Thursday, July 21, 2016

Road Trip: A Pocket History of Indiana by Andrea Neal, 2016

Read from July 8 to 16, 2016. Copy from library. 

Did you know it’s Indiana’s 200th birthday this year? If you didn’t, you ain’t from around these parts, because oh boy, the Hoosier Industrial Complex, she is a’booming. And of all the crap being produced this year, this book is decidedly in the less-stupid half.

The angle of this book is history-themed road trip guide, and it’s written by an Indiana high school history teacher under the auspices of the Indiana Historical Society, and while a lot people might poo-poo a history book written by a high school teacher, I think her unique perspective on Indiana history is actually what makes this book excellent. Just think: this woman teaches the exact same history to a shifting sea of unhappy children every year, over and over forever, Historical Groundhog Day. Wuugghgh. But her annual repetition and constant distillation of all that is INDIANA down to its (common) core parts for children, it really gives her a unique broad-picture view of public history in the state as well as a grasp of what is and isn’t interesting. The book has some really finely selected physically-visitable high points for the state, with balance between the unique Native American history and prehistory here, to covering the important Black history that happened in Indiana both before and after slavery, and then of course some of your usual Log Cabiny White settlers history. But it’s a thoroughly modern public history book in its balance. So the book will suggest things like walking some of the stretches of the old bison migratory path that are still accessible and then also invites you to visit the remaining patches of the Indiana Canal and contemplate it’s unexpected legacy to the state (tl;dr it’s the reason why Indiana is constitutionally prohibited from going into debt.)

The only problem with the book? A lot of the most important historical sites don’t even qualify as wide spots in the road, and this road trip, were you to execute it in its entirety, would be extremely lame. I mean, Mary Clark is super cool and important, but is anyone with literally anything else to do in their life going to drive to see just a historical marker? Hell no. Also some of the most important historical events of the state simply aren’t physical. How do you select a site to exemplify the fiscal importance of Unigov? It's probably the single most important event in the history of modern Indianapolis (and by extension Indiana) history, but how do you visit the concept of “kill the sprawl by becoming the sprawl?” I, being a smart ass, would direct you to visit St. Louis, she directs you to visit 28th floor of the City-County building, the same glamorous venue where you apply for a marriage license and other such civic sundries, and which will also confiscate any tweezers you may have in your makeup bag which is annoying. I suppose this is the most fair selection you can make, but damn that's a crap place to visit. In general she favored Good History over Good Tourism though, and I respect that enormously, even if I’m not driving to visit a historical marker, like ever.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Vegetable Butcher by Cara Mangini, 2016

Read from June 12 to 18, 2016. Copy free from publisher. 

I'm really digging the emerging trend of non-recipe cookbooks, like the groundbreaking Flavor Bible and Vegetarian Flavor Bible. And here's a new entry to the fold, sure to be one of the most popular cookbooks of the year with: a really cute title; attractive, informative pictures, and a focus on familiarity with purchasing, processing, and cooking vegetables.

Some other reviewers thought that the book had too few vegetables represented, myself I guess Indy is lame or something because I'd never heard of some of these vegetables and couldn't think of any that weren't covered. For my money I would have preferred more "classic" recipes for the vegetables (no 'slaw to accompany the cabbage?) but the recipes do present a good variety in complexity and style. The main value of the book, however, is the encyclopedic elements, the recipes are mostly I think to remind you that the plant stuff can also be eaten after you cut it all up.

So am I going to immediately stop buying those delightful frozen bags of pre-cut butternut squash cubes after reading her instructions for cutting those darned things? Well, no... but I am going to try to hunt down a celery root!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Gentleman's Position by K.J. Charles, 2016

Read from March 17 to 18, 2016. Copy free from publisher.

Have you ever asked yourself "What if the Jeeves and Wooster books were like, less comedy, and more romance, and also explicitly gay instead of just subtexty gay?" Well if you haven't, you're probably more normal than me, but if you perhaps have gotten tripped up on Wodehouse's strangely tender portrait of a man and his valet just trying to live together without the constant interference of managing women, are you in for a treat!

This book completes the "Society of Gentlemen" trilogy, which is a strangely generic and restrained series title for the highest-quality regency romance on the market today. These aren't your mom's regencies, where you could make them a contemporary romance with just a few find-and-replace jobs on the clothing. K. J. Charles' books have that particular English sensibility where class is always there in the room when any two or more people meet up. (Very noticeable to all True Americans, because as you know we don't have class, haa...) All of the romances in this series have explored class in some major way, from class mobility in the first book, to class politics in the second, and finally in the last book, we get the most extreme class problem, and we have to decide how two people who will never be anything close to equal in class can nevertheless find human (and sexual) equality between them. And what is more unequal than a servant sleeping with his lord and master? Or is it...

As a bonus, the author has identified one of the characters as demisexual. Google "demisexual," then come back and read the book. Oh, and I can be crude enough to mention this, the ebook is only $3. I've certainly spent twice that on books I haven't liked half so much.

I'm crossing my fingers we get a little shoot-off novella for the side characters Will and Jon, who run the classy gay clubhouse all the characters hang out at. Plz.

Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis, 2016

Read from April 12 to 13, 2016. Copy obtained through library. 

Some quite interesting themes at work here, and some good historical research - Esterházy, Haydn, musicians in service to one man, difficult sibling relationships, and a second-chance love story - but the book overall is unfortunately held back by lack of rhetorical chops and sloppy plotting.

This is an adult novel, but the author has cut her teeth on YA and unfortunately it shows. The book had sort of an uncomfortable Degrassi vibe to it - adult themes coming at you in squeaky teen voices. The writing reads exactly like it should for a YA novel. It's very simple. No complicated rhetorical structures, no big words, short sentences. This is not how adult novels are typically written. I stopped reading YA fic more than once or twice a year when I aged out of it, so the combo of adult things + teen writing really jumped out at me. Grown-up YA readers (and there are a ton of you guys) will probably not bat an eye at the style though, so ignore me if you read them on the regular! The narrative also head-hops around constantly to maybe 7 total characters, which I found very off-putting, it's a crude technique if you can't manage multiple-character development any other way.

The plot is about 50/50 split between a romance (between Carlo, World's Greatest Castrato (tm), no relation to that other guy named Carlo, and lonely widow Charlotte) and a magical mystery, which frankly I am still confused about. The romance has some very sweet moments, including a gender-bending masqued ball scene where they dance with each other both dressed as men, which is a bit heavy-handed on the gender-bending theme but it still quite decently done, and is probably the best scene in the book. But the romance is drastically underdeveloped, so that at the end of the book, you are so uninvested in their relationship (which is made up of two erotically charged duets, that dance, and a single kiss) you're just as confused as any of their contemporaries as to why exactly they claim to be in love.

The magical elements in the book are the real Achilles heel though, as they are the backbone of the mystery plot which keeps the whole narrative moving along, yet they are entirely undeveloped. You have none of the key questions about any magical world answered - What is magic? How does it work? Who can do it? What are its limits? These questions are like Fantasy Writing 101 stuff, and I'm very suprised an accomplished author skipped them.

But overall an interesting bridge book for YA - Adult readers showcasing some underexplored historical settings, just a few weak points.

The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1979

Read from May 5 to 9, 2016. Copy obtained through library. 
Let me start this book review with a picture not of the cover of the book, which is more conventional for book reviews, but instead a picture of my particular copy of the book, which I think is worth looking at.

Wow that’s an ugly book you probably are thinking. Welllll. Yes. But to a library groupie this book is more than ugly. This is the first edition of this novel, and has been rebound (badly, the text block is crooked) in a hideous lime green patterned buckram. For some reason which eludes me, library-grade bookbinding buckram traditionally comes only in colors of extreme uglyness. When I worked circ I honestly never quite got used to getting books back from being repaired and seeing what cruel punishment the bookbinders had laid down on books that merely had the misfortune to be loved too much. It’s not fair to make good books be ugly! Yet they usually are, in a big library that’s old enough to have had a few old books pile up. And so, behold this ugly ass book from my public library, drink it in, for what we have here is … A Weeding Survivor.

One of the secret pleasures of living the library life in a city with a large and long-established public library system is that you occasionally end up with a Weeding Survivor in your hands. Weeding, for those who have managed never to work in libraries, is when libraries periodically go through the collection and remove books that are not longer being checked out. You probably don’t know about this, because you shouldn’t, good weeding is unnoticeable except you see more good books on the shelf and less old and crappy ones. Usually you pull from the catalog a list of all the books that haven't been checked out in 5-10 years, or some time period like that, and you evaluate them for things that are no longer relevant or accurate (for the non fiction, in particular health books) and that should be replaced with new books in the subject; or for fiction that is no longer being read, it's just removed, and sent to the book sale. This is the bulk of weeding, fiction. Most fiction has a short life span of when people will choose to read it. More of it is constantly being written too. Public library readers don’t want every dumb novel ever published. They want the hot fresh dumb novels. Fiction goes in and out of the library collection in periodical waves, except for those we deem Classic. There are libraries that never weed and just get more buildings, but they are a different story. 99% of well-run public libraries in America weed with vim and vigor.

So, when you have a novel survive in a major US city’s public library collection from when it was purchased in 1979, to today, 37 years later, without either being removed from the collection or replaced by a new copy, it means two interesting things:
  1. This book has maintained enough regular circulation among the good people of Indianapolis to remain un-weeded for 37 years
  2. Yet, conversely, after being rebound (likely in the mid 80s from the style), it has not circulated enough to get worn out and replaced with a new edition, which does say something about the power of industrial buckram
Steady, yet low, circulation, makes for a Weeding Survivor. Weeding Survivors are generally very interesting books for this paradox of readership. They may be cult classics. They may be more legit classics that just get this unique status in your particular town. I doubt many other cities in America are still rocking the first edition in their public library, it’s either gone from the catalog or in a reprint. But Indianapolis is special. So, this ugly smashed-Skittle of a book has enjoyed low, steady circulation for 37 years, and that’s something worth taking a second look at. My check-out (and also not ripping the book in half, dropping it in the bath, or eating a burrito over it) has almost certainly ensured it will now make it to 40 years.

So keep an eye out for Weeding Survivors at your own public library. They are special. They are a unique delight of the physicality of shared reading material. Put your fingers in someone else’s (you hope to god) chocolatey fingerprints, imagine when and why they read this, what they thought about it. I once heard an old lady talking about how she loves ebooks now and only checks out ebooks because sharing books is sharing germs. I resented sharing air with her in that moment, for it’s the same thing. Life is sharing physical space, physical items, germs. There’s nothing I like more than reading a weird or controversial book and seeing from the physical book that other people in my town have read it too. What could be more comforting that you are not alone, and are never alone, even through time, that you can touch hands with someone on a book owned by the citizens of your city for more than three decades. And I’m afraid it’s your Last Chance to See. Public libraries do not rebind as much anymore, as it is usually cheaper to replace now. And it will be entirely lost when popular reading moves to ebooks. So go check out an old book.

ALSO, aside from a fascinating physical existence, this book had words inside it, which is pretty common for books, so now I shall review these words and not just talk about buckram.

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.)