30 January 2007

Seasonal residence in the real world

I finished The Autumn Castle by Kim Wilkins yesterday, and gave myself a day to think about it before posting. This was an interesting read, however not an enthralling one; the characters seemed 3-dimensional but also somewhat forced. The blithe faerie queen, the noble, self-denying beau, the wounded heiress - all great elements for some medieval epic but somehow lessened, grayed out, and smeared in a modern setting. The depiction of the artist's lives in the book represents not any reality of the artists I've known and lived with, but instead some abstracted idea of what kind of idealized life an artist might lead.

The evil genius in the story is the stand-out hideous Mandy Z. From his name to his fascination with his sculptor's grotesque materials, he is altogether ridiculous and pitiful and frightening and utterly, utterly weird. I found myself engaged enough in the telling of his tale to stay focused through the book. He seems unfortunately realistic in the modern age.

I lost faith at times with the book in certain simple ways that the characters are led in the narrative into danger; the protagonist, Christine Starlight, for example, confronts Mandy Z. at one point without any reinforcements, to bad effect. Another character lives for days within reach of a final clue that will resolve decades of struggle for her, and in spite of her sensitivity the author never has her notice the clues, until nearly too late. Such dramatic issues seem jarring, like watching the heroes split up in a B movie, when you're urging them to stick together for safety.

Kim Wilkins provides an interesting bit of writing talking about her inspiration for the book and progress on its writing also.

21 January 2007

I should have just picked up a harlequin romance

I just finished Dark Angels by Karleen Koen. I love historical fiction, but not this book. The narration slipped incautiously between a half dozen characters, leaving no sense of suspense as any surprise planned was revealed well in advance of the action. The author violated a cardinal rule of my writing teacher in high school; "Don't tell; show." Throughout the book, the characters are spelled out in excruciatingly obvious tones and rapidly became unsympathetic. The character whose presence I most enjoyed was Jerusalem Syalor, and she is hardly consistent from one section to the next, starting out pictured as a superstitious rustic and transmorphing without explaination into an otherworldly wise woman and savior.

The primary message of the book, if any, is faithlessness. Reflecting upon this, I would have much better enjoyed being faithful to my dear old Lincoln (as related via Kearns) than I enjoyed this brief diversion in English/French history.

12 January 2007

Sturdy writing in Fragile Things

I once again finished an impulse read, instead of focusing on my challenge books. I'm starting to pick up the pace on Team however, so I don't feel guilty. And Gaiman's writing is like the light to the moth for me; I just love the way he spins out a story.

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman is a delightful cascade of both poetry and prose; and, as is rare with some authors, the poetry is neither contrived nor sloppy. Two stories in particular call out for attention: The Problem of Susan and The Monarch of the Glen. In Problem, Gaiman gives us a sample of all that is best about fan fiction, and spins out a tale of Susan, and how she spends her post-Narnia years. It is touchingly reverent and explains once of the difficulties I always had with Susan in the tales, wondering if she was a stand in for Judas, or if she was a placeholder for the non-believer. Gaiman handles her story with what feels like an accurate representation of how her life might have played out (with, I warn you, some elements unsuitable to the younger reader) and also adds in his own careful contribution of what life might be like for an old, proud woman who has experienced some extraordinary times.

Monarch, OTOH, concerns an character who is in most way's Susan's opposite: the wonderful, deep-unto-caverns shadow from American Gods which is a dear favorite of mine. If you like Norse mythology or Beowulf, and admire Gaiman's Arachne-like skill at weaving together the old folklores with a modern consciousness, you *must* read this. I am a wide reader about all things Norse, and even so was surprised and delighted to be introduced to a Hulder in the story, which was entirely new to me; and her character is so dear and touching, that even her scornful disappointment with Shadow is a monument of pitifulness. Bonus points to Gaiman for developing the character of Mr. Alice, from Keepsakes and Treasures, further in this story, also. (And after reading this, I was dying to know if the anonymous aide in Monarch was the same narrator as in Keepsakes; he is.)

As for the poetry, I delight in a well written verse but tend to most enjoy haiku and limericks; nothing too long and self-centered. Gaiman's poems twist and play with a theme delightfully and spin out a yarn until the threads remain, scintillating and microscopic for examination. Look closely at Locks, a poem about a father reading Goldilocks to his daughter, and it seems as though you can witness the scene, the bright young child tormenting her father with interruptions, the father enjoying the banter in spite of his attempts to keep the story moving, all while he ruminates over the different perspective he brings to the story from the vanatage point of age.

Check out Gaiman's audio excerpt on his website, the author's reading of his introduction.

04 January 2007

A great object relation theory

The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness by Stephen Levy was a quick, tumbling read through the iPod's meteoric rise to popularity interspersed with reflections on how some of the iPod's design paradigms have influenced social discourse today.

I was reflecting upon Levy's book over Christmas when opening some gifts; some of the packaging reflected more of an Applesque esthetic, for example the iRobot Roomba; the minor set up instructions were clear out of the box and the packaging was inviting and easy to work with. OTOH, some items like my new pedometer were cryogentically sealed in hdpe plastique and required a hacksaw, sock, and a vacuum cleaner to remove from the encasement, a'la a certain User Friendly comic strip I heard about recently. Setting the darned pedometer up took longer than the walk I was trying to track with it. Back in the day when I first started using an Apple IIe, the idea that the intuitive interface, helpful - nay, cheerful - attitude, and user-centered design of the product might percolate into mainstream consciousness was addled fantasy. A couple of million iPod sales later, it seems to have become a reality, and Stephen Levy is positioning himself to chronicle the event.

One exciting option Levy introduced into his book is that he's published the chapters in no particular order, and each can stand on its own; in fact, different publication runs of his book may have the chapters in a different order. First of all, my sympathies for his printing company - having some experience in that industry I can imagine all too well how much paper was wasted perfecting this scheme. Second, don't choose this as your book club's assigned reading unless you create a syllabus too. Finally, I admire that, with this publication tactic, Levy's pushing the shuffle concept Apple incorporated into the iPod to yet another logical conclusion. I wonder how long it will be until another author takes up the challenge of creating a shuffleable book? Will this lead to a new format of novel, similar to the imabic pentameter's relation to free verse? Artists often do their best work when their are constraints on them. I'm imagining now a re-read of Asimov's End of Eternity, with the chapters out of order. It could work quite well.

So - back to Levy. I'd recommend this book to folks interested in trend analysis, social dynamics, and the relationship of technology to this axes of change. If you're looking for a detailed technical history of the iPod's development or a user guide, look elsewhere. Levy does incorporate some discussion of this detail, but more so as to elucidate the design process and guidelines and esthetic involved.

03 January 2007

Reading without needing to

Rembrandt - Holy familyHeir to books such as Janet Tamaro's So That's What They're For!, Kirsten Berggen has provided a chatty, friendly and well-informed book in Working without Weaning that covers a plethora of topics from starting out breastfeeding right all the way up to, as you'd expect, weaning. The target market for this book is the "working mother," the mom who works away from home for pay. However, there is much wisdom in the book that is clearly useful to any mother working with a compressed schedule and a long to-do list (and really, what mother isn't?). The author's use of the collective widom and experiences of many other mothers contributes greatly to the universality of the advice offered. This is the first breastfeeding book I've read since I weaned by son (like I alluded to in the title, I don't *need* this book, so don't call me with congrats or anything), and I would highly recommend it to any breastfeeding and working mom as a great reference. Kirsten (henceforth "the author") is also a great friend, and her career switch to focus on lactation consultancy is admirable. I debated what tone I should take in reviewing her book - because as a a friend it is easy just to take a rah-rah tone - but as a friend I felt I owed her my complete feedback, and since I've written some in this area too (How to bottle-feed the breastfed baby) it seemed like a good use of my time. kirsten

Her knowledge of breastfeeding is thorough and well informed by a scientific perspective; as a reader, I greatly appreciated the clearly written references to scientific bases for recommendations that are made. Her review and discussion of pumps and pumping routines are the best I've read, even after having read very many. She gives honest input on a number of different practices - such as using another person's pump as a hand-me-down - which conventional authorities tend to ignore, and thus not serve mothers very well. Further, she includes many references to resources on the internet for mothers to extend their knowledge further on a topic, or find specific advice for a special situation.

Berggren's thoughtful commentary on sleep issues and managing nighttime with a baby is very useful, including discussions of The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley as well her experience with Dr. Ferber's oft-lambasted approach. Her advice to find an option that works well for you, while describing a variety of solutions, is a no-nonsense, open minded approach to an issue which avoids bringing overly heated and useless emotive discussion to bear, and is of great merit. The placement of a sleep section in a breastfeeding book will come as no surprise to those of us moms who have BTDT. Also, her unique perspective on "the freezer-stash trap" was new to me, and offers a logical analysis as to why some mothers end up with supply difficulties when using milk they'd pumped previously and frozen, and how to handle this situation successfully.

Unfortunately, the author perpetuates a myth of childrearing: that breastfed babies are harder to care for at daycare. While some daycare providers do in fact find breastfed babies to be more difficult, many also find them to be easier. The author's statements on this seem to be based more on the true experiences of many working women in dealing with care providers who had difficulty, rather than on a factual evaluation of the care parameters of such babies or on any statistical analysis of daycare centers. No doubt many women have had difficulty working with persons caring for their breastfed babies, but similarly many women reported that their babies did much better on formula than they did breastfeeding. In neither case should these experiential comments be taken as representative of all babies in all situations. An argument can easily be made that breastfed babies are in fact easier to care for in daycare, because the baby is more likely to be healthy (less likely to suffer from diarrhea, ear infections, respiratory tract infections, or menengitis), less likely to have skin conditions, such as eczema, that require special treatments and have less smelly diapers. See Breastfeeding and Child Care at USbreastfeeding.org for further detail.

Finally, on a minor editorial note, it appears that some editor went a bit wild with search-and-replace as a multitude of expected references to "restroom" were missing, replaced by a blank space. The average reader will certainly be able to interpolate the missing term, but a harried new mom suffering from lack of sleep may find this a bit jarring. I don't expect this was from an heightened sense of propriety, as the references to 'breast' are profligate. kirsten

Expect to see this book gifted to moms-to-be at baby showers and by coworkers; certainly, if you expect a baby gift from me don't be surprised to see this. Hopefully it will also find its side by the pump in a lactation room in your workplace too.

02 January 2007

New Year, New start

I decided to draft some resolutions for 2007, mostly because I didn't in 2006 but this is an odd year. : )

1. Be fit: I hereby do solemnly pledge to get myself in gear and be fit, and I'm starting off by walking. I'll try this year to log 6,000 steps at least 5 days a week, and try to keep my daily average above 10,000 steps. I started tracking this during the holidays, so I feel like this is do-able, but I want to revise and revisit this at the end of the 1st quarter.
2. Information is meant to be free: I commit to keeping up with my page-a-day average on Project Gutenberg's Distributed Proofreading project.
3. Read to me: The boys are finally moving out of the tedious cat-in-hat books into material that resembles literature; I want to spend more time reading with them in 2007.

I'm tempted to list all of the usual self-improvement stuff I hold myself accountable for, but am resisting the temptation. Sure, I want to read more - to be a better wife, friend, daughter and mother - but that's a given.

Wish me luck with my resolutions with a post here, and I'll return the favor.