering the complete lack of the women's perspective given. I would have preferred a lot more detail about the female sailors, female pirates, and female lighthouse-keepers whom we do know about. This would require a wider focus than just the 18th and 19th century British and American maritime history that Cordingly specializes in, which I would have been totally fine with.
The result is that the most promising part of the book for me is the section in the afterword/acknowledgements where he explains how he came to the decisions in scope and focus that he made: The original plan of focusing exclusively on female sailors in a wider time frame would have resulted in too much overlap with another book called Female Tars by Suzanne Stark, about women in the Royal Navy. Looks like I'll have to go read that one next!
Scope creep issues aside, Cordingly is a solid writer and a reliable historian, and the material he's working with here is quite colorful. The book provides an interesting and easily digestible look at each of the many and varied topics it touches upon, and I'm happy to have read it.
Current Mood: cold
Current Music: Hamilton soundtrack
January 31st, 2016
|07:32 pm - Intrigue, espionage, and... fiat money?|
As the most recent dictator of the newly installed rotating dictatorship for my writing group's book club, I decreed that the next book we'd be reading after Sorcerer to the Crown would be Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which was just published this fall and which I had heard enthusiastic, if vague, good things about. It promised a lot of political intrigue--which it delivered, in spades.
The premise of the story is that young Baru Cormorant lives in a nice little tropical island society that is taken over by a foreign power called the Imperial Republic, colloquially known as the Masquerade, because its agents wear masks when acting in official capacities. The Masquerade seems to be based largely on the early modern European empires that conquered most of the globe from the 1500s through 1900s, but keyed up to be even more sinister, with four centuries of stuff happening within a generation or two and every element of chaos that marked real-world colonialism reworked as a deliberate and calculated act of empire. The Masquerade is powerful not so much for its military might--although it has that, relying most heavily on its Navy--but also because of its more insidious weapons: bureaucracy, cultural annihilation, plague, trade, paper money, racism, sexism, repressive mores of sexual purity, and eugenics. Also citrus juice and salt.
In case you are not getting the picture yet, this book is about colonialism. And not just regular levels of about colonialism, either; this book is SUPER ABOUT COLONIALISM. It is about, like, all the colonialism that has ever happened and how and why.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that it is also largely about money.
It used to be something of a given that fantasy books were terrible about money. Everything cost One Gold Piece when you remembered that people are supposed to pay for stuff occasionally; where that piece came from was rarely explained much; characters were generally either Poor or they were Noble (and therefore rich) and this difference was illustrated largely through lifestyle. Lately, this has been changing. Huge chunks of the A Song of Ice and Fire books feature discussion of debts and budgets; Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper books deal much more with everyday realities of living paycheck to paycheck than her earlier books did; The Hunger Games deals explicitly, if not in super mathy detail, with Panem's mercantilist economic system and how it keeps the Districts poor and the Capitol rich. I want to say that ever since the global economic crash, finance has featured more heavily in all sorts of genre fiction as being a thing that is Big and Dramatic and Dangerous and Will Fuck You Up. It is also just possible that I am reading better, more thoughtfully written books now that I am older than I was in 2008 and have less tolerance for stories where Stew just pops up out of thin air.
Either way, The Traitor Baru Cormorant is pretty much the fantasy book the most about money that I've ever read. Baru, after years of diligent studying in the new Masquerade schools that are definitely not based on the U.S. and Canada's boarding schools for Native American children at all, is made the Imperial Accountant to another of the Masquerade's colonies, a clump of squabbling duchies known collectively as Aurdwynn. Being Imperial Accountant is a very important post because money is very important. Being Imperial Accountant of Aurdwynn is tough because Aurdwynn has a tendency toward rebellion, and Baru needs to put down the latest brewing rebellion--using the power of the purse--to prove that she is worthy of going to Falcrest (the home country of the Masquerade) so that she can learn everything about power and accumulate it for herself, a thing she wants to do because she wants to be able to liberate her homeland from the Masquerade. Baru is deeply committed to the idea that the best way to destroy the master's house is from the inside with the master's tools; unsurprisingly, the Aurdwynn rebels disagree, and whether or not it's possible to do so is one of the driving questions in the book.
The other driving questions in the book at any given time are 1 "Is the power of money more or less powerful than (insert whatever else the other person is using)" and 2 "What the hell side is everybody on," something that just gets more and more complex as the book goes on, all the way to the last page. By the end of the book it's not entirely clear what all the sides are, and I don't want to go into it any more than that, but there are so many layers of intrigue that I think I'd have to read the book again knowing what I know now to double-check if it all makes sense or if there are plot holes, since at the moment I've just been turned around too many times. It's a very intricate, literary sort of book; in this instance, I'm using "literary" to mean that basically all the characters are terrible, the main character included, and everyone is very serious all the time, and the role of the individual within nearly any social issue you care to name is explored (spoiler: the individual is always miserable). The only character who makes any jokes is Baru's secretary, Muire Lo, who is very understatedly following in the wonderful tradition of the dryly sarcastic butler type.
I think this'll make fun book group discussion fodder because of all the THINGS HAPPENING that I can't really go into here because spoilers. For the moment, though I have two last random thoughts:
1. I like that the Masquerade's sexist bullshit is a seamless mix of real-world sexist stereotypes and the opposite of real-world ones. The Masquerade is all like "Women are given to abstract thought, so they're less emotionally stable and also better at navigating and mathematics." Sounds at least as vaguely plausible as the shit we believe!
2. Scurvy features heavily in this book, which would be great and all grounded 'n' stuff except that I listened to the Sawbones episode about scurvy like a week ago and it's a terrifying creepy disease and every time the book mentions it my teeth and toes hurt. Aieeee. Drink your orange juice, kids.
Current Mood: tired
Current Music: Hamilton soundtrack
January 24th, 2016
|05:37 pm - Grab your hoodies and sunglasses, nerds|
So it is customary among my people that January is traditionally a time to hole up in somebody's living room for entire days and play board games and drink adult beverages, and this January is no different, except that I suggested we play poker instead of one of our usual board games. And then, because I am me, I was like "But I have to read a book about it first!" Fortunately, there are like a billion poker books out there; unfortunately, it can be hard to find a starting point among one billion books. After some noodling around on the Internet I settled upon Phil Gordon and Jonathan Grotenstein's Poker: The Real Deal: Insider Tips from the Co-host of Celebrity Poker Showdown. Partly this was because the Internet said it was a readable, overview-y type of book, and partly it was because it was one of the books I could actually check out of the Boston Public Library system (apparently some other poker books are listed as reference works and not available for checkout).
It's a fairly short book, only about two hundred pages, and it covers a lot of ground at a fairly shallow level, walking the reader all the way from "Start with a 52-card deck of playing cards" up through a pleasant fantasy of winning the World Series of Poker Main Event heads-up against Phil Hellmuth Jr. As someone who already knows what a deck of cards is and entertains no ambitions whatsoever about becoming a professional, I found the middle sections of the book the most helpful. I'd picked up bits and pieces of some of the topics he discusses (and a lot of the vocabulary) through work, but it was nice to have it set out in a nice orderly fashion so I could see how it all fits together.
As far as providing strategy goes, I think it hits a good balance for being baby's first poker book: There's enough there to let you learn a few things, which are accompanied by little what-would-you-do questions, followed up by a page or so of text breaking down what the right answer is and why. It's a good way to keep track of how well you're learning. I also thought it was pretty useful that the book contains a number of short reviews of other, more specifically focused poker books, so the reader can decide what looks fun to read next or what they maybe need to read next the most based on which of the chapter-end questions they got the most wrong.
Personally, I was unsurprised by what I discovered, which is that grasping most of the general concepts is easy enough but actually doing math in my head is embarrassingly hard. I have not done any math more complex than balancing my checkbook in nearly ten years, and since I am a publishing minion, my checkbook does not deal in particularly unwieldy numbers. One of the reasons I wanted to learn more about poker was that I figured it would give the math part of my brain some much-needed exercise; now, I think exercise isn't really going to be enough--that part of my brain possibly requires necromancy instead. Holy English majors, Batman.
Still, there's a simplified formula for calculating pot odds and a chart about starting hand strength, and I found those worth going back and reading over more than once before even thinking about trying to seek out more complicated stuff.
The weakest parts of the book were the bits about technology and online poker, which have changed drastically in the past several years. The book was written in 2004, which I didn't realize until I was brought up short by running into a sentence advising that the reader practice poker by downloading "small applets you can play on your Palm Pilot." Now that's a sentence that has aged badly. Less comically, pretty much the entire chapter about online poker is now functionally useless, at least if you live in the U.S.
The goofy celebrity name-dropping anecdotes were less than enormously useful from a "how to suck less" standpoint, but they were pretty funny. Gordon writes in a pretty clear, conversational style, with a bit of humor (including judgmental nicknames; my FAVORITE) and a sprinkling of pop culture references. He's pretty easy to follow if you can keep up with the increases in poker-specific vocabulary employed as the book goes on; if you're having trouble with that, there is a glossary in the back.
Probably the most important question, ultimately, is: Does the book help? I can't entirely say, but I think so. Obviously, just reading it straight through once isn't nearly going to be enough to develop any measure of skill; in addition, I haven't gone to a cardroom in the three days since I finished reading it. I had a home game on Saturday, consisting entirely of people around my own level of cluelessness, and I felt like it helped me recognize what we were all doing wrong and why it was wrong more than it helped me actually do stuff right. Which probably isn't that bad, considering. I think I'm going to review all the what-would-you-do questions before I return it to the library, though, and possibly reread the section about pot odds with a pencil and paper to do all the math out longhand.
January 16th, 2016
|06:40 pm - I practiced the law, practic'ly perfected it|
The most recent Harvard Bookstore Warehouse sale had a good selection of books for those such as myself who have, since Lin-Manuel Miranda's play took Broadway by storm this fall, devolved into complete Hamiltrash. When I saw the title of Paul Collins' Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take On America's First Sensational Murder Mystery, I knew I had to buy it. Well, first I thought it must be fiction that had been misshelved, but then I reread the subtitle and picked it up and read the flap copy just to be sure, and when I got back home I immediately went online to see if I was remembering the lyrics properly:
Gentlemen of the jury, I’m curious, bear with me
Are you aware that we’re making hist’ry?
This is the first murder trial of our brand-new nation
The liberty behind
I intend to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt
With my assistant counsel—
Hamilton, sit down
Our client Levi Weeks is innocent. Call your first witness
That’s all you had to say!
Confirmed: This book is about the Levi Weeks case, a real case in which Burr and Hamilton really did serve as co-counsel for the defense.
The musical fudges the facts a bit for dramatic license. First of all, it barely touches on the case at all, subsuming it under the larger narrative of Hamilton's nonstoppitude, whereas this case was actually a really, really big deal. Second of all, it wasn't a big deal because it was the first murder trial since independence, since it really wasn't: It was the first murder trial that became a big public sensation along the lines of the popular murders that characterized the Victorian era across the pond (see; Judith Flanders' The Invention of Murder), which had sort of just barely started--because, thirdly, the Levi Weeks trial took place in 1800, when both Hamilton and Burr were well-established lawyers in Manhattan, and in their mid-forties.
Neither A. Ham nor A. Burr pop up too much in the earlier parts of the book, except in distant, tantalizing bits and pieces, like marching in Washington's funeral procession, and some little-regarded letters to the editors of various newspapers. Instead, the earlier sections of the book are dedicated to setting the scenes of life in three-turns-of-the-century-ago New York City in general, and in Elias Ring's boardinghouse in particular, where the major players in the crime all lived.
The short version: Elias Ring and his wife ran a nice, respectable Quaker boardinghouse, which at the time had four boarders: Mrs. Ring's sister Hope Sands; Hope's cousin Elma Sands; a cloth merchant named Richard Croucher; and a young carpenter named Levi Weeks. One day shortly before Christmas, Elma Sands got dressed up to go out, borrowed a muff from a neighbor, left the boardinghouse and didn't return. Around New Year's, her body was found in the Manhattan Well at Lispenard's Meadow, a well that had been recently built as part of Senator Aaron Burr's plan to improve the municipal water supply, but which had been abandoned because it kept filling up with quicksand.
Suspicion immediately fell upon Levi Weeks, who was rumored to have been engaged to Elma, and he was promptly arrested. His brother, Ezra Weeks, called upon some top-notch lawyers who owed him money to serve as Levi's defense team in exchange for canceling their debts. The lawyers in question were Senator Burr, Major General Alexander Hamilton, and future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Henry Brockholst Livingston.
The trial ran for two full days, which was super long by the standards of the time, and had only one recess for a few hours overnight, during which the jurors had to sleep on the floor in a portrait gallery because it hadn't really been planned that the trial would run on for that long. Part of the length of the trial was due to Hamilton, Burr, and Livingston's brilliantly tricksy cross-examinations--mostly Hamilton was in charge of the cross-examining; he seemed to be having fun with it--and part of it was due to the approach of Assistant Attorney General Cadwallader Colden, which was to bring in basically everybody in Manhattan as a witness. Unfortunately for Colden, his prosecution was a complete mess. In addition to such blunders as citing cases that actually argued the opposite of what he claimed they argued, Hamilton and friends kept tripping up his witnesses with questions like "What day was that?" when they claimed they saw or heard suspicious things. (Things you learn from reading history: Old-timey people are not NEARLY as smart as people assume they were when complaining about Kids These Days. Like, sure, General Hamilton was certainly much smarter than your average asshole is today, but your average asshole in 1799 had alcohol for breakfast and didn't know how old his own children were.)
A nice gift for the nerds of the future was that this trial, all nearly forty-eight hours of it, was taken down in shorthand by the clerk of the court and later published in full as a book for mass purchase. As a result, we know every one of Colden's blunders, the defense team's snarky questions, and the witnesses' testimonies. The middle third of Duel with the Devil therefore gives us a very lively and detailed account of exactly who said what and how it was received. It makes a delightful courtroom drama.
The final third of the book discusses how the various publications about the trial were produced and received, as well as what happened to all the major players--including a pretty convincing theory on who it was that actually murdered Elma Sands. My favorite bits were learning more about the sad and wacky trajectory of Aaron Burr's life after he shot Hamilton, of which I had known nearly nothing: It turns out that he was indicted for murder in both New Jersey and New York, although the charges were eventually dropped; he fled out West where he was then charged with treason for fomenting a rebellion in Mexico; eventually he ended up wandering about completely penniless in Europe for several years before he dared return to New York and become a specialist in family law, which happened pretty much just because the only people desperate enough to be willing to use his services as a lawyer were women seeking divorce cases. (Burr represented Maria Reynolds, of the Reynolds Affair/Pamphlet notoriety, in her divorce. Isn't history fun?)
Overall, the book is a really fascinating look into a very particular slice of history, and is nearly a novel in its readability: It's got a fantastic cast, vivid worldbuilding, a thrilling mystery, and even some dryly funny dialogue:
"There were many discolorations on the teguments of the skin," Dr. Snedeker announced to the prosecutor. "There was a dislocation of the clavicle from the sternum."
There was a confused silence.
"Be so good, sir, as to speak in less technical language, so that the jury may understand you."
"The left collar bone was broke," the doctor sighed.
Well, I laughed.
Anyway. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED FOR: American history nerds, true crime nerds, my fellow Hamiltrash, combinations of the above.
Current Location: lower allston
Current Mood: geeky
Current Music: "Non-Stop," Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical
January 3rd, 2016
|09:59 pm - In which diversity saves English magic, and the bigots are maaaad|
It has been a while since I have read an entire novel in one day, but that is what I did today, after picking up Zen Cho's debut fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown this morning from Gillian. (I had it on hold at the library, but it didn't look as if it would get to me in time for book club on Saturday, and I didn't want to start the new year off with anything resembling last year's spectacular performance at failing at book clubs.) Since I have had such an epically productive new year thus far, I rewarded myself by drinking tea and reading for the entire afternoon. It was very satisfying.
The book itself was also very satisfying, being right up my alley in a number of different ways. It's got a lot of the elements I like in Gail Carriger's books Mary Robinette Kowal's books and in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, namely, that it takes place in an alternate version of sometime in imperial England (in this case, it seems to be during the Napoleonic wars) where magic is not hidden; it's got strong comedy-of-manners elements; there is convoluted political intrigue; and it deals with some of imperial England's assorted oppressive social issues.
It also has two leads of color, out of a total of two leads--a black man and a half-white, half-Indian (I think) woman. Or rather, teenage girl. With very strong magical powers. Hyperpowered teenage girl sorceresses are a fav trope of mine going back to my early Tamora Pierce-reading days, so YAY. And I'm trying to seek out more books with men of color as point of view characters or narrators, because I read very few of those--I think I've been more likely to find books with WOC POVs than MOC POVs because I deliberately seek out books by and about women but I've never really specifically sought out books by or about men because, y'know, I really didn't have to, with the result that it was usually books about white men that crossed my path.
Lead character number one is Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of England, a manumitted slave and the adopted son of the former Sorcerer Royal. Zacharias is not the most popular Sorcerer Royal ever; indeed, he is probably the least popular Sorcerer Royal ever, considering he was trained by his adopted father basically as an experiment to prove that black people could learn thaumaturgy too, and the old guard of comfortable British gentleman with plummy accents and bad whiskers (the accents and whiskers not actually mentioned in the book, but c'mon, you know the type) is not very happy that he ended up outranking all of them. Despite being a polite, quiet, conscientious, intelligent, usually even-tempered sort of dude, Zacharias' racist good-old-boy rivals are happy to accuse him of whatever crimes pop into their heads, including having murdered his adopted father and his father's familiar. Zacharias has all of about two friends in the formerly glorious Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, both of whom are Drone Club-type dandies who are smarter than they look.
Lead character number two is the hilariously named Prunella Gentleman, an orphan girl living at a school for gentlewitches, where, in true British fashion, young girls of gentle birth and magical ability are taught how to not do magic, because magic is terribly dangerous and their little female bodies and brains are obviously too frail to handle it. The fact that there are clearly girls of such magical ability that they have to be trained out of doing it is, of course, absolutely no obstacle whatsoever to people continuing to believe this, nor are all the female magic users in other countries, since of course, people in other countries aren't British and therefore aren't really regular people anyway. Prunella has really quite a lot of magical ability even by the standards of the girls sequestered at this school; she also has no family, no money, and no prospects. Fortunately for her, she also has no scruples, no dependents, no romantic notions of the world, and no doubts about her own abilities. She's delightfully ambitious and calculating, leaving poor Zacharias to be entire conscience and moral center of the story.
Zacharias is mostly busy trying not to get assassinated and attempting to figure out why Britain's supply of atmospheric magic is dwindling, but he takes a brief detour on his way to the border between England and Faerie (where the magic is supposed to come from) to make a speech at Prunella's school, as a special favor to one of his two friends, who was supposed to make the speech originally but insists that he is too useless to pull it off. It is here that he meets Prunella and, after a series of unfortunate mishaps, takes her on as an apprentice. What he doesn't know is that, in addition to her considerable powers, Prunella has a couple of mysterious family treasures that are also probably of great sorcerous power, only she doesn't really know what they are or how to use them. To top everything off, some dipshit sultan from halfway across the world is attempting to prevail upon Britain to subdue a bunch of cranky vampire ladies who are causing trouble over in his kingdom.
At first, the more Zacharias and Prunella attempt to solve their respective mysteries, the most confusing everything gets. But eventually, a convoluted web of human and Faerie politics begins to emerge, suggesting that all these disparate issues might be connected--which means in order to fix it, everyone's secrets will eventually have to come out. Nobody is particularly happy about that.
Most of the conflicts in the plot are deeply rooted in Britain's oppressive social structures. In college, I took at class on British Romanticism, and we pretty much analyzed each book along the lines of what I've come to think of as England's Four Pillars of Fuckery: race, class, gender, and imperialism. These are not exclusive to English history, of course, but almost all of the history and art out of England from about 1500 onward can be understood in light of these four specific traditions of othering and oppressing people, which shaped English society in almost every aspect. In this book, rivalries and scheming arise as a result of white magicians' racism against Zacharias (and sometimes Prunella); male magicians' taboo against women practicing magic; the "gentlemen's" refusal to admit magic really existed in the lower orders (and an interesting intersection of class and gender in Prunella's mercenary concern for landing herself a husband in order to establish herself); and the results of the British Empire pissing off the sorcerers and sorceresses of the lands they conquered without really understanding how magic works there or admitting that it could rival British thaumaturgy in any real way. Apart from the magic angle, this fits in well with all the best actual British literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which were also all about the various ways in which British society sucked and was oppressive. It also fits in well with a long tradition of hilarious secondary characters, but that could be a whole paper in and of itself.
(Note: Supposedly there's a plague of historical fiction about Regency and Victorian England that romanticizes it and doesn't address all the ways in which it was terrible, and I admit I've never really read any because I guess my recommendations-gathering system is too good? But hearing about its existence baffles me, because stuff like Jane Austen's books and the Bronte sisters' books and everything by Dickens and like all classic Britlit books are all pretty much about how English society sucked and was oppressive. I am mildly curious as to what non-"message fiction" about imperial England could possibly look like, but not enough to seek out any of it and read it. Hell, even Downton Abbey tries to deal with this stuff, even if it ends up pulling most of its punches 3/4 of the way through any given plotline.)
Anyway, I'm very, very much looking forward to deconstructing the hell out of this book next weekend.
Current Mood: satisfied
Current Music: Hamilton soundtrack
January 1st, 2016
|03:19 pm - Little House on the Ridge|
The last book I read in 2015 was the fourth installment of the Outlander franchise, Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon. At this point, Jamie and Claire have arrived in the semiwilderness of the colony of North Carolina, ten years or so before the American Revolution. There are a lot of Scotsmen in North Carolina. Some of them fled impoverishment and persecution to set themselves up as plantation and slave owners, following the grand American tradition of fleeing persecution to engage in a little persecution of one's own. Other Scots have come over via indenture, either voluntary or involuntary. (Hell, I think some of the came over via involuntary indenture and bought slaves once their indenture was over; people can be shitty like that.)
In contrast to the last book, which I call "Highlanders of the Caribbean" even though that's not actually its name, Claire and Jamie mostly stay in North Carolina through this one. They meet another one of Jamie's unnumerable relatives, a badass, blind old lady named Jocasta Cameron, who welcomes them and immediately starts scheming to put Jamie in charge of her plantation so that other people stop trying to marry it out from under her. This doesn't sit too well with either Jamie or Claire, since the plantation comes with a great number of slaves and can't be maintained without them, and, since Claire and Jamie are our heroes, they can't possibly countenance slave ownership. Instead, Jamie runs off and starts rustically homesteading a nearby patch of woodland he calls Fraser's Ridge, and it's all very Little House on the Prairie for a bit, except for being woodland instead of prairie.
It's Claire's daughter Brianna, it turns out, and Geilis Duncan's descendant Roger Wakefield who do the bulk of the traveling in this book. After finding a death notice for Claire and Jamie Fraser for 1776, Brianna travels back through the stones at Inverness to warn them. Roger follows once he figures out what's going on, and they each make their way to North Carolina, miraculously not dying, although they certainly meet up with their share of terrible and slightly cliche adventures, including Roger getting kidnapped by Mohawks and Brianna getting raped by a pirate. Honestly, if the plot weren't buried under such a great amount of detail and strong characterization, it would probably be awful -- most of the plot points in this book are pretty overdone in either romances or historical fiction. A huge chunk of the adventuring in the second half of the book comes from the sort of idiotic miscommunication that could have been easily cleared up by conversing like normal humans instead of romance novel twerps. Jamie is all Jealous Father about Roger, and Brianna of course gets pregnant immediately upon becoming sexually active. Some people think the book might need a bit of editing down, since it is rather enormous, but I think that would be a mistake. It's the huge amounts of ridiculous research, tiny details, wacky secondary characters, and psychological meanderings through the minds of the main characters that really make the book something worth reading, at least if you're a history nerd looking for some exciting and slightly trashy melodrama that doesn't insult your intelligence.
I'm definitely going to keep up with this series, probably no matter how overblown it gets. It's just too much fun.
Current Location: Vox on Two Apartments
Current Mood: still sick
Current Music: Star Wars
December 31st, 2015
|09:29 pm - A review that is mostly an excuse to brag about presents I got|
During the earlier days of the Cough That Never Ends (the cold I've had for three weeks now), in fits and spurts I managed to read How to Make Tea: The Science Behind the Leaf by Brian R. Keating and Kim Long. Ironically, during this period I was only drinking herbal/medicinal teas, which are technically not tea since they are not made from the tea plant, but are tisanes. C'est la vie.
I'd gotten the book as a birthday gift from my lovely roommate Angela. Our house drinks a LOT of tea. We drink a lot of tea and read a lot of books. It's a good house this year.
While the title of the book makes it sound like an instruction manual, only the last third or so is actually instructions on making tea. It fills up a third of the book because there are different types of tea that require different methods. The first parts of the book are about the history of tea, and explaining what the different types of tea are and how they are made, and what kinds of tea are grown in different parts of the world and how they differ from each other, and a bunch of other interesting tidbits like that. There was a lot of stuff I didn't know since I am not actually much of a tea connoisseur; I just consume a lot of it, but most of what I consume is pretty cheap. I learned about flowering tea, which I had never heard of before and which is served in glass teapots so you can see the flowers unfurl as it steeps. Coincidentally, my other lovely roommate, Meghan, got me a glass teapot with some flowering tea balls for Christmas. I have not tried it out yet, since mostly I have just been sucking down mass quantities of Throat Coat and peppermint bagged tea, for reasons. But I am looking forward to being able to use it and appreciate it properly!
The book also has a section on chemistry, some of which goes slightly over my head, but apparently SCIENCE says you should put the milk in first. VINDICATED. The section on the "basic necessities" of tea has a less basic definition of "basic" than I do, since my "basic" tea-making involves a kettle, a mug, a teabag, tap water, milk, and sugar. Stuff like tea balls, loose-leaf tea, and teapots are for when I'm feeling fancy (and I hope to feel fancy SOON since in addition to the glass teapot I also got a gorgeous red Le Creuset infuser pot for Christmas) (THAT'S RIGHT BITCHES I GOT TWO TEAPOTS FOR CHRISTMAS. GO ME). This book recommends things like a tea scale and a timer and filtered water and a pH scale and a thermometer and NO. Tea is supposed to be relaxing. I would fuss too much with all that stuff. I can barely remember to take the teabag out sometimes. Hell, sometimes I forget to actually drink the stupid stuff after I've made it. Clearly my tea game is super weak.
Anyway, it is a delightful book and while it may contain way more information than I will actually use, it is good to have it! I learned stuff, and I like learning stuff.
|07:25 pm - In which an entire book is about chasing a pig through a forest|
In the latest edition of Failing At Book Clubs, one of the books clubs I'm in read the entirety of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series, which all in all is probably about the length of one regular adult novel. Despite being given plenty of lead time, I managed to only read the first book, The Book of Three, and then missed the actual book club because I was sick.
I remember the Chronicles of Prydain very fondly from my childhood but I think I hadn't quite realized how long ago in my childhood I read them since I was very surprised at how quickly things moved along when I started reading. I guess I haven't actually read them since my reading level surpassed a 5th grader's, nor have I read much in the way of other books at quite that level. Middle grade is about as young as I go these days, except for the Victorian classics.
Anyway, the book was still cute and adventuresome for all that, and had that early-medieval British Isles thing going on that I like so much. I'd forgotten that it takes place in basically Wales, not England. I really need to learn more about Wales; it seems an interesting place with a lot of wacky history.
|06:48 pm - My heart is a fish, dipped in fish sauce|
One of the best literary discoveries I made this year was Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, of which the first volume, Ancillary Justice, was the first book I read in 2015, after it had won nearly every award in science fiction for 2014. Ancillary Sword I read sometime midyear, and the third volume Ancillary Mercy, was just published this fall.
Ancillary Mercy was a spectacular finale to the series. Breq has sooort of the same goal that she had in Ancillary Justice — to shoot Anaander Mianaai with a Presger gun, against dreadful odds — but things have gotten bigger and more complicated since then, not like it wasn't complicated to start with. Formerly more of a lone wolf, Breq is a Fleet Captain now, with a crew and a ship dependent upon her, and she's deeply enmeshed in the unstable petty politics of Athoek Station, where her ship is docked. Other complications include the arrival of Presger Translator Zeiat (we're pretty sure she's Zeiat because Presger Translator Dlique is dead, so she can't be Dlique) and an unregistered human living in the slums of Athoek Station who might be an ancillary to an ancient, long-lost ship from before Anaander Mianaai took over the Radch, apparently still hiding in its ghost system on the other side of the gate.
One theme that had been running constantly through the books that's really pushed to its limits in this one is the idea of who counts as real people. The Radch have a very self-absorbed notion of "civilization," where to be "civilized" is to be Radch, and therefore anyone who's not Radch can be murdered with impunity as lowly savages up until they become Radchaai — at which point they are entitled to all the benefits of the Radchaai state, on the condition they follow its rules and leave any other sort of identity completely behind them. This doesn't always pan out in practice, of course. The Presger — the powerful, ineffable aliens that are the only creatures the Radchaai are really afraid of — have a similar delineation between Significant Beings and insignificant ones, with Significance being enforced by strict treaties. The Radchaai have managed to get humans a treaty designating them Significant; AIs such as ships, stations, and ancillaries are still considered tools rather than independent, civilized, or Significant races by anybody — except, perhaps, themselves. And Breq has been doing a pretty convincing human impression for several hundred pages now. If the trilogy weren't so long, it would make an excellent, excellent addition to the Aliens and Others in Science Fiction course I took at Clark, which I will freely admit shaped a lot of my thinking on what "literary" work (discussion of what "literary" means to be had at another time) speculative fiction does. Stories that look closely at the relationships between artificial intelligence and humanity have always been my favorite type of science fiction anyway; I like cyborgs better than aliens.
I also like tea, although not as much as the Radchaai like tea, but all the same I very much enjoy the role of tea in these books, and they make me want to own more fancy tea paraphernalia. Fancy tea sets are frequently used as status symbols, and status is extremely important in Radchaai society. One especially fancy tea service becomes quite integral to the plot after it is tragically shattered by a spoiled brat near the end of Ancillary Sword, as it provides important clues to one of the many knotty political mysteries Breq is trying to untangle.
This series has been targeted by assorted reactionary types for being too political, as if any halfway decently written political drama isn't going to be freaking political, or indeed, any decently written story at all. And it is true that the villains and heroes in this work are not determined by whether they are wearing white hats or black hats, but by their actual actions and beliefs. There are some plotlines featuring actions taken and beliefs expressed that do relate to certain hot topics in modern civilization, such as Lieutenant Seivarden's slow, painful journey toward becoming less of a classist assbag, and Anaander Mianaai's questionable views on how to handle peaceful citizen protest. Personally I think these are handled stellarly — they're certainly relevant to modern issues, but they are very much a part of the world of the Radch — after all, while the world of the Radch seems strange initially, people are people and we kind of do the same basic sorts of stupid shit in a lot of our societies — and they are integral and organic parts of the story Leckie is telling. And honestly, it's these sort of little human details — people being whiny and emotional and status-conscious and petty and materialistic and flipping their shit about tea — that fills out these sorts of big epic space dramas with their talking ships and nearly-magical weapons and farcically incomprehensible aliens and makes them feel real and rich and relevant.
I think this is never more relevant than with the Presger, who are so completely and terrifyingly outside of human norms that the Presger Translators they send (who seem to be . . . constructed, somehow, like they were grown and programmed in a lab) generally come off as farcical — in addition to their being some confusion over which one is Translator Dlique and which one is Translator Zeiat, Translator Zeiat's favorite drink is fish sauce, no matter how many times the humans try to explain that fish sauce is a condiment — which, occasionally, makes it tempting to forget that they are actually terrifying. All their weirdness makes total sense somehow, to them, and they're the ones with the sufficiently-advanced-so-as-to-be-indistinguishable-from-magic guns. It's creepy as hell. But it is also still hilarious.
Actually, much of the book is hilarious; it might be a bit much if it weren't. But for a spaceship, Breq is pretty witty in a deadpan sort of way.
I'm a bit sad that there will be no more of this series, although I think it did wrap up in a very satisfying way. Perhaps I should go back and read it again rather than pining for more; I'm sure there's some things I missed the first time around.
Current Location: home alone on NYE
Current Mood: sick
Current Music: Hamilton soundtrack
December 29th, 2015
|08:18 pm - No one expects the Omnian Quisition!|
Today in being enormously behind on book reviews: So Mark Oshiro finished reading Terry Pratchett's Small Gods like five-ever ago, and I finished catching up on it about forever ago, and now I've forgotten what I was going to say because I've read a couple of other books since then. Oops.
Small Gods has been one of my favorite Discworld books for a long time because it's the one that satirizes authoritarian monotheistic religions, and as such is Relevant To My Interests. But just because it's one of my favorites doesn't mean I've actually read it any time in the past several years, because there are too many books for that these days.
What I mostly remembered about it from days of yore was that the main character, Brutha, was kind of dim; the monotheistic God in question, Om, was a right arsehole and was stuck in the body of a tortoise without any of his godly powers; and that the Spanish Inquisition knockoff was just called the Quisition, with the guy in charge being called the Exquisitor and the regular Quisitors being portrayed as a bunch of regular Joes whose jobs just happen to be torturing people.
These things were all still there! But there was also a lot that I really couldn't believe I'd managed to forget, like all the wonderful jokes about Greek philosophers. And the motif with the eagle. (How could I possibly have forgotten the eagle?) And somehow I'd completely forgotten all about the ongoing question of whether the Discworld was carried on the back of a giant turtle, which is exceptionally dumb of me, since that particular conflict ties in closely with Om's manifestation as a lowly (but apparently delicious) tortoise.
While belief works a lot more literally on the Discworld than it does here, the Discworld books that focus on subjects such as belief and narrative are some of the strongest, in my opinion, because Pratchett does a very good job of literalizing the ways in which belief does actually shape our lives and our realities. Just because we have no way of knowing if various gods objectively exist or not in our world doesn't mean that the gods with the most and most fervent believers don't have the most power after all. Although this book goes even farther than that, discussing the difference between belief in a god and belief in its Church--an issue that has plagued Catholics (especially defected Catholics) and the Catholic Church since the Reformation.
Reading this along with Mark and the community (if constantly several weeks after the fact) was especially enlightening because Mark and many of the community members were raised in much, much more strictly and conservatively religious households than I was.
Anyway, if you like the Spanish Inquisition number from History of the World: Part One, this is a little bit like that, only more.
November 7th, 2015
|05:01 pm - The warp and weft of Northumbria|
I'd heard of Hild a few times before Nicole Griffith came to this year's Readercon as Guest of Honor, and it definitely sounded like the sort of thing that was right up my alley: A coming-of-age story about a badass lady warrior in the early Middle Ages; in this case, Saint Hilda of Whitby, about whom I knew basically nothing. So I bought a (signed; my life is awesome) copy at Readercon, admired the gorgeous blue cover with its stern portrait of a calm, chain-mail-wearing young woman, smelled its new book smell, and finally actually started reading the damn thing this October, when the weather started to turn and drove me inside away from the gorgeous Boston fall foliage to curl up on the couch with tea or beer and get lost in seventh-century Northumbria.
Hild delivered everything it promised and more. The language is vivid and rich and poetic, bringing out the feel of the story's time and place without falling into the sort of stilted faux-archaicness that a lot of fantasy and historical fiction is prone to. Hild herself is our viewpoint character, starting from when she's about three years old and running up through her late teens, I think Griffith nails the development of her thoughts and voice through the years, always compelling and somehow relatable despite the fact that (a) Hild's entire society and worldview is very, very different from a modern person's and (b) Hild has many skills and powers of understanding that I do not possess at all and, in fact, barely understand what she's talking about and (c) Hild is demonstrably a very strange person, although largely she knows that and is less strange when seen from her own perspective.
The book isn't really fantasy, I don't think, although the role of prophesy and "seeing" and wyrd in it makes it a little hard to tell sometimes. Ideas about magic and gods are baked into the various cultures' worldview--Anglisc and Briton and Irish alike--and even conversion to Christianity can't change that. It's not entirely clear if Hild's seeing powers are completely or only mostly the result of learning, observation, political canniness, and her carefully cultivated loyal network of informers.
There is a lot of very dense political history stuff going on here, and while I was happy to jump into what I consider a new area for me--I know nothing about the seventh-century unification of Northumbria--I do think my amateur background in general British Isles nerdery helped me out a bit, since I know a lot of other readers have been driven nuts by the names of all the characters and tribes and such. Probably the most important thing anyone who's not the sort of dork who has voluntarily taken a class in Anglo-Saxon translation needs to know is: our modern habit of using "British" and "English" more or less interchangeably is VERY MODERN. "Anglisc" is the root of "English" and supposedly the English are more or less descended from the Angles and Saxons, at least in part, but "British" at its root refers to the Welsh. (Arthur, King of the Britons? He was Welsh too.)
If you can pick out which is the Welsh name among "Breguswith," "Gwladus" and "Wuscfrea," you are 110% good to go and probably the exact sort of dork this book was written for. I am the exact sort of dork this book was written for. (It's Gwladus, and it's the "w" as a vowel that gives it away you're welcome I'll stop showing off now.)
This is a book about social change, and specifically the sorts of things that constituted change in this particular time and place--war is one of them, but war is basically well-established; it obscures the things that really matter, which are trade and the perception of religious favor. The big thing shakin' up this corner of the world at this time is the introduction of Christianity, which contains a lot of concepts quite foreign to northwestern European pagans, and which brings with it other interesting things, like writing and choral music and brown people.
(I like that this is a large book because it makes it an excellent thing to whack people with when they claim that there's really any point at all when there were totes no black people in Britain and/or that if there were they must have been slaves. In the seventh century, the Romans--who controlled an empire that extended well into Africa and the Middle East and who were excellent at moving people around--had been gone barely two or three centuries; they were well within memory and their buildings were everywhere. This book makes it clear that it's not like the Romans left and poof, they immediately became Ancient History and everyone forgot about them. The POC that are in this book are generally traders and priests; slavery exists but slaves are generally taken from other tribes/kingdoms in the Isles that people are fighting with--the two most important slave characters in this book are from Munster (in Ireland) and Dyfeint (in Wales). We also get a decent look at some of the ways in which "old world" slavery at this time and place works differently than the plantation chattel slavery that (some) Americans learn (a miserably tiny bit) about in schools.)
But as much as I liked all the historical stuff and all the political intrigue and social change and other stuff that I usually like in books, I think one of the most truly impressive feats of Literature in this this book was the fact that Griffith somehow got me sort of on board with the main romantic plotline. Sort of. With many reservations and at least one almost-throwing-the-book-across-the-room. But I still sort of found myself wanting it to work out? There are many things in this romantic plotline that I am generally not OK with. First of all, I rarely get invested in romantic plotlines anyway; I tend to very impressed when the dude does not annoy the shit out of me and I don't find myself thinking that the main character is clearly way too good for this twerp. That is not what happened here--I think Cian is a big meathead idiot who mostly thinks with either his dick or his sword arm but doesn't do anything with his head except grow hair, apparently. Also, I'm still not comfortable with the twincest microtrend that seems to be popping up in like everything these days. In this one they are only half-siblings BUT STILL. WHY IS THIS A THING. To top it off, Hild knows they're siblings, but Cian doesn't because he is an oblivious twit, and nobody can tell him because he is too dumb to keep a secret so if he knows then EVERYONE WILL KNOW, so... they basically hit upon the ingenious idea of keeping it secret by having them get married because they totally can't possibly be siblings if they got married, that'd be weird! So Cian ends up in a marriage where he has married his own sister and she knows that perfectly well but is keeping it from him. I think this might be the single most twisted love story I have ever seen in an ostensibly YA book. But while I was reading it it was like the part of my brain immersed in the story was going "D'aw what a heartwarming love story and what a lot of sexual tension between these two" and then my rational mind was like... banging on the door to the cockpit where reading-brain is piloting yelling "NO WAIT THAT'S REALLY FUCKED UP, TURN BACK CAPTAIN" and seriously you guys marrying your siblings and lying to them about it is bad. So, well played, Griffith. The Sexy Twincest Plotline Game has been officially won, so can we all knock it off now?
On a different note, I genuinely and gleefully liked that Hild and a lot of the other new Christian converts seem to... not really grok Christianity very well. I grew up Catholic so all the stories and memes used in Catholicism make intuitive sense to me, but I adore seeing all the pagans take it all a bit too literally and misunderstand basically everything, rather than being real orthodox true believers. I also like that Christianity is portrayed in a very factious, non-unified manner--many of the priests are perfectly nice, and then there's Paulinus. Paulinus is basically the personification of Churchy Assholery in the story. He's also sort of a shadow Hild character at times, which is very interesting, especially since Hild knows it and Paulinus doesn't seem to.
Recommended for: history dorks, people who aren't scared by big names (seriously, my fellow reviewers, are you all trying to record the fucking audiobook for this or something?), people who want to get dug deep into a world and are willing to do a bit of work to get there. Excellent winter reading. Not beach reading at all, not even by my standards.
Current Location: lower allston
Current Mood: nerdy
October 9th, 2015
|08:58 pm - Pencils, whales, and pronouns in the objective case|
As a matter of professional interest and definitely not because I am just a giant nerd anyway, I finally got my hands on a copy of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris, the senior copy editor at The New Yorker, a highly prestigious publication. Full disclosure: I don't read The New Yorker. My interest in The New Yorker extends about as far as being vaguely proud that a friend from my high school days who works as a fact checker there recently became mildly Internet famous for making Alex Trebek say "Turd Ferguson" on air. Other than that, I figure if there's anything good--usually the Borowitz Report--somebody will post a link to it somewhere.
I went into this book prepared to nitpick, due largely to my own prejudices about The New Yorker being maybe a wee bit pretentious, and I nearly immediately found ample stuff to nitpick, since quite early in the book Norris starts talking about dictionaries. Now, when she gets deeper into talking about dictionaries, it turns out that she actually is aware that, for example, "Webster's" is not a brand name and any dictionary can use it, and that some "Webster's" dictionaries are published by Merriam-Webster and others are published by completely unaffiliated publishing houses. But that doesn't stop her from kicking off the section on dictionaries with an announcement that The New Yorker is fully committed to the Webster's "brand," to the exclusion of all other dictionaries--"even Oxford," she says, as if it were somehow surprising that an American publication would limit itself to using American dictionaries and not employ a British dictionary as its spelling reference. Perhaps this book is not aimed at people who actually work with dictionaries, I thought, especially considering that she introduces the book by seeking to dispel a number of myths about copy editors. But then I'm not entirely certain who besides copy editors she expects to be very interested in all the stuff about pencils and the copy editing workflow at The New Yorker and who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick that she gets into in the second half of the book. I, for one, loved the second half of the book, especially the Moby-Dick chapter. (The capstone course for my English degree was an entire semester on Moby-Dick. I have strong, if mixed, feelings about it.)
The real low point of this book is the chapter on gender, and not even entirely because of her rather idiotic insistence that pseudogeneric "he" wouldn't be a problem if people didn't notice it and think it was (which: welcome to literally how words meaning things works) while, as usual, completely glossing over the fact (actual, scientifically studied fact) that singular "they" straight up actually is not
a problem because people don't
notice it and even people who claim it is Very Very Wrong and one of their Biggest Pet Peeves and are deliberately on the lookout for it so they can correct it manage to miss it at least half the time in other people's speech or writing and can usually be counted upon to use it regularly themselves. (Tom Freeman calls out her use of singular they in this very book over at Stroppy Editor: https://stroppyeditor.wordpress.com/2015/04/21/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-singular-they/
). This was, indeed, a disappointing argument to run into, especially after what is a very intelligent discussion of the fundamental flaw in most attempts to come up with new pronouns to fit into the language: most of them try to be logical, so they stick out, where as English is not logical and the whole damn point of pronouns is to blend in. No, most awkward part of the chapter on gender is her somewhat self-congratulatory account of her bumbling journey to accept her transgender sister--who she introduces as her brother, although at least she doesn't deadname her (I think). While I mostly like the personal, autobiographical stuff in this book, I would have been pretty OK if this chapter had stuck to being A Brief History of Pronoun Schemes Academics Have Come Up With To Avoid Admitting Singular They Exists.
The high point of the book, in my opinion, is the chapter on swearing, which is very sweary and thoroughly delightful. Although this is in close competition with the discussion on VICTORIAN COMMA USAGE, because I adore both wacky Victorian writing and fussing over commas, and I admit I've always sort of wondered what passed for "copy editing" back in the day when all the sentences were 50 words long and full of too many commas and stuffed with Significant Caps. Well, now I know! I don't know how many other people feel that their lives are greatly improved for knowing this--maybe it is just me--but I am WAY happy. Oh, and the bit about the pencil convention was golden.
Actually, everything after the third chapter (that being the gender one) had me pretty much completely hooked, full of gossip about the staff at The New Yorker, dryly funny personal anecdotes about really nerdy things, and grammar advice delivered with, huzzah, a good attitude. Idunno, maybe they had to put the weird, less-good-attitude stuff at the beginning to lure in the sort of target audience that reads books by copy editors? Apparently if you start off by saying "I am a professional copy editor and I have no time for fucksticks who think bad grammar signals the End of Civilization and probably think Strunk & White is a good grammar guide, what twerps" you won't retain readers who self-identify as "interested in grammar" for long enough to teach them anything--you have to lure the people who liked Eats, Shoots and Leaves in first. Like how the first few episodes of Orange is the New Black had to be about the middle-class blonde white girl to bring in a middle-class white audience before it could start giving them everyone else's interesting stories. Or that seems to be the going theory for why the first three episodes are kinda weak, anyway. What was I saying? Oh, yes--the book gets less cranky as it goes on.
Also, I am super, super jealous of the sheer number of people involved in the QA process in a New Yorker piece. The place has a separate style editor. A STYLE EDITOR. I want to be one of those when I grow up. I sort of am, at my current place, but I am also the sole copy editor for most pieces, the proofreader, the fact checker, the collator, the person who has the graphic designer input all the changes, and sometimes the formatter. I'm also turning into the foreign languages and geography QA'er, apparently, which I suppose is somewhere between being a style editor and a fact checker at the same time.