Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Magic Treehouse #1: Dinosaurs Before Dark

We have a 7-year-old who is just reaching the point of being able to read chapter books on her own. The Magic Tree House was on a list of recommended summer reading from the school, and came recommended from a friend, so I picked up Dinosaurs Before Dark to see if she would like it. We're up to the third book now, though not without a few battles. She read the first one entirely by herself; since them we've moved to a trading model.

The books are short. Each one has ten chapters, and in each the two main characters (Jack and Annie) visit the Magic Tree House and pick up a book. By making a wish, they are sent to another place and time, where they have a mildly frightening adventure, and then return home. A meta-plot makes itself known in the first book, and continues to build very slowly: Who is the owner of the tree house? Why are the books there? This is useful for holding adult attention if nothing else!

I think these are pretty good books for a young reader with a good basic vocabulary. The writing itself is workmanlike, and I am baffled by Osborne's heavy use of sentence fragments, but the settings are interesting. Osborne isn't afraid to throw challenging words in, but there are no more than a handful of those per volume (precipice stood out in #2, sarcophagus in #3). The individual chapters are very short, so it's easy to get through one a night, or two or three for that matter. Reading them doesn't feel like a chore, and there's a great sense of accomplishment for a new reader in being able to read a whole book. The perils of the characters are quite mild, so I would particularly recommend these for kids with an anxious nature.

Monday, August 15, 2011

State of the Novel

I ought to use this space for accountability in writing as well as reading, now that I am finding my way back into the world of being productive. My WIP is a genre-blender with the working title Fury's Flight.


In addition, I have begun noodling about with ideas for this year's NaNoWriMo project (my third). Just a few notes and ideas, and an Amazon order placed for a book (used) that might be helpful in researching the setting. I have never had to do much research for a book before, so this will be interesting.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Happiness Project

In the list of phrases I would use to describe myself and my reading, "self-help books" is pretty much dead last. I've read more Stephen King books (four) than I have read self-help books in my life. A couple of weeks ago, we were in Seven Stars as part of a bookstore-hopping expedition, and The Happiness Project was out on one of the front tables. I picked it up and read a few pages about how cleaning out her closets improved her life. Since I had found the same orderly home = productive mind effect in my own life, I checked out the author's blog. I spent most of the weekend reading her archives, then got the book for Kindle so I could read it on my phone. (Oddly enough, I feel okay buying "practical" books in e-formats, but strongly prefer pleasure books to be physical objects. Perhaps that isn't odd.)

One thing that I think makes this one stand out a bit from most self-help books is that the author (Gretchen Rubin) has actual chops as a researcher (law school is good for something!). The book is well-organized and well-written. Though she knows her audience well enough not to include footnotes, there is an extensive list of pointers for further reading in the back. If you keep up with the news at all, you're likely to find yourself nodding at times and thinking, I remember hearing about that study.

Not only the book, but the project itself is well-organized. Taking one major topic a month, a handful of tangible goals and practical methods to attain them, and a number of inspirational writings, is a good way to go about such a big effort. Rubin addresses ways to keep track of success, and isn't afraid to abandon strategies that aren't working for her. She's adamant that what works for one person may not work for another--in fact, one of the central theses of the book is that what makes one person happy doesn't have to make anyone else happy, and that knowing (and accepting) what makes you happy is a key to achieving it.

I loved this book. I'll almost certainly read it again. Amusingly enough, the experience of reading it alone made me happy. I liked her stories, her commentary, her successes and failures, and most of all I liked her systematic, practical approach, which fits well into my own strategies for life. I don't feel any inclination for a year-long personal overhaul, but I did feel inspired to at least think about what areas of my own life could use work. I joined a few list-making and goal-setting sites, like Day Zero and Listography--not to pressure myself to use them if I ended up not liking them, but just to see what I would come up with. 2011 has been a banner year for getting out of our ruts to see the people we love, and I want to make sure that 2012 keeps it up--without turning into a harried treadmill of obligation that leaves us too tired for our regular lives.

The Happiness Project is not only a blog and a book these days, but includes an online toolkit for anyone looking to make their own resolutions. It's worth looking at if you feel the self-improvement bug, but aren't sure how to go about it.

Virtual Light

Why yes, I am reading these out of order. I'm going to try something I did in a couple of posts on the old blog, and examine the opening. So many people in the business emphasize the important of the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first chapter.

I can't find a ton to pick apart in this one. This is the sort of description Gibson absolutely excels at, full of tiny, lyrical touches and fearless language. It gives an impressionist glimpse of the world of the book (in SF, it could be argued that the world functions as a main character), perfectly juxtaposing beauty and decay. It draws you in without apparent effort to see what will become of this man, this place. Unfortunately for the reader, the courier described turns out to be not a character at all, but a plot device.

I used the word fractal in conversation the other day. The book is a bit dated that way. I haven't read Virtual Light before, and I bogged down about three quarters of the way through. In the process, I noticed a couple of patterns that showed up in this one and in Idoru.

Gibson relies strongly on impossibly naive observers. Every main character in both of these books has a fish-out-of-water thing going on. It lets him pile on the descriptions, to be a tourist in his own near-future world, but makes it difficult for the characters to be effective actors and occasionally comes across as ridiculous--Rydell's ignorance on many occasions is simply impossible to buy. They don't seem to have any realistic connections to other people, normal friendships or families. They stand to one side and watch, anchorless, puzzled by everything that is going on around them, which is to say, the plot. The bad guys have a lot more on the ball, though they also tend to be featureless and direly uninteresting.

A general historical amnesia seems to be in play. This book is set in 2005, but everyday things from their own recent past are cast as strange almost beyond belief. It's a sort of reverse time-travel effect, where the pre-industrial character is astonished by cars and vacuum cleaners, but considerably less explicable. Factory-produced cigarettes? Cars that ran on gasoline? RVs? How bizarre! It's heavy-handed to say the least, like none of the main characters ever watch TV. There's a lot of time spent on descriptionss, on stuff, but there is an almost total cultural vacuum (yes, despite the presence of Yamazaki, who is supposed to be studying it). Like Idoru, on the whole this reads like notes for a novel, rather than the completed thing. It gives a glance at things I want it to dig into, then gets distracted by its own surface.

I also realized while reading this just how annoying it can be to use italicized speech for emphasis. A couple of minor characters in Virtual Light speak this way. "I haven't seen your friend before." "That storm was just terrible, wasn't it?" "We're a full-service shop...." I had a critiquer once flag me for overusing emphasis in dialog, and I didn't think at the time that it was that big a deal, but I'm definitely going to be more careful about it in the future. I'm not sure it's ever defensible to give such a distracting characteristic to a character so minor that they are more properly a piece of set-dressing than a person.
    The plot is not innovative; it's a straightforward technological McGuffin pursuit, which unfortunately is almost the exact same pattern the next book follows, though Virtual Light has far better action scenes. The stakes seem to be high, but he frequently blows the tension, and the ending is so pat, so literally deus ex machina that I found myself wondering if I was misremembering how much I liked the Neuromancer trilogy.

    I'm going to give the third one in this series a miss and move on to something different.

    Monday, August 8, 2011

    Getting Organized (In Theory)

    I had a very odd Sunday: I didn't do anything. D* and the older kids went to church in the morning. It was raining hard. I turned off the air conditioning and opened a lot of windows, listened to the rain and the baby, and read a lot of the Happiness Project archives. In the afternoon I played LEGO with the kids, took videos of L with my phone, and did more reading. The TV didn't go on until after dinner, the air conditioning likewise (if it's too hot the boy can't sleep). I had a bunch of stuff I'd wanted to get to, but nothing really urgent. We'd had lunch guests on Saturday, so the place was reasonably clean already. I don't relax very often; sometimes I wonder if I'm forgetting how.

    I enjoyed my reading, not least because I was delighted to find some of my own hard-discovered principles among hers. At least for me, a tidy environment is one sizable component of happiness. Clutter and mess stress me out, and so I am coming to understand that Do it now is an important rule if I don't want to be that way. The important corollary is Do it myself--it's better than either steaming or nagging. It only takes a minute or two to wipe off the stove, to throw away (or recycle) that empty container, to put a book back on the shelf. It makes tackling the major chores easier if the first step doesn't always have to be "declutter the room."

    I also like her "spend it out" rule, though I don't think it's a major problem for me--not least because we moved last year, so we've already and recently gone through all of our things and gotten rid of clothes never worn, books never read, and broken objects. Now that we've been here a whole year, I find that I retain this winnowing eye. We have more stuff than can comfortably fit into the space, so I've been shoving some of it into the attic--thinning the book collection, recognizing that the photo albums just won't get updated for a while, since there's nowhere to put them, passing outgrown baby things along promptly--and investing in some storage devices for the rest of it, especially the 10,000 toys we seem to have accumulated.

    Here's a list of interesting-looking links I gathered from her:
    I asked my mom for a toolbox for Christmas, tired of rummaging through our cardboard box of oddities, hoping I won't stab myself on a rusty screwdriver (which if it isn't a drink, ought to be).

    I just realized as I put together the link list--I'm better! I am back to being the me who is energized by having a lot to do, who plans for the future, who wants to accomplish. Whew. One of the things I'm going to put on a list (somewhere) is to buy a sunlamp, so the next dreary spring doesn't knock me for a loop. 

    Sunday, August 7, 2011

    30 Foods Meme - Day 2 - Warm Salad of Thyme-Crusted Tuna

    These posts are turning out to be rather widely spaced! We have been very busy this summer, and Ms Greenspan is not doing a prompt every day. For the second day, this was it:
    What is one food that you absolutely, completely, totally, and utterly cannot stand?  Answer in haiku, please!
    My response:
    Delicate pink curls
    With too many little legs -
    Shrimp make me shudder.
    Don't like how they look, don't like their texture, don't care for their taste even in highly processed form.

    I do like fish, though, and our farmer's market now has a fishmonger! The prices are high, but it's good fish, and the $$ encourage us to practice portion control with our proteins. On one recent visit I got a piece of tuna for no particular reason. A couple weeks later, we set out to "eat down" the freezer in preparation for a week on vacation, and I had to figure out what to do with it. The internet to the rescue again. A moment of searching, a few minutes of paging through the results, and I had a candidate not only for the tuna but for the bag of arugula I had impulse-purchased that morning: Warm Salad of Thyme-Crusted Tuna.

    I also had some corn. Corn season is a brief and glorious thing in New England. Who needs madeleines? The sight of corn in its husk, piled anyhow on counters or spilling from bags and bushels, conjures a lazy afternoon heat, cicada song, my grandparents' patio, the rattle of a pot lid as the water begins to boil, greasy fingers and the sweet crunch of that first bite. My favorite farm (okay, one of my favorites...) puts a sign on theirs:

    That's the way to get it. I'm not a particularly devoted locavore, but corn on the cob is one thing I will not bother with from the grocery store.

    But, back to the tuna. In practice, this was so easy it falls under the "do I even call it a recipe?" category. Arugula plus slivered basil plus good tomato plus balsamic vinaigrette. Tuna plus generous salt and pepper plus thyme. Cook the latter in a very hot pan until it's as done as you like it (ours not being the freshest, I cooked it through).

    Put the latter in proximity to the former, and eat it. Much better than shrimp.