Thursday, January 29, 2015

Heard Not Seen

Sarah Koenig is not responsible for my podcast obsession.  It's Molly Wizenberg's fault. I have been a long time reader of Orangette, Wizenberg's blog, and after seeing her speak and reading her latest book, Delancey, I was hungry for more ways to cyberstalk her. Thus, I discovered last summer that she has a podcast, Spilled Milk which features Wizenberg and author Matthew Amster-Burton bantering back and forth about one food topic at a time from Cheap Bear to Green Beans.  Soon after I started listening to Spilled Milk, Wizenberg suggested Death, Sex & Money, by Anna Sales, on Orangette.

Podcasts have come a long way from the amateurish, banter-filled recordings that began appearing ten years ago.  Back then, I downloaded a few on the iPod I took on walks, but stopped bothering after I realized that all the best ones were re-packaged segments from NPR shows that I already listed to.  These days, I think the best podcasts still have their DNA, if not their actual production studios, in public radio. Even hosts like Wizenberg and Amster-Burton who are writers rather than seasoned broadcast journalists have gotten better as the medium has grown. 

Lately, I've gotten the whole family hooked on podcasts. Boo likes listening to Planet Money and How to Do Everything from NPR and RadioLab from WNYC when he's puttering with Lego in the afternoon.  I often play NPR's Business Story of the Day or World Story of the Day in the morning when both kids are in the kitchen eating breakfast and making lunch before school. When I'm cleaning the kitchen, I like listening to the stories of Snap Judgement and the Moth Radio Hour.  And of course, there's always the podcast version of This American Life. I've gotten Dr. Yap hooked on my current favorite podcast, Invisibilia. I listen to it at home, and she listens to it during her long commute and we discuss it together in the evening.  

Invisibilia is a mini-series podcast with only six episodes planned, that covers invisible things, such as thoughts, fears, and expectations.  If this were a Great Course, I'm not sure I would be interested, but given the NPR treatment, it's utterly fascinating and right up my alley.  I love learning more about how we can train our brains and push ourselves as humans.  This first podcast reminded me not to take my own thoughts too seriously, a reminder my peri-menopausal brain needs.  The fears episode featured a fascinating demonstration of how much childhood has changed in the last forty years, based on media-saturated fears rather than real data.  Last week's episode is an amazing analysis of expectations and how much they can shape destiny for a particular population.  Each episode takes a deep dive into one particular aspect of "invisibilia," but it's easy to extrapolate and make connections in my own life.

I hope that technology continues to evolve with podcast creators, because I would love to easily skip over boring bits, like an overlong exploration of confronting a fear of snakes or the overly enthusiastic discussions of the minutiae of publishing that seem to mar most book podcasts.  It seems like it would be easy to incorporate time-stamping into a podcast app so a listener can easily jump back and forth without missing bits and pieces.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

I Spied a Dud, But Finished It Anyway

I actually started Her Royal Spyness, by Rhys Bowen several weeks ago, right after finishing Florence Gordon, but it was taking off slowly and The Storied Life of A.J. Frikry was beckoning, with it's looming library return date.  I was only going to put it down for two days, but then I got side-tracked trying to speed through three other books on the library short list - The Rosie Effect, which became my first abandoned book of 2015, maybe I'll write about that in the future; Mermaids in Paradise, which I waffled about and decided not to bother with; and Ancillary Justice, an innovative sci-fi tome I just couldn't fit in right now. I finally got back to Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie Rannoch by the end of last week.  

The premise of this first volume in a series had promise enough to pick up again: Lady Georgiana, a penniless, fictional, and minor British royal between the wars reduced to running a housekeeping service and spying for her regal relative on the side, in order to avoid the fate of either becoming a lady-in-waiting to an elderly princess or marrying an unpleasant Eastern European prince.  

Her Royal Spyness is about a quarter-step up from a cozy mystery and the only thing to really separate it from that genre, in my mind, is the fact that it takes place mostly in London.  I feel like cozy mysteries are exclusively the province of bucolic realms and seaside villages.  Once you add Tube stops, trips to Harrod's,and any mention of the Thames' murky waters, the cozy train has left the station.  Aside from the setting, the tone is quite snug and the mystery itself is very light-weight, with nary a twist in sight.  The author tips her hand quite early in the sleuthing process, which is disappointing.

The atmosphere of Depression Era London between the wars is fascinating and as well-done as that in the Maisy Dobbs mysteries or Murder at the Brightwell. I would almost venture to say that Georgie's world recalls the original British mysteries actually written in the 1930s, although Georgie is no Miss Marple and Bowen is not yet a master of the medium on par with Agatha Christie.

Speaking of Maisy Dobbs, Her Royal Spyness is a corollary in many ways.  Instead of propelling her protagonist out of a maid's uniform below stairs to the world upstairs, Bowen sends Georgie on the opposite trajectory, all the way down to the coal cellar where she learns to handle a scuttle and rustles up a maid's uniform from the scullery cupboard so she can run her clandestine housekeeping service.  Georgie is not anywhere as well developed a character as Maisy Dobbs was in her series debut.  I never had a really good sense of Georgie and felt that Bowen was constantly telling the reader what the Lady is like rather than showing us.

Despite all the short comings of Her Royal Spyness, I'm still a sucker for a good, Anglophile upstairs/downstairs novel with a dash of royal intrigue and a spot of mystery, so I added the next book in the series to my library TBR to see if it gets better.  We'll see.  In the meantime, I am reading Terms and Conditions, a contemporary novel by Robert Glancy and waiting impatiently for the 11th Maisy Dobbs to hit my library hold shelf.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Reader's Delight

Scottish booksellers.  Rapper's Delight parody.  That's it.  My job is done here for the day.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Storied Life

I don't think a semi-pro basketball game with several thousand elementary and middle school kids, teachers, and parent chaperones is the absolute craziest place I have ever tried to read a book, but it is the craziest place I tried to read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin.

 After finally mastering all the intricacies of a bulk mailing and ushering several hundred auction donation requests on their way, I was in serious need of a good book and Her Royal Spyness just wasn't cutting it.  I had given up on getting to A.J. Fikry before it had to go back to the library, but then I decided that I didn't want to admit defeat that easily. So, I started reading it on Wednesday and by Friday I had conquered the irascible bookseller at the heart of this charming story.  It's good to branch out and try new genres and challenge myself as a reader, but nothing beats the pleasure of a story that satisfies from start to finish at a quick clip.  

I was far enough along on Thursday that I really couldn't bear to leave the book behind when I boarded the bus with Boo and the rest of his class and joined a third of the public school population of our town at the local arena built by the NBA to house a semi-pro team, the development league of the Golden State Warriors.  The team has quickly become an integral part of our community and bestows its largesse any time it can, including inviting all local public school children to attend at least one tournament game during the week.  

Alas, I didn't get very far with the book during the game, but I quickly made up for it.  It's hard to say too much about the book without giving away the story, but it involves a young widower who owns a bookstore on a fictional island off the coast of Cape Cod.  It's not exactly magical realism, but the time is not exactly linear either.  The characters are wonderful and most of the action takes place in a bookstore.  There's a little action, a little love, and a lot of books.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Florence Gordon and the Art Auction Cluster F*

Cursing is not my standard metier, and I swear I thought of loads more elegant metaphors for working with the Art Auction Committee at Boo's elementary school, but the overriding phrase for the week, as I fielded emails and texts and wrangled unruly mail merge documents and committee members, is cluster fuck.  If the road to hell is paved with the good intentions of committee members, then the net result is nothing other than a cluster fuck.  And a mail merge.

I knew the stress was getting to me when I sat on the sofa at 6:45am on  Thursday speed skimming the last 75 pages of Florence Gordon instead of walking the dog and packing lunch.  I have tried abandoning books that are not working for me, but I end up resenting the time I spent reading the part I did read more than if I just finish the thing, so when I really cannot take a book anymore, I speed skim.  Usually, there are many books waiting on the other side of the last page and I just want to get on to something I like better.  Florence Gordon, by Brian Morton, started out well, peeking in on an aging feminist scholar as she embarks on her swan song memoir before her 75th birthday.  A few chapters in I thought I was in for the Upper West Side version of the small town populated by quirky people genre that I love.  75 pages from the end, I was just annoyed with half the characters and wanted to be done with them, especially since the story was obviously not going to have a satisfying outcome.  So there. 

Finishing up Florence gave me more time to devote to Dropbox, conflicting directives and senseless spreadsheets.  Theoretically, I am now reading the first Her Royal Spyness, by Rhys Bowen.  In reality, I am reminding myself that the art auction will be over after March and it's for a really good cause.  I agreed to be on the auction committee because I wanted a challenging something to do with two kids in school all day and I wanted to have a big role in the school without actually joining the PTA board. Also, the job of changing the sign in front of the school was already taken.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Not So Dead Gods and Not So Mousy Spies

In my late teens and early twenties, I read a fair amount of sci fi/speculative fiction, but over the decade I have spent more time on the fantasy end of the spectrum- children's, YA, and adult - but not much that I would classify as sci fi. I sometimes find both sci fi and fantasy difficult to fall into because I have to work so hard to make all the world-building real inside my head instead of just relaxing and enjoying the story.  I decided to give City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett a try based on reviews from GoodReads and BookRiot.  Checking books out of the library gives me more freedom to go out on a limb like this, just in case I do not want to finish - though once I bother to start a book I do try to finish.  

It took me two weeks to read City of Stairs, which felt like slow going, but I think being distracted by the holidays and having my family around was as much a barrier as slogging through the new world of Bulikov, the City of Stairs. Bulikov is the former seat of power for six divinities and the humans under their auspices.  Until seventy years ago, the inhabitants of Bulikov and the Continent ruled ruthlessly over the rest of the world.  Then a mysterious member of a wealthy collaborator family managed to kill the Divinities and the balance of power swung to his country, the former slave state of Saypur.  

As the novel starts, a Saypuri academic is murdered in Bulikov and Shara Thivani, a Saypuri intelligence agent masquerading as a mousy cultural ambassador shows up to investigate.  I liked the character of Shara, but despite the frequent reminders that she was small and wore glasses, her personality was anything but mousy.  This inconsistency was one of the few things that bothered me about the book.  She is one of several powerful women in City of Stairs, which is nice coming from a young male writer.  

The story is really a parable of power and doctrine, both religious and political and what happens when they are combined. There are obvious echoes of Cold War post-Stalin/post-Mao international relations. I love reading examinations of the destructive nature of religious belief and practice, especially when the analysis is woven within the story rather than feeling like a very obvious object lesson.  Character development could be better, and maybe it will be in the sequel Bennett is working on, since he will not have to work as hard at conveying the new old world of the Continent.  If you want help visualizing Bulikov, check out the artist renderings by John Peterson, on Bennett's website.  The illustrations would serve as a foundation for a graphic novel or an adult animated film. Last, but not least, I love that all the story lines are wrapped up nicely while leaving room for a sequel, which will apparently feature one of the intriguing side characters from City of Stairs, military and political leader Turyin Mulaghesh, another very strong woman.

If you are looking for accessible and very contemporary scifi, everything is here: murder mystery, political intrigue, SF world building, and social commentary.  

Now reading:

Saturday, January 3, 2015

That's a Wrap

Tomorrow there will be a kitchen to clean, laundry to wash, backpacks to ready, calendars and to do lists to scrutinize.  But today, there was one last trip to the metropolis on the other side of the mountains.  A long awaited visit to a glass fusion studio in a suburb not used to seeing two mom families and eleven year olds with half-blue-highlighted, half-shaved heads. On the way home, we passed a traffic jam of suburbanites leaving our beach ville.

As we wrap up another winter break, a much needed respite in the middle of a school year, and take a final accounting, on the the credit side we have made three trips "over the hill," eaten soup dumplings twice, and completed one Ravensburger Christmas puzzle. On the debit side, we have yet to make it to the Keith Haring exhibit, make donuts, or complete the second Ravensburger Christmas puzzle.  

Nevertheless, here we go, back into our busy life.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Gaming the System: How to Become a Library Power User

Every few days, I have to run the same urgent errand: get to the library before a book runs out of time on the hold shelf.  I did not mean to become the book equivalent of an extreme coupon shopper, but when I started taking advantage of my local public library's request system to take charge of my To Be Read list, I found myself employing every gimmick and loophole in the system.  I also find myself running to the library every few days to pick up the latest book about to vacate my hold shelf.  Okay, my books do not take up the entire shelf, just half of it.

Do you too want to be the bane of a library aide's existence?  Here's how:

Step 1: Get to know your library's online system.
Over the last few years, our public library has transformed it's online system from something that was just a rung above of an analog system, without any of the charm of a wooden card catalog, to a very robust system I can access from my living room.  When I find a book I like, I still tear the review out of the magazine or add it to my little TBR notebook, but instead of letting those pile up on my desk, I also log into my library account and do a search for the book, even if it hasn't been released yet.  Our library system allows patrons to create multiple lists of cataloged materials that are saved to one's account.  I created a TBR list and add books to it as I find them in the system.  I add several books a week and use the list to keep track of books to read the kids at night and books Dr. Yap wants to check out too.  The last book I added was Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper, which I saw on the BookRiot Instagram feed while I was out walking the dog yesterday.

Step 2: Know your limits.
Theoretically, I could immediately request the book, but since I already have the maximum fifteen books requested, I add it to my list.  Every time I check a book out from the hold shelf, a spot opens up on the request list and I look at my TBR list and decide what to request next.  Since I'm already logged into my account, I can make the request directly from my personal list on the library's website.  Right now, I have eight books checked out; one that I am reading to Bean at night, one that I'm reading right now, and six in the queue. With so many books already out, I am only adding books that either have not been released yet (books on order in the library system) and hot books that have waiting lists of 20-100 patrons long.  When I have more wiggle room, I also request books that are in other branches of the system so they are delivered to my "home" branch.

As soon as see a book I am waiting for start to get some press, like The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simison, I start checking to see if it is in the library system yet.  If it is on order, I can still make a request and get a higher spot on the waiting list.

I cannot see how long a waiting list is until I make the request, but I can tell that there are zero available and I usually have a pretty good idea which books are currently popular.  Usually, the book blogs I read start talking up books one to two months before they come out.  BookRiot even provides a helpful YouTube video with hot books to add to your library request list. Professional reviews from sources like NPR and NYT appear in the weeks immediately before a book comes out and by the time a book is reviewed in a magazine like Vogue, Elle, or Vanity Fair, it is already out.  By adding books that have long waiting lists, I get a place in line and have plenty to read while I am waiting.  Sometimes this works out and sometimes, as with Some Luck, by Jane Smiley, I am caught off guard when my number comes up and do not have time to read a book before it has to go back to the library.  I just add it back to my TBR list and request it again another time.  

Step 3: Due Dates
Library due dates are less arbitrary than baby due dates, but only a little less stressful.  At my library, we have three weeks until a book is due, unless the book has a waiting list, the book can be renewed four times. Any popular book, even an older one, will have a waiting list.  In this case, those books have no renewals.  Three weeks and you are done.  I would rather not return a book half finished and then have to wait another few months to get it again, so I just let the books go if I do not have the time.  Sometimes, I will wait for months on books and only have one or two out at a time and other times, I have a whole bunch at once.  I often throw books on my library list that I am not sure I will like.  I am willing to take risks because I am not buying the books, but I do not want to start and stop too many books or end up clogging up my reading queue with things I do not love.  I used to plunk myself down on the floor in the hold section and read the first page or two to vet my choices.  When I realized the section is directly across from a popular bathroom, I started reviewing the books in a far away corner then returning them to the shelf until I am ready to check them out.  

Step 4: Working the Shelves
You may have decided I got on the crazy train several paragraphs ago, but this is where I think things really take a turn for the loony.  Unless my stack of checked out books has dwindled down to nothing, I do not run out and pick up my hold requests the minute I get a text from my library.  (What? You do not get texts from your library?) Every once in a while, the stars, my reading speed, and a hold list back log create a vacuum in the check out cycle, but this only happens every few months.  In order to maximize my time with each book, especially when they are likely to have only one renewal, I wait until the second to last day possible to check them out.  My library gives people ten theoretical days to check out a book before it is banished from the hold shelf and either returned to its shelf or passed on to the next person in line.  I say theoretical because I am never sure if "One more day" means they will take the books off the shelf that day or the next.  I once cornered an aide in the hold section and he admitted that they purge books that are on their final day in hold purgatory, so I feel completely vindicated in rushing down to the library on the penultimate day.  

Okay, I have to get back to City of Stairs, it's taking me longer than usual to read and Florence Gordon is waiting.  She is a hot commodity and time's awasting.  I only have twelve days to get her back to library. I checked and double-checked the Goodreads reviews and read the first few pages and decided that she is definitely worth the stress.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


I do not know exactly when I started to make earnest New Year's Resolutions, but I remember making fervent wishes/promises as a young mother to get my act together and get organized this year, and then the next too.  Every year, I have refined my resolution-making skills as I have admitted that yes, I like to make goals, plans, and improvements to shape my year. Some years, my resolutions are abstract, a commitment to strive for a quality in myself or my life.  Some years, they are much more concrete.  Sometimes, I am not sure in late December or early January exactly what will shape the coming year, but it usually resolves itself by February or March, from the whisper of an idea to a clear vision.

Sometimes I make an about face after following through on a resolution for several months.  At the beginning of 2014, for example, I resolved not to look at my smart phone when I was in public, when I could be reading or making a human connection instead.  By spring, I realized that I was not going to make a connection with the dozens of college students speeding along the sidewalks of my neighborhood while I'm out walking the dog and besides, what better time to catch up on blog reading.  When I realized that part of my reasoning for leaving the phone in my pocket was worrying about what other people thought, I decided to hell with it and let go of that resolution.  Despite that, I still found myself more willing to bring out a book than my phone when sitting in a park or waiting for after school pick up.

Here are my resolutions for 2015 (along with the unspoken, perpetual resolution to write the correct year on checks and documents):

1. Wash face and floss teeth every night.
This is not really a resolution per se, more maintenance of my routine. I go through phases where I am too tired or just don't want to be bothered.  January 1 is as good a time as any to get back on track.

2. Read well.
I am not interested in reading a specific amount each year or setting challenges or targets, but I want to read as much as possible and keep the content varied. In addition to tracking both my books and any chapter books I read to the kids on Goodreads, I want to set up an Excel spreadsheet to track a few additional stats for each book.  Genre, country of origin, published date, format, and reading time are most interesting to me. I am power using my library right now, but would like to dip back into the pile next to my bed this year.

3. Write a blog entry every day, no matter what, even if it's short or unfocused.
The tendency of blog writers to explain or apologize for their presence on the Interwebs or lack thereof is a pet peeve of mine, so I will just leave it at that.

4. Try to prep meals ahead to eat at least three homecooked meals a week, even on dance nights.
I really struggled to make decent meals during the hectic fall schedule, so I am committing to planning and prepping ahead before I leave the house in the afternoon.  Planning for the whole week does not work for me, but thinking I can just whip something up with whatever is on hand when we get home at 7pm does not work for me either. I have yet to find a good stable of slow cooker recipes that my family will actually eat, but I think if I keep things simple and prep things ahead of time, making the kind of meals we like is still doable.  Dr. Yap bought me a great sauce cookbook for Christmas that I have already used successfully and I am really liking the Dinner A Love Story blog for friendly to my family's palate and schedule.

5. Come to a full and complete stop at all stop signs and don't drive in the middle of roads, parking lots, driveways. 
Because no one in my neck of California does either.  I don't know why: narrow roads, surf town laziness, self-actualized entitlement.  Who knows. This is one of those rare cases when following the rules does not make me a sheep.  Dr. Yap always lets me know when I am driving in the middle of a parking lot driveway or practicing for my Hollywood close up at stop signs. Besides, doing things precisely is skill-honing and patience building.  

6. Learn to sew. Again.  Actually, learn to sew confidently.
This will not be the first time I have sewn or had a sewing machine, but despite several very successful Christmas stockings, I have never felt that comfortable with a sewing machine.  The great 4-H disaster of 1981 did me in. Boo has been asking to learn how to sew and knit, so I bought us a sewing machine for Christmas from an actual sewing store, not just the Costco special. Three lessons came with the machine. Now I am on the hook.  Besides, there's a book for that.

7. Find time to knit again. Maybe. 
Numbers 2 and 6 might make that hard.

8. Go on at least one hike a month. Not necessarily with the kids.
Even if homework and kid's activities make a family hike difficult, I can still go by myself or with a friend while the kids are at school.

I have to keep in mind that I was crazy enough to volunteer to help run the art auction for Boo's elementary school, so I may be suspending some of these until that is over in mid-March. Resolutions 2, 4, and 6 may not get much traction before then.