Sunday, June 28, 2009

Romping through the fun books

I've read a passel* of fun books recently. Since I rarely read with motivation other than pleasure, labeling some books as "fun", implying that the others aren't, feels disingenuous, but there is something different about books which are out for an adventurous good time.

Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog was my favorite of the bunch. Very odd, how, being based in the same time-traveling history group at Oxford and written by the same woman in the same overall tone, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a time-travelling romp while Doomsday Book is a thought provoking tear-jerker. Overall, To Say Nothing of the Dog is just lots of fun. It would be more fun, perhaps, if one had previously read Doomsday Book, Moonstone, plenty of Agatha Christie, a fair share of Victorian poets, and Jerome K. Jermone's Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) because this is no ordinary time travel book, this is a very literary time travel book. Don't not read To Say Nothing because of lack of Victorian knowledge, but if you are Beth or Irene or Sunflower Spinner you will like it all the more because you can feel smug about all the allusions you get (and conveniently ignore those you don't). SalSis would probably enjoy To Say Nothing (although, like Doomsday, for a book officially "sci-fi" it is short on adventure and still has no space, robots or science involved). Raych on books i done read offers a more descriptive description and this apt comparison of the two Willis books, "TSNotD is ALL romping, and a hefty bit of frolic. Doomsday starts off all fun and games, but the apple is full of worms! Seethy, bubonic worms,"(links for the Moonstone and Three Men reviews are from her also).
I could give Katherine Neville's The Magic Circle the benefit of the doubt and suggest I might like it more if I were not comparing it to To Say Nothing or Neville's romping masterpiece, The Eight. That's not true, however; I liked Magic Circle well enough and don't think other circumstances would make me like it more. It is fun. It's just not very good, and perhaps not good at all.
Knowing that I love The Eight and gave its sequel, The Fire, a thumb's up (with some trepidation), an anonymous book donor (could it be SalSis?) sent me Neville's other two works, The Magic Circle and A Calculated Risk. It seems to me that Neville wrote one brilliant, if very flawed, fun book: The Eight. She attempted to carry the fun to a different venue entirely (no international travel, no murderous back story, the intrigue all financial) with A Calculated Risk. That fell far short of The Eight, so she tried using the formula for The Eight with a new set of characters and symbols (including way too much pseudo-incest for my taste and a few too many connections with Christianity. I have no problem using "the Church" in historical intrigue, but making Christ part of a grand conspiracy just doesn't sit well.) in The Magic Circle. That didn't work, so she re-used the characters and symbols from The Eight in The Fire. Unfortunately for Neville and all of us, she seems to have enough for one really fun book and too many weak ones.
Spook Country by William Gibson contains no frolicking, but somehow it still falls within the range of my recent fun books. The Mister picked it out at an airport because he's a fan, I believe, of Gibson's 1984 work, Neuromancer and the beginning of the cyberpunk movement. I think the Mister was disappointed in Spook Country because it is not cyberpunk, but, being unaware of what cyberpunk is supposed to be, I was not so bothered. I found the back of the book's "urban noir" tag intriguing, and described it to a friend as very tech-heavy, but not futuristic; involving spies and crime, but not a spy or crime novel; and gritty in places, but not glorifying drugs or gangs and almost entirely free of sex and violence. The Mister spent a great deal of time trying to figure it out, ("does the spook refer to spies or to the visions that the three main characters see, one religious, one technical and one drug-induced?") which is probably why I was surprised to find it a fairly light hearted adventure story with three conveniently intersecting plot lines that happens to take place in some dark places. I'm not sure for whom I would recommend it, but it was altogether a fun read.
The Mister also suggested I read Space Viking by H. Beam Piper. Like all good sci-fi, Space Viking (written in 1963) has thought-provoking points beyond the adventure. Through his feudal lord turned space viking character, Lucas Trask, Piper soundly criticizes socialism, feudalism, representative democracy, totalitarian regimes, inactive governments, PR scams, and overly active governments. I'm all for the noble space pirate (I love the Firefly series and Han Solo), but somehow I had a hard time with the guy who was raiding other planets with nuclear weapons while declaring himself royalty over his own planet being critical of almost every form of government. The book is very short and the pacing between raiding, vengeance and governmental commentary becomes awkward, but overall it is a fine read. Irene's friend Daniel should read it, and maybe SalSis.
If crying over the travails of a dysfunctional family is your idea of fun, than Firefly Cloak by Sheri Reynolds fits with this post. Otherwise, the book is just on this post because I'm too lazy to start another. I picked up Firefly Cloak based only on the title at a library book sale somewhere along the way. It is a classic Oprah book: the story of several generation of women in the South with more than their share of problems to overcome. Fortunately, it is well written, it is interesting, the addictions and teenage angst are not miraculously cured, and men are neither the cause of the problems nor the solution. I'm not sure why I would recommend this book over many others in the same vein, but I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it.
Other novels for catch-up: I re-read Antoine de Saint Exupery's The Little Prince for the first time in over a decade and found it to still be delightful, but perhaps not as magical as when I first read it. Despite The Blue Sword being one of my favorite books, which I re-read on a near annual basis, until recently I had not re-read the companion book (and Newberry Award winning) The Hero and the Crown. After re-examining, I can admit that The Hero and the Crown is probably just as good as McKinley's masterpiece, but I still don't like it as well. Aerin is no Hari and while the idea of being able to romantically love more than one man in one's life sits well with me rationally (my life would be far poorer without the men I romantically loved prior to meeting the Mister), it doesn't fit so well in a fantasy novel. The Mister recently read The Blue Sword and, while he thought "it's a fine story" he wanted to know 1) if I have any male friends who love this book and 2) what the point is. So it's not everybody's favorite.

*Assuming that "more than usual" counts for a passel, even if it is fewer than ten.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ten or Fewer Cigarettes Daily: Advice from Baby Books

While most obstetrical authorities disapprove of smoking twenty-five or more cigarettes daily during pregnancy, "there is no reason for believing that a woman who smokes moderately, let us say ten cigarettes or less a day, need change her custom at this time. If you have been smoking considerably more than this for several years, by no means try to give them up in pregnancy. There is no surer was of upsetting the nerves at a time when you should be calm and happy, or of converting a placid, sweet-tempered girl into an intolerable shrew," (pg. 78).

This I learned from Expectant Motherhood, Second Edition by Nicholson J. Eastman, a book given by my grandmother by her obstetrician when she learned she was pregnant with my uncle Danny in 1954. Expectant Motherhood is completely serious (with the key point being that I should trust my doctor and not the women in my bridge group), full of the kinds of advice mocked in James Lilek's Mommy Knows Worst, a collection of articles and ads about parenthood from the 1950s with modern commentary (given to us by MBiL). It was good to be reminded how very much "scientific" childbirth practices can change in fifty years. This knowledge provided many grains of salt to take while reading modern, serious, childbirth books (reviewed here for my many expectant friends and for my mother who is interested in how this advice changes).

As with Annie Lamott's Operating Instructions (which I haven't read in years), I think potential parents should read Andrea J. Buchanan's Mother Shock. Both books are tales of survival of the first year of motherhood, written when the experiences were raw enough that readers can feel the sleep-deprived desperation, but long enough afterward to be reassuring that one can regain her sense of humor. I don't know when I suggest that people read these books. While pregnant it doesn't seem quite believable that my child and I will have all of these issues (surely my kid will figure out how to latch on to a nipple, how hard can that be?) and while in the midst of sleep deprivation after the child arrives I doubt most mothers want to fill precious reading time learning that they are not alone. In any case, the books should be read.

Of the guides to pregnancy I've seen, I like the formidable, now-classic, What to Expect When You're Expecting the best. The month-by-month layout is clunky when one really wants to look something up, but it can be remarkably reassuring to find out that "shortness of breath or dizziness" and "decreased frequency of urination" are both expected in the 4th month. Or that the normal weight of a 33 week baby is 4 1/2 pounds (Mervivian Alloicious, 33 weeks, was estimated at 4.4 pounds yesterday). The descriptions of various tests are much better than my doctor's, and the diet plans quite sensible. Some on-line reviewers have found What to Expect judgemental and have ridiculed the impossible to follow dietary guidelines. Perhaps earlier editions were different, but I found the non-judgemental "make sure your doctor knows about (cocaine addiction, bulimia, whatever. . . ) so that you can still have a healthy baby" to be irritatingly repetitive (if sound advice). As far as diet goes, the authors do suggest that a pregnant woman should eat lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, lean protein and calcium sources while limiting refined sugars and starches, caffeine and excess fats. Shocking! Radical! Pregnant women should eat a healthy diet! Who would have thought?

I bought Raising Baby Green by Alan Greene because I liked an on-line clip of Dr. Greene explaining food choices that were good for pregnant women and good for the environment. The book is useful, if uninteresting. I'm not sure Greene has enough material to fill a whole book, but his lists are informative (crops which are the most pesticide intensive and thus worth buying organic, differences in labeling on "eco-friendly" paint, where to find hybrid diapers). He makes a strong case for limiting chemical exposures for health reasons, and while I personally find arguments about the whole environment more compelling, he has convinced me that organic cotton during the first week of life when Mervivan's skin is completely porous is a very good thing.

The Expectant Father by Armin Brott and Jennifer Ash was a "gift" for The Mister based on Amazon reviews saying it was the only book for fathers that takes prenatal fatherhood seriously (most apparently are about mocking pregnant women). The Mister has yet to read it, so I can't comment on what he thinks. The book is also supposed to help give insight for pregnant women into what our partners are going through. In my situation, the book failed in this regard. Every time I'd ask the Mister, "are you worried about x this month" he'd look at me as if I were crazy. I admit I usually only asked about the things I thought were unlikely, but learning that the Mister might be thinking about finances or child's education (both of which we discuss regularly, if superficially) could hardly be considered insight into his psyche. The Expectant Father might read better than What to Expect because it does not repeat, over and over, "every pregnancy is different" but the generalizations make it easier to cast aside as silly, even when it does contain a good quantity of good information.
In any case, what I have learned from Mommy Knows Worst is that adult Mervivan will laugh at me that I ever believed all this stuff back in '09.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Italian Itinerary

Sometimes my friends seem to want to know where we went or what we did when we travelled (rather than what we ate or how many bean plants we saw). For those of you this describes:
Brunate (2 nights) village above Como on Lake Como: Ferry to Bellagio (pictured) and guided tour of the gardens of Villa Serbelloni.

Train to Rome, stopping in Bologna for long lunch.

Rome (9 nights): In Rome: Colosseum, Forum, Palatine Hill, St. Peter's, Scavi Tour of necropolis below St. Peter's, Vatican Gardens (me), several other museums (Mister), Modern and Contemporary Art Museum, Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Trastevere neighborhood, lots of walking, neighborhood playground, several markets. Near Rome (3 different day trips): Garden at Ninfa, Ostia Antica, Villa D'Este (Tivoli), Villa Adriana (Tivoli).

Siena (2 nights): soccer match, Il Campo, Cathedral (pictured under scaffolding), Sienese Art Museum, Enoteca Italiana.

Riomaggiore (2 nights) village on the Mediterranean coast, part of Cinque Terra: Hike to botanical point, hike among 4 of the 5 Cinque Terra villages (Vernazza pictured).

Milan (1 night): Cathedral.

Eating should be assumed as a primary occupation throughout. Transportation was by train between cities and private car to Ninfa and Tivoli.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Books at the wrong time

One area of my life where I feel consistently lucky is discovering books at exactly the right time. Doomsday Book would not have meant nearly as much to me if I read it before the current swine flu epidemic. Enchanted April shocked me with its descriptions of flowering legumes and the Northern Italian coast, just as I was starting to contemplate them both. The sensation that I was intended to read this book at this moment happens often enough that I've come to expect it, to the point that it's noteworthy that I read two books this week without any glimmer that they were meant for me now. Both are great books for someone at some time, but if the universe is directing me in any way by putting these novels in my path, I have certainly missed the signs.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry is fascinating. Chapters alternate between the thoughts of a dumpy middle age concierge in a Parisian apartment building for the very wealthy and a very wealthy precocious twelve year-old who lives there. Both characters are closet intellectuals and philosophers and sharp critics of modern French lifestyles. The allusions to art, philosophy and literature are all over the place: obvious enough that I knew I was missing lots in my ignorance, but not strong enough to make me actually go and look them up. The plot is not what I expected: contrary to some review I had read on Amazon, the book is not about these women befriending each other. The conclusion was startling and well-crafted. Altogether I found it to be a really good book. Yet the whole time I was reading it I kept trying to figure out who I should be recommending it for. It felt obvious that I had discovered something great, but when one is thinking "who should I tell to read this?" rather than reading without analytical thought, something isn't clicking. I want raych to review it and I'd love to hear the thoughts of Tracy, my Mother and my SIL (who could read it in the original French) or anyone else, because I know this book is right for someone, I'm just afraid it wasn't me this week.

Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a coming-of-age novel (that one feels compelled to read as a memoir) about coming to terms with pentecostal evangelism, crazy parents and lesbian desires. Like The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Oranges includes innovative storytelling and some brilliant writing and, like The Elegance of the Hedgehog, it didn't do anything in particular for me now.

Two good books someone should read sometime. Maybe one is the book that you should be reading now and the universe fated me to read it so I could tell you about it. Or maybe the universe does not resolve around my luck with books, and somehow good books make it into my lap without being specifically destined for me (horrifying thought!).

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Roman Cats

I first visited Rome with My Brother in June 1992 and hadn't returned until last month*. Shockingly, the Eternal City has changed in 17 years. Or perhaps I have.
First, Rome feels decidedly safer. The Mister and I were not swarmed by young Gypsies. Waiting at the giant Termini train station this trip, I sipped my cappuccino and looked at Armani bra ads and wondered if it was really the same place I rushed through clenching my backpack, thankful that I had not been gassed on the incoming night train while my brother fended off those flapping maps and passes in his face. The city still bustled (and lurched and skidded while riding buses) but it felt only like a big city, not a big city out to get me. Much of this could be attributed to staying with a friend in a nice neighborhood rather than in a cheap hotel near the station, being 37 instead of 20, and not lugging most of my worldly possessions on my back, but some must be a difference in the city. Where have all the gypsies gone?
Secondly, the sights have changed. The forum is huge. It was big 17 years ago but not huge and definitely not connected to Palatine Hill. Excavation works. Had I made it into the Vatican Museums, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel would be different. Restoration apparently works.
Finally, the Colosseum cats are gone. This shocked me. The skinny gray feral cats sneaking in and out of the stonework were as iconic of Rome as the structure itself. There were hundreds 17 years ago. Now, the only public cats to be found are at the Argentine dig, and those cats are all well-fed, sterilized and tested; even if not quite friendly enough to talk to the Mister.

Later on the trip we encountered well-fed feral cats in Riomaggiore, the village we stayed in of the Cinque Terre, talking to the fishermen and tourists alike. The Mister offered to bring one home, but we decided it would miss the fresh fish and Mister Splashy Pants might not be so happy.

*Rome is fabulous, by the way. For an American, the depth of ages of stuff is phenomenal. There just aren't that many places where a renaissance cathedral is relatively very modern. The food can be fantastic, the public transportation is cheap and city buzzes. If one could only visit one European city, it would definitely top my list.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fava Beans (Italian Legumes II)

Fava beans seldom pop up in the diet of Middle America. I've long known of their existence and their importance in Egyptian cuisine (which, is, in itself, odd because I couldn't tell you another distinct component of Egyptian cuisine). I've also known for years that Brits eat them fresh as broad beans. What I didn't know is what they taste like. I know now.

Not much.
I'll be the first to admit that I may not have prepared them in the most succulent of ways. The Ambassador, the friend I was visiting in Rome, had purchased the beans as a novelty at the local vegetable market and promptly forgotten they were in her refrigerator. I peeled them, boiled the beans and mashed them with olive oil, rosemary, salt and lemon juice. The resulting paste was spread on rice cakes. Altogether it was a success, but made one wonder why one didn't just make hummus.
I later learned of a seasonal Italian soup involving fresh fava beans and artichokes, but was unable to sample it as I never recognized it on a menu nor knew exactly what to look for.