It’s about books

A while back I started tinkering around with, which is kind of a social networking site for book …people. Since then, the developers have continued to tweak, improve, and add to the site so that I’m liking it more and more. It has also accumulated more and more users, which I’m told is important for endeavors of a social nature. At any rate, I thought it would be worth mentioning here, as well as taking the opportunity to point you to my virtual bookshelf on the site.

What you’ll find there is a collection of books that I’ve read in the last few years, though it won’t be completely different than the record I keep on my own website. You’ll get to see the same reviews which I have repurposed there, but you’ll also see the virtual shelves and comments of some of my friends and some of the other random comments I’ve made.

So far I still find Shelfari less than perfect as a conduit to the lives of strangers (too many people have strange tastes and intractable opinions on books, when they bother to express them at all), but it shines as a way to keep track of what like-minded friends are reading. Towards that end, if you read or listen to books, I’d encourage you to sign up for an account, add me as a friend, and populate your digital bookshelf. Then you should totally go through all my reviews and mark them as “helpful to you” if you are so inclined so that I can build some cred. You know, to keep it real.

Week 235: Right There, Wasps, and Sea Witches

The latest thing that Mandy does to crack me up is identifying the location of whatever she’s talking about. Or trying to talk about. It may not sounds like much, but when she says something like “Ka-loon!” and you respond with a dim-witted “Huh?” she’ll straighten up, stab a finger at whatever she’s thinking of and say, as loudly as she possibly can, “Right DERE!” It’s also weird that some things just seem to elicit exclamations from her every time she sees them. Is there a cat or cat facsimile anywhere in sight? “MEOW MEOW! Right DERE!” She also does the same thing with “LLAMA!” which makes me particularly proud.

On the Sam front, I’ve noticed in my studies of her something interesting about the way she reacts to fear. Some things make her shriek like the little girl she is and cower in fear. Any kind of flying insect, for example. The other week while we were out at The Farm we sent her up to the cabin by herself when she said she had to go to the bathroom as soon as we had walked all the way down to the beach and strapped her into four or five different kinds of flotation devices (we take flotation very seriously). A moment later, I could hear Sam screaming over the considerable distance up to the cabin, so I trotted up there. A wasp had gotten into the house with her, and she was gibbering and crying from the other side of the room while she shook her fist at it. I scored major Daddy points by simply opening the door and letting it buzz out.

Sam’s reactions to imaginary terrors differs quite a bit, though. The Little Mermaid’s nemesis, Ursula the Sea Witch, has always scared Sam. The other day she was watching that movie and I walked in from the other room to see Sam striking some kind of bizarre kung-fu stance in front of the TV. She had her feet spaced wide apart, knees bent, left hand cocked back behind her head with fingers splayed, and her right hand held out to the offending Sea Witch in a tightly balled fist. “You’d better stay away from Ursula,” she shouted. “I’m too powerful for you! I’ll KILL YOU!” She also did something similar when a commercial for some scary (to her) movie came on the TV once, ordering the pixilated monster to depart immediately.

So, anything that has an exoskeleton and the power of flight? Complete and paralyzing terror. But cartoon witch or CGI hobgoblin? Sam is gonna kick its ass, with style. Come to think of it, that’s probably pretty adaptive.

Book Review: 1776


Note: This is book #33 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

I’m not entirely sure why I couldn’t get into 1776, Jason McCullough’s biography of one of the most pivotal 12 months in American History. McCullough writes about major events in the eponymous year, including sieges on Boston, harried attempts at truce between the British and American rebels, and the personalities of two key Georges –fledgling military leader George Washington on our side of the ocean, and often misunderstood King George II on the other. The best parts of the book for me focussed on these and other figures from history and how we often got the wrong or incomplete picture of things from our high school history texts. George Washington wasn’t infallible, and certain leaders on the British side wanted to parlay and negotiate a lot more than others. There were also extended discussions about sieges and battles and preparation for sieges and battles, and the difficulty of maintaining an army full of farmers and misfits.

But for the life of me, I just couldn’t get into the flow of the book. McCullough’s style seemed dry and uninspired to me, and I couldn’t stay motivated to keep track of the expanding cast of characters. I think the main problem was that that with a few exceptions the author failed to draw them out as actual humans. You got detailed descriptions of physical statures when available and maybe a paragraph on their pedigree, but beyond that most of the drama seemed to exist at too high a level and McCullough seemed intent on covering so much ground that I didn’t get much flavor out of the thing. Maybe I’m just not as big a fan of history as I am of the stories of the people who make it.

Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week:

Week 234: Insults, Economics, and Reconsideration

So, want to know Sam’s newest thing? She’s discovered the wonderful world of insults. Sometimes these are coherent verbal barbs, like “You’re a stupid head,” sometimes they straddle the line between sense and nonsense, like “You’re a baby head,” and sometimes they’re just gibberish, like “You’re a goo-gaa-gab-gab.” But there’s never any mistaking the tone, and whichever of her little friends at school taught her her to do this I’d like to find out so I can strangle him or her. Probably while shouting “WHO’S THE GA-GA HEAD NOW, HUH? WHO’S THE GA-GA HEAD NOW?”

And far be it from Sam to keep such lovely little habits to herself. The other day Geralyn had just given Sam a time out for calling her “stupid” when she heard Mandy marching around in the other room chanting “Stupid, stupid, Mommy stupid.” Of course, Sam took umbrage at this, and began shouting that Mandy was staying “stupid” and that she should get a time out. I can only assume that Geralyn was clenching great fistfuls of her hair as she tried to explain that it was because Sammy had taught her to do it.

Upon coming home that evening I suggested that given this factoid, Sammy should reap what she sews and take a time out every time Mandy says something objectionable. This seemed at first like a great idea based in basic economic theory, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed there might be unintended consequences. To whit, if Mandy is half as clever at gaming systems as her big sister seems to be, this rule would give the younger child an inordinate amount of power if she ever caught on. And while this might be appropriate payback for all the liberties Sam has taken with Mandy (not to mention bones broken), I thought it might be wise not to uproot what sisterly bond has developed so far.

Also, you may be seeing pictures of Sam and Mandy in a little inflatable pool. I want to point out that Geralyn blew that whole thing up by herself, using only her two –and eventually one– very own lungs. So the kids are literally bouncing around on the essence of Mommy.

Book Review: Sourcery


Note: This is book #32 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challence for 2008.

Ah, another parody of the fantasy genre by Terry Pratchett. This one returns to the Unseen University, home of powerful wizards and Rincewind, one of my favorite Diskworld protagonists. On the Disk, the 8th son of and 8th son becomes your ordinary wizard, but the 8th son of an 8th son of an 8th son (i.e., the 8th son of a wizard) is a sourcerer, a source of magic so powerful that he endangers, well, everything. Normally wizardly celibacy keeps sourcerers out of the picture, but not everybody plays by the rules, and thus you get the events in this book. Coin, a sourcerer, is born to the world and attempts to remake things more to his liking while Rincewind and the other inhabitants of Unseen University flip-flop between opposing him and just going along for the ride.

At this point I’m not sure what else to say about Pratchett’s work. It’s funny, madcap, and particularly satisfying if you’re familiar with the conventions it parodies. I will say that Sourcery nicely highlights Pratchett’s ability to stamp out a huge cast, mainly focusing on what by all rights should be one-joke characters that somehow go on to carry the show and not wear out their welcome. There is, for example, Conina. She comes with a fine barbarian pedigree (being the daughter of the Disk’s greatest barbarian “hero” Cohen, who himself is a Conan the Barbarian parody) and she can kill five different ways to Tuesday, but all she really wants to be is a hairdresser. And then there’s my favorite, Nijel the Barbarian, who unlike Conina has absolutely no aptitude for the barbarian business. Instead he resembles a typical adolescent nerd who is trying to be a fierce barbarian by following a how-to book, which itself seems to read a lot like the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook, complete with random encounter tables and other impractical rules. As you might guess, Nigel isn’t very good and being a barbarian, and Conina isn’t very good at NOT being a barbarian. And the three-way relationship between them and the cowardly wizard Rincewind results in a lot of fun.

The best bits of the book still focus around Rincewind (and, relatedly, his magical and homicidal Luggage), though. For some reason Pratchett seems to be at his best when he’s taking us through Rincewind’s rationalization for any given cowardly action, and I haven’t gotten enough of it yet. Sourcery meanders a bit towards the end so it’s not the best Diskworld read I’ve had to date, but I still liked it well enough.

Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week:

Week 233: Speech, Rewards, and Reading

Once again, I feel it is my duty to report how quickly Mandy is coming along. She’s really quick to pick up new words, and she seems to understand everything I say unless I purposely obfuscate my message. By, say for example, using the world “obfuscate.” Surprisingly, Mandy has even reportedly started using possessive pronouns, like in “my cup, your cup.” Or are those possessive adjectives? Eh, whatever. Colors we’re still working on, though, as she currently reports that everything in the world is just different shades of pink.

Sam’s doing great as well, especially if you take “great” to mean “learning to game every reward system we put in place.” I hate to keep moving the goal posts on the kid, but it seems like every time we offer her a reward for doing something (like getting herself ready for bed), she takes it to mean that she gets something EVERY TIME she does something good. Or even half-assed. Still, baby steps.

On the plus side, Sam and Mandy have really taken a liking to each other now that Mandy has developed some more social and motor skills. The other night Sam read to Mandy (and by “read” I mean “flipped the pages and made stories up,” but still) for over half an hour. Mandy would trot over to her book bin and pull a volume out, take it to Sam, sit on her lap, and sit quietly and listen to Sam tell her all about it. Very cute. And very nice for Daddy, who got to sit in the other room with his laptop.

Book Review: Deadhouse Gates


Note: This is book #31 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

I mentioned a while back how after a few false starts I eventually grew to appreciate Steven Erickson’s Gardens of the Moon, the first book in his high fantasy series Mazalan: Books of the Fallen. So you shouldn’t be surprised to find out that I moved on to the second book, Deadhouse Gates. In most ways, it’s a lot better and a really good read. But in other ways it worries me and doesn’t exactly motivate me to choke down the stacks of subsequent books in the series.

Deadhouse Gates establishes a pattern I’m told repeats itself throughout the rest of the series: it takes a few characters from a previous book, throws them in with new characters in an ever increasing cast, and moves the action far, far away from what you had been used to up to that point. In true epic fantasy style there are actually multiple plotlines and points of view in Deadhouse Gates, and following the laws of probability some of them are more interesting than others. The main event tying them all together is that the Mazalan empire is facing an insurrection in one of its desert kingdoms led by a prophet kinda sorta lady. Things get really brutal really quickly and a small company of the Mazalan army finds itself trying to protect tens of thousands of Mazalan refugees as they embark on a long and horrible trek across the desert that comes be known as “the Chain of Dogs.” Oh, and also there’s a couple of superpowered dudes who are looking for some magical gateway and a badass assassin who’s looking for that same gateway so he can use it to get close to someone to assassinate her and a group of former nobles turned slaves who are escaped and on the run through the desert. Lots of plots.

I found myself enjoying the chapters about the Chain of Dogs the most, since they had a real epic feel for them and I liked seeing how the completely outnumbered and overburdened defenders kept finding ways to outsmart and out outmaneuver their dogged pursuers. It was just good drama and it had a heck of a payoff. The rest of the plot lines were okay, with the exception of the ones dealing with super duper badasses Icarium and Mappo. Those were incredibly boring yet reeked of 3xtr3m3 4ct10n!!!. I cared nothing for those characters and could barely tell what the heck was going on.

On balance, though, Deadhouse Gates is quick paced and exciting for what it is. The thing is that I can see how epic and LARGE Erickson is setting this whole thing up to be. It’s not really a single tale, but a whole history of the Mazalan empire, and on that scale things are moving pretty slowly. And given that the rest of the books from here on out get pretty beefy –like in the 1,000+ page range– I’m just not sure I’ve got the will to focus that long.

Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week:

Week 232: Fireworks, Flames, and Sleep

First off, I would like to share with you a brilliant innovation in the field of parenting that Geralyn and I have come up with. Feeding time in our house has always consisted of troublesome chewing and clumsy sitting in chairs. Earlier this week we hit upon a solution to these annoyances in the form of just feeding our children nutrient rich paste from a tube on the go:

So far the only food we’ve been able to find in tube form has been cake icing, but judging by the reactions from Sam and Mandy, the program has been a huge success.

This last week also marked the 4th of July, on which we Americans display our penchant for blowing stuff up by blowing stuff up. We let Sam and Mandy stay up way late so that they could partake in the fireworks fun, but I think I may have taken my safety warnings a little too far when I told Sam that if she got too close to the fireworks they would not only kill her, but her mommy as well. As a result, Sam would shriek in fear and run for the hills if I so much as offered her a sparkler. Mandy, on the other hand, made every attempt to grab the sparkling fire.

Sam also got to experience her her first bonfire after the fireworks were spent, an event she had looked forward to for its marshmallow roasting potential. Of course, once the conflagration got going, Sam wouldn’t go within 20 feet of it. This was generally fine by me, as keeping my children out of raging fires is pretty close to the top of my parental to-do list. It’s like one of my core parenting philosophies, right up there with keeping the hyenas away. The downside, of course, was that I was the one who had to get his eyebrows scorched so that Sam could have a toasted marshmallow treat, take one bite, then declare that she didn’t like it.

After letting Sam stay up late on the 4th, something about her relationship with sleep has become apparent. First, she always gets up at the same time –around 7 am– no matter how late she’s stayed up. I think we could keep her up until 6 in the morning and she’d sleep an hour before getting up at 7. This means that she’s tired most of the next day, and a tired Sam is not necessarily a cranky Sam. But it is a spastic Sam. Seriously, when she misses out on sleep she just turns into this gibbering, spaztoid that runs around yelling stuff and never sitting still. It’s weird, because on the days after she does sleep well, she’s calm, polite, and mellow. It’s weird.

Book Review: No Country for Old Men

Note: This is book #30 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

I’ve said before that I would hate to be a character in a John Steinbeck novel, but I think it would be worse to be one in a Carmac McCarthy story. Sure, Steinbeck’s characters often end up getting mauled, shot, or starved to death, but those are still better odds than most of the folks between the front and back covers of McCarthy’s books. And No Country for Old Men is no exception.

Where The Road was a kind of sci-fi horror story and Blood Meridian was kind of Western, No Country for Old Men is more of a contemporary thriller. Everyman Llewelyn Moss is out in the Texas backcountry one day when he comes across the remains of a drug deal gone bad –dead bodies, bullet-ridden SUVs, stacks of heroin, and a suitcase bursting with money. Moss gets greedy and takes the money, and after a couple of early blunders he’s on the run from three groups: the criminals who were trying to sell the drugs, the criminals who were trying to buy the drugs, and a genteel County Sheriff named Tom Bell who just wants to bring Moss in safely. Before long a psychotic hitman enters the chase, and things don’t look good for Moss and his money bag.

It’s really had to describe much of what happens next without giving away some surprises, but suffice to say that Cormac McCarthy’s penchant for brutality, hopelessness, and long-winded philosopher/murderers permeates this book, though it’s not as vulgar in its depiction of violence as Blood Meridian. Still, it’s not a bad ride for a thriller, and McCarthy’s elegant prose continues to grow on me. I also liked the parts that spoke through Sheriff Tom Bell’s voice. To bring back the comparison to Steinbeck, McCarthy has a gift for authentically capturing the tone and dialect of certain people.

Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week:

Week 231: Speech, Carneval, and Sneaking

A lot of the literature I’ve read says that the speech of second children is slower to develop, mainly because their older siblings speak up for them, thus robbing them of the necessity to actually tell you to bring them their freaking cup, NOW. Oddly, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Mandy, as I’m pretty sure she’s actually a bit ahead of where Sam was at her age. This is probably because Sam rarely tells us what Mandy is trying to say, instead opting to tell us what Sam wants Mandy to be saying. So Sam will loudly proclaim that “Mandy says we should all go outside and play on the playground,” when Mandy has actually walked into the kitchen and stood expectantly at the base of her high chair while chanting “Eat! Eat!” The net result is that Mandy has actually had to work twice as hard to make sure she’s getting around Sam and through to us.

Whatever the case may be, it seems to be working. I heard Mandy use her first three word sentence this week (“Mommy, baby powder”), and I also heard her turn a verb into a gerund (“Elmo sleeping”), though I guess this could have been a simple case of repeating what she had heard. In addition to discovering these great gifts of language, though, Mandy has also discovered how to throw fits despite her normally sanguine disposition. If you take something away from her, she’s now likely to start squawking and flapping her arms like a chicken desperate for flight. This usually persists for a couple of seconds before she flops to the ground and yells into the carpet. Sam then informs us that Mandy is saying she wants us to all go watch an episode or two of Curious George.

You may have noticed some more carnival shots. We indeed went to another such event, this one much bigger and more replete with grifters who would take your five dollar bill in exchange for a chance to play a game and win a cheap plastic toy that cost some destitute, Chinese robot half a penny to stamp out. The kids enjoyed it, but it’s further testament to Sam’s tomboyishness that when she was invited to choose between a cheap plastic necklace and a cheap plastic dagger, she immediately picked the latter and spent much the balance of the day pretending –enthusiastically– to shiv her daddy in the kidneys.

Sam has had other adventures lately, too. Sadly, the little neighbor girl that Sam gets along with so well is moving away, and this was pretty much their last week to pal around. On Wednesday night Ger was out visiting her mother and I had put both kids to bed. After doing some stuff in my own bedroom, I came out into the hall to see that Sam’s door was open. This is not uncommon, as she often invents excuses to get out of bed and have us tell her to go back; it’s practically routine now. So I went downstairs looking for her, only to find that the screen door to the back yard was open, and that Sam had sneaked out to the back yard to play with the neighbor girl, who apparently keeps late hours herself.

I chastised Sam and ordered her back inside and up to her room. She complained loudly, but went. After closing her door I paused to press my ear against it and listen. Following a short pause I heard Sam loudly whispering (those of you with kids will know that such a thing is possible) to her friend. I opened the door and crept into the room to see Sam standing behind her bedroom window’s curtains and communing with her friend in the back yard like some all girls school production of Romeo and Juliet. Still unnoticed, I slipped over to the foot of her bed and sat there while I listened to her supposedly clandestine conversation.

“Natalie,” she said, “My daddy will give me a time out if I come out there again!”

Here there was a pause as her friend made some reply I couldn’t hear.

“Okay!” Sam chirped. “I’ll go very quietly down to the screen door and talk to you through there!”

Their secret pact made, Sam turned around to head downstairs again but she only took a couple of steps before spotting me. She let out a surprised gasp.

“Going somewhere, Sam?” I growled.

And that’s when she played her trump card. She started crying and blubbering “Please?” Now normally I’m more than capable of laying down the law and enduring any amount of wetworks, but it occurred to me that this was literally the last time she was going to get to play with her friend before she moved. I remember getting really upset as a kid when a few of my best friends moved away, and I furthermore remember a few times when my parents bent the rules to make me happy. So I let her go after extracting a promise to put on shoes and come in without argument when I called her.

They played for a half hour or so, chased fireflies for a while after that, and when I finally called Sam in she gave her friend a last hug and came in without complaint. She’s a good kid.