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Raw seafood, Mary, just imagine!

Jo Walton has a blog post about the Decameron and ravioli, A Kind of Rissole, and it got me thinking about how we handle this sort of explanation in fantasy for effect, because Alec and I talk about it in terms of East Asian-inspired fantasy kind of a lot. It especially comes up with names, but I’m going to start with food and go from there.

The translator telling the reader that ravioli was a kind of rissoles, in Jo’s example, was trying not to make the reader trip on ravioli. (Slippery stuff. You could fall and hurt something.) It looks to me like he was trying to reassure his audience that, no, this is not important, this is mildly exotic but not upsetting, go on with this other thing I’m saying. He could have gone the other way. He could have described it in exoticizing detail, describing pasta in as distant a way as possible and then the fillings too, choosing the least familiar possible thing to fill ravioli with rather than going, look, it’s sort of like the thing you know with a starchy thing on the outside and a meat on the inside, right? When I was a little kid in the early ’80s, sushi was not a thing most older middle-class white Midwesterners ate, but oysters on the half-shell were a known thing, at least, a rich person food but a white rich person food, so if you were trying to explain sushi to someone’s white Midwestern great-grandmother, you could say, “It’s like oysters on the half shell, Gran, with a bit of rice,” if you wanted it to sound a little bit familiar, if you wanted her to say, “Oh, right, okay.” Or you could say, “They take tiny bits of carefully cut raw fish and seaweed and try to arrange them to look pretty, and then they eat them with long sticks,” if you wanted to make her go, “They what, I never.”

The same thing happens with names. If you’re trying to tell a story about someone’s daughter and you’re talking about, say, Japan to an 18th century English audience, you can think, oh, hell, well, the important thing is that Yuki was somebody’s daughter; what do people name their daughters? Fine, her name was Mary or Jane or Anne, one of the things people named their daughters. And the audience who needed to hear that ravioli was just like rissoles will think, oh right, it’s just someone’s daughter, carry on. Or you can decide that the important thing is the Flavor of Abroad, and you can carefully phoneticize: her name was Yoo-Kee, that’s what I think I heard! Yoo-Kee, your audience will savor, what a curious sound! how exotic! Or you can take a middle ground and translate. You can say, well, they named their daughter Snow. Snow! says your audience. What a pretty custom. And their other daughter was named Bitterness. Don’t think much of women there, do they? says your audience.

Oh wait. I slipped. That was Mary again.

Things have changed since the eighteenth century and even since the early 1980s; now Yuki is just an ordinary person’s name for most of us, thank heavens, and “oh, eat it, it’s fine, it’s basically like sushi!” is a way to make a food familiar and comfortable. Again, for most of us. For some…not so much. “Everyone” knows ravioli now. But my point is: fantasy authors sometimes want to invoke each of these effects in fantasy settings. The distancing, the familiarizing, the pieces in between. And that’s pretty value-neutral!…except for the assumptions behind what’s distant, what’s familiar, and which components of your audience will find them to go which directions. Writing is communication, and if you have giant chunks of your audience with opposite assumptions about what’s familiar and what’s distancing, that’s a pretty tricky balancing act for something as simple as a name. It’s very easy to overthink, but that’s because it’s a genuinely hard problem, and at a certain point you just have to do what you’re going to do and let it fall out as it may with different groups of readers.

Some of whom might end up thinking a rissole is a lot more similar to ravioli than it actually is, if you’re not careful with how you translate the Decameron.

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Silverblind, by Tina Connolly

Review copy provided by Tor.

Tina Connolly’s previous books, Ironskin and Copperhead, both earned her popular attention and critical acclaim, and rightly so. Silverblind is better. Much better. Silverblind is the book where everything starts really working, where I sit up and take notice and start poking people so that they do the same.

Silverblind takes the story begun in Ironskin and moves on the better part of two decades, to Adora–Dorie–as a young woman, half-fey and trying to make her own way in a world that has changed drastically, but not drastically enough for bright young women (half-fey or not). She has mostly set her fey powers aside in favor of pursuing a career as a naturalist, but when her society’s attitudes keep shutting doors in her face, she turns back to those powers to try to wedge those doors back open.

This book features baby wyverns (that sometimes behave quite inconveniently), Edwardian-equivalent social justice crusaders (ALL THE LOVE), underrated young lady artists who have to worry about rent (some love, it turns out, was left over from the social justice set after all), shapechanging in ways that actually uses possibilities, and trust questions that go beyond “I just met you and this is crazy.” I raced through it, and then I was sorry I did, because I got it in a very advanced ARC and there will not be more for even longer–I have no idea when there will be more–and this. This is such a big step, the book where Tina Connolly goes from “sure, reliably readable, will pick up the next one and it will be fun” to “OH HOW EXCITING IT IS A TINA CONNOLLY BOOK.”

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Sand of Bone, by Blair MacGregor

Review copy provided by the author.

(I’m including a link to one source, here, since it’s hard enough to find self-published books as it is.)

This is grim and dark, but is it grimdark? Wait, no. That’s just about the least interesting question you could ask about Sand of Bone. It is, however, quite grim and dark. The dry desert society portrayed is a backbiting, nasty one, its ruling caste interbred and endowed with powers they don’t even try to deserve, its warriors bound by oaths that compel a loyalty in all particulars. Its magics are half-forgotten, the source of ghost tales and fearful superstitions.

The characters who start to change this world–because this is very much the first book in a series–don’t necessarily come into Sand of Bone intending world-shaking change. Mostly they want smaller things, manageable things. They are driven by what they can–or usually cannot–stand. This is not a book of grandiose crusaders railing against an unjust system. Characters do stand up against injustice, but usually one person at a time, one face at a time–and usually a fairly familiar face at that. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes their failures cause at least as large a cascade of consequences as their successes. And their endings…don’t always come when it looks like they will.

The question of loyalty is huge in this book. MacGregor gives her characters a world in which loyalty has become unidirectional and unearned, and begins to change that, a little bit at a time. For my taste there is quite a lot of Training Sequence and quite a lot of dark, but I know that for some people those are two favorite elements in secondary world fantasy, so I wanted to flag them for the interested. One of the things I particularly appreciated is how much MacGregor committed to her characters being part of their own cultures rather than ours–there’s one element that’s highly taboo in our culture but has been normal in various historical Earth cultures and is normal in the ruling caste of this book, and MacGregor carefully handles her characters’ attitudes towards this to be internal to their culture without making it particularly problematic for ours–very neatly handled.

There isn’t quite as much Making Stuff as in KJ Parker, but otherwise I’d recommend this to Parker fans as having tonal similarities so far. I suspect that the series may wind up more positive overall than Parkers’ works just on statistics alone, but from the first book it’s hard to tell, and there’s plenty of grim and dark to start.

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Correction of the sort I didn’t want

For years now the stats people–Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight, for example–have been talking about how using only landlines to poll people about their voting intentions will skew the polls with so many people using cell phones preferentially now, undercounting certain demographics (particularly young ones).

Well, apparently 2014 is the year they decided to fix it: in addition to the five calls from pollsters I’ve gotten on my landline this week, I’ve gotten two on my cell. Whee. So now in addition to badgering me about my gubernatorial preferences when I’m trying to eat dinner at home, they can do it when I’m in a restaurant or in line at the grocery store, the pharmacy, the post office.

This is not what I call progress.

I don’t answer questions from pollsters anyway (typical conversation: “Are you likely to vote in the November 4 election?” “Yes, and that’s all I’m going to tell you about my vote”), so this is very much in the “waste of time and annoys the pig” category.

(I think I’ve said this before, but just in case the reference is missing: my grandpa had two categories of time waster, teaching a pig to sing–the most commonly cited one–and teaching a pig to wrestle. The former is a waste of your time and annoys the pig. The latter is a waste of your time, and the pig enjoys it.)

I can’t help but think that the politicians won’t be motivated to have any kind of call blocking list available for pollsters as for telemarketers, as they want the data too much. But it sure would be nice.

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Books read, early September

H. W. Brandis, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. This is a corrective biography, and I think it goes too far in the corrective/excusing direction. It’s all very well to talk through why Ulysses Grant is excoriated unfairly, and that’s useful. But it gets undercut when you start going on and on about how terrible it must have been for poor Ulysses to be forced to manage slaves. It’s one of the places where the bare facts do speak reasonably well for themselves given the context of the time, without embellishment, and the embellishment made me later call into question how reliable Brandis’s assessment of other questions was. (Notably things like Grant’s drinking and whether it was a problem.) Still mostly worth reading, but it made me roll my eyes in spots.

A. S. Byatt, A Whistling Woman. I made a try at this before I’d read the stuff that came before it and couldn’t care about the characters at all. Now that I’ve read the books before it in its series, it worked quite well and was very immersive, so I think it’s safe to say that it’s not a good starting place. Also I didn’t really care about most of the supporting cast, except the ones we didn’t get to see much of–I felt that Frederica and Leo’s story would have come together perfectly well without the details of the people they were interacting with. Ah well; I didn’t regret reading it.

Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London. This is a very physically heavy volume, since it’s written in normal amounts of prose with normal numbers of pages (five or six hundred, she said, too lazy to get up and look) but is printed on art paper due to the sheer number of reproductions of images involved. There are all sorts of salacious and politically scandalous images, drawings and woodcuts and all sorts of things. There is an entire chapter on farting and butt humor in the politics of the eighteenth century. It’s very erudite, well-handled, and also somewhat tiresome. A useful window into that time and how things shifted to become the Victorians, but…really, there is only so much to be said about, “I fart in your general direction, [insert political opponent here],” and Gatrell said it fairly thoroughly.

Max Gladstone, Three Parts Dead. Notionally the first in the series but I read it second. Not quite as tight and pacey as Full Fathom Five but still exciting, well-characterized, and well worth the time. Dead gods, magical legal/financial firms, very entertaining.

Adam Hochschild, The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey. This is a South African history written in 1990 by a white foreigner. Hochschild is very good and very careful about what that perspective as a white foreigner means for limitations, but those limitations are still there. Also: 1990. That’s before…well, quite a lot really. He was very hopeful about the future of South Africa, but it turns out not quite hopeful enough. Which is in some ways really cool and in some ways really jarring.

Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata, Hikaru no Go Volumes 1-3. The first three volumes of a manga about a young Japanese kid possessed by an old Go-playing ghost. Lots of manga-type silliness, lots of hyperdramatics around Go that…don’t really stand up if you’ve played much Go. But still entertaining enough to keep on with a bit longer, so I will.

Laurel Kendall, Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life. Kendall studied the 1980s versions of female ritual practice in a small Korean town, and this is very clearly written about that town. What I’m not so clear on is how much this is regional, and I’d like that context. I’d also like to know how much those practices have shifted and varied over time. As a snapshot of that place and time–and even with some context of what we can’t say that some historians assume we can–it’s extremely valuable. But like a lot of narrowly focused books in fields where it’s hard to find material, it brings up a lot more questions than answers.

Alistair Reynolds, On the Steel Breeze. I am easily purchased, and one of my prices is elephants who are characters as elephants, not as humans in elephant suits. Elephants, people. I mean, this book has other things. This book has interstellar whosits and clones and intergenerational scheming and whatever. BUT ELEPHANTS. I will wait patiently or at least feign patience until there are MORE ELEPHANTS. This book was my answer to everything wrong for several days: “WHATEVER I HAVE ELEPHANTS LEAVE ME ALONE.”

John Sayles, The Anarchists’ Convention. In some ways it seems like it should be heartening that John Sayles was not born able to do an amazing thing like A Moment in the Sun immediately without practice. But if he had been, I would have rolled with it. This was…not that. This was a collection of mediocre 1970s mainstream stories. This was a vast disappointment. There were some moments of keen observation to prove that, yes, it’s that John Sayles, but if I’d read this first, I would never have picked up A Moment in the Sun (WHY AM I NOT REREADING THAT NOW I LOVE THAT BOOK) and that would have been a shame (SO MUCH LOVE). I would have thought, well, stick to movies, John. So…unless you really, really like 1970s mainstream short stories, such that you want most of them, you can probably skip this. Which is good, because it will give you more time for A Moment in the Sun, which is good, because you’ll need it for the reading (and also the wrist strengthening exercises, unless you read it on an e-reader) and also the long emails to me about which parts you like best. It’s okay. I am patient. For this as well as for the elephants.

Jonathan Spence, Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi. This is mostly a translation of the small bits of autobiography we have of K’ang-Hsi, also spelled Kangxi, the longest reigning emperor in Chinese history, late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries western reckoning. What’s really lovely here from an SF writers’ standpoint is the places where he thinks something is obvious to the reader–when he’s talking about sentencing of criminals, for example, or rearing of royal children. The things he feels he has to explain or contradict and the things that go without saying are just beautiful outlines of what his culture is doing. It’s a short book. It’s worth your time.

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Tell me about your dreams, Sad Godzilla

There is a blog I like to read that tells funny stories, personal stories, about the blogger’s own life, but about every third entry the blogger does something that makes me wince on her behalf. Before the main subject of the post, she goes into Sad Godzilla Mode, stomping all over her own internal Tokyo with her mascara running, thrashing around destroying the buildings and roaring, “Not perfect! not perfect!” before she can start telling the story she wants to tell. She covers the blog post with disclaimers about how she doesn’t have a perfect life–quite often adding, “not like those bloggers you see” and then a list of the attributes of Perfect Life Bloggers.

And the thing about perfectionists–I know because I am one, and I used to be even more of one–is that telling her, hey, you don’t have to do that, it’s better when you don’t do that will just make her more self-conscious, not actually make her feel better about herself. There is no way to frame this as a far-outsider that will make her feel like she doesn’t have to be perfect. She has to come to that idea on her own, because anybody else introducing it–at least from as far outside her life as I am–will sound like “we have already realized that you suck, and here is another way that you suck: you write your blog posts badly,” not like, “hey, perfection is not a thing that exists in humans, so let’s move on without the disclaimers and hear about where your kid put the peanut butter; that’s what we’re all here for.” I would love to say, “No one reads a blog post and thinks, ‘that person is perfect, their life is perfect,'” but in fact this blogger’s comments are proof that some people do cherish that illusion about others, and flagellate themselves with it. It’s just…most of the rest of us don’t. Most of the rest of us get it. We’re all just doing the best we can, and hey, today the dog was cuddly because she got a haircut and the weather turned, woo. Or today something funny happened in the Ikea elevator when I was there to have lunch with my aunt and uncle. Or whatever. Onwards with today. That is what we’re all doing, glossy photos or not. We are all doing the onwards with today thing.

This is actually why I have started trying to avoid the opportunities to tell my favorite new college student How To College. She will college just fine. She will screw some things up, not because there is something wrong with her but because we all screw things up, and she is in a time in her life when everyone is telling her How To College, as a subset of everyone telling her How To Her. And so when she asks for my thoughts because I actually know something she wants to hear, okay, but otherwise, I am trying to mention thoughts like, hey, I love you and I believe in you, and otherwise thoughts like, I thought this picture Tim took was cool. Here is a video link I liked. Etc. In Hard to Change, Meg Hutchinson sings the line, “don’t wanna make the same mistakes that my parents did,” and once in concert she talked about how her father called her to say, don’t worry, honey, you’ll make your own mistakes. And I think that can be hard from the older side, thinking, well, I’ve made these mistakes, I should be able to stop my younger friends, my children or grandchildren or nieces or nephews or godchildren or whoever, from making them. But there’s a line between the sensible teaching and the overadvising, and the overadvising just feeds into the Sad Godzilla that lives inside many of us. I don’t want my favorite new college student to spend her first year at college feeding Sad Godzilla. I don’t want to be a force in her life pushing her towards thinking about what she’s doing that’s not perfect. I want to be a force in her life encouraging her to think about what she thinks is awesome.

This week I started a class in Scandinavian Woodcarving. I knew I would not be perfect at it. If I was aiming for perfect, I would never have taken it, because I was guaranteed to start out vastly, vastly imperfect. As it turned out, I started out even more imperfect than I had hoped, requiring five stitches, so we’ll see if the vertigo meds induce too much neuropathy for me to do this or if I can work around it. But it’s the sort of thing that can’t arise if the question is, “What would my life have in it to be more perfect?” The question has to be, “What might be awesome? Can we try that and see?” And then iterate. Get better or try something else, or both. Not perfect. Not perfect. Yes. Dreams don’t come in perfect. Let’s hear about what might find room for awesome after Sad Godzilla is done with the flattening.

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Narcissism, self-assessment, and external feedback

Last week the Strib had an article about teenagers–mostly girls ages 13 to 15–posting painfully sincere selfies and videos asking the internet to tell them the truth about whether they are ugly. And most of this article was about the effects on the kids in question, but there was some of the usual hand-wringing about how supposedly narcissistic this young generation is.

Narcissism, you see, is something that groups mostly suffer from if they’re younger than you. If you go to a nursing home and everyone there wants to talk about their individual aches and pains for hours, nobody wants to talk about the narcissism of the elderly. (And rightly so, because plenty of old people are not narcissistic. But plenty of young people aren’t either.) It can’t be that some percentage of people are pretty self-centered, and it’s more culturally acceptable to call younger people on it than older people. It also can’t be that developmentally people in their teens and early twenties are going through a time when they’re figuring out their abilities and plans and place in the world. Nope. The particular teens we have at any given moment are perpetually uniquely narcissistic. You can read it in the paper. ALWAYS. So it must be true.

Self-assessment is useful in many areas, and it can be hard to get help with it from the people around you. I’m not surprised that these teens want to find out whether they’re pretty or not. I’m somewhat surprised that they’re still naive enough, at thirteen, to think that the internet will tell them the truth. Of course the people around them–Mom, Dad, friends, whoever–will not. They will say, “You look so pretty,” when they mean a dozen different things like, “I love you,” and “I want you to feel good about yourself,” and “I understand and approve of what you’re wearing more today than yesterday,” and “you look so much like your grandmother today–I miss her so much–I wish she could have been here to see you grow up.” Thirteen-year-olds are old enough, smart enough to know this. They’re trying to figure themselves out and figure out how to relate to the world. That’s not necessarily narcissistic. Asking the internet is naive. But we all wanted to know where we fit, who we were, when we were thirteen. We still do, but we’ve got more data, more practice at it, past that age.

I was thinking about this in terms of all the advice about not telling kids that they’re smart, telling them that they did a good job on a specific piece of work. I see where that advice is coming from. But a few weeks ago I was at the zoo with my godson Rob, who is twelve, and I needed to tell him, “Rob, you’re walking very fast. It’s faster than the other people in the group can walk right now. They need you to slow down because they literally cannot keep up with how fast you are walking.” There are times when being a smart kid is like that. There are times when you’re young and not entirely socially aware, when it’s very useful to know that other people are not goofing off on purpose, they’re not failing to pay attention because they’d rather be doing something else, they are just not as smart as you, or not as smart in a particular subset of picking things up. They are trying. Telling a kid they’re smart is not always praise. Telling a kid they’re pretty, musical, fast, strong, whatever, is not always praise. It doesn’t have to be handled that way. Sometimes it’s useful feedback at an age where they’re not very good at self-assessment or at placing their self-assessment in the context of others and compassion for those others or compassion for themselves.

In science fiction, we have an established critique culture. It’s just a known thing that you can go to some group–friends, or a workshop in person, or an online workshop–and get an assessment of how you’re doing at something that affects your life. You can arrange, one way or another, to get other people who actually know something about it to critique your work, and you can get enough of them to do it to get at least a bit of triangulation. You won’t know perfectly, of course, but you’ll have the rough outlines, what’s working, what’s not, whether you’re publishable, whether you’re way out of that category. And I think we take it for granted as adults that external feedback above the level of “u suck” will be available. We need to recognize that while the internet has given teenagers access to all sorts of things we didn’t have, perspective is one of the ones that’s hardest to get that young, and cut them a break.

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A change of light

The light has changed. The temperatures are not really any cooler yet than they have been on average this cool summer–the highs were in the 80s today–but the light has shifted, this last week or so, and my hindbrain says, yes, fall. Here we are. Fall. We are home.

One of the strange consequences of this is a complete hindbrain unwillingness to wear things without sleeves. This is fine–I have many shirts and dresses with short sleeves that are fine for this weather. I just haven’t noticed it in previous late summers or early falls. It’s…a bit quirky. I reach for a sleeveless dress and it is clearly the wrong thing. Oh, brains. What I really have the urge to wear is my real clothes, tights and sweaters and clogs, but I am willing to wear your summer person drag a bit longer so I don’t roast. Well, sort of. I’m wearing tights* right now, actually, and I wore clogs outside with them. But the sweaters would be a bit much. I do admit that. This part is not new, it’s only the sleeves that are new. The urge to start wearing sweaters early and often is one of those traits that may be either genetic or environmental–hard to tell, because it wears a big ol’ sign reading “MOM.”

*The tights are bright blue and black plaid. You should be impressed with me that I held off wearing them this long, and by this long I mean a full three weeks of August non-tights weather since I bought them. You should be impressed with me that I did not sit down on the floor of Target and put them on right then and there. These tights called my name, people. They said, “Helllooooo, femme person!” And I said, “Present.” And they said, “You will wear us every time we are clean until it is cold enough that you only want to wear SmartWool. SEARCH YOUR FEELINGS YOU KNOW IT TO BE TRUE.” And I said, “Why do you not have siblings in maroon-and-black and hunter-green-and-black and purple-and-grey also?” And they said, “You are an only child, too, so stop quibbling and give the person a surprisingly reasonable number of your American cash dollars.” So I did, and here we are.

Another strange consequence of the change of the light is that the farmer’s market has plenty of parking again. It’s like the minute it’s not Officially Summer, people think there are no more vegetables? Or something? Half the food trucks packed up and left, too, so it was actually mostly the vegetables. It was the people selling things you cook, instead of things they’ve already cooked. I bought the king of daikons. This daikon will not fit in our fridge straight-on. I have to tilt it diagonally to get it in our fridge. You should not try a home invasion here (in general because it is very rude and also illegal but particularly now) because we have this daikon and we haven’t cut it up yet. It’s still an entirely feasible bludgeoning weapon. It cost $1 and had a luxuriant crown of leaves I had to cut off so it wouldn’t take up even more of the fridge. This daikon, people. I got tomatoes and corn and peppers and two kinds of long beans and all manner of goodness, but this daikon: it is a prodigy. For $1.

Yes, I am frivolous today.

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Books read, late August

Peter S. Beagle, Mirror Kingdoms: The Best of Peter S. Beagle. Not really. I mean, it’s got some pretty good Peter S. Beagle, don’t get me wrong. But I do like some of his longer stuff better, upon…er…further thought. (Not reflection! No! No puns here!) This volume also has an odd assortment of parts of his other short story collections and new stuff. Worth having, but not entirely convenient.

A.S. Byatt, Little Black Book of Stories. A handful of stories, reminding me that Byatt tends to go farther over the line into speculative in short form. I wonder why that is. Anyway I like them. The first one in particular was of interest, two little girls being evacuated during the Blitz, a very different fairy story than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Francois d’Humieres, France: A Sense of Place. This is mostly pictures of different parts of France and the food they eat there. It was a gorgeous birthday whim from my best auntie.

Candas Jane Dorsey, A Paradigm of Earth. Kindle. I am a bit confused by this book, because it is set in the future that is now the present, and I felt that the future setting was the weakest part. It hadn’t changed enough, and the places it had changed were the wrong way, and…honestly the main plot, an alien learning the paradigms of earth, the patterns of being human, could have been done in the very near future to when it was written. I liked the human interrelationships, and I liked the alien. But I had to peer at it wondering, “Did she feel that readers or publishers at the time needed the remove of ‘the future’ in order to care about some of the gender/sexuality themes? Was she right, did they?” It was…weirdly detached in the strangest spots, and quite warm in others. Definitely worth reading. Just odd from this distance.

Edward Seymour Forster, ed., The Turkish Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq was a Habsburg ambassador to the Ottoman court during the reign of Ferdinand I (16th century), and he brought lilacs and possibly tulips to Western Europe. He also wrote travel-ish observations, including that Other People Certainly Do Wear Funny Hats. This is the universal travel observation, I think; throwing it into any speculative narrative will almost certainly lend verisimilitude, because really: Other People. They Certainly Do. It’s a slim volume and not very demanding.

Merrie Haskell, The Castle Behind Thorns. I read this in manuscript form and loved it then, and I love it now. (I got a little misty when I read the acknowledgments, too.) It has a fairy tale backing, but the main focus is…fixing things. Literally and figuratively, but substantially literally. Fixing. Mending. Making things work, making things better. Fascinating detail, never dragging or getting bogged down: fixing what has been torn asunder. It also has a highly positive stepparent/stepchild relationship, just by the way, which is lovely in a world peopled with Wicked Stepmothers. Highly recommended.

Charles Hitchcock, These United States. Grandpa’s. Oh, the unintentional hilarity of the mid-1960s. This is a gigantic bug-crusher of a book, and the first section is a series of maps of each state with a little essay about each one, saying what makes it wonderful and special and amazing and golly-gosh-darn keen. Until they get to Nebraska. Then the essay writers essentially give up and say, oh lordy, what those people have suffered through; well, they’ve got a unicameral. I roared. The second section is all sorts of other maps and stats: where barley is grown, where flax is grown, that sort of thing. Actually pretty interesting, and I’d like comparative maps for every 25-40 years or so, but the gee-whiz early state essays were alarming enough before we got to Nebraska. (This is the sort of book that considered itself very progressive and upbeat about racial attitudes and um. Even considering how far we have to go? HOW FAR WE HAVE COME UFF DA WOW.)

Benedict Jacka, Taken. I got this from the library because it was the next one they had in the series, and I was several chapters in and enjoying it before I checked the internet and found out that it is book three and I had missed book two. Oops. On the other hand: worked out all right. This is another of the London urban fantasy series, not the best of them but quite good enough to be worth getting from the library. Unfortunately, the library only has books one and three of a five-book series, so now it also has to be good enough to buy, but I think it is. Interesting enough things happened with different types of dueling, flavors of mage, etc. to be worth going on with.

Robin McKinley, Rose Daughter and Spindle’s End. Rereads. These two had fallen between the cracks of my McKinley buying/rereading, so it was interesting to return to them with fairly few memories compared to her older (compulsively reread) and newer (recently read) work. I really liked how the fairy tale structure was used in both of these to allow for more ramblings about character, relationship, and worldbuilding without allowing them to become completely undisciplined, because the reader had the needed framework for where they were going (and they actually did go there!). I also think that reading a lot of McKinley in close proximity highlights the places where she makes no attempt to vary some patterns that maybe could use a little variety.

Kathryn A. Neeley, Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind. Kindle. Interesting examination of a Victorian-era scientist/science writer and how she managed to carve out space for her work within the expectations of women, and also how that solidified some of the parameters for where women did and did not “belong” in the sciences. Fascinating figure, very much worth knowing more about if you don’t.

Mikael Niemi, Popular Music from Vittula. Did you want a short book with an obsession with the very surface of the middle of the last century’s pop music (because that’s all that got that far north) and also Laestadian humor? Because this is that. Lots of crude humor also, but really…there aren’t that many places to get Laestadian humor, so if you want it, here it is. (If you’re saying, “What’s ‘Laestadian’?,” the answer is, nope, probably this is not for you. If you’re the other two people going, “OH GOD REALLY?”, then yes, really, seriously. Laestadian jokes at least three or four times a chapter most chapter.) (I’m not trying to be coy here, I’m just saying: this is a fairly small sect, and those of us who laugh at the humor related to what in this country would mostly get called Apostolic Lutherans is a pretty small group.) Oh, small warning: there’s also a bunch of casual sexism and two examples of the kind of staggering racism that you get when you don’t ever expect to run into people of other races, like, in your lifetime. At all. (This book is translated from the Swedish and set in far, far northern Sweden among Swedes and Finnish Swedes and Finns. Which is not to say that there are not racial issues in Sweden. They’re just not the ones that Niemi’s characters casually referenced–those were issues that were safely distant, related to US pop cultural figures. Sigh.)

John Julius Norwich, The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean. This book is so backwards I can hardly say. It’s the Mediterranean. So you can go pick up books on things like Imperial Rome in any kind of detail you like. So what did Norwich focus on? Topics like Imperial Rome, topics you could get much better elsewhere. Skimming over the parts of Mediterranean history that…get skimmed over elsewhere. SIGH NO.

Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. Beautifully done. Talked about things like what Dutch people of different classes had for breakfast and how they felt about other people’s habits, not just about what was in paintings. Touching in spots. Very glad to have this. Recommended, particularly if someone would like to, oh, I don’t know, use it extensively as a resource to set something fantastical in an analog of this period COME ON PLEASE.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. “Maggot” is defined on page one as sort of a whimsy or a crotchet, a weird notion. So okay: Mr. Fortune goes off to be a missionary and is spectacularly unsuccessful at it, but not in a way that involves torturing people. This book is not much like anything else except the Simpsons episode I strongly suspect it inspired, and that was a very weird realization to have.

Django Wexler, The Shadow Throne. This is a sequel, and I continued my preference for middle books by liking it much better than its predecessor (and I liked its predecessor enough to be going on with). Banking! Clever use of magical symbionts! Fomenting of revolutionary plots! Difficulties of dealing with revolutionaries along the way to same! All sorts of my buttons pressed here, hurrah. Recommended, much fun.

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Off the registry

One of my friends is getting married, and she asked (sounding exhausted, poor dear) whether it was lazy and irresponsible not to do a gift registry. I said not at all, that a registry is for your convenience and the convenience of your guests, and if it isn’t convenient for you, don’t do it. Symmetrically, I have also had at least three conversations in the last four months about what to get people who either haven’t registered or who have but whose registries have been picked clean by the time the person talking to me got there. So here we are! Wedding gift ideas for when the registry, in one way or another, fails you!

Money. Yes, I know that in some subcultures this is not the thing to do from the giving end. I don’t really know of any in which it’s not the thing to do from the receiving end, though. If you are the best friend/person of honor, odds are pretty good that they were thinking maybe something they could look at specifically, rather than money. Otherwise, hard to go wrong with money. I have never once heard a bride or groom say, “Darn that money; I did not want any money.” (I have occasionally heard, “Auntie so-and-so really didn’t have to do that!”, but that’s Auntie’s choice.) But if you don’t want to give money, don’t. (Among other things, money makes it very clear how much you spent on their wedding gift, because it’s right there on the line of the check. Some people feel uncomfortable with that. If so, read on.)

Art. Rule of thumb: this is a better idea the better you know the people getting married. Another rule of thumb: small things that you think are beautiful are a better idea than big things that you think are beautiful unless you REALLY REALLY NO REALLY know that the recipients of the gift want that specific seven-foot-tall welded nearly-abstract sculpture that turns out to clearly be a goat when you look at it for more than a minute. When Mark and I had to pick out a wedding gift last fall, we chose one of Tim’s prints. We did not pick one of the panoramas that is longer than I am tall, because the people who were getting married had never said to us, “You know what would be really great on the wall of our living room? That bridge panorama, that’s just gorgeous. If he could do a seven-foot long print of that, it would really be the best thing.” It is just gorgeous. It’s amazing. But he also had several other amazing things that had better odds of fitting in a home we’d never seen, just in physical terms. If you choose art, there’s some chance that the recipients are going to say, “Oh…that’s…really different…” because taste in art varies so much. You don’t want to compound that problem with, “That’s amazing! That’s so gorgeous!…where are we ever going to put it.”

Food. I know, they won’t be looking at it on their 20th wedding anniversary saying, “This is the ham that Jen gave us!” (Well. Unless they’re related to Klages; then all bets are off.) But honestly, a lot of people aren’t looking at their blender on their 20th anniversary with that thought anyway; either it breaks or they’ve forgotten who gave it to them. If you know that the people getting married cook or bake, stuff they might not buy themselves all the time–or might still appreciate if they do–is great. (I personally think that vanilla beans are always a great gift. ALWAYS. Nobody ever gets them for me. Literally. I have never once gotten them. But they would always be a good gift. I have actually gotten truffles and truffle oil and saffron, and they too are good gifts, even though I buy myself saffron every time we run out–this is how I can tell we are rich by global standards. And/or I am a spoiled cook.) If you don’t know that they cook/bake, treats like a wheel of good cheese, chocolates, a jam of the month club, bacon of the month club, fruit of the month club, etc. are things that they can eat without having to know a great deal about preparation. Labeling a basket of this sort “honeymoon snack attack” or “never too soon to spice up a good marriage” or “here is your cheesy themed present” is not necessary unless you have the sort of relatives who will look at each other and say, “Why did they give me cheese/spices/what the heck is this?” But some people do have that sort of relatives if they are given something that is not tea towels, so.

Strong drink. Might have a better chance of lasting to be opened on a large-numbered anniversary than the food. Then again might not. People in liquor stores are often quite good at helping you with “I want a ‘special bottle’ and my friends drink this sort of tipple.” Then if you blanch at the price you can say, “Not quite that special; they’re not that good of friends, I’m afraid,” and unless you’ve chosen a horrible liquor store, the clerk will laugh and get you something more like what you wanted. And if you’ve chosen a horrible liquor store and the clerk tries to pressure you into buying the expensive thing, you walk out and go somewhere else.

Obviously with both food and strong drink, you will have to remain sensitive to key questions like “do my friends have dietary needs.”

Towels and sheets. I know, I said your friends were not registered or the registry had been bought out. But linens wear out. They wear out. Seriously. They. Wear. Out. Spares are good. Put the receipt in the package in case everyone else thought so too, or in case the people who are getting married hated the colors or materials you picked, or in case you guessed wrong on the size. Sheets. Towels. In fact, if you have loads of extra cash, go buy some for people you know who are not in the “just getting married” demographic. Linens for everyone. Is there anybody who couldn’t use a few new linens, other than the person who just sighed, “OH FINE” and went and bought some? I just wore enough holes in one of our big lovely bath towels that it is now a big cruddy bath towel and had to get relegated to the rag towels, and another one is close on its heels. I rolled my eyes at the label “guest bath towels” in one of our wedding presents, because we did not have a guest bath and did not anticipate having one for some years. But I didn’t return those towels, because: towels. Useful, regardless of how they were labeled.

What about charitable donations? I am less keen on recommending this absent specific knowledge of your friends’/relations’ relation charitable inclinations for several reasons. First off is that if the people who are getting married want to donate the money you have given them to charity, they can! Hurrah! So write them the check and let them do it. Because you are giving them a gift, not trumpeting your own charitable inclinations. You need to be really careful that you are not making this happy occasion about you. We have a cultural perception that if we put the words “FOR CHARITY” on something, it cannot be selfish, but actually it can. It really, really can. Your friends and relations will prioritize charitable needs/causes differently than you do. They might know things you don’t about a charity you thought was innocuous, or have different opinions than you do about its policies. Be really, really careful about this one. The people getting married should feel absolutely sure that you were thinking of them on their special day, as well as of whoever else you wanted to help.

String, or nothing. This was Mark’s suggestion, but he’s actually right. Presents are always optional. They really, really are. The reason the traditional etiquette guides consider it rude to put, “No gifts, please,” on invitations is that gifts are always optional. They are always supposed to be something that your guests feel spontaneously moved to give you, not something that they are dragged into. If you truly can’t think of anything you want to give people, you don’t have to give them things. “The gift of your presence is enough” should really, literally always be true.