Sunday, February 24, 2013

TSS: The Germanic Horde

wwi anti-german propaganda

Have you ever watched old movies and noticed that the Germans are always the bad guys? If you're like me, you probably thought that was because of WWII; but actually the stereotype goes back much farther than that. There's one thing you can count on when you're reading Edwardian (c. 1900-1910) novels, and that's that everyone with a German accent is evil. This is true even of books that predate WWI by more than a decade. England viewed war with Germany as inevitable for more than a generation before it finally broke out in 1914, likely since the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, but possibly even as far back at the 1860s. The Franco-Prussian War, where Prussia defeated France handily in a matter of weeks and completely destroyed their military confidence, is likely the most important war no one has ever heard of; it led to the unification of the German states and set the stage for the debilitating Treaty of Versailles, in which France exacted long-waited revenge for losing the Franco-Prussian War.

Anyway, here is a list of books I've read recently where the Germans were evol:

Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers: A bourgeois employee of the Home Office goes on what he thinks will be a pleasure cruise around the Frisian Islands, only to discover a German plot to invade England through the North Sea. This is a great book!

Princess Maritza by Percy James Brebner: There is a name for these types of books and I totally forgot what it is. Basically it's like Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope: some British guy goes to a small Germanic state to save the woman he loves. This book was pretty bad, and it had a whole bunch of paranoia about how Germans want to take over the world.

The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart: I already told you guys the German is always the bad guy, right? Not to spoil anything, of course.

The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs: Bowen J. Tyler is trying to get a group of German and American sailors to work together so they can reach port, but someone keeps sabotaging the submarine. GUESS WHO IT IS.

The Green Rust by Edgar Wallace: This is probably the most hilarious case of Hun paranoia I've come across yet. Van Heerden is an evol German doctor, but he's not actually German--he's Dutch and was just born near the German border. I guess that's enough! Ahahaa.

Still, it does get slightly tiresome when EVERY German character turns out to be evil. Like really, people? You didn't get tired of that cliche after two or three or ten years? Drives me crazy.

Further Reading:

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Beware of Women Readers

the following cast

The Following is a new TV show about a former professor named Joe Carroll who goes crazy and starts killing women in honor of his hero and scholarly raison d'etre, Edgar Allan Poe. The show actually doesn't weave Poe into the story THAT much, which is kind of disappointing (seriously, one quote every other episode does not a literary take-off make); but I do find how it treats the female characters interesting.

One of the major characters on the show is Emma, a follower of Carroll's (why didn't he study Alice in Wonderland, one wonders) who appears sweet and innocent, but is one crazy bitch. Here's how she gets involved with Carroll: as a teenager she was a huge fan of his writing (so romantic and tragique! le sigh) and went to one of his signings. At the signing--which appears to be a bust since only she showed up--Emma is immediately attracted to Professor Suave, and he makes it clear he returns her attraction. Fast forward: because of her meeting with Carroll, Emma discovers her sexual power and independence, and as a result Carroll gains her devotion and loyalty.

The dynamic Carroll has his with fans/followers is interesting, and I think Emma is a great example of that. They're all devoted to him, but Emma seems to be the leader of the group because she's the smartest, and she has an emotional connection with Carroll--a connection that might be one-sided, but that Carroll nevertheless encourages. There's a sexual aspect to Carroll's relationship with all of his female followers that isn't necessarily present in his male followers. They seem to follow him because they're gutless wonders looking for a leader; the women in this group are definitely not sheep. They're fans.

I've blogged about how publishers use sex to sell books to women before while men are usually marketed to using their intellect. The same sensibility can be found in The Following's females--they're emotionally volatile and unpredictable, while the men (even the homicidal ones) appear to be more logical and sensible. Of course, Carroll, the author manipulating everyone, is über-intellectual, calm, and attractive.

A part of me wonders if Carroll's female fans in The Following--who are all total psychos--reflect a greater tension in our society over reading and writing being cast as a feminine activity, and the supposed rise of books by books by, for, and about women (if you don't think this is an issue, Google boys and books). I think in part it might be, because the show is really all about masculinity and Carroll trying to reassert his power: all his actions center on punishing his ex-wife, who slept with the man who put him in prison; and on removing his son, a physical embodiment of his virility, from his mother's influence and remodeling him in Carroll's own image. 19th- and 20th-century painters faced a similar dilemma, in that their profession was considered very "feminine," and so they often overcompensated by being chauvinistic assholes. In any case, Emma is the most powerful female character on the show because she's smart (see: reading), sexually manipulative, and emotionally unpredictable--a femme fatale trifecta.

Overall I find The Following to be pretty misogynistic. Yet I still watch it. What can I say, it's entertaining.

Further Reading:

Discus this post with me on Twitter, FaceBook, or in the comments below.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Guest Post: I Was a Teenage Veggie

snark and circumstance cover

By Stephanie Wardrop, author of Snark and Circumstance

Like my heroine, Georgiana Barrett, I was a teenage vegetarian. But I did it back in the 1970s, in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where one starts the day with a plate of scrapple and ends it with some other form of sausage and three different kinds of starch on the plate. I brought a lot of peanut utter and jelly sandwiches in my lunches and kept a much lower profile than Georgia does. Her earlier commitment to her principles makes her a much better cook than I was at her age. It took me a long time to learn to be a good veg*n (vegan or vegetarian) cook.

At first I made a lot of boring stir fries back in the dark days before one could purchase tofu at your neighborhood grocery store. But I learned my way around those precious blocks of soybean curd and discovered that if you freeze it and thaw it, you can crumble up the tofu and it’s now a cruelty-free version of ground beef, so I sautéed it with taco seasonings and made lots of nachos that non-veggies gobbled up at parties.

Cheap and Easy Peanut Noodles

An early creation, designed for the student budget, was this version of peanut noodles using good ole’ ramen packs that often sell four for a dollar! Just throw out that nasty packet of MSG and other flavorings and do this instead:

  1. In one pot, boil your ramen noodles in plain water.
  2. Meanwhile, in another pan, put about a ¼ cup of peanut butter, ½ cup of water or broth, about 2 T of soy sauce, some sesame oil, some ginger (fresh or powdered), and some garlic in and heat it up. The peanut butter will melt into the sauce.
  3. Drain the noodles and mix them into your sauce. Serve with sesame seeds, some cilantro, chopped scallions, and peanuts.

But baking is my favorite culinary activity. Like Georgia, I love the alchemy of it. It feels like alchemy because I do not entirely understand the chemical processes that turn some pretty yucky tasting substances, like baking powder and unsweetened cocoa and whole wheat flour into something amazingly delicious. My favorite recipes at present come from two sources:

  • Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s amazing Post Punk Kitchen at In Snark, Georgia bakes her way through Moskowitz’s Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar and Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World and you should do the same.
  • Chocolate Covered Katie at which features vegan treats that are not only delicious but healthy. Her chocolate cake with a secret ingredient will change your world. You will not taste the secret ingredient or even suspect its presence, and I say this as the mother of a boy who has never willingly eaten a vegetable but scarf’s down this cake. Just try it. Trust me.

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TSS-Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming


Sorry for the not-radio silence this past week; I went on a trip to pick up all my stuff from storage and move it into more storage. The good news is I have all my books now and more bookshelves! There's just something satisfying about setting books into an empty bookcase, isn't there? My brother, who just turned 20, is also moving into his own place, so there are SO MANY FEELINGS going on right now. Luckily he's only like 10 miles away.

Also, since my parents are letting me use their storage for a while, I figured I could clear out some space in my room to create a reading nook, which I blogged about here before. I was planning on doing that on Saturday, but I OD'd on moving and just didn't feel like it. I will eventually, though.

In other news, I started a new blog called Nowhere Bites, because if there's one thing I need it's another blog. It's dedicated to small town and rural area restaurants. I actually had the idea for Nowhere Bites years ago but didn't know how to put it together. After finishing the road trip on Thursday, though, I just decided to go for it! I hope people will contribute their favorite restaurants, since it will be hard impossible for me to visit places all over the country (and possibly the world? I wouldn't be averse to going world-wide) to write about.

As for reading, my dad agreed to listen to about six hours total of The Night Circus audiobook on the drive to and from the storage place. Dang, that's a long book. He thought it was funny the word "proper" was used so often (I wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't pointed it out). I also started Bel Canto before I left and still haven't passed the fifty page mark; too much stuff going on. I have issues concentrating on reading when I'm not settled. Who knows, I might get to fifty pages and decide it's boring. It's really good so far, though.

Did I miss any important bloggy things while I was away? What was your week like?

Further Reading:

Discus this post with me on Twitter, FaceBook, or in the comments below.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review: IN THE FRAME by Dick Francis

in the frame cover

Charles Todd is a painter visiting his cousin Donald for a few days. When he arrives, he finds Donald's wife has just been killed interrupting a robbery at their house. Emotionally and financially, Donald is completely broken--and to add insult to injury, the police suspect Donald of the crime. To help his cousin get his life back together, Charles decides to find the real killers.

In the Frame is another great read from Dick Francis. To the Hilt was one of my favorite reads of 2010; and while In the Frame isn't quite as perfect as that book (seriously, I called To the Hilt perfect--you know I really loved that one), it is still really really good. I loved the characters, settings, the story was never ever boring, and the book was very emotional, as well. Donald's struggle with grief while being investigated for his wife's murder was just awful, and I really felt for him and Charles, who is extremely worried about him. Francis does a great job of making Charles' subsequent actions totally understandable.

This is also--I think--the first novel I've read that takes place in Australia (note to self: remedy this), and I LOVED the setting. You can tell Francis really thought about how the setting would work with the story and did a lot of research into it. Usually setting descriptions make my eyes glaze over, but in this case I thought they were just brief enough to let me paint a picture of the scene in my mind.

Like To the Hilt, the main character in In the Frame is a painter. I ADORE how Francis writes painters. Usually in books with painters, even the ones I like, the painter never actually works, or even thinks about painting. Not so with this book! Charles paints, a lot, and when he's not painting he's thinking and talking about art. I loved this exchange between him and his friend and fellow artist, Jik:
"Get that chiaroscuro," Jik said, as we sped into one particularly spectacular curving alley.
"What's chiaroscuro?" Sarah asked.
"Light and shade," Jik said. "Contrast and balance. Technical term. All the world's a chiaroscuro, and all the men and women merely blobs of light and shade."
"Every life's a chiaroscuro," I said.
"And every soul."
"The enemy," I said, "is gray."

"All the world's a chiaroscuro." Love that line! It seems like art is always on Jik's and Charles's minds, even when they're focusing on something else. Painting is a part of their personalities and how they view the world, like Shakespeare might have viewed all the world a stage.

One of the major differences between In the Frame and To the Hilt is that To the Hilt is very much a story modeled after Arthurian romances, with knights in shining armor fighting in the service of lords and ladies. In the Frame isn't like that at all--it reminded me more of those suspense novels by Mary Stewart, with a small cast of characters and a lot of traveling to exotic locales. There's only one major female character and, unlike in To the Hilt, there's no need to fight for her honor; she's not a damsel in distress by any means, although she is presented as a civilizing--and thereby stifling--force on Jik's personality and creativity. I did love the dynamic between Jik and Charles, though, because they're two sides of the same coin: Jik is an unpredictable, ambitious, flamboyant avant-garde artist, who only paints when he's in a dark mood. Charles seems like the exact opposite: he works steadily, paints marketable pictures of horses, and is always calm and friendly. In other words, he is the antithesis of someone who would go haring off to Australia to chase thieves and murderers, get shot at and beaten up (is it just me or are Francis's heroes always getting beat up?), steal things, or outsmart a bunch of crooks. Yet somehow his friendship with Jik makes him doing so entirely plausible.

Just as a side note, In the Frame is a bit dated--it was first published in 1976. It doesn't feel THAT old, but there are no cell phones, no internets, airport security is a free-for-all, no one outside of Australia has ever heard of Australian wine, and Charles is astonished at making an overseas phone call (the voice is so clear!). Other than those few technical issues, though, I found the story to be just as plausible today as it might have been in the past, and it's damn good mystery. Francis has definitely earned my admiration and I'm planning to read more novels by him in the future.

Further Reading:

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

The First Rule of Currently Reading is Don't Talk About What You're Currently Reading

fight club gif

Has this ever happened to you:

You start a book, and you're really enjoying it. Soon someone asks you about it, and you're all like, "Yeah, I'm really liking this book so far! Blah blah blah."

No sooner do you go to pick up the book again than you realize you're not enjoying it anymore. In fact, you hate the book! It's boring and you're going to DNF it!

Sometimes I really think reading books is like being in a relationship (I come up with a lot of relationship metaphors). And one of the most important rules of a relationship is don't blab about your relationship, and especially don't blab about how AWESOME your relationship is. I swear every celebrity couple I've seen do this has gotten a divorce. Do you ever see Tom Hanks discussing his marriage? No, and he's still married. Meanwhile, Heidi Klum and Seal went on Oprah to brag about how they're the perfect couple, and now they're divorced. Sure, that's random anecdotal evidence, but still.

Aside from the don't blab about your relationship rule, saying how much you're enjoying a book when you've only just started it is kind of like inviting Murphy's Law of Book Reading into your life. I never talk about the books I'm writing until I'm completely done with them for this very reason. Why don't I follow that rule with books I'm reading? Maybe I should. Maybe I should create a secret laboratory where I read books and don't tell anyone what I think about them until I'm finished. HAHA like that's going to happen. Still, it might be a good idea.

Do you like to talk about what you're currently reading?

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

How To Find Good Books On Librivox

librivox gif

A lot of people ask me how I find time to read so many old books (I would call them classics but most of them are just old). Honestly, 80% of the classics I "read," I actually listen to on audiobook, and the vast majority of those audiobooks I download from Librivox.

If you're not familiar, Librivox publishes audiobooks of works in the public domain you can download for free. I've written about why I find Librivox more browser-friendly than Project Gutenberg before, but I also use Librivox a lot because I find it really convenient to listen to snippets of books while I'm doing routine tasks around the house or driving on errands. Since I only read one or two books at a time, audiobooks are a great way for me to balance two novels at once.

The problem with Librivox is that the quality of the audiobooks can be hit-or-miss. It's 100% volunteer, so some readers are professional and others could use some practice. This can make people shy away from trying their audiobooks; but I stumble across awesome audiobooks on Librivox all the time, and if you follow some basic guidelines (developed by myself through experience) you can make better choices in downloading books.

1. Start with short stories. Librivox has tons of short story collections, and they're a great place to start out. After you listen to some short stories, you'll probably come across a narrator or two that you really like. When that happens...

2. Look up the narrator you like and download all their stuff. Most narrators stick to particular subjects or genres, so this is a great way to discover books you might not have heard of before.

3. Books with multiple narrators are generally to be avoided. I've done the multiple narrator thing, and it's tough, even when you're enjoying the book. Right now I'm at the point where I simply won't download a novel with more than one narrator. It's better to have an okay narrator reading an entire book than a mix of excellent, okay, and not-that-great narrators together for one book. The latter makes it really difficult to follow the thread of the story.

4. Always download the latest version of a book. Sometimes you'll search for a book and come up with multiple recordings for it. ALWAYS download the latest. Chances are someone decided to create a new version because they thought the previous one was an insult to their literary sensibilities.

5. To find new books: Browse the list of recently cataloged books or just randomly search for keywords. Librivox used to have a list of the most popular downloads, but I can't find that link now. You can also try to find recs online. I like to check out GoodReads groups dedicated to audiobooks.

6. To make your life easier: In iTunes, highlight all the tracks in your audiobook, right click, go to Get Info>Options, and select Equalizer Preset>Spoken Word, Media Kind>Audiobook, Remember position>Yes, and Skip when shuffling>yes.

Questions? Comments? Have you listened to any audiobooks from Librivox you really liked?

ETA: Here is thread to a GoodReads discussion group about books people have enjoyed from Librivox. Sorry I'm posting it so late, but it took me forever to find it: Audiobooks>Good Librivox books discussion.

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Monday, February 4, 2013

Amateur Sleuths

amateur sleuths

Amateur sleuths--people who have no formal training, yet somehow solve mysteries--are a standard of the mystery genre. From very intelligent people who consult for free, like Sherlock Holmes and Peter Wimsey, to people whose only qualification is a good eye for human nature like Miss Marple, there are amateur sleuths all over mystery fiction.

For a long time I just assumed this was A Thing That Happens In Books But Doesn't Happen In Real Life, like I don't know, zombies? Instalove? We all know These Things happen in books, so I never thought much about it. But then I started reading classic mystery novels, and for some reason they made me think maybe amateur sleuthing was a real thing. For example, in The Man In Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart, there's a character whose hobby is solving crimes according to the philosophy of Arthur Conan-Doyle. And this is treated as an acceptable, relatively normal diversion (incidentally, hobbyist sleuths are also common in Alfred Hitchcock movies). This is basically when I seriously started to wonder if amateur sleuths actually existed.

There are organizations of people who are not detectives and solve crime (the Vidocq Society, for example), and amateur detectives often solves mysteries when it comes to missing persons cases or other crimes the police don't have the resources or background to investigate. There's even a "how to be an amateur detective" page on the interwebs.

Amateur sleuthing is actually probably a lot more common than you'd think, but by far the most common hobbyist detectives are... wait for it... mystery writers! Yes, Castle and Murder, She Wrote might not be as far off the mark as you'd think. Mary Roberts Rinehart herself was asked to consult on several unsolved cases by both police and victims. I'm not aware of any convictions or appeals happening as a result of her investigations, but she did "solve" many of these crimes by writing books about them. Lois Duncan of I Know What You Did Last Summer fame investigated the murder of her own daughter, and John Grisham was sued over his amateur detective activities, which involved obtaining confidential documents without permission (so badass). Other common modes of employ for amateur detectives, both on- and off-the-page, are lawyer, insurance investigator, and someone who works in a research field (i.e., librarian, archivist, historian, etc.).

So while the recurrent amateur sleuth may largely exist in the mind of mystery writers, sometimes they do make it off the page and into real life, especially when it comes to their creators!

Do you know of any real-life instances of amateur sleuthing?

Further Reading:

Discus this post with me on Twitter, FaceBook, or in the comments below.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Bloggiesta Finish

bloggiesta finish line

Ole, mes amis! There I go, mixing my languages again. The mini-Bloggiesta is almost over and I finished all my tasks, yay!

Here were my goals:

  • Put a tag cloud back on my sidebar. I just miss that thing. This was the first thing I finished, and weirdly the task that took the longest.
  • Update my pages. This was a lot easier and less time-consuming than I thought it'd be.
  • Schedule some posts for the classics blog. Done! I don't know why I always put off scheduling posts on there, but I do.
  • Finish up a post I started last night. Done! I'm actually pretty happy with this post.
  • Read. This has nothing to do with blogging but I feel the need to put it on the list. Did, although not as much as I was hoping to.
  • Participate in the Twitter chat tonight. I missed the first half, but still got in for the second hour.

Hooray, that's a pretty successful Bloggiesta. Thanks to everyone who filled out the reader survey! I will leave it open until midnight and contact the winner of the drawing on Monday.

Thank you all for your patience while I tweaked the blog. Tomorrow we'll be back to our regular programming.

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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Bloggiesta + Reader Survey and Giveaway!

bloggiesta start line

Heys people. This weekend is another Bloggiesta, aka a blogging fiesta! Olé! (I know, I say that every Bloggiesta.) Please don't mind the dust as I make a few changes.

Since this is a mini-Bloggiesta, I only have a few goals:

  • Put a tag cloud back on my sidebar. I just miss that thing.
  • Update my pages.
  • Schedule some posts for the classics blog.
  • Finish up a post I started last night.
  • Read. This has nothing to do with blogging but I feel the need to put it on the list.
  • Participate in the Twitter chat tonight.

That's all! I probably won't participate in any mini-challenges, but we'll see how quickly I finish the above tasks.

ALSO... this may seem like a strange request, but I've been meaning to ask my readers to take a poll for a while now. This is meant to help me understand my audience a little better so I can improve my blog. All responses are voluntary and anonymous, but if you give me your e-mail I will enter you to win a copy of Gone Girl. Click here to take survey or use the embedded form below. Thank you so much!

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.

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Friday, February 1, 2013

Greatest American Author

the greatest american writer

I heard about this Publisher's Weekly poll for who is the greatest American author from Kimberly. Naturally, this is a silly question. It's Edgar Allan Poe. More interesting: the results of the poll show that "Other" is winning by more than 2% over Mark Twain, and 15% more than Edgar Allan Poe (seriously, people?). In fact, nearly 1/4th of poll respondents decided to write in their choices for the greatest American author. This got me thinking, who are these write-in choices for? The possibilities are endless. For example:

  • Stephenie Meyer-This is particularly likely if a bunch of teenage girls saw the poll (incidentally, I actually do think there's a case to be made that Meyer is the most influential author of the last decade).
  • EL James-I would seriously laff my arse off if she won this poll. The fact that she's not American would just make it more perfect.
  • James Patterson-I've heard this guy is pretty popular.
  • A bunch of authors saw the poll and voted for themselves-I'm looking at you, Jeffrey Eugenides. Ha! Just kidding.
  • Stephen King-King has that rare combo of popular appeal AND critical rep. I would not be at all shocked if he got in a lot of votes.
  • Dan Brown-Kind of outdated as the author du jour, but you never know, he could still get some votes in.
  • Nora Roberts-Admittedly not very likely, since romance readers tend to avoid polls like this (I speak as someone who reads romance), but she definitely deserves some write-in votes. I mean, the woman has her own section in the bookstore.

Who did you vote for in the poll? Edgar Allan Poe, right?

Further Reading:

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