Saturday, April 30, 2011

Germs, now with More Germs

Yes, The Husband brought home the latest version of plague from the teeming stewpot that is the university campus. True to form, the virus took one look at my allergy weakened system and jumped right in. I was aware the very instant it took root -- 3:45 pm yesterday afternoon. I woke up this morning at 10 til 6, hating my life, my head socked in hard with some variety of green cement. I've already exceeded recommended dosage on at least three different meds, so I'm just sitting up while the clock ticks. I can't even use the much hated "nasal irrigation system" because when I say Blocked Solidly, I am not using a metaphor. I am not comparing the state of my sinuses to some hypothetical situation. What we have here, people, are Facts in Snot.

So -- no going to a wedding of friends today. No taking the dog on an adventuresome walk. I'm not even planning to leave the house unless someone sets it on fire. Throat hurts, ears hurt, even my freaking teeth hurt. I will stay under my purple fuzzy blanket and fight this dragon of a virus, all the while bitching mightily. I have a new box of tissues and I'm not afraid to use them!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Review: Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper

Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely StripperCandy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a weird trip. It does not unfold as do others of its ilk, a fact acknowledged by the author in a little afterword (which redeemed the whole thing for me). Cody fooled me. So, let me explain.

This is a nice, white, middle class girl's trip into the dark side, only she doesn't quite know why she does it and neither do we (at least, until that final 6-8 pages). We get, in equal portions, funny, raw, wry, cruel, sickening, too-hip, trying-too-hard, and painfully-honest. She's not trying to make a political point. She's not on a feminist soap box. She's not handing out excuses or explanations, or accusations or blame. She's just telling us "Hey, I did this. This is what I saw. This is what I did. Boo-ya."

And it works. At times I didn't think it was going to work. Really, I almost stopped reading a time or two because (read my status notes!), trained as I am by other memoirs in which a Nice Girl/Guy does Something Transgressive and Has A Crisis, I was waiting for the big boom, the disaster, the Horrible Thing. Didn't happen. What I thought was a build up toward a climax wasn't anything but time going by. My bad. Cody maybe didn't know where she was going until she got there, but it Once we both got there, I was good with it.

You could, if you wanted, take this book apart and use it in a number of ways, but you'd be pushing. Cody isn't going there. You'd have to pause at some points and put some words in her mouth or translate her unambiguous text through some version of Babelfish. There are no big lessons here, no realizations about culture, no sociopolitical conclusions. It is, to borrow a hackneyed phrase, what it is. And I like it a lot more because of that.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Still Life With Puppy Ain't Still

Life continues here in the Upstate to be a steady monotonous drone spiked with occasional train whistles and dog farts. The Husband is still awaiting confirmation of his summer employment, which would go a long way toward relieving some of my sublimated stress. Our 6 month old puppy is the Giant Farting Dog. At 50 lbs (yes, really) he has the power to clear a room. His are the "Silent but Deadly" variety. Unlike Ophelia, he doesn't even give warning purrs.

Speaking of which, Ophelia continues to amaze. On her last vet visit, we got the bad news that she had kidney disease and that her life expectancy was likely only weeks long. However, she got an antibiotic shot for a mild infection and another adjustment to her insulin. The prognosis was she would continue to lose weight until she failed.

Well, she's been eating like a fiend since then, even demanding I give her canned food, and gaining back some of the weight she's lost. She's wandering over the house at will and napping in her old favorite places. She sleeps on my pillow each night and no longer has the weird burbling purr but a normal purr. She's attentive. She understands when I tell her to head toward whatever it is she wanted me to do -- water from the sink, for instance, or the kitchen for a meal. She's using the litter box more (as long as the one she wants is clean, which we are striving to maintain) instead of pooping and peeing on towels. She's even cleaning herself more, which she has not done in a very long time. While I am under no illusion she is "cured", it does make me feel better in that her whatever time she has left, she is active and comfortable. When it is time for her to go, I still wish she goes quietly on her own without requiring medical intervention. Until then, I'm happy I still have my babycat.

Roses bloom in our little garden, along with some herbs and other flowers. I planted seeds that have sprouted and will (I hope) bloom over the summer. Right now it's rainy, and it's been rather cool since a couple of warm weeks at the beginning of the month -- more like early spring than late April. We put the comforter back on the bed last night, and we've been glad more than once we didn't take off the mattress warmer. All our winter clothes are packed and upstairs in the attic. Happy me -- my summer clothes from 2 and 3 years ago, which I haven't been able to wear the last year+, all fit or are a touch large. While my weight loss has stopped because I am stress eating (even when I'm not hungry, I find myself eating. It's a problem.), I have not gained significantly. I have to add in more exercise, which may help with the stress.

Obviously, walking the dog would be exercise, but he is going through a period of being impossible for me to walk. All the good manners we strived so hard to teach him only show up when The Husband is holding the leash, and even then only when he has his Gentle Leader head harness on. I want a new collar for him so that the rope burns, bruises, and pulled muscles in my shoulders will cease. I'm going to look for something else to let me control this teen-age puppymonster.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: Lord of Light

Lord of LightLord of Light by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm delving deeply into this book in one of my groups which is doing nothing to clarify my own thinking -- or maybe it is. Hard to tell on a stormy morning with chores ahead and a headache hovering behind a wall of caffeine.

So, let's see. First, this is my second Zelazny book, and -- shock of shocks -- the first I've liked. I enjoyed this one once I caught on to what was happening. So now I feel compelled to go back and read those damned Amber books with a different eye.

As to the book itself -- I think this is an example of Clark's Third Law turned sideways and maybe backwards. Any advanced technology that is forgotten is indistinguishable from magic and cloaked in mysticism.

<spoiler> So what happens when a group of technologically advanced humans seek to colonize a newly discovered world? How do they view themselves as they fight strange new life forms, carve out cities, create what they need to survive and thrive? And how to their descendants see and remember them?

What if those first colonists could be "reborn" into a new body as they wished? What if they could cultivate new abilities beyond their current technological levels? How would they see them selves?

Those are the questions this book poses and then sets about answering. In this world, those space colonists become Gods, adapting the Hindu pantheon as a model, and then set about keeping the world they've inhabited and conquered as their own version of paradise -- for themselves, not for their descendants.

And then, what happens when one of those first colonists, one of those would-be gods, decides the whole thing is a bad idea and he needs to fight it so that humankind can develop on their own, inheriting what they should have inherited in knowledge and ability? What happens when a man decides to kill the gods? </spoiler>

I wasn't initially interested in the book. It took some 50 pages or so before I got a handle on the structure (which is a looping frame -- the book starts at a point that chronologically connects to just before the ending, then jumps back to a new beginning to explain how things got to the point at the beginning of the book and then moves forward again. Also, it is helpful to have some background in Hindu mythology ( a few minutes with Wikipedia should be enough), The language has the somewhat stilted yet lyrical qualities we often associate with old myths and ancient tales, which juxtaposed nicely with the talk of technology-as-magic. The protagonist, Sam, is a full and complex character, faulty and flawed yet determined and capable of bouncing back from everything thrown at him. He learns and changes some, too, as the story progresses, although his original ideas and his determination to carry them out does not waver. He's adaptable, his goals being more important than his methods (ends justify the means, in his world).

It's a complex novel, but not a big one. Zelazny is sparing with description, hints rather than tells, indicates more than shows, and leaves much in the mind of the reader to be done. It's a book that yields to a lot of discussion.

A final note -- while the book is ostensibly science fiction and a good argument can be made to classify it as such, in my opinion it is a fantasy. We are TOLD that the various miraculous things we see are technologically based, that they are machines made by men (or entities who once were men), but their action, appearance, and how they are regarded tallies closely with how devices of mystical and unknown or unexplained properties are regarded in works of fantasy. We are told there is science, but we are not shown it, and even those who use this technology, who build it and understand it discuss it in terms nearly identical to those used by others who regard them as purely magical. So, per Clark's third law and the general understanding of the word "Fantasy" as a literary genre, I classify this book as a fantasy.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Review: A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction

A New Species: Gender and Science in Science FictionA New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction by Robin Roberts

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not exactly light reading, but interesting enough that I read it a second time to take notes. A feminist analysis of science fiction starting with Frankenstein and ending up with The Handmaid's Tale and Always Coming Home is a bit of an undertaking, but this isn't that lengthy a book and most of the language is comprehensible to those not steeped in the mindset of literary criticism (although it helps if you took a couple of lit courses in college). Roberts delves into such things as the cover illustrations of Golden Age pulp SF magazines to explain how modern women SF writers used Science Fiction to discuss and illustrate issues of gender inequality, the dangers of patriarchies, and the conflicts and synthesis between so called "hard" and "aoft" science.

This also makes me rethink my responses to certain books I read years ago (and generally didn't like), so that, in addition to a new list of books I want to read, I also have to reread a few.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of UdolphoThe Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the Mysteries of Udolpho we have the grandmother of the Gothic novel, springhead of every soap opera, the original melodrama, something so outlandish and overwrought that it has been -- and deserves to be -- much mocked and parodied. At the same time, it commands some respect because of what it is -- an early novel, written when the form was still in its infancy, written by a woman at a time when women had no access to much education or ability to make a living for themselves, written at a time when the very idea of "what was a woman" had barely pushed out the roots of change.

That in itself sounds overwrought, but one must make large claims for this novel, this great ancestor of the novel, still read when so many of its contemporaries are lost in the dusty stacks of archival libraries. I will admit readily that, to finish the last 200+ pages of the novel, I stayed up very late.

But now that we have spoken to its dignity and given the respect it deserves for its place in history, let's get to the myriad of stupid, irritating things Radcliffe does that infuriate the modern reader and even drove contemporary readers (like Jane Austen, most famously) to mock it.

[;spoiler]Our heroine, Emily St. Aubert, is the only child of a gentleman of retiring and pure nature. We know this because he has the word "Saint" abbreviated in his name, and because he rhapsodizes about nature and death and makes pious speeches about Heaven and death. We are told he does good for the poor even though he is, for a person of his social status, poor himself, and so everyone loves him despite his somewhat holier-than-thou attitude. He has raised his daughter to be just like him. Emily is well educated (for a woman) with music and poetry and drawing, her fine, delicate, high spiritual nature underlined by her tendency to stare at trees and mountains.

Emily has many features which are designed to mark her as a woman of delicacy and grace. She has beauty and a very sympathetic heart -- we are told. What she lacks are any braincells devoted to such foriegn things as logic, reason, common sense, or even the lessons of simple observation. While she may spend long hours in raptures over leaping rivulets and verdant demonstrations of nature's power, the simpler facts elude her.

Of course, the poor girl spends so much time fainting, she must have suffered dozens of head injuries or have some sort of medical affliction unknown in Radcliffe's time but treated in ours with a colorful little pill, possibly available in the cheaper generic. She faints a lot. She faints to excess, shall we say, and over everything. Some are understandable, while others are just plain annoying. I am tempted to buy my own copy of the book for the pleasure of taking a pink highlighter and marking every time Emily faints, nearly faints, or cannot support herself. Really, she should have loosened her corset.

When Emily is not fainting, she is weeping. When not weeping, there is sobbing, crying, gasping, moaning, and sighing (oh, let us not forget sighing)

Now, she has a few things to weep and sigh about. First, her mother dies rather suddenly. Then, within probably a year, her father becomes ill and, while traveling for his health, sickens and dies. By strange coincidence (which I really want to term "coinkedink, because that's how often these "just so happens" happen) he does so near an abandoned chateau where we are presented with our First Mystery -- and there will be many more, all made Very Mysterious. Orphaned and under age, she is sent to live with her capricious and self centered aunt. This aunt toys with her by first denying, then allowing, then denying again Emily to be married to her beloved Valencourt.

Oh, let's take a moment to talk about Valencourt. Here's another useless article. He is, indeed, Emily's soul mate and mirror, although instead of fainting and sinking helpless into conveniently placed chairs, he exclaims, paces around, and skulks in the darkness. Now that I think about it, except for the bloodsucking and sparkling, he is a forebear of Edward Cullens, what with his stalking behavior, declarations, and scary possessiveness. Yes, he is the template for the Romantic Hero. He also is fairly annoying because he doesn't do much except give his money away, get rapturous in the trees, and the aforementioned skulking.

Back to Emily. Torn from her love when her aunt marries an Italian named Montoni (Dun dun dun!) and taken to Italy, she waxes rhapsodic on Venetian gondolas rowed out to sea under the moonlight and resists the attempts of her aunt and Montoni to force her into marriage with a Count Moreno. Oh, did I not mention that at least 1/3 of men who spend time in Emily's presence fall in love -- or at least in lust -- with her, often violently? Talk about pheromones. Those who resist her charms either take up the villain role of wanting to control and torment her, or wanting to father her. And that sums up all the male characters. Anyway, to escape Moreno (among other things) Montoni takes them all into the mountains to his castle Udolpho, where he turns warlord and bandit according to the rules of war in the Italian states at the time. The central part of the novel happens in this pile, and Emily experiences constant horror, terror, fear, etc. etc., because she won't spend any time thinking.

Now, she is in a tough situation, but she does everything she can to milk it for all it's worth in drama -- much leaning on window casements, much tender poking at emotional wounds, more sighing. She also collects ghost stories and catches glimpses of things that thrill her with terror because she won't take any time to properly observe them or think it over. But these are important, because they are More Mysteries. Anyway, her aunt dies, leaving her inheritor of valuable properties Montoni wants her to sign over. Her serving woman, Annette -- another garrulous, irritating idiot who serves only as a bridge between Emily and one of the two sensible characters in the novel, Ludovico -- helps to keep Emily upset as much as possible. Ludovico eventually engineers an escape for Emily and a Frenchman kept prisoner in Udolpho. They sail back to France and by Some Chance, their ship wrecks near that very Chateau where we had our First Mystery. Now, with the introduction of Count de Villefort (the other sensible person in this novel, for which I am SO grateful), the mysteries pile up a bit and then unravel. Emily is almost reunited with Valencourt, but he's ruined his reputation and lost his fortune in Paris, so now he's not worthy of her. They spend quite a long time tormenting each other with declarations of Separating Forever while not actually leaving the room, and Never Seeing Each Other More, while staring and sighing.

We then have some more ghost silliness which turns out to be pirates, Ludovico vanishes mysteriously only to turn up later when the Count is attacked by said pirates (in the mountains! but whatever) and finally the mysteries begin to unravel. Emily comes of age to inherit, Montoni is captured, the real owner of Udolpho is a crazy nun in a nearby convent who was REALLY the Italian mistress of the previous owner of the chalet who contrived to kill her lover's wife who JUST HAPPENED to be Emily's aunt and the sister of her father, who wanted to CONCEAL the mystery of his beloved sister's death but Emily is such a twin to this particular paragon, and Valencourt is not really all that bad, but just noble and stupid. [/spoiler]

Radcliffe does a few things that nearly sent her book crashing against a wall. First, Emily sees Mysterious Things that upset, terrify, haunt, and worry her -- but we do not get to see these things for ourselves, even in part. There are some words in a document she wasn't supposed to see (but fainting messed her up there) which Radcliffe never does clear up, although by the very end of the novel we get full and somewhat tedious explanations.

Second, Radcliffe never has a character tell us a thing until they have told us why they can't tell us and made us promise we won't tell. Once they agree to speak, we get a few more minutes of details about how horrible it is and why they can't speak of it. And when they finally DO speak of it, it's rare they actually SAY anything. Or, worse still, they will simply refuse to convey information "because of honour". There is a great deal of what I consider pure deception by omission, all done in the name of paper thin honour.

She only tops that little technique, however, by use of the "Oh, YOU know what I mean" technique. Characters will assume they already know the substance of a conversation before it happens, which of course means they are wrong about what they think they know. Usually both characters think they know and think the other person knows, and so you can imagine how much useful information is passed along. It's like the Passive-Aggressive Playbook.

Then there are the travelogues, the interminable descriptions of every terrifying or overwhelming crag, tree, precipice, cascade, view, flower, twig, dust mote. Luckily, once you learn Radcliffe's set up for these, they can be skimmed or skipped entirely. She might as well have put [insert atmosphere X here].

My last complaint is about Emily's dog, Marchon. The poor creature keeps vanishing, completely forgotten, until he's needed to bark an ill-timed alert or lick his suffering mistress's hand. For all the begging she did to bring him along, he was left behind at Udolpho. Oh Well. Furry plot device.

Yet, with all these irritations (and more, I'm sure, I don't have space to list) the novel still managed to capture my attention. I shed a few tears with Emily over the death of her father. I felt anxious to know how she would escape. I was mystified over Ludovico's disappearance. I stayed up to read the ending.

And yet I could not help laughing, sometimes with irritation, over the contrivance and coincidence, over the extremes to which she went to arouse her reader's emotion and bypass any reason or rationale. Here we have the heart of the romance novel, the seedlings of the horror story, the first dark shade of the mystery. Even fantasy and science fiction can trace their lineage back here, for Mary Shelly certainly read the book and felt its influence in Frankenstein. The Mysteries of Udolpho stands as the Tree of Life for modern genre literature.

Also, you could make a great drinking game out of it.

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