Wednesday, February 27, 2013


(content note: direwolf fatalities, feminine hygiene products, and excessive italics)

1. I am finally watching "Game of Thrones" and I don't understand how anyone who hasn't read the books has the faintest idea who's who. Are we supposed to be able to tell Robb Stark and Jon Snow apart? Because I can't, half the time, and I've read three of the books (I eventually figured out that if I was shouting at the actor to stop mouth-breathing it was Jon Snow). Also, thank goodness I already knew about (spoiler!) Bad Direwolf Fates. When Lady met hers and there was that horrible truncated whine, both my dogs jerked their heads up off the couch, stared at the television, and then looked to me with expressions like a child's when s/he asks where Bambi's mother is. If I hadn't known that was coming, I would have been shrieking my own head off, which would not have helped the situation.

2. Monday I had one of those days. No sleep, tiffing stupidly with Berowne, feeling physically awful, work frustratingly unproductive, and when I went to my car at lunch I found a giant crack in the windshield. Insurance will cover the repair, and I work in a city where I am grateful if my car has all four tires when I return to it at the end of the day, but I still did not handle this with aplomb. I handled it with total nonplomb, in fact, and if I had not been able to eventually find that lone pint of Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch when I headed to the grocery store after work there would have been an Issue. (There almost was anyway, because it took me ages to find it among the endless pints of Chubby Hubby and Late Night Snack and Greek Frozen Are You Kidding Me Yogurt and, of course, the coffee version, so many pints of the coffee version, WHY UNIVERSE WHY, and all the other patrons got to see a woman pacing in front of the ice cream while her upper lip slowly curled back from her teeth, with nothing else in her basket but a box of tampons, and I bet a LOT of people looked for the commercial film crew.)

3. My local library found out about my Boston library card and revoked my privileges. At least I assume that's what happened, because I can't log in to the local website any more; I get a stern message saying there is something wrong with my account and I need to call them. There is no way I am calling a library that just caught me cheating on it.

4. I got my library privileges revoked. I feel like we all need to sit with that information for a moment. When I think about it, I alternate between hysterical laughter and such deep shame that I want to call Berowne and say, "That pipe dream you have about us living on a boat and sailing around the world? I'm packed. Also, you must call me Busty St. Claire from now on."

5. Berowne's band played a show two weeks ago at which the dance floor was amazing. Bond-with-total-strangers-over-how-that-dude-is-dancing amazing. There was a woman in thigh-high boots dirty-dancing to every song, including "Froggie Went A-Courtin'". I didn't even know that could be done.

6. Things are lovely with Berowne, despite stupid tiffs and having to say, "I was trying to stay on the dance floor during your song, but someone was farting and Divinyls over there hit me in the face with her hair," after the show. He was very understanding.

7. I have an MRI scheduled for Monday to follow up with the worrisome spots my last mammogram found. Not stressed about this at all, nope. Ugh.

Monday, February 25, 2013

battening down in February

What have I read lately? Quite a bit, actually, since the weather has been conducive to such.

I started with The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, by Philip Sugden, because I was in some sort of ghoulish mood. It turned out, however, that this book was for people who have already thoroughly studied "Ripperology" and the texts thereof: while Sugden does give a fairly clear timeline of the crimes and the investigation, he refers to all the players involved as if the reader already knows exactly who they are, and spends at least 50% of his book refuting (and mocking) the claims of other authors. This was very boring to someone who has never read any of said other authors, and I didn't like Sugden as a guide.  

Then I read A Cold Dark Place, by Gregg Olsen, because I felt like a light mystery. Alas, it was not good at all. Right off the bat our forty-year-old police detective heroine is described as having the body of a twenty-year-old, because, among other reasons, she has accepted the universal truth that after thirty-five women can no longer eat dessert. ("Excuse me?" I said through a mouthful of Ben and Jerry's.) Later, when she encounters an equally slender woman of her own age who eats a hearty meal, including dessert, our heroine decides the only possible explanation is bulimia. She also continues an on-off sexual relationship with a man who stalks her and leaves terrifying voice mails on her phone every time she tries to break it off ("you can't do this, you bitch, you belong to me" etc), because a woman's normal reaction to that behavior is to be alternately turned on and unconcerned (especially a policewoman). Although this does perhaps explain why her teenage daughter doesn't have the sense God gave a naked mole rat when it comes to her own terrifying stalker. "He locked me in a shed because he's a misunderstood artist!"

There was a crime, but it was just as misogynistic as the characterizations, and not very interesting either. I don't know why I finished this book. It only took me an hour and a half but that was still a waste of time.

My next book was The Ice Balloon: S. A. Andree and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration, by Alec Wilkinson, which is about a Swede who decided that attempting the North Pole by balloon was a good idea, because people are hilarious. It ended terribly, and much of this book is about other explorations which also ended terribly, that being pretty indicative of the Heroic Age. Wilkinson talked a lot about something called the International Polar Year, which of course I kept misreading as the International Polar Bear, but that was about as light-hearted as the book got. Many, many pages were devoted to a dude whose best-case-scenario plan involved feeding his dogs to each other once he ran out of dog food. The bastard not only survived but, later in life, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Discussion question: can we all agree that there should be a rule saying that killing twenty-eight dogs disqualifies you from winning the Nobel Peace Prize? Or from meeting any fate which isn't a polar bear, international or otherwise, slapping your face right off your skull? At any rate, reading this book in the depths of February was not a good idea. So cold... so very cold.

I also finished, without realizing it, the triune book which is the conclusion of the Three Musketeers saga. I thought I was just reading the first part, and was amazed at how long it was and how many major characters kept dying. It wasn't until there's only one Musketeer left standing that I realized I was reading the whole thing. And I got so, so into it! It's awesome! The court machinations are beyond complex; formerly-seven-year-old-lust-object Louise actually sticks up for herself a fair amount; the dumped PedoRaoul becomes PedoEmoRaoul and, eventually, joins the equivalent of the Foreign Legion; Aramis, who is apparently now a Borgia, schemes to become pope via the king-switcheroo plot specified in The Man in the Iron Mask; d'Artagnan, who has his own schemes afoot, reacts to all of this with more dignity than it merits. It's like A Game of Thrones. And yes, I got upset at the end.

Then I bounced through Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern, which is not even a blog turned into a book but a Tumblr turned into a book. It takes about forty-five minutes to read and is very rude, and I needed to laugh like that.  

Next up was The Sweet Far Thing, by Libba Bray, the last book in the Gemma Doyle trilogy (I reviewed part one and part two previously). It absolutely had the flaws of the first two - the magic's rules and the geography of the magic realm remain inconsistent, and it's way too long - but I definitely had a hard time putting it down, and Bray's writing has become rather beautiful. She's always been a good writer but there were many times in this book when a sentence or phrase just got me right in the lungs. I didn't buy the narrative of the ending - Gemma's shown no interest in her education previously but suddenly all she wants in life is to go to college? - but the writing of that ending is kind of amazing. I cried and cried, and the very last line of the book rivals that of A.S. Byatt's Possession for taking your breath away (and, unlike Byatt, Bray doesn't tack on an epilogue to defuse it).

Stay warm, everyone! Spring will eventually arrive, even if in New England spring is only different from winter in that it's generally windier. But someday we will see flowers again.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

history and, as always, musketeers

Hello there!

On the Dumas-front: I did, in fact, finish Twenty Years After, which was quite uneven but I liked the Musketeer-reunion aspect of it. D'Artagnan, amusingly, is the only one of the four who's grown up, instead of becoming an exaggerated version of himself, and his newfound impatience with and ability to outwit his former idols is charming and sad and real all at once. I was also pleased to see that at the end, when they're about to triumphantly bring Raoul home, they remember his creepy obsession with the seven-year-old next door and they're like, "Oh, right! Let's send him to Flanders instead."

I have now started the first part of the next, three-part, monster: The Vicomte de Bragelonne. It starts completely in medias res, to an extent that I actually wondered if my Kindle version was missing some pages, but I got into it quickly. It's all incredibly trashy court intrigues and d'Artagnan being sort of world-weary and awesome, and so far it's my favorite of the series. You will all be pleased to hear that the seven-year-old next door has grown up and is technically engaged to Raoul but in love with the king (possibly because she has no alarming memories of the king stalking her as a child - also, who approved that engagement? Athos, get it together).

I also read two unsatisfying histories. The first was Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris, the third in his series about Theodore Roosevelt. I was very surprised by how dry I found this, since I loved the first two, but dry it was. It covers the years after Roosevelt left the White House, and what felt like 60% of the book was about the Republican primary of 1912, in excruciating, delegate-counting detail. And if that was the first half of the book, the second half was, page-space-wise, almost all about a libel trial, with brief little tossed-off chapters about Roosevelt's South American expedition and the death of his son (and injuries of his other sons) in WWI. The book opens with an account of his African expedition which feels equally rushed, although Morris does make clear that Roosevelt pretty much shot every animal on the entire continent, which although accurate is not the best way to introduce your subject. This book just felt like the primary focus was on the least colorful things Morris could find, weirdly.  

The second disappointment was Making Haste From Babylon, by Nick Bunker. It's about the Pilgrims and their journey, ostensibly from the English point of view: Bunker is British, and what I think he's trying to do is establish a British context for the choice to sail to North America and for the workings of the subsequent Plymouth colony. An interesting idea, certainly. However, it didn't work for me, mostly because Bunker is all over the map, both literally (geographically) and chronologically. The story jumps back and forth from England, to America, to France, back to England; and from 1630 to 1580 to 1610 to 1606, etc. I was able to keep track of where the story was taking place, for the most part (although since cities on both sides of the Atlantic all have the same names, this wasn't always easy), but could not at all get a handle on the when.

It's a shame, because Bunker has a lot of interesting information and the ability to deliver it well - the section about beaver fur and fashion is really fascinating - but his decisions to throw the timeline out the window and to go on all the digressions he wants made this a frustratingly confusing read for me. One of his digressions takes us to Ireland in 1987, for absolutely no reason (or at least not one I was willing to accept as being valid), and the third-to-last chapter, when I was already good and sick of this stuff, is entirely about the siege of La Rochelle (that was just surreal, since said siege is a major plot point in The Three Musketeers). I learned to dread the phrase, when he mentioned a minor and irrelevant factoid: "we will come back to that in greater detail later".

So, unfortunately, this was a letdown, and I want to re-read Philbrick's Mayflower now. I want to re-read a lot of things, but I keep getting e-mails saying my library loans are about to expire, and even though I know I won't be able to finish the books in time and I'll just check them out again, this means there is a perpetual voice in my head saying, "READ FASTER." That voice also chastises me for even considering a re-read, when I have eighty-something books on the unread pile. Damn it, Beatrice, you can't just do what you want! This! Is! NEW ENGLAND!

Stay warm, everybody.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

London, Child, musketeers

Of late I have read:

The People of the Abyss, by Jack London. This is a piece of reporting that London undertook in the city of London in 1902 (specifically the East End). He does a Nickel and Dimed thing and attempts to live as a poor East Ender would for a few days: sleeping rough, staying in a workhouse, that sort of thing. Although his harping on the physical conditions of the poor has more Lovecraftian shock value in it than a genuine acknowledgment of how malnutrition and unhealthy living conditions affect the body (he is especially over-the-top in his horror of the women), it's a pretty emphatic and well-constructed indictment of a nation's treatment of its poor. It's possibly most powerful when he's just stating the arithmetic of what a man can earn vs. what his family must spend to survive, and showing that the numbers can't be made to come out in favor of survival.

My Life in France, by Julia Child. I felt mildly guilty coming to this after London's tales of hunger, though it turned out I wasn't driven as wild by the food in this as I expected to be. I just, well... I don't like fish or veal. I don't like mayonnaise or white sauces. And I never cared about wine, even when I drank. So many of the recipes Child's working on in this, and the meals she describes, didn't actually make me salivate. But it's a sweet little book and I enjoyed it a lot.

And the winter of our Dumas-content continues, as I trundle through Twenty Years After, which is sometimes exciting and witty, and sometimes so dull I can't bear it. Some notable plot points:

Dumas on wounds and anatomy: A man is described as having a bullet pass through his upper leg; he announces, "The ball has broken the thigh bone and entered the intestines." Not unreasonably, another character responds to this self-diagnosis with, "Are you a surgeon?" I laughed so hard.

Dumas on teenagers: Athos' fifteen-year-old son is in love with the neighbor's daughter, WHO IS SEVEN. Much to my relief, every adult involved is thoroughly creeped out by this (the girl's parents waste no time in complaining to Athos) and agrees that the boy needs to be sent off to war to get him away from her. However, that does make it difficult to root for Raoul the rest of the book, and by "difficult" I mean "impossible", because he is a pedophile.

Modern Armchair Psychology: What Raoul's feeling makes sense in this context, actually: as established in The Three Musketeers, Athos is a violent misogynist, and has raised his son in an all-male household, probably tossing off comments like, "Bitches, man, you can't trust them," now and again. So what's a pubescent male with heterosexual urges raised in that environment to do? Well, grown women are evil manipulators who have terrifying crevices and moistnesses, so I'll just transfer my desires onto a female object which does not yet have a sexual identity. That is the only way for my love to be pure!

Athos as a role model: not the greatest.

On library books: I got an e-library card from the Boston library, which makes me feel like I am cheating on my little local library and also made me go CRAZY with the downloads, because they have a much wider selection. And they allow ten books out at a time! Which means, with the local one's five-book limit, I can have FIFTEEN library books out at any given time! Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!! ... I emerged from my download binge to realize that I now have fifteen library books checked out for the same two-week period, and maybe I should have thought that one through. Even I don't read that fast. I will just check them out again! Because I CAN! Ohmygod!

On getting this excited about library books: I honestly do.

On the fact that I have seventy-something physical books sitting around my house waiting to be read: oh, right. But the library! The rush! It really does take me back to being a little kid and that wonderful feeling of riding home from the library, with your pile of new books in the backseat next to you. Just because it's all virtual now doesn't make the feeling any less great.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Scotland, trenches, and Rushdie

A quick update, only.

Lately I have read:

A Question of Blood, by Ian Rankin. Another in his Inspector Rebus series. I liked it better than the last one I read (Resurrection Men), but as always it's a rough ride through far too much drinking and self-destruction and the general sense that Things End Badly. In this one we get a good deal of plot and perspective from the point of view of Rebus' partner, and I like her quite a bit, so I am a fan of this development. A solid, gripping read.

The Passing Bells, by Phillip Rock. I referred to this in my last post as the inspiration for "Downton Abbey", which it pretty much is (speaking of which, thank you VERY MUCH, internet, for making it impossible for me to avoid the giant Season 3 spoiler, sheesh). Rock's book goes much deeper into the actual battlefields of WWI, though, and focuses almost exclusively on the male characters - wisely; his attempt to write a sex scene from a female perspective is as amusing as such things usually are (and as weirdly similar to all the others I've ever read; somewhere there must be an ur-text from which male authors are all cribbing - D.H. Lawrence, maybe? I don't remember anything about Lady Chatterley except that it was hilarious even to an eleven-year-old sneaking a peak at the "dirty book"). Anyway, I really got into this book, one awkward sex scene aside. The war parts are tough to read, in an appropriate way.

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushdie. This weird, beautiful, somewhat superficial book seemed to me to be Rushdie's extended riff on Italo Calvino, and there's nothing wrong with that. He brings Machiavelli into it, and other historical figures like the Medicis, and the historical figures mentioned in the India sections (the novel and its characters move back and forth between India and Italy in the sixteenth century) are probably also real, though my Western ignorance wasn't able to identify them as such. The woman of the title, and the other female characters, are not as interesting to Rushdie as the men, who are allowed to be conflicted and complicated; the women are either beautiful or not, and if they are beautiful they have infinite power. (Mind, I'm not disputing the accuracy of this, just saying that they're not developed characters.) Rushdie, I think, wanted to write about places more than people in this; very Invisible Cities. The writing is gorgeous and I felt a little bit unsatisfied upon finishing it, as if I had just eaten a sleeve of Thin Mints instead of a proper dinner. Oh, wait, I had just done that. I stand by my statement.

I continue to drag through Twenty Years After, which has a LOT of riding scenes and a disturbing number of those conclude with the horses dying under their riders. Ugh. But I am tied to the Dumas-stake! For some reason!

The last month of winter is here; I hope it treats all of us gently.