Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Fashionable Indulgence by K.J. Charles, 2015

★★★★
Re-read March 15 to 16, 2016. Copy free from publisher.

Julius Norreys has to be one of my favorite dandies in fiction, probably right next to Julian Kestrel from Cut to the Quick of the late (great) Kate Ross. And Julius has some thought behind him as well, this is no plug-and-play period-piece dandy. What makes a man adopt the fashion of well, caring about fashion? Why does anyone pride himself in knowing more about buttons than anyone else in London? There's a reason he dresses the way he does, and you're going to learn it.

Harry, also, is a very well-developed character, struggling with his profoundly casual morality and a fondness for not being poor, and where he can fit himself in between his late parents' revolutionary zeal and the cruelty of the British aristocracy in the height of the Peterloo Massacre. Add in the fact that he's depicted as bisexual with zero fuss, and the only woman character in the book is portrayed as a real person and not a 2D generic girl-villain, and you've got a tightly bound romance standing head and shoulders above just about anyone else.

The sex scenes are also amazing for the simple reason that the characters keep their personalities during sex. Sex scenes can get kinda generic as we all know, the what goes where and people feel the things, etc etc, but this is decidedly not generic magic romance book sex. Julius is prickly and distant during sex. Harry is cheery and giving. Eventually they figure it out, but their sex is an extension of them, not something that occurs besides the other things they are.

Certainly stands up to a re-read!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Savor: Rustic Recipes Inspired by Forest, Field, and Farm by Ilona Oppenheim, 2016

★★
Read on March 12, 2016. Copy free from publisher. 

I'm pretty crunchy-friendly, but this is too woo-woo for me. The author apparently took a crash course in dubious nutrition blogs and now wants to tell you ultra-high-temp pasteurized milk will give you lactose intolerance and that you should eat as much raw milk and raw milk cheese as you can afford. Now, I'm an American, and that means I must defend to the death your right to do anything that neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg as they say, so drink raw milk to the extent your state legislature permits and you'll see no protest from me, but I prefer to use my PTO on something besides diarrhea myself... I live in delight not to have learned her opinions on vaccines.

The foraging sections are also kinda dangerous. There are some things that are easy to forage for (like dandelions) but mushroom hunting is tricky and it is very local, and generally it's recommended to take a class from someone knowledgeable to your area. I'm hoping most people, even the raw milk sort, have the good sense not to eat fun looking mushrooms they find in the woods without training though.

Nowadays fashionable cooking trends vacillate between plain/insane. You're either being told to sous-vide 14 ingredients sourced from your favorite local heirloom husbandry specialist, or you're squeezing a lemon over raw kale. This book is mostly in the plain school. There actually is a lemon-kale recipe with 3 other ingredients, I will not spoil it though. There are some solid recipes in here, this woman's clearly cooked a few things in her time and that shows, but nothing really new or innovative, nothing you'd be unable to find on the Internet or even in The Joy of Cooking.

This book does commit my absolute pet peeve in crunchy cookbooks, which is to beat your reader with your opinions on food sourcing on every. last. recipe. Every instance of milk and meat in this book is accompanied by a moral reminder like "milk (ideally raw or nonhomogenized grass fed)." Yes, every instance of meat and dairy. We read that stuff earlier, calm down, we didn't forget you like raw milk. It's okay to just say "milk" as shorthand.

Shoutout for including a Fondue recipe though. I am convinced the humble but fun 'Due is due for a comeback. Biding its time, waiting for the right food zeitgeist to strike again. Hold on to your pots and long forks. (Also pretty sure it's in Joy of Cooking.)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service by Devin Leonard, 2016

★★★★
Read from February 12 to 27, 2016. Copy free from publisher.

Well what we have here is a good, honest, easy-readin', overview-level pop-history of the US Mail system! Which doesn’t sound special, however it becomes more interesting when you find out (as far as I can tell in Worldcat) that the last time a overview level popular history of the US Mail was written by someone other than the USPS was in 1987. (The USPS however employs their own historian with staff, and maintains their own Smithsonian museum, so it’s not like their history output is low.) The two strongest parts of the book that you wouldn’t be likely to find in an official history of the USPS are its critical coverage of the Comstock Era and the rash of postal shootings in the 80s and 90s. The “Going Postal” section is a really impressively fair treatment, saying both “you give your business mandatory preferential hiring to a set of veterans with little to no mental health support and you see what happens” while also being very critical of the USPS bureaucracy's lack of response to pleas for help from postmasters prior to these shootings. The coverage of the 1970 postal strike was also very refreshing, and makes a good argument for why these strikes were both justified and likely entirely necessary for the postal employees of that period to enact any change in their status. Consider, a New York City mail carrier earned less than a New York City garbage man of that year, worked longer hours, and lack of efficient implementation of mail sorting technology meant that most mail in the country was still sorted by hand, which required a lot of training and practice, when the Post Office had had sorting machines and OCR technology for years. I’d strike too. There’s a few things I’d have liked to see more of, like more Rocketeers! and I’d have really liked more stuff about the importance of postal employment to the rise of the Black middle class (although this was likely skipped due to being very recently covered.) In addition the book still follows a bit too much Great Man style, giving you the names and important work of every last postmaster general from Ben Franklin down, yet not much from the little people who used the mail or trodded around in the mud delivering it. But it’s an overview level book, so these things are to be expected. If nothing else this book is important for its somewhat awkward placement in history, because it comes at a pivotal time in the institution of the mail: as of the last USPS report first class mail volume has dropped to an all-time low where it will either continue to drop or plateau off, while the volume of packages and parcels the mail is carrying is continuing to rise in tandem with their unexpected new best friend, Amazon.com. USPS technology and procedures are optimized for “flats” and not boxes, and first class mail has the highest profit margin, so there’s a stress there. Which obviously has not yet been resolved. But the book is unexpectedly hopeful to the mail lover, because a constant theme of the book is that the US Post Office has spent its entire life shambling from minor crisis to major crisis to minor crisis again, Congress has tried to muck it up since day one, and it has essentially always been mildly on fire. Yet it survives without taking tax money since 1982, despite people’s attempts to kill it by making it pre-pay pensions to invisible retirees or just printing its obituary as “lol internet” and hoping it doesn’t have the strength to fight you. Yet neither snow nor rain nor Congress being shitty has yet stopped the mail, despite 241 years of darned good effort.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Writing History in the Digital Age ed. by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, 2013

★★★★
Read from January 26 to March 02, 2016. Free to read online.

I read a fair amount of professional literature, and most of these books are, frankly, slapped-together publish-or-perish overpriced crap. However, this book is decidedly not any of those things. It is free, carefully written and edited, thoroughly thought-provoking, and everyone professionally or unprofessionally involved with history should read it.

The first chapter, "'I Nevertheless Am a Historian'" is probably the most thought-provoking, discussing the mixed bag that is the public DOING history as the newest wave of what "public history" means. I also have had it running through my head for a while, that phrase, “I nevertheless am a historian,” and don’t know how to get it out.

"Putting Harlem on the Map" talks about how data visualizations can help us see patterns in history we wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. There’s a lot of push for maps and mapping tools in history lately, but I don’t see a lot of arguments for why we should be all going map crazy in history, so this is one concrete map-dependent historical insight that you can cling to in a flurry of mapped history that otherwise just seems to be making maps for the sake of making maps.

The final concluding chapter makes an evidence-based argument for the future of academic publishing in a post-print-boo-paywalls world, and one possible model it can work on. Most interestingly: the essays had traditional paid reviewers, but it was also open to also whatever random academics or non-academics found the book during its peer-review process, so the authors got reviews from both sources. Authors could not successfully guess which of their reviews were paid and free.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library by Wayne Weigand, 2015

★★
Read from January 12 to February 13, 2016. Copy obtained through library. 

When I pick up a “people’s history” of something I generally assume I'm in for popular-level social history, but this is decidedly not that. It was quite academic and hard to read, not in the usual way with big words in gigantic strung out sentences, but instead a very textbook style, where facts bombard you in an uncreatively flat strict chronological structure, written with as much flavor and panache as a Harbor Freight catalog. I think it would have been improved by a more topical organization, such as evolving stances on pleasure reading, evolving stances on representing non-majority voices in the library, evolution in library space design and use, etc. in addition to an injection of some standard pop-history rhetorical styling.

Then again he occasionally cracks off a really smart observation - like that using the library is usually a child’s first assumption of civic responsibility, you take an item of public property and agree to care for it for a small amount of time - and you’re mostly glad you kept reading. His critical coverage of the library profession’s complicity with Jim Crow (especially ALA’s complicity and lack of support for librarians punished for integration efforts) is also especially welcome.

However, as an overall tenor to the book the author takes a pretty hard-line librarians vs. users angle, which is strange and doesn’t really work for me. Librarians are the enemy of The People, librarians censored people's access to fiction and put sex ed books on the restricted shelf, or we defy community standards and circulate Playboy to children. He vacillates between pro-censorship and anti-censorship, where he’s anti through the 50s but pro after that. However, librarians do typically use the public library. To exclude us entirely from the users doesn’t jive. In general I think he let a lot of his professional feelings get in the way of doing history. He has a loosely anti-woman-librarians angle going on, especially for the early ones, but for the modern period, this man really hates Judy Krug. Which is fair, she’s a controversial figure, her legacy is mixed to be generous, but the vitriol he devotes to her depiction in this history leads me to believe he has a dart board in his office with her picture where he’s drawn on a witch hat and blacked out a few teeth. Calm down dude, lady’s dead, and she lost CIPA big time anyway.

The biggest question you’re left with is - are librarians and trustees not people too? Are we not members of our communities and sharing the same common moral standards? Are we not part of “the people’s history” of our institutions?

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds by Martha Feldman, 2015

★★★★
Read from May 11 to June 27, 2015. Copy obtained through library. 

This is the first overview-level book on the castrati to come out since Patrick Barbier’s French Histoire des Castrats in 1989, which was translated into English in 1997, and that book is kinda a sweeping pop-history fun-bag of opera anecdotes, so they’re not really comparable. So, what this is, absolutely, is the first modern academic book about the castrati that is not a biography of a single castrato. And that’s pretty incredible, and completely testimony to how far musicology has come since then. So let’s take a look at what every student of the castrati is going to be citing for the next quarter century.

The book is organized into three sections: “Reproduction,” “Voice,” and “Half-light,” which could be more conventionally titled something like Birth, Voice, and Death, as they cover first the cultural situation that created the castrato, then a summary of what forensic reconstructions we can do of the castrato voice, and finally the denouement of the castrato phenomenon in the 19th century. A perfectly sensible structure for an overview and introduction to the castrato in Western music, and it works.

Overall, this book is primarily focused on the castrato as an object, not as a person. You will not get to know any particular castrato in this book, except maybe Filippo Balatri, whose claim to fame is being the only castrato to write an autobiography, which she quotes generously. The castrati you meet in this book are misty figures, who exist only on an abstract plane of gender and social role, in generalities about castrati and their inevitable contractions, just name after name washing over you in a mass. Sometimes a good history book can make you look right through time to meet a fellow human’s eyes, to see their joy, pain, and life; to maybe to see a piece their story in your own; and to leave with their name forever etched upon the ventricles of your heart. This is not that kind of book. It’s highly successful as an academic introduction to the castrati, ranging from masculinities theories to vocal theories to literary theories, but if you’re looking at it as possibly the only book someone may ever read about them, it’s a bit sad that it’s so impersonal.

Unfortunately, Feldman still has the same problem from her earlier works holding her back from writing a perfect book: her writing is really quite bad. I am normally a big proponent that anyone can and should read an academic book if they wish, but I have hesitated to recommend this book and her last one even though I thought the history was amazing, because the writing is so dense and self-enamored that I'm afraid of scaring people off academic literature entirely. She names her chapters things like “Cold Man, Money Man, Big Man Too” and “The Man Who Pretended to Be Who He Was” when she could just as easily name them slightly more understandable things like “Denouncing Castration: Romantic Understandings of the Male Body” and “Cultural Significance of Origin Myths of the Castrati.” Feldman’s writing though has, I think, actually gotten better in general, having read her last book.

For the history content: it is actually pretty close to perfect, once you dig through the alphabet soup marshes to find it. There’s a couple of places where I would disagree with her analysis, though that’s fine of course. The largest one is that I find her analysis of the “Death of the Castrati” right before the 19th century is too dependent on traditional notions of Romantic sensibilities, and her dismissal of John Rosselli’s claim that the end of the castrati is tied primarily to economic recovery in Italy, in favor of her own idea which is that it is tied to the death of patronage systems and patriarchal social systems, is too hasty and not well-supported. But there’s little things like that, nothing technically wrong, just differences of academic interpretation.

A good book for sure, and very groundbreaking, but recommended with reservations. Feldman is brilliant, an astonishing mind, earns her fellowship and then some, and I’d like to pay her to think for me.... but I wouldn’t let her write the copy for the back of a Cinnamon Toast Crunch box.

Understanding Italian Opera by Tim Carter, 2015

★★★
Read from September 26 to December 7, 2015. Copy free from publisher.

This came out in October 2015, so it’s the newest entry to the “Opera 4 Dummies” type of book, which is usually all you get in the local bookstore for opera history reading. This is a slightly more academic (and slightly more expensive) option than others, sort of a cross-over academic/popular level book. It would be a good text for a lower-level undergrad class. Now what sets this book apart from other older options is two key things: One, this book represents a much more up-to-date approach to the modern global Italian opera scene, which has greatly expanded from the previous dark ages (like ...the 90s) when Italian opera was considered to have properly started with Mozart and neatly ended with Puccini; to now include two whole pre-Classical operas out of five total. 40% of the operas in a popular-level book is an unprecedented level of coverage, and speaks to Early and Baroque opera’s amazing recovery from obscurity. (To be specific the book covers one opera each for Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini.) Two, the book is almost entirely focused on poetry, and only discusses music to show how it fits and reflects the poetry, which is pretty wild, and I have not seen that outside of deep dark academic books on opera. It’s a somewhat novel but entirely historic approach, which pays respect to the understanding of Italian opera as it was consumed in its “natural” lifetime. The poetry content is extremely solid, rhyme structures are well explained, poetry is provided in original and English translation, and I totally got schooled on Italian poetry. It also, on a simpler level, just reminds people librettists EXISTED, and why we should give an opera with the names of its librettist+composer and not just the composer, even though we customarily do not. The social and musical history content was certainly acceptable but not incredible, in particular I thought the castrati history was kinda bad, however, considering past castrati coverage in intro-level opera books, wherein the author usually decides it’s best to keep opera respectable for the new converts by not mentioning this bit of awkwardness (easy enough if you skip the Baroque period entirely), really it’s much better than it has been. At this point we’re just happy to be invited to the party at all. I wouldn’t recommend this as a beginning opera history book though, since it’s quite dry and doesn’t convey a scrap of the “fun factor” around modern opera and opera history - and opera is very fun! People had and continue to have fun at the opera. But as a 3rd or 4th opera history book for an advanced-casual opera reader, quite solid reading.