Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Clutter Free by Kathi Lipp, 2015

★★
Read on January 25, 2015. Copy free from publisher.

I read housekeeping books when I'm stressed. I'm not entirely sure why. I think I like self-appointed homemaking experts to boss me around and then I just like to ignore everything they say because I know better than them. Perhaps they just make me feel more strong and capable about my own homemaking. Perhaps it is some deep-rooted mother/daughter relationship thing. Who knows. I got this housekeeping book because I loved that velvet purple couch on the white background for the cover. That is exactly what my house should look like. Purple and clean. Perhaps the all the secrets to that purple-couch-lifestyle are in this book, I thought. Alas, no.

This book is written for a certain sort of person: an older moderately Christian woman with more money than time, more money than mental energy, and more money than they reasonably know what to do with really. Half this certain person's problems can probably be solved by having less money, or just learning to not spend so much, but until then, it's just judiciously using Rubbermaid bins I suppose. Basically this book is for my mom I guess. The book doesn't translate well to people in other life situations. I'm a young, frugalist, nomadic type of homemaker, and my housekeeping problems come from a much different place, I quickly learned while reading this book.

Some of the tips in this book I'd consider to be slightly dysfunctional. She recommends a couple of times dumping your unwanted stuff on your older moved-out children. As the recipient of such objects: please don't. Through personal experience I've figured out this is sort of a halfway-house approach to clutter for people who have emotional attachment issues with objects. You're just passing on a chore. Mark it for garage sale/donation and then let your older child go through it maybe.

Now, for the Jesusy parts. They just add nothing to the book. Cards on the table, I'm atheist, but I was raised Christian and I do appreciate Christian philosophy. The author attempts to deflect future negativity with a little whining about how people commented negatively on the Jesusy parts in her last book, so my guard was a little up already. Nobody likes a whiner. But the thing about the religious elements in this book are that they are not at all integrated into the narrative. They are as strange and incongruous as a layer of rainbow sprinkles on an otherwise perfectly serviceable pot roast. I did not feel her approach to household management was in any way coming from a place of faith, and she was just adding on faith-sprinkles for some unknown reasons of her own. If you want to read books that show how the author uses their faith as an inspiration for minimalist living or other styles of homekeeping, there are much better ones, like the rather emotionally challenging Living More With Less, the extremely religious but worthwhile The Hidden Art of Homemaking, or if you want something more modern, in The Nesting Place: It Doesn't Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful I think the author makes a good presentation of how her faith impacts her approach to making a home.

I did like the tip to only let your drawers max out at 3/4ths full. I have been weeding out my clothes in the past few weeks and that's been a good rule of thumb.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Sinful Deception (Breconridge Brothers #2) by Isabella Bradford, 2015

★★★
Read from November 21 to 26, 2014. Copy free from publisher. 

This book has a rakish second-son (Lord Geoffrey) chasing after an aloof and mysterious English heiress (Lady Serena) who has no inclination to marry. But she has a secret - a dark secret - the darkest of secrets - through a contrivance of mistaken identity (as happens a lot to romance types) she's not who she claims to be, but in fact the late Lady Serena's half-sister by an Indian servant woman, brought to England after the death of her immediate family and raised by relatives. 

This book gets some points simply for trying to un-white-wash 18th century England through the medium of historical romance. Highlighting the people of color in stereotypically white history is a popular topic in history circles these days, with great efforts like People of Color in European Art History and otherwise trying to undo 300 years of cropping black people out of paintings, so it's pretty natural that this zeitgeist would start hitting the fiction market about this time. I am guessing this book was inspired largely by the 2013 movie Belle, which also stars a woman of color with a British father.

However, the narrative spends far too much time exoticising the main character's appearance, language, and mannerisms to succeed at being a genuine attempt at inclusion in the historical romance genre. While it is more or less normal to spend inordinate amounts of time in romance books describing the appearances of  the women, with flashing hazel eyes and cobalt-black hair or whatever, the constant descriptions of Serena's skin color in the usual cliche dark food words began to get pretty uncomfortable after a while, and confusing to boot, as everyone accepts her as white. But you are not for a minute allowed to forget that she is not really British, even though she has lived in the country for years and is considered white. In fact, there is very little of her character to discover in the book, other than her Deep Dark Secret, which is being born to an Indian woman. (Also that she likes sex, because it's a romance book.) She has also decided to forgo marriage because she might have a dark-skinned baby and then everyone will know she is Indian. Basically her character starts and stops at her Indian identity.

As for the romance, it leans heavily on angst to move the narrative forward; the angst, in turn, leans heavily on her secret Indian identity. The conclusion of the book has them being caught by her family while trying to have sex and he is forced to propose while she weeps softly, which was hands down one of the most depressing fictional treatments of the proposal I have ever read. The Happily Ever After is sort of crammed down on you at the end, and the epilogue includes Selena's profound relief at giving birth to a "normal looking" white-skinned baby, even though her family and husband know she is Indian now. Which was something of a perfect ending to the muddled racial treatment I must admit.

This certainly isn't the worst treatment of race in historical fiction, but what with the clear inspiration from modern trends in inclusion in European history, and having read Bradford's books before, I expected something a little more thoughtful. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Grand Opera: The Story of the Met by: Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron, 2014

★★★
Read from December 11, 2014 to January 03, 2015. Obtained through library.

If you’re interested in opera history I’d say this is definitely worth your time. It tells the story of how America at the end of the 19th century went from a cultural backwaters with only the barest of operatic offerings to being (currently) the #2 consumers of opera worldwide, and more importantly for the Met, holders of the premiere opera house that sets the bar for the rest of the world. There’s also a secondary story here about the birth of modern opera as we know it, and not modern music and creative stagings, but the modern operatic working environment where you are now expected to perform every opera in its original language by default and therefore where singers must know how to sing in multiple languages; where radio, television, and DVDs are a major part of the audience and singers must act not just for stage but for screen; and where public-appeal donation drives for the first time bring some actual financial democracy to this crazy, messy, fantastic animal we call opera. And that’s a good story!

However, I think one of the more serious faults in the books lies with its over-reliance on telling the story of the Met in a hoary “Great Men of The Metropolitan Opera” style. The book focuses very heavily on the directors and how they shaped the Met, gives occasional fair attention to conductors and singers, but skims over anyone else who might have had an influence or just doesn't mention them at all. And I think this does a great disservice to the story; in the grand scheme of things often the people who shaped art the most were the ones writing the checks, not the ones cashing them.

While the book opens with a good angle on the unabashedly status-symbol beginnings of the Met (which was founded because New York’s existing opera house wouldn't sell boxes to New Money, that opera house was then casually ground under the heels of the Met’s 70 boxholders’ industrialist tycoon boots and now you've never heard of it), and there’s also some really good stuff on how they tried to attract the various immigrant groups in NYC, first banking on the Italians, but they were too poor to come, then switching to German opera because the Germans actually had some money to spare. But once we hit the 20th century the focus on who’s actually paying for this loud nonsense fades away. For one of the biggest opera-supporters of modern times, Sybil B. Harrington, she gets I think one name drop, although I personally think her lasting influence on the Met will become abundantly clear in maybe 40 years time or so. If you want to look at the cementing of “museum-piece” opera in the later half of the 20th century look no further than Sybil B. Harrington and her unabashedly buying the Met audience the opera it wants, not the opera it needs.

As you can anticipate the book’s history-telling gets increasingly sketchy as it nears the present day. Everything up through the building of the new Met house in the 1960s is solid, but after that, tread lightly. The final stuff on Peter Gelb’s tenure at the end of the book is pretty safe to skip, we just can’t usefully analyse his influence on the Met at this time, and the manuscript was written before the most interesting events of 2014 which involved Gelb getting yelled at a fair amount, so that section was out of date before it hit bookstore shelves anyway.

Not a faultless book. but if you’re into opera history, or perhaps into New York history, it’s well-researched and worth reading.

Monday, December 22, 2014

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning, 2014

★★★
Read from November 27 to December 21, 2014. Copy free from publisher.

This is a story-style history book, and it tells the story of the military library program in WWII. There had previously been a mass library program in WWI, which was driven by donations and run by civilian volunteer librarians, and which had fallen into neglect in the interwar period, the books of its program largely dispersed to non-military libraries. So this book traces the revival of the librarian-run civilian donation program Victory Book Campaign, and then the switch-over from using donated books for soldiers (which really sucked in terms of book quality) to the military mass-ordering special edition cheap paperbacks directly for the servicemen.

The book talks at length about what value the new-ish format of paperbacks had - their low weight made them easier to hold when you were on your back in a hospital bed, easier to be stuffed into your kit on patrol and carried around for miles, ideal to be passed around (or even broken up into chapters to share, as we all know from that one episode of M*A*S*H). There’s a very neat little story here, drawing out both the value of pleasure reading in relieving stress, as well as how the success of mass distribution paperbacks to servicemen finally got publishers to stop hugging the hardback and embrace the glory of pulp for the masses, as well as how releasing serious literature into the wild made a lot of men read them who likely would not otherwise.

My criticism would be that the book tends towards the saccharine, and relies on a large amount of anecdotes in letters from soldiers which are stretched into generalities for how "the men" in general felt about reading and the program. The book contains many passages that are pretty openly trying to stir up your emotions about the glory of reading for humanity (there is a passage about how men propped themselves up and read as they waited to die of their injuries during the Invasion of Normandy which made me have to put the book down and do something else for a while), so the book has A Message aside from just telling history, and it’s a very nice message, but it does get in the way of the history.

But overall a nice read, giving a fresh slice of history for a forgotten facet of WWII, the war you thought had already been completely written about! 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Dark Heart Of Italy by Tobias Jones, 2003

★★
Read from October 23 to 29, 2014. Copy obtained through library. 

I didn't enjoy the book, but I sort of enjoy that it just exists, because it’s the latest generation of a tiny but noble and ancient genre of books - which goes something like “British Man Goes to Foreign Land and Has a Bad Time because of Culture Shock, Then Has a Good Time Unsubtly Thinking he Passes a Native, Then Has a Bad Time Again from Deeper and More Lasting Culture Shock, Then Probably Goes Home and Writes This Book.” Also known as “British travelogues,” or really, just “travelogues.” British travelers have been writing these books since they first had the idea to travel as far as I can tell, and they’re marvelous historic records, but as this one is not yet firmly in the past, man oh man do you spend the book just wanting to smack the fountain pen and glass of barolo out of Jones’s stupid hands, as he does irritating things like italicizing all the Italian words in the book (even the Italian words everyone totally knows), which he drops on you like relentless little bombs of token culture just so you’ll be sure to notice that he speaks Italian so very well. In Italy they eat pizza. Also his writing is ponderous.

But, okay yes, his book totally hits the main value of travelogues - foreigners notice things about cultures that are so important and ingrained to the culture that actual members of the culture don’t even think about them, and then some of them write it down. So thank you, Jones, for making this interesting historic record of how 20th century Italians related to their history in life, politics, the media, and beyond, which all seems pretty messy. Thankfully he moved home right after it was published and presumably there someone made him stop acting like “Lawrence of Italia.”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Last Eunuch Of China by Yinghua Jia, Haichen Sun (translator), 2008

★★★★
Read from October 26 to November 28, 2014. Copy obtained through library. 

Have you ever wondered what a Chinese pop history reads like? Well get this book and find out, because it’s a Chinese pop history book about the end of the Qing dynasty translated into English, but not in any way else really altered for the US market. Shoot the cover’s even got that ugly monospace font that you get with the Chinese font in Windows. The translation is actually really solid and has been completely proofread, but it’s not TOO smooth so as to let you forget that you are reading a Chinese book, like it has that delightful bad-translation thing of not having a good grasp of formal and informal registers, and therefore mixing and matching high-brow and slangy language with a certain cheerful tone-deafness that never fails to please. Also at the end it kept referring to people pushing an elderly Sun Yaoting around in a “handcart” and I was super confused, until I finally saw a picture where he was sitting in a wheelchair. Whoops. It’s also written entirely in imaginary dialog, like a novel. That’s probably the hardest part to get past.

This book is a refreshing change of pace from the usual Chinese historiographical treatment of eunuchs, which is very negative, because the author has a clear affection for his subject, and presents Sun Yaoting only positively, and his compatriots in a range of human colors. The author knew Sun Yaoting pretty well in his later life, and said he made 100 hours of recordings in the process of writing this book. The author even helped arrange for Sun Yaoting's headstone (traditionally a family duty), which was very kind of him.

However, as a warning: if you don’t already have a decent grasp of Chinese culture before entering this book you’re going to have a bad time. He does take a little time to explain some of the basic terms like “rice bowl” but there’s no information given on the Chinese concepts of guanxi/face/social networks etc, Confucianism, the importance of extended family networks and relationships, and, if you didn't already understand these things, Sun Yaoting's life and career is going to strike you as unusual or corrupt. So that’s kinda poor form, but like I said, this book was written for Chinese people to read and not for Foreigners to read, so just be grateful it was translated at all and on the cultural stuff you’re going to just have to get that somewhere else.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fair Play by Josh Lanyon, 2014

★★★★★
Read from November 14 to 16, 2014. Copy free from publisher.

While reading this book I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from P. G. Wodehouse:
A certain critic -- for such men, I regret to say, do exist -- made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained "all the old Wodehouse characters under different names." He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.  
Lanyon seems to have channeled this tactic for this book, as it seems to be a common critique that Lanyon's books are formulaic and pretty similar to one another. (The other common critique being people just wanting his books to have more kissing or sex.) This is a sequel to Fair Game which was published four years ago, and this book is the usual Lanyon special - gay romantic action-adventure murder-mystery. But why mess with a working formula? If you write Coke then why write New Coke?

Well here's your most recently published glass of Coke, Lanyon fans. And it's ice-cold and full of that classic cola taste. It's a tight mystery that kept me guessing until the end, juxtaposed with complicated human drama, both between our lead Elliot and his boyfriend Tucker, who are carefully exploring emotional boundaries as their relationship becomes more domestic; as well as by far and away the most complex relationship in the book: the one between Elliot and his ex-radical dad. More than worth your time.