Monthly Archives: October 2010

30 Days of Books: Day Fifteen

Day 15 – Your “comfort” book

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse. There is nothing, nothing in the world happier than Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves, and when I’m feeling at my absolute worst, I turn to Wodehouse. (Most often it’s Code of the Woosters, but I’m also fond of the collection Carry On Jeeves.) 

I read an article once where the author said that he did not think he could remain friends with someone who didn’t like Wodehouse. He could forgive not having read Wodehouse yet, but if you’d read him and disliked him, well, that was it. I read another article once where someone mentioned that if Oscar Wilde put all his genius into his life and only his talent into his art, P.G. Wodehouse put both his talent and his genius into his art, and we are all very grateful for it.

Wodehouse stories are wonderful, charming, entirely inconsequential tales of the lives of wealthy young people in a mythical England sometime in the early part of the twentieth century. Their lives are never interrupted by the War, and they are almost universally either silly, foolish, or downright idiotic. The genius is in the plotting: each story starts out with one small disaster (a romantic crush, or an unwanted engagement, usually) and snowballs from there until it seems impossible that anyone should survive (without being thrown in jail overnight, forced to marry someone who wishes for them to read improving books, or being fined five pounds for the theft of a policeman’s helmet). And yet, somehow, they always do, usually through the offices of the inimitable Jeeves.

The other genius is in the dialogue; Wodehouse has a firm grip on the slang of the nineteen-teens, and he never lets go of it. Bertie Wooster in particular shows all the signs of having had a classical education without it ever having really sunk in properly. (My absolute favorite of his is an abbreviation of Kipling — “The F of the S is more D than the M, wot?”) As a result, he comes off as some combination of well-read and a bit dim, and absolutely charming. Bertie’s greatest enemies are aunts, and his worst fear is their collaboration, “aunt bellowing to aunt like mastadons across a primeval plain.” 

I must also recommend the Granada TV series (like Nero Wolfe, I discovered these books through the adaptations first), with Hugh Laurie playing Bertie and Stephen Fry as Jeeves, but only the first three seasons of such. The fourth season does not exist.

Not Flesh Nor Feathers, Traffic, ttyl, Mushishi

(I’ve been so busy with my 30 Days of Books posts, I’ve been neglecting to post about my latest reads. Ooops.)

Cherie Priest, Not Flesh nor Feathers
Last in the Eden Moore series, and still awesome. Now with zombies! This book is pretty apocalyptic, what with the flood of Chattanooga and the undead coming out of the darkness — not to eat people, in this case, but at the behest of an angry twelve-year-old ghost who can’t be stopped or comforted. I love the…well, the realism, for lack of a better word, of Priest’s ghosts. They act just like people do, only more frustrated, because they’re dead.

Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic
I blogged about this a little earlier in my 30 Days of Books series, too. Like I said there, it’s a pretty fascinating overview of what we know, scientifically, about how traffic works — not only how people drive, but how patterns and trends emerge, and what to do about them. There’s a whole chapter on my favorite insight about traffic, which is that roads are safer the less safe drivers feel, largely because when drivers feel safe they speed and when drivers feel unsafe they slow the hell down.

Lauren Myracle, ttyl
You know, I don’t have to look at this book and think, Was I ever like that in high school? I know I wasn’t. I just wasn’t that type of teenager; I couldn’t wait to grow up and get out into something that more closely resembled civilization than high school does. I enjoyed this book nonetheless. The girls are bright, their fights are indeed about real things high school girls fight about, and their solutions are occasionally brilliant. I don’t think I’ll read the rest of Myracle’s books, it’s just not really my thing, but I would have no hesitation about recommending them to people for whom this is their thing, particularly high school girls.

Mushishi 8-10, Yuki Urushibara
I don’t know why they decided to publish the last three volumes of this series all in one gigantic brick, and I have to say, I’m kind of annoyed about it. The stories themselves, though, are as wonderful as ever; Ginko is brilliant and slightly sneaky, the mushi are tremendously alien, and all of the stories have an excellent meditative kind of feel. They’re like haiku in manga form. Supernatural haiku. I love it, and while I’m sad there won’t be any more, I don’t think the series is lacking in any way.

30 Days of Books: Day Fourteen

Day 14 – Favorite character in a book

Archie Goodwin in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. Wow, that wasn’t even hard. :D

The best thing about Archie is that he’s always a man of his time, even though the series was started in the 1930s and Stout finally died in the 70s. You can watch the change throughout the years, particularly in the way Archie talks about women. (Which does make the earliest books a little uncomfortable at times, I admit.) There’s also a spectacular pair of books that present an interesting discussion on race, Too Many Cooks and A Right to Die, written almost thirty years apart (in which the side characters age, but Archie and Nero Wolfe are the same as they ever were).

There’s something about Archie Goodwin that’s just so damned cheerful, almost relentlessly so. He’s not inhuman, though; he hates mornings (particularly when he’s been out for Wolfe all night long and still has to get up before noon) and he can’t resist poking fun at Wolfe (or Inspector Cramer) when he starts to take himself too seriously. He will occasionally resign his position, just to shake things up. But Archie’s an eternal optimist, and it’s his good will and engaging narration that make these books such a joy to read.

Archie was, of course, played by Timothy Hutton in the spectacular A&E series of adaptations, which does not hurt my enjoyment one bit. (He does look rather nice in his uniform, in the couple of stories they do from the World War II era. I love it when he requests Wolfe’s permission to apply to the front lines — “I have thought of something cutting to say to a German, and I would like the chance to use it.”) Hutton also produced the series, and you can tell he’s a huge fan of the books, because all the little details are right, down to Wolfe’s expansive yellow pyjamas.

30 Days of Books: Day Thirteen

Day 13 – Favorite childhood book OR current favorite YA book (or both!)

Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede. I remember my mother reading this to me before bed when I was very small; I still have cassette tapes of me reading the book myself from when I was a little older. And you know what, I still love this series.

It’s got a kind of fractured fairy-tale theme to it. Princess Cimorene decides that, if her options as a princess are to have dancing lessons and go to balls and get married or to be captured by a dragon, she’ll take the dragon, thank you very much. She ends up as Princess to the dragon Kazul, keeping house for the dragon, cooking bucketfulls of dragon-sized portions of cherries jubilee, and trying to put off the knights and princes who come to rescue her.

There are four books in the series, and I could not possibly pick a favorite, although I am fond of the third one just because the main character is Morwen, a witch who has half-a-dozen cats and a few spare workrooms (all of which can be reached by the same garden door). These books also initiated my complete love of Patricia C. Wrede, who I adored when I was in middle and high school, and whose influence can still be seen in the epic fantasy novel I’m writing for NaNoWriMo this year.

30 Days of Books: Day Twelve

Day 12 – A book or series of books you’ve read more than five times

The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs. I can’t believe we’re this far into October and I haven’t read any John Bellairs yet! I’ve loved these books since I first discovered them when I was about twelve. House is a Lewis and Uncle Jonathan book, but overall I think I preferred the Johnny and Professor Childermass ones. (I have a very vivid memory of the scene of Professor Childermass reenacting some ancient sea battle in his bathtub, although I can’t remember which book it’s in.)

These books are wonderful ghost stories, creepy and with just the right touch of the realistic supernatural. There are evil wizards, curses, prophecies, hauntings, monsters, and wonderfully weird and believable characters. And, of course, many of the editions have Edward Gorey illustrations which are absolutely perfect.

They are, technically, young adult books, but I’ve certainly never let that get in the way. Bellairs did write one adult novel, The Face in the Frost, which is just as wonderful and strange as his kids’ novels, and really so similar to them that you wonder why the adult/ya distinction is even made in this case.

(I always think I like horror novels, and then I try to read mainstream horror and I hate it. I think I like YA horror novels, actually. I shall stick to my Bellairs from now on.)

30 Days of Books: Day Eleven

(This post-every-other-day thing is working for me so much better than the post-every-day thing. Live and learn, I suppose.)

Day 11 – A book that disappointed you

Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis. I read this in a SF book club at our public library in high school, and I really did want to like it. I loved Narnia, I loved science fiction, surely science fiction by C. S. Lewis would be wonderful! Not so much. I can’t actually remember anything about the book at this point, except that it was boring.

I read That Hideous Strength later, in a college literature class about modern mythologies. I still didn’t like it, but at least this time I remember why: there’s just too much allegory. The character who stands in for the combination of Jesus and King Arthur is flat-out annoying, and there’s so much Meaning packed into it at times that it’s hard to get at the story. I should have enjoyed the embodiments of the planets, who basically functioned in the story as minor deities, but with all the explicitly Christian allegory that annoyed me too.

Alas, not all books are for everyone. If anyone can present me with a compelling reason to go back and read the whole trilogy, I might give it a try, but it would never be high on my priority list.

30 Days of Books: Day Ten

Day 10 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving

Ulysses by James Joyce. I know, I know, I sound like an absolute wanker saying that, but I do love it. It might help that I read parts of it first for a class on variations on the Odyssey, and later the whole thing in an Irish Literature class that I took while studying abroad in Galway, so I had a very good overview of exactly why it was supposed to be good.

The thing about Ulysses is that it isn’t really a story, and it certainly isn’t a novel (for all that people like to use it to talk about “the modern novel”), it’s a game. There’s a whole chapter about the gestation of an infant that’s written, in nine paragraphs representing the nine months of gestation, in nine sequential phases of the development of the English language. Most people are never going to read the Old or Middle English bits, and hell, you don’t have to. All you have to do to get the chapter is to understand that it’s about growth and change, and move on to the next chapter. Some chapters, I admit, I don’t get: I do not understand the point of the crack-filled carnival play halfway through the book that basically recaps the action so far. Some chapters I really enjoy, like the Cyclops chapter in which Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew, engages in an argument about whether the Irish or the Jews are the most oppressed people in all of history. And then he gets a brick thrown at him. It’s really very like Odysseus’ conflict with the Cyclops, and it has the benefit of being kind of hilarious.

It’s still not a novel, though.

Signal Boosting: China Miéville is being impersonated on Facebook (and Facebook doesn’t care)

I found this blog post this morning via one of my favorite blogs, Making Light. In brief, speculative fiction author China Miéville doesn’t have a Facebook page, but you wouldn’t know it from checking Facebook: there are at least two, possibly more, fake profiles claiming to be him, which people are friending. Miéville has tried contacting Facebook a number of times to get them removed — which is apparently nearly impossible if you don’t have a Facebook account, and he doesn’t want one — but the pages are still there.

This would be one thing if it were something like a fake Twitter account (of which there are plenty), but with all the recent Facebook privacy scandals demonstrating just how much of your personal information you share with people you friend, this is downright scary. And the fact that Facebook doesn’t seem to be doing anything to stop it is even worse.

Now, I don’t have a Facebook account. I did at one point; I signed up when it was first opened to all college students. I never really got into it; I preferred online services that offered richer communication. (No, I will not link to them or even say which ones they are. I have been online in some form or another since 1997, and until the past couple of years I was not thinking about how any of this would look in my professional career, so I am doing my best to keep my online identities segregated.) I deleted my Facebook account last year, through the overly-complicated full delete process rather than the misleading “close account” process which really only closes your account until you log in again, after the third or fourth major Facebook privacy scandal.

As a librarian, I feel obliged to protest Facebook’s extremely low privacy standards and do my best to educate others about them as well. I know that lots of libraries do some outreach and advertising through Facebook, and while I understand it, I can’t support it. Librarians are hugely concerned about privacy, but we jump through all these hoops to keep peoples’ library records private while the information we have about people is negligible compared to what Facebook is releasing all the time. (Most recently, they’re failing to do anything about FarmVille sharing private, personally identifiable information.) I don’t really believe that people don’t care about privacy any more, I think this is just another instance of technology moving faster than human culture can keep up. Unfortunately, if we don’t keep an eye on it, technology might take the choice out of our hands before we can do anything about it.

30 Days of Books: Day Nine

Day 09 – Best scene ever

The Rohirrim indeed had no need of news or alarm. All too well they could see for themselves the black sails. For Éomer was now scarcely a mile from the Harlond, and a great press of his first foes was between him and the haven there, while new foes came swirling behind, cutting him off from the Prince. Now he looked to the River, and hope died in his heart, and the wind that he had blessed he now called accursed. But the hosts of Mordor were enheartened, and filled with a new lust and fury they came yelling to the onset.

Stern now was Éomer’s mood, and his mind clear again. He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark. So he rode to a green hillock and there set his banner, and the White Horse ran rippling in the wind.

Out of doubt, out of dark to the day’s rising
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!

These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more the lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them.

And then wonder took him, and a great joy; and he cast his sword up in the sunlight and sang as he caught it. And all eyes followed his gaze, and behold! upon the foremost ship a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as she turned towards the Harlond. There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it, the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count.

Oh, that just gives me chills. Yes, I’m a giant Tolkien nerd. I have read (and understood!) most of the Silmarillion. I think I must have read Lord of the Rings at just the right time, when I was a junior in high school, old enough to mostly understand what Tolkien was doing and young enough to just be swept away in the grandeur of it all, and for it to imprint so hard I’ll never get it out of my brain. This was also the same year that the Peter Jackson movies came out, and while I am very fond of the movies…well, they miss out my favorite scene.

I’ve been rereading LotR lately — actually, I’ve been reading it aloud, since my roommate expressed a desire to read the series but explained how she’d gotten bogged down (as so many people do) in the long wandering bits in the first book, and I’ve wanted to read it aloud for some time. There is no straight-up audiobook version of LotR, which is a damn shame, because it reads wonderfully. If Tolkien knew anything, he knew how to pace the prose. We’ve gotten up to Strider at the Prancing Pony, now, and are plunging headlong into the plot. Wish us luck!

(A close runner-up for favorite scene was the bit in the Houses of Healing where Aragorn bitches about the master there and his lack of knowledge of kingsfoil. I do so love Strider when he’s bitchy.)

30 Days of Books: Day Eight

Have you ever gotten sick and not noticed it until one day you just had to leave work early and come home and sleep for something like fifteen hours? Yeah. That has been my life this week.

Day 08 – A book everyone should read at least once

I can’t recommend fiction for this, because people’s tastes are so different, and books I love are going to be death to other people. (See Jonathan Strange, above.) But hey, I love a good nonfiction book too.

I think I’m going to go with the book I just finished — Traffic: How We Drive (And What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. It’s an overview of the state of scientific knowledge about driving, which is, quite frankly, a little scary. We spend huge amounts of time in cars and on the road, and we don’t know a lot about how or why traffic systems work (or, all too frequently, don’t work).

Vanderbilt spends, for instance, a whole chapter on attention. One thing that we do know is that people are very bad at paying attention. Part of this is actually adaptive, because if we paid attention to everything all the time we’d go into overload pretty quickly. Unfortunately, this also makes it easy to zone out when driving — and while most people are pretty sure they would see something unexpected in that state, research indicates that’s not really true.

I think books like this, about the ways we aren’t even necessarily aware of our inherent psychological inadequacies, are really important. Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational is another one, which I read last year, about how people do not often act in the perfectly rational ways that economists and other optimists expect us to. I find these kind of books help me to understand myself and other people, which in turn makes me more sympathetic to my own and others’ flaws, which generally reduces my daily stress level by quite a bit. If that’s not a good reason for a book recommendation, I don’t know what is.