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My work has a women's group that has a book club. I recently asked the local bookstore guy what books would be a good pick for such a group. Which is how I ended up reading

Title: #Girlboss
Author: Sophia Amoruso
Summary: Founder of Nasty Gal and millionaire in her thirties writes about...stuff.

I am giving up on this book. It is extremely short. It is nonetheless extremely annoying. The author's problems are threefold:
1 - She cannot write.
2 - She has no idea why her business succeeded and thus cannot share any useful insight.
3 - She has a stunning amount of unchecked privilege.

Point the first
I give you a passage from her description of some of the jobs she worked before Nasty Gal:
Part of my job was to wear gloves and massage mayonnaise into the tuna. Sexy! I'd slap the tuna into a bowl and pour out half a gallon of mayonnaise, put gloves on, and massage the mayo in with my hands.

That is two sentences (three, if you count "Sexy!") that say the exact same thing. This is how I know this book wasn't ghostwritten. No decent writer would set up that second sentence with the first one.

Point the second
It's really hard to chart the path that led here, but it happened, and I did it.

If that's literally all the insight you have into how you built a successful business, why the fuck are you writing a book about it? All Amoruso seems to understand about her success is that she just seems to be good at this.

Yes, it's true: Hundreds of thousands of businesses fail. Mine succeeded. Was that all just because I "got lucky"? I don't really think so.

This passage continues with a description of how it wasn't luck, luck would imply she did nothing, and she worked a ton. Thus missing the point that the owners of those other hundreds of thousands of businesses also worked a ton and failed anyway.

She then starts talking about the power of magic and how if you write a sigil with what you want and carry it around with you you'll succeed cause... ??? Obviously this has objectively worked, cause look at where she is! She keeps saying she knows it's not reeeeeeal (airquotes), but it's totally real. It's not the Secret, that's bullshit, it's a totally different theory that if you think positive thoughts you'll get everything you want. This is the point where I stopped reading.

Point the third
I'll just let Amoruso lay this one out for you:
When you're asking for a raise, [f]irst, be really honest with yourself and make sure that you deserve the raise that you're asking for.

Thank you, the anti-Sheryl Sandberg.

When I returned from Hawaii...I found out that someone had ordered brand-new Herman Miller Aeron chairs for the entire office. ... I happened to have a Herman Miller Aeron chair in my office. To me, it was a rite of passage. ... There was no way that I was going to have interns rolling around on these things!

Oh, fuck you.

When your time spent making money is significantly greater than your time spent spending money, you will be amazed at how much you can save without even really thinking about it.

Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck yoooooooooooooooooooooou.

She also has a whole section on how she used to be a shoplifting anarchist, and she still really is an anarchist, she just likes nice stuff, you know, so she's an anarchist with millions of dollars and a Porsche. Fuck the system. Right.

To top it off, she has a lot of epigraphs, including this one:
There is no dignity quite so impressive, and no independence quite so important, as living within your means.--Calvin Coolidge

Did you really just quote Calvin Coolidge on fiscal responsibility? Calvin Coolidge. The guy who presided over the start of the Great Depression and probably said that in a speech to some people in a bread line. That's the guy you want to quote on the importance of budgeting.

I'd also like to point out that her entire business is built on women paying ridiculous mark ups for clothes they don't need. And then she's going to write a book lecturing about how you don't really need to buy those shoes? Dear lady, you realize it's probably your biggest customers reading this book, right? Maybe you don't want to call them idiots for their spending habits.

In conclusion. Do not read this book. Do not recommend it to friends. Especially don't recommend it to women. This book is the opposite of feminist. Unless it proves that women entrepreneurs can be clueless privileged windbags just like men. In which case...progress?
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If you are not yet mad enough at mining companies, governmental bureaucracy, or how this country continues to treat Native Americans, have I got a book for you! I just finished Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak, which is about uranium mining on the Navajo reservation. I picked it up after my trip to Utah--I even went out to Monument Valley in the reservation, in the middle of the uranium mining belt, and had never heard anything about this.

The short version is, the Navajo and Hopi reservation in the Four Corners area is home to the largest deposits of uranium ore in the United States. Starting with the Manhattan project and continuing through the Cold War, there was a uranium boom that led to the opening of hundreds of mines throughout the reservation. Despite the tribe's attempts to regulate, to require that mining companies restore the land, and, frankly, to get some of the wealth coming out of the soil, they got screwed. Most of the money went to the mining corporations (including one partly owned by George H.W. Bush's daddy, so some of the Bush wealth is uranium wealth).

Miners, of course, had no idea what the dangers were and literally zero attempts were made to make it safe for them. When the uranium boom wound down in the sixties, the mining companies left their open pits and mine tailings as is. And so over the last fifty years, we've been watching a grand experiment in what long-term radiation poisoning does to a population. If you think I'm being flip, I'm not--health service employees intentionally hid the dangers from miners so that they could collect untainted evidence of the consequences of uranium mining.

This isn't just a book about an environmental disaster, though. This is about a group of people, the Navajo, that the US government spent hundreds of years trying to wipe off the planet, and when that didn't work, tried to force them off their land. The Navajo won an almost unique 1868 treaty that allowed them to return to their homeland, where they've remained.

And now America's wars, gung ho patriotism, and greed poisoned that land. It's like the uranium mining was designed to accomplish both goals: kill the Navajo, take their land. It's awful. And the book is full of decades of people, both Navajo and white allies, trying to get something to be done to a collective shrug from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and an alphabet soup of government bureaus who agreed it was bad, but wasn't their problem. For example, the EPA regulated mills, but not the mines. White people work at mills. Navajo work at the mines. Or, there was a town outside of the reservation that had a number of houses built out uranium mining leftovers. The EPA paid to tear down all the contaminated houses, clean the soil, and build a contamination free town. There were also contaminated houses built on the reservation. Despite those houses being identified at the time the white town was cleaned up, it took forty years for the EPA to start cleaning up the Navajo homes. They didn't try very hard to warn them about the danger, either. And when they did build uncontaminated homes, one couldn't even be used by its new owner as she was handicapped and they hadn't included a wheelchair ramp.

And in the meantime, entire extended families are dying of cancer in their fifties. Babies are stillborn or being born with crippling, life-limiting disabilities. The book can't even quantify how bad the impact was because the first studies were only started at the time of publication.

The book has flaws--as it is a saga that covers seventy years, there are hundreds of players. I constantly lost track of who she was talking about. The author also positions herself, and her articles on the subject, as the deciding factor that finally got something done, which is kinda bull.

The fact is, this is still a disaster. It will take decades to even attempt to decontaminate the land, and it's doubtful federal authorities have the money or patience for that. (If you're thinking, that's what the Superfund is for, think again. The Superfund has decided over and over that too few people live on the reservation to be worth its attention.) The Navajo Nation has passed a universal ban on uranium mining. But that hasn't stopped efforts to start mining again just off the reservation. Because we all know that a poisoned aquifer in a desert will obey legal boundaries and stay out of the Navajo land.
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Title: Let the Right One In
Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist
Genre: Horror
Rating: Is it possible to go negative?

Review: I went to my local bookstore around Halloween and asked for a book that would scare me. The clerk recommended this one. As I'd heard such fantastic things about the movie, I felt sure this would be a good read. It isn't.

Basic plot: A pre-pubescent vampire shows up in a suburb of Sweden. Hijinks--and by that I mean death--ensue.

I asked for something that would scare. This did not. Disgust me? Yes, frequently. But scare me, no. Because god forbid any scene should pass without me knowing what everyone's bowels and penis are doing. I say penis because there are almost no women in this book, but I'll get to that.

The vampire, Eli, is spectacularly bad at being a vampire. Eli's recruited a pedophile to go out and get blood, and the pedophile is spectacularly bad at doing so. In this mythology, anyone who is bitten by the vampire itself and doesn't have its spinal cord severed becomes a vampire. Despite knowing this, and despite there being obvious ways around it (stab them and let the blood flow onto the ground, then drink it from there), Eli goes around infecting half a dozen people who, in addition to threatening Eli's life directly, make the whole keeping vampire's secret thing rather difficult. (Asquerade-may!) And we're supposed to believe that Eli has somehow made it hundreds of years, when they can't make it a month in this one stupid town without almost blowing the whole thing?

The other main character, Oskar, is a bullied twelve-year-old boy with incontinence issues (see above regarding bowel and penis focus). Oskar meets Eli, and is maybe a little in love. Oskar is also obsessed with serial killers and fantasises about murdering his bullies. This lays the groundwork for some interesting development. Unfortunately we don't get it. Oskar does stand up to his bullies, but never effectively, and remains bullied until the end of the book. Oskar also doesn't really ever deal with the moral issue of being friends with a killer. There's some revulsion, but Oskar never definitively decides it's okay, or that it's not okay--he just decides it's not as important as Eli liking him. So over the course of almost five hundred pages, Oskar gets repeatedly beat up, and still needs a protector at the end. Not so much for character growth.

The book has many other characters who all get the sort of character development horror authors love giving right before offing them. As if it will be more shocking or disturbing if we get the two-page history of that person's life first. The key amongst these are a group of drunkards. I thought they would turn out to be the key to the resolution of the plot, which would be clever, but no. They stumble about and some of them die and that's the end of it.

Then there's the enormous fail. I'm putting this behind a spoiler cut because some would consider it a spoiler, though the fact that it's something that can be a spoiler is itself offensive, but anyway--trigger warning. )

This book has been sitting on my floor for a while waiting for me to write up a hate review of it, and now here you are. I don't know if the movie is better or just repeats the same flaws. But do yourself a favor and skip this book. Unless your idea of a fun read is spending a lot of time inside the head of a pedophile as he masturbates to things I don't want to write here, in which case--uh, don't tell me.
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I am on a Star Trek kick, which means not only am I watching the original series for the first time (I’ve made attempts in the past but never got very far—the first episode I ever saw was Spock’s Brain; can you blame me?), I am reading some of the tie-ins, particularly the old skool ones from the seventies and eighties. I figured with the hundreds of novels written, there must be like five that are excellent.


Spock’s World
Premise: Vulcan is holding a vote to secede from the Federation.
Review )

Planet Judgment
Premise: Standard Enterprise encounters an anomalous planet/red shirts die type of plot.
Review )

I’m now reading Spock Must Die, another 100-pager from the early days. Here are a few things I’m amused by:

- All these authors are obsessed with Spock’s sexuality. Obsessed. They are constantly trying to psychoanalyze why he’s so hot and why Christine Chapel is all over him. They seem to agree, though, they he’s celibate except for every seven years (thus taking the opposite tack of fandom).
- They all introduce Uhura as “the Bantu woman.” I was confused by this until I realized oooooh. She’s black. They’re trying to say “she’s the black one” without actually having to say it.
- Some of them actually explain things like Vulcan is the planet Spock is from and things like that, with the assumption that though you are reading this book, you have not seen the show.
- Spock’s World went out of its way to talk (at excruciating length) about the number of non-human and non-humanoid crewmembers. Planet Judgment explicitly says there are only six non-humans on the Enterprise. Given that in the show, Spock’s the only non-human on the crew, I find these different interpretations interesting.
- The early books have footnotes. For real. Any time they refer to the events of an episode, there is a little footnote telling you what episode it’s from, and what compilation the novelization of that episode can be found. This makes me profoundly sad for fans in the days before VCRs.
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Title: The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet
Author: Benjamin Hoff
Rating: 2/DNF
Summary: Tree pruner and amateur Taoist explains Taoism to a modern audience using Winnie-the-Pooh as an example.

Review: I read The Tao of Pooh because it was short and on my shelf and because it is an artifact of the introduction of an Eastern religion to an American audience. I have learned a little about Taoism already--not much, but I did read the Tao Te Ching. And this book? It is not so much Taoism.

The problem starts with this: "This and other selections from classical oriental texts are my own translations and adaptations." The Bible is the most translated book in the world. The Tao Te Ching is the second most translated. It is mystery literature. Any translation into another language, and there have been hundreds into English, inevitably bears the imprint of the translator's interpretation. Now the fact that Hoff added "and adaptations" to his note? He's essentially saying that he's not presenting an honest representation of the texts at all, he's just warping them to fit his own ideas.

The second problem is Pooh. The Tao of Pooh is a very short book, and yet about half of it is quotes from A.A. Milne. These quotes just made me want to read A.A. Milne. I understand his attempt to use a familiar story to explain an unfamiliar idea, but he repeatedly uses the Pooh stories as proof that Taoism is correct. See how silly Rabbit is? That just shows how Taoism is right about the pursuit of knowledge.

The problem with this? Pooh is fiction. And it's not a Taoist allegory. While it is interesting to search out Taoist ideas in Western literature, there needs to be a fundamental acknowledgment that Milne was not secretly Taoist. Pooh Bear is not the hero of these stories because the stories are making a point about stupidity being the best way to live, Pooh is the hero because he is childlike and these stories are children's fantasy.

Which brings me to my third point, and why I gave up on The Te of Piglet after 60 pages. I don't think these books give a fair portrayal of Taoism. What they do is talk about how awful the West is, and how we need to fix it by embracing its opposite, which must be an Eastern religion. For example, The Tao of Pooh talks about how much better things are in China because they have tea houses where people sit down and enjoy each other's company while here we have hamburger stands where people rush about and eat standing. As if there are no street food stalls in China. As if there are no bars in America.

Here is where I gave up on The Te of Piglet:

All this about newspapers, gossip, and such brings us to those classic Eeyore killjoys and spoilsports known as The Critics. You know what they are, whether they be professional Reputation Smashers or the Old Grump next door. If you sing, they can sing better (even though they can't sing). If you dance, they can dance better (even though they can't dance). If you direct a theater production, they can direct better (even though they can't direct). Whatever you do, they can do it better, even though they can't do it as well as you can. And since they can't do it as well as you, it shouldn't be particularly surprising if they don't accurately judge it.

Two things. One - Hoff has fundamentally misunderstood what critics do. Two - WHAT THE FUCK DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH TAOISM.

Seriously, The Te of Piglet is barely even pretending it's about Taoism. The quotes are either from Milne or from Thoreau WHO WASN'T A FUCKING TAOIST he was a Transcendentalist, which is kind of a different thing. Also, half the fun of Thoreau is his obliviousness to the irony of most of what he's saying, so unironically quoting him tends to make me think you're oblivious, too.

The Tao of Pooh was an attempt to explain Taoism, in an Orientalizing, facile, trite way (so of course it was not only a bestseller but is used as required reading in college-level comparative religion classes I shit you not). The Te of Piglet is an even more Orientalist excuse to whine about everything wrong with Western Culture and pretend that by complaining about the news and critics and science and day planners he has somehow made a convincing argument for Taoism, completely missing the fact that he is appropriating Taoism as a sort of empty vacuum into which he pours his points about how MYSTICAL and IN TOUCH WITH NATURE and TOTALLY SEPARATE FROM THE WEST the East is.

So I think I'm done with this author. Now if anyone says they learned a lot from these books, I can smack them with full knowledge that I am justified in doing so.
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Title: Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II
Author: Keith Lowe

This book is a necessary, if brutal, read. I read most of it over the weekend, and taken in such large chunks, it is numbing.

It details what happened in the years from roughly 1945 to 1949, breaking down events into the broad categories of the legacy of war, vengeance, ethnic cleansing and civil war. As an American, we have a tendency to see WWII in Europe as stopping on VE Day. Since all the wars we have fought for a hundred and fifty years have been overseas, there is a bright line between war and the resumption of civilian life. It is therefore easy to forget the extent of destruction in Europe: the millions dead; the almost complete destruction of infrastructure, economy, and social order; the complete breakdown of morality as so many who had suffered so much felt justified in taking what they wanted. This meant hundreds of thousands of rapes, revenge killings, pogroms...

I had no idea, for example, that there were more deportations after the war than during it, though those deportations were only made possible by the disintegration of the social fabric caused by the Nazi invasion. Since the Third Reich had used the existence of ethnic German minorities in places like the Sudetenland to justify their invasion, after the war, the Allies (particularly the Soviet Union) saw the best solution for lasting peace to be the mass deportation of Germans out of all other areas of Eastern Europe. But it was not just Germans--Poles were deported from the Ukraine, Ukrainians from Poland, Hungarians from Czechoslovakia, and the list goes on. These millions of people were marched or packed on trains and sent to places with no ability to house or feed them, with disastrous results.

So many people had made it through the horrors of the war only by clinging to the belief that, when it was over, they would go home, that discovering that for millions of them there was no home anymore was devastating. After the liberation of the concentration camps, many of the survivors found themselves back in Nazi camps, but this time ruled over by the Allies or the reasserted local governments, because there was simply no other place to put these people.

Lowe does a very good job of showing that there is no black and white when it comes to World War II, that there was no Europe rising nobly from the ashes. But he also points out the ways in which neo-fascists in recent years have used the fact of revenge killings to portray the Nazis as equal victims, which they were not. He is very clear to point out the controversial nature of the numbers of casualties he's using, since they have become tools of myth-making for both sides after the war.

The best summary, though, I think comes from his conclusion:

Given that the Germans were only one ingredient in the vast soup of different conflicts, it stands to reason that their defeat did not bring an end to the violence. In fact, the traditional view that the war came to an end when Germany finally surrendered in May 1945 is entirely misleading: in reality, their capitulation only brought an end to one aspect of the fighting. The related conflicts over race, nationality and politics continued for weeks, months and sometimes years afterwards. Gangs of Italians were still lynching Fascists late into the 1940s. Greek Communists and Nationalists, who first fought one another as opponents or collaborators with Germany, were still at each other's throats in 1949. The Ukrainian and Lithuanian partisan movements, born at the height of the war, were still fighting well into the mid-1950s. The Second World War was like a vast supertanker ploughing through the waters of Europe: it had such huge momentum that, while the engines might have been reversed in May 1945, its turbulent course was not finally brought to a halt until several years later.
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I have started reading Savage Continent by Keith Lowe. I forgot who recommended this to me, but I am only a hundred pages in and it is incredible. It is about Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and points out that our narrative of the Marshal Plan and Europe arising like a phoenix from the ashes glosses over a whole lot.

What is striking me most is that, those post-apocalyptic movies and books that posit a dystopian future where society completely breaks down? That's already happened. On a massive, massive scale. Cut for an inherently disturbing topic )

And it's not like post-WWII Europe is alone. All of that still happens, all over the world.

I am finding it...weirdly hopeful to read? Because it shows that this post-apocalyptic future we fear isn't the end. The worst happens, everything falls apart, violence is a normal part of every day, trust in any kind of authority is shattered, the infrastructure we rely on to bring us the food we need disintegrates, but that isn't the end. Somehow, after that, we recover. Society gets rebuilt. It may take generations, and many things that were lost can never be regained, but it isn't actually the end of everything. I don't know if I'm articulating myself well, but it helps me to think that there is still a future, even after something that I'm learning was infinitely worse than I had ever previously realized it was.


Feb. 15th, 2014 08:21 pm
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I just finished rereading Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt, one of my absolute favorite novels as a kid, and the source of my obsession with medieval men's wear. (The cape! The boots! The hat!) Did it hold up to rereading as an adult? Well, let's just say I just wrote a fan letter to Ms. Voigt. Yes, it held up. It is magnificent.

And now I have a bookover. Just like the first time.
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After being completely unable to find a book I wanted to reread that I know I own earlier this week, I completely reorganized my bookshelves. The books were completely haphazardly arrayed after the last move, so this took a couple of hours. First sorting into piles of those I'd read and those I hadn't, then into broad genre categories, and then alphabetically. I feel immensely better having done this. And I found the books I was looking for! (No Exit and Nausea by Sartre.)

These books are the ones I've had since I was a kid, so my immense collection of YA. sorting through them again reminded me of the immense pleasure I had reading many of them. I kind of want to embark on a great reread, but I'm afraid of them not holding up. I adored Jackaroo and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. I kind of don't want to look at them with my trained editor's eye.

In particular, I was going through my Star Wars books. I read every Star Wars book that was published before Phantom Menace came out, including the Galaxy of Fear series (which were surprisingly entertaining) and the Junior Jedi Knights (which were not). Star Wars books were about 40% of what I read in high school. There are the bad ones, but I loved the universe so much. I had a completely different relationship to fictional universes at the time. I tended to view the Star Wars universe as preexisting--like George Lucas had created it in entirety, and these books were just shining a light on previously unseen corners. I didn't really think of it as individual authors with individual acts of creation. Which means I don't think I'd find these books very good now, because I would be more aware of individual failings and less forgiving. It used to be enough that the characters I liked were in it. It's not anymore. Because I have discovered fanfic and know I don't have to survive on the authorized versions. If I read a story I don't like in a universe I love, I can just go find another, instead of putting up with it cause there wouldn't be another one for a few months. This kind of encapsulates my relationship to media tie-in books overall. I used to read a ton of them--I don't think I've read one now in, oh, six, seven years.
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Title: The Casual Vacancy
Author: J. K. Rowling

I can see why Rowling wrote her most recent book under a pseudonym. Because Casual Vacancy has fuck-all to do with Harry Potter, but every single review of it (including this one) starts out with a comparison. All I have to say is, to everyone who has every said that Rowling is a terrible writer, they can stfu and admit that their problem was not with the writing but with Harry Potter being a children's fantasy book. Because Casual Vacancy is not the sort of book that can be written by someone without mastery of the craft.

More discussion )

In the end, the only real similarity between this book and Harry Potter is that I also blew through this--I read more than 300 pages today. Her writing, as always, has a momentum. In the Harry Potter books I thought it was her way of writing a mystery, but it turns out she can do it just as well based on the strength of her characters' voices. So sign me up for anything else she ever writes, seriously.

TRIGGER WARNING: There is both physical and sexual abuse, and some other things that deserve a warning but would completely spoil it, so if you want to know, pm me.
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I finished the the book of doooooom. Spoiler cut in case you care )

Afterward, I rewatched the Top Gear polar special to see some of the landscape described in the book. And though those guys are idiots and were using technology far superior to that available a century ago, it's still a forbidding and dangerous place. (Though I wonder how they got everyone back from the North Pole once they'd gotten there.)
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That book I am reading? We have now gotten to the real horror show. (I only read on the subway when I commute, so yes, I am a poky reader. It just draws out the fun.)

Their ship has sunk. They managed to get most of their supplies and everyone (including the kitten!) off onto the ice floe, where they have made camp. They can see land, about 85 miles away. They decide to make the journey in relays, having an advance team set up a base camp with supplies on the island, and leave stores cached on the trail for when the rest of the party makes the trek. Perfectly logical, sound plan.



This would be a perfectly sound plan in Antarctica. But this is not Antarctica. This is the Arctic, where it is a sea. Ice floes constantly churn into each other, cracks form then close up, thirty-foot tall pressure ridges erupt out of nowhere. And, most unfortunately, the most stable part of the ice is farthest from land. As you get close to land, the ice churns a lot more, and there's a lot more open water. It's breakers, basically, only worse.

So the advance party--their leader aggravates an old injury and dislocates his kneecap. They get within five miles of the island, which they realize can't be the island they thought it was and is an even worse place to be stranded, but they can't get across the water. The leader decides to leave four guys with the supplies to make it to land, then takes the sleds, the dogs, and the Inuits and goes back to camp. Yeah. Guess what happens to those four guys?

Subsequent attempts at trips to the island end up with people falling through the ice repeatedly, chasms opening up under tents, dogs getting separated on the wrong side of open water when a floe breaks up, and boatloads (or, I should say, sledloads) of their irreplacable supplies falling into the ocean. And you've got things like people cutting their hand on a tin of pemmican and dying from blood poisoning.

There was a description of frostbite that made me make this face on the PATH: o.O

At this point I'm amazed anyone survived at all.

So of course I spent this morning researching Arctic cruises. Yes! I want to cruise the Arctic! All the disclaimers on the website have not put me off!

Embracing the unexpected is part of the legacy –and excitement – of expedition travel. When travelling in extremely remote regions, your expedition staff must allow the sea, the ice and the weather to guide route and itinerary details. The above is a tentative outline of what you’ll experience on this cruise – please be aware that no specific itinerary can be guaranteed.

Consult your physician about effective seasickness medications and their possible side effects. Before you leave home, please read the dosage instructions.

No camping experience is necessary, because camping in the polar regions is unlike any camping done in other parts of the world.

(There's also a whopper of a liability waiver.)

I'm pretty sure I'd spend most of the time ridiculously seasick and the rest scared out of my mind. I still want to go. Course, these are some expensive trips. Not to mention the thousand dollars of gear you'd need to buy...that they'd be quite happy to sell you, of course. (In the photos, everyone is wearing the exact same parka, sold by the tour company.)
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I have given up on The Once and Future King for the moment. It's fun and all, but there's no actual plot. And the edition I have is quite large and heavy. Which means I'm disinclined to pull it out to read on the subway unless I'm compelled to do so, so the past couple of days I've just not been reading at all, which is boring.

This morning I through my Nook in my bag, figuring I'd find something to read on the way to work. First, I forgot that in order for it to download new purchases, I have to wake it up while it's in range of wifi, so it didn't have two novellas by Courtney Milan that I just purchased on it. So instead I was flipping through my library, trying to pick something.

There is a real drawback to ebooks--no back covers. Sure, that copy is still up, but on the retailer's site. You don't actually have it with the book. So for the romance novels I've put on there, I haven't a freaking clue what the plot of any of them is. I don't know if this was the one I bought for the LOLZ or the one with the angsty portrayal of depression, and not knowing that, it's rather hard to decide what to read.

Instead I started a nonfiction book on a failed Arctic expedition (there are so many), so that should be nice and heartwarming.
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Back in seventh grade, I made a pact with myself to never start a book until I finished the last one. I only had one bookmark--in order to put it in a new book, I had to liberate it from my last. That first bookmark (a nametag from summer camp) met its match in Moby-Dick. It's still there, in the chapter on Whale taxonomy. But I tend to use bookmarks until I drop them on the subway or something (has actually happened).

The last five books I've read were all on my Nook. Now I want to go back to a physical book and I can't find my bookmark ANYWHERE. I know! I could use any scrap of paper! But I want to find my bookmark, dammit!

ETA: Found it! It was hiding in Samuel Pepys, which, twenty-year-old pacts with self aside, cannot be read all in one go.
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Title: Proof by Seduction
Author: Courtney Milan
Genre: Historical romance

Proof by Seduction is Courtney Milan's first book and it shows. There is a good book in here, but it's ossified in a mountain of cliches. Like with the other books of hers I've read, she has a heroine who is focused on becoming independent and sensitive as to how falling for a powerful man can trap her. Unlike in the other books of hers I've read, the man in this case never won me over.

Here be spoilers )

In conclusion, I can see Milan's authorly trajectory in this, and had I not just read her most recent work, I might have thought it quite good. But comparatively, it's really, really rough. So I'd say, unless you're a completist, give it a miss.
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In my last publishing job, I worked for an editor who did mostly business books. The business of business books is a weird one. Cause let's face it, most motivational, be a better manager, run a better business books have no actual content. And none of them are really different from each other. What you want for these books is for them to be picked up by corporations as presents to their employees. That's how business books make money--bulk sales. So every business book is trying to be Who Moved My Cheese. Only you can't actually make a book into a bulk selling success. Which means you have loads of books that sell nothing, nothing, nothing, in the hopes that one book will be GM's pick to give to everyone who works for them.

As a result, there are a billion books that are [insert historical figure or fictional character]'s lessons on business. None of these are written by authors who actually think this person has something to say about business. Someone in the publishing house is just hoping that the CEO of GM is a huge fan of Dracula or whoever and will see a book titled Dracula's Rules of Business and go brilliant! And buy several hundred thousand copies.

Which brings me to Success Secrets of Sherlock holmes: Life Lessons from the Master Detective, an actual book actually available for sale.

Point the first--Sherlock Holmes is the WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD to take advice from. Especially managerial or organizational advice. For god's sake. Why would you try to model his obsessive, drug using, manipulative, information withholding behavior? Can imagine having Sherlock Holmes as a boss?

So what success secrets does this book contain?

Secret 14: Death to Modesty
No one ever accused Sherlock Holmes of being modest, much less someone who lacked confidence. At times his attitude was interpreted as rude, cocky, and even arrogant. But in reality, Holmes was simply being honest...He wasn't going to let a false sense of humility stand in the way and block his success.

I'm going to set aside the fact that I don't think Holmes was ever thinking about promoting his consulting detective business when he was immodest and point out that it is only the narrative architecture of the stories that lets us know that Holmes is truthful when he brags. I don't think his general attitude is really one to be imitated in an office setting. That would go poorly.

Secret 17: How to Be a Good Watson
My first reaction to this is--why would you want to be. Holmes manipulates and lies to Watson all the time. (*points at Baskervilles*) I don't know that being devoted to a boss that does that to you is a good thing? And here are some of the tips on how to be good at Watsoning: "Don't want what your partner has" and "Have other interests outside of work" (like womanizing).

Secret 27: Don't Take Yourself Too Seriously
If you look at that and think, that doesn't sound like Holmes, you'd be write. The author doesn't even try to argue that Holmes didn't take himself seriously. His point is instead about Conan Doyle, which says to me that he ran out of points some time ago and was trying to make page count.

Secret 29: Admire Your Enemies
[Holmes's] description [of Moriarty] is also 100 percent accurate and honest. Rather than try to find ways to denigrate Moriarty and boost his own ego, Holmes is clear-eyed about his opponent's talents; he doesn't try to make himself feel better by denigrating the other man's accomplishments.

Like killing people. Remember, folks, in the business world it's always advantageous to admire murderers.

In conclusion, the way to succeed at business is to be a misanthropic, manipulative braggart who insults other people's intelligence and ignores everyone else's needs when in pursuit of his passion. Sounds brilliant.
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Title: Heart of Darkness
Author: Joseph Conrad

Summary: After my friends protested to me that watching Apocalypse Now was not the same as reading Heart of Darkness, I finally read it. (Thank you Project Gutenberg.) In my office, people put out copies of books they no longer need for work on take shelves--these are usually older printings of books, so almost everything makes its way up there. I have in my office a magpie collection of these books that caught my eye as they were put out. Last time I went through the books in my office, I found four copies of Heart of Darkness.

I read this after having read Chinua Achebe's essay on the novel, so I was reading it asking myself a question. Heart of Darkness is deeply, profoundly racist. The question I was asking myself was if there was worth in it anyway.

I think there is. With a caveat. In the past, this is a book that has been presented on its own, contextless, as a compelling, suspenseful horror story. As in, for example, the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast. I do not think it should be presented that way at all.

Heart of Darkness, I think, is one of the most articulately put together explanations of what a racist person is afraid of--not that these people are inhuman, but that they are human. Throughout, Conrad conflates the landscape and the people. The jungle, by being primitive, and primal, is capable of stripping the civilization out of the Europeans that venture there. The jungle is a place of amorality, a place that shows Europeans that there is no depth to their convictions. And the Africans are just jumping, spear-throwing features of the jungle. The language used for them, of the jungle breathing them out, and then enfolding them back in again, makes them not people at all. But the fact that they are people is what is horrifying to Marlowe, because it shows, essentially, how far he could fall.

A quote from Achebe's essay:
Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.

The value that I see in the book is as an illumination of European thinking as they ravaged Africa in the late colonial period. It is important as a piece of history, in context. So I don't think it should not be read, but I think it should not be read alone. The power of its racism is that its way of speaking about Africans has been the predominant narrative for centuries. For that reason I do not think it can be ignored, but it also can't be the only side of the story.
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Title: Rainshadow Road
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Genre: Contemporary romance

Normally, Lisa Kleypas is my girl. I've proofread three of her books, all of which have been fantastic. And in the morass of the crap I normally work on, that is enough to make me a fan for life. I've read both historicals and contemporaries of hers, and what I love is that she writes with and against the romantic tropes. That is, she'll write straight-up Harlequin premises, but always with a twist and a touch of realism.

But then this book was just a complete failure. There was no playing against romantic tropes. It followed them straight down the line. The only thing that made it seem like a Kleypas at all was the attention to description of stained glass and viticulture. She's always been one for well-researched details, but in this book, that was besides the point.

The first chapter of the book is a history of Lucy and her sister Alice's relationship. Alice was always allowed to do whatever she wanted, and Lucy was always responsible for her. This has carried into adulthood, where Lucy's parents expect her to always bail Alice out, and Alice has become a flighty mess. This culminates in Lucy's boyfriend of two years confessing to her that he's been sleeping with Alice. And oh, could you move out by the weekend? She's moving in.

This was the story I was interested in. Too bad it's not the story the book is interested in. At all. Lucy gets over her cheating boyfriend, Kevin, almost immediately. She's upset, but she jumps to he's just a shallow asshole pretty quickly for someone she'd been with for two years. And Alice gets maybe five scenes in the whole book. Every time Alice is brought up, it is with the pop psychology explanation of why she is unhappy--oh, she was spoiled as a child and so cannot stay with anything long enough to make it work. Even Alice spouts this, with a totally unearned amount of insight. Which makes the relationship between Lucy and Alice boil down to this:
Alice: I am a spoiled brat.
Lucy: Yes you are. But I love you anyway.
Alice: You are such a perfect and loving sister. I am wholly unworthy to be in your presence.

It's complete crap. In Smooth-Talking Stranger, one of the high points, to me, was the heroine's relationship with her narcissistic mother. In that book, the mother does not actually stop being narcissistic. The heroine just finds a way to deal with it. Whereas here, the relationship is treated like any number of bad fanfic, where the wronged party waits around for the other person to articulate how wrong they were, and how much better a human being the wronged party is, and that is the end.

Then there's the hero, Sam, who I had zero interest in. He owns a vineyard. We're supposed to believe he's a geek because he wears TARDIS t-shirts, but his geek is only a coat of paint over a bog standard romance archetype. His geekiness does not affect anything about how he thinks or interacts, so it was actually kind of annoying to have people keep saying how geeky he is.

Also, the big obstacle to the romance is that both of his parents were alcoholics, so he doesn't know how to commit. The thing is, this obstacle is only spoken. He acts like an emotionally healthy guy perfectly capable of being loving and caring, and paying lip service to a traumatized past. I would sort of expect a character who is trying to avoid romance for that reason to have some of the emotional scars of, say, Logan Echolls from Veronica Mars. Logan had zero coping skills, and so any minor setback or argument, he went for the nuclear option. That is a character that doesn't know how to be in a relationship. Sam seems perfectly fine.

There are three other things that bothered me in this book:
- Lucy and Sam have magic. This magic serves no purpose at all except to show that since her magic likes his magic, they have to be together. So it's like the book has a faint whiff of soulbonding without committing to it. You could delete about five pages from the book and remove the magic element entirely without affecting the rest of the plot. So I wouldn't even call this "magical realism." It seems to me like Kleypas only threw it in cause it's the "it" thing right now.

- This is kid fic. There is an adorable niece that Sam and his brothers adopted after their sister was killed, and she goes around the first hundred-fifty pages being precocious then disappears from the book almost entirely for the rest. I was annoyed that I was not warned about the presence of a kid in the cover copy.

- About a hundred pages in, Lucy gets hit by the plot bus car. Literally. She gets hit by a random car, whose driver never appears again, so that Sam has to take care of her. Their courting pretty much consists of him carrying her around and giving her painkillers. Sex-ay.

Basically, this is sold as a book about Lucy dealing with her boyfriend cheating on her, but it isn't. Nor is it really a romance, since the development of Sam and Lucy's relationship happens mostly in narrative synopsis, like the montage sequence of a rom com. So basically it ends up being a lazily written hybrid of romance and chick lit that fails at both genres. Which, again, was disappointing since I've always liked Kleypas in the past.

Sigh. Back to Courtney Milan, I think.
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Title: The Duchess War
Author: Courtney Milan
Genre: Historical romance

I don't really know what to say about this without spoiling it. It does have some plot twists, such that even the back cover copy is confusing if you aren't some distance into the book already. So I'll just say why I enjoyed the hell out of this book and try to keep it in vague terms:
- It is set in 1863. Not some vaguely Victorian period, but 1863. In that characters talk about how different traveling was when they were kids, which is when a lot of the rail lines were being built. The non-romance plot is about labor agitation in Leicester, an industrial town. The antagonist is very much affected by having had to police the Chartist riots some years previously. One character, who is sequel bait and will probably be the star of the third book in the series, is a Darwinian. He was just offered a post at Cambridge, because in order to take it, he'd have to be Anglican, and his opponents are offering this to him to try to force him to back down from his atheism. So it is really set in 1863, and after so many swishy vaguely historical books, that is so, so nice.

- It is really understandable why the hero and heroine like each other, and no, it isn't tingling in their nether parts. At the same time, it's also clear that when they are initially attracted to each other, they still don't know each other very well. So their relationship follows the progression of infatuation to deeper understanding, all without using the lazy, hornypants shortcut that most romance authors rely on.

- The obstacles to the romance are real, and are not cast aside. There are real-world constraints on what both the hero, a duke, and the heroine, a middle-class spinster, can and can't do that make their relationship very difficult. For the heroine, getting wooed by a duke is not some fantasy that solves all her problems. It actually creates a lot of problems.

- Both characters have deep-seated fears that drive their actions, and falling in love with each other does not stop these. They aren't magically cured. Even after they get together, they keep tripping over these fear-based actions. By the end of the book they've learned better how to handle them and help each other, without changing these fundamental parts of their character.

- The hero is a person of enormous privelege (as a duke) who wants to help workers. But because of his privelege, he starts out phenomenally crap at it. He blunders about and makes people's lives extremely difficult because he just doesn't understand what the consequences of his actions are for someone without his privelege. This means he can be boneheaded while still being sympathetic--he's trying, but doesn't know how. And it means his understanding grows throughout the book.

- There aren't any cardboard cut-out villains. Even the antagonists have reasons for what they are doing. Basically, it's a book where all of the characters are doing what they think they have to, and the conflicts come from that. Not from people withholding information or keeping stupid secrets or blindly doing stuff on their own.

I had a sense in the middle of the book that Milan had lost the thread a little bit--the pacing's, I won't say off but unusual. And this book starts with the main characters hiding out from a ball, which I think must be a law somewhere that you must start all nineteenth-century romances with people hiding from balls. But I was so genuinely enjoying the book the entire time, it does not bother me that it's not the cleanest narrative.

What Milan has the very rare ability for, in both this and the prequel novella, The Governess Affair, is for creating very likable, individual characters that you want to spend time with. Her characters aren't archetypes, even if the book is following an archetypical romance form. Her characters are people. It's just fun to spend time with them. So I think I will be diving into more of her books in the future, and eagerly awaiting the continuation of this series.
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I have a bookover.

It's the first time that that's happened in a while. You see, I was reading The Duchess War--which if you have any interest in historical romance you should read; it's fantastic--and I finished a little before I normally go to bed. But I was reading on my Nook. So I figured I'd just go dip my toe into the Lisa Kleypas book I downloaded a few days ago. Only that book (Rainshadow Road) is about a woman whose boyfriend cheats on her with her sister. (No surprise why I bought this. I've loved everything I've read by Lisa Kleypas, and I have more than a little thing for books that deal with infidelity. And the reviews said that none of the characters were demonized, so that is catnip for me.) Just dip my toe in. Only it starts out with her telling her boyfriend she has a trust issue and him reassuring her and I just HAD TO KEEP GOING until she finds out about the affair. And right now I am DYING to get back to it. I can't handle stopping in the middle of the emotional trauma!

This is the thing about an ereader. You don't even have to get up to start the next book. It's already there! And it means that I can go look for Courtney Milan's (author of Duchess War) other titles and oh look! They're all under six dollars. And there's another novella in the series. So that happened.

It is really nice, though, to be completely engaged by a book. It hasn't happened in a while. And this may be the first time I've signed up for an author's mailing list so I know as soon as the next book in the series comes out. Though to be fair, that's as much because this particular series is self-published so release dates are fudgy. If it was a mainstream book, it would already have a page up at the retailers and I could preorder. As it is, I was checking for Duchess War from October (when her site said it would be released) until December (when it was).

Tired now. *zonk*


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