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May 9th, 2015

02:39 pm: Mum died this afternoon
I'm vacillating wildly between numb and wrecked.

Happy fuckin' mothers' day.

April 29th, 2015

07:41 am: :sigh:
"Our" house is under contract.

This is the one we think we want to buy in NH. We all, miracle of miracles, agree.

Dammit.

The one we'd really like to sell?

No bites. Dammit.

In retrospect, it was a mistake to put it on the market at the beginning of the snowiest winter ever. We got lots of lookie-loos, quite a lot of activity, but "covered in snow" is apparently not its best look. I think it tended to make people think "how much will it cost to heat this place with that antique furnace?"

(It's actually quite good, but not fabulous enough to feature in the listing. Our inspector admonished us never to replace the furnace because it's a very sturdy and surprisingly efficient beast. But it does look like a beast.)

And of course none of the swell landscaping the previous owner did was really visible either.

I'm trying to be all zen 'n' shit, but it's not working this morning.

I'm so tired of having to live as if we don't live here, having to keep the place cleaner than can be healthy (snort), having to keep so many of our things packed up, having to keep the realtor's really-not-hideous-but-totally-not-our-taste staging touches.

Sigh.

Also.... whine.

Current Mood: depresseddepressed
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April 12th, 2015

03:58 pm: 2015 Reading Challenge: Kellerman's Murder 101 (read in one day)

I'd originally planned to use Faye Kellerman's Murder 101 as a book I haven't read by an author I love, but Murder 101 reminded me how much Kellerman has annoyed me in recent books (though I still enjoy them, I no longer find them pure pleasure). Rina Lazarus is some sort of saint/superwoman. I liked her better with flaws.

And this? :eye roll: Takes place in Greenbury, NY, an upstate town so fake it's an hour and a half from Boston and an hour from Providence (by car). There is a Greenburgh, NY, but I don't think anyone would call White Plains upstate. Too, Kellerman repeatedly refers to how much colder and snowier it is in Greenbury than NYC, which I would pin as more like Essex County... or at least Saratoga.

Decker is a police officer. I don't think he'd be driving more than 100 mph (especially not without lights and siren). Um... nope. And triangulating Providence, Boston, and upstate NY, I don't come up with shorter to Providence (although Google tells me it would be 3 minutes shorter from Saratoga).

And part of the story takes place near Tufts. In Summer Village.

WTH? Real university, fake town? Why?

I don't know what percentage of Kellerman's readers are from the Boston area, but surely it's nontrivial... Why no fact checking? Or deliberate fakitude? WHY?

Dammit.

If I could have suspended disbelief better, I'm sure I would've enjoyed the book more. I know it's lots better than the majority of mysteries published. But still. With the annoying bits and the general lack of the next Lazarus-Decker-Whitman generation, I probably won't re-read it any time soon.

* * * * *
Yes, I can read most books in a day (Donna Tartt and Diana Gabaldon notwithstanding). This happens to be one that I did. It's also written by a woman, has a number in the title, and is a mystery. So I'm being pretty random all around.



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February 23rd, 2015

04:48 pm: TMI? TFB!
So I'm at this conference in Las Vegas. I pretty much hate Vegas (I hardly drink, don't smoke or gamble, and hate crowds and heat), though I enjoy seeing shows. Whatevs. This is where the conference is, so this is where I am.

It's a good conference. It has the usual male slant for a tech conference, but I've been dealing with that for 30 years and the situation has certainly improved in that time.

EXCEPT (you knew that was coming, right?) I've encountered something new.

There are no tampons in the restrooms at the MGM Grand Conference Center. There aren't even any machines.

There are machines in the casino area (a bit of a hike from the conference center), but they're empty.

You can buy tampons in the hotel gift shop. For $8 for 10. And that's after an extra hike, of course.

Really??? WTF??? I'm used to disregard for Things Feminine at tech conferences. But a conference CENTER? Do they expect NO WOMEN AT ANY CONFERENCES EVER??? (And with 21,000 people at this one, menstruating women are statistically certain.)

Jiminy Christmas on a cracker slathered with Limburger!

So yes. Conference. Cramps. Long hikes, punctuated by darting into every single ladies room to verify that no indeed THERE ARE NO TAMPONS.

GRRRR.

Never again. Never, never, never.

Mandalay Bay's conference center does have machines. w00t. They're empty, but hey! One step at a time.

February 20th, 2015

07:17 pm: 2015 Reading Challenge: Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian (nonfiction)
I'm a big fan of Christopher Hitchens' brain, though I wasn't always a fan of his mouth. Wicked smart guy. Wicked, smart tongue.* I'd never read any of his books, however, and that just seemed wrong. I've read plenty of his articles and listened to his debates, and always found him entertaining (he's not very nice, but that hardly seems his goal). I've enjoyed epistolary novels (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Screwtape Letters, and - far more recently - Where'd You Go, Bernadette?) and books of letters (EB White, the Brontës, et al.). Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian seemed like it would be both a good introduction to Hitchens and an interesting blend of the genres... being letters to a fictitious recipient, including responses to fictitious responses (thus, more like Screwtape Letters than the others).

The book is apparently a part of a series (Art of Mentoring) that also includes Letters to a Young Chef, Letters to a Young Mathematician, and Letters to a Young Catholic. The last of these may have bothered Hitchens, an avowed anti-theist (not atheist, he asserts in Contrarian), though he may have enjoyed the irony or, if Weigel (author of Young Catholic) wrote well and argued intelligently, the book itself. Hitchens was nothing if not open-minded, and he referred repeatedly in Contrarian to having learned a lot from religion classes in his youth.

He was also somewhat intellectually precious (in the sense of affectedly or excessively refined). He name-drops the intelligentsia, quotes obscure sources (often in Latin, sometimes in French or Italian, never with translations), and is blatantly snooty about people he considers beneath his level (most of the world, though in fairness to him, he doesn't judge by such criteria as wealth, position, or degrees, but rather by truth, logic, and conviction). He revels in his snootiness, clarifying in one letter that he used to take umbrage at accusations of elitism but doesn't any more.

Allrighty then.

He also wrote that "my parents were too intelligent to be encumbered by prejudice" (page 106), which we know is horse-hooey. (I just took an Unconscious Bias course at work yesterday, so this is particularly fresh in my mind. No one is free of prejudice... even your beloved parents, Mr. Hitchens.)

I learned a great deal from this small book (including more about Dreyfus, about whom I was appallingly ignorant, which is unforgivable given the huge influence research on the Sam Sheppard trial had on my life!). I have to admit to an unfortunate foible: I'm particularly fussy about the language of self-proclaimed intellectual elites. Contrarian has a couple of typos, which is mildly irksome but possibly an editor's fault (though you'd think either Hitchens or the editor would have used spellcheck). He also uses the idiom "try and" instead of "try to." I know British editors are generally more tolerant of this variant, but I would have expected Hitchens to show a preference for precision.

Hitchens' most annoying quirk (in his writing; I won't try to prioritize the quirks of his personality) is his use of scare quotes. This tendency is further muddled by the appropriate use of quotation marks in his first letter, where he's specifically talking about the definitions of words. Blargh.

In any case, Letters to a Young Contrarian is certainly worth a read, and has encouraged me to seek out other, longer works of Hitchens.


* The importance of punctuation! And regional usage!

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February 11th, 2015

08:10 pm: 2015 Reading Challenge: Doucette's Yuletide Immortal (set during Christmas)

Full disclosure: I'm good friends with author Gene Doucette's mother, so I may not be the most objective reviewer of his works. I did rant long and hard about the all-caps in Hellenic Immortal, however, so I'm not a complete patsy.

Yuletide Immortal is a short story (though it shows up as ~1,300 pages in my Kindle reader; I have no idea how long it actually is, but it sure isn't that long). It is a continuation of Doucette's Immortal trilogy, a marvelous set of stories about (duh) an immortal man sometimes known as Adam. He's not invincible, but he's immune to disease. He's often drunk, usually unreliable, and always entertaining.

The stories have magical creatures (elves, vampires, et al.), but no magic. They take place at various eras in history and involve Adam's (often drunken) adventures around the world. Adam - known as Stanley in Yuletide - is living in New York City in a hotel room with a private bath and not much else, so he spends most of his time at an Irish bar. It's 1952, I think, and Stanley is maybe 6000 years old, but with the maturity of a mid-20s, developmentally arrested frat boy.

The story features Santa, who turns out to be an imp. Imps are long-lived (but not immortal) and love great stories more than truth. Which is why Santa also spends a lot of time in an Irish bar: he tells stories, and hears stories, and drinks a lot.

Adam/Stanley is perpetually pessimistic (I suppose that happens when everyone you know, ever, dies, and always will) and Santa's an optimistic do-gooder; the clash of personalities is entertaining despite (because of?) its inevitability.

All in all, Yuletide Immortal is a marvelous break from the usually insipid Christmas-themed romances that almost always disappoint me (Jude Deveraux's and Judith McNaught's short stories are a notable exception; Debbie Macomber's annual servings of mush are not).



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February 9th, 2015

09:34 pm: 2015 Reading Challenge: Hesse's Out of the Dust (author with my initials)

This is one of my favorites from the reading challenge: a book by an author with the same initials as mine. I would never, in a gabillion years, think to look for a book using that criterion. I thought about Knut Hamsun (he did win a Nobel prize, after all, and I know I have Pan packed in a box someplace in the basement), but I'm trying to go for new authors and especially new books as much as I can.

A quick Google search yielded Karen Hesse, none of whose books I've not read. Yippee! New author! One I've never even heard of!

Once again, I didn't notice that an author writes young adult books (in this case, started publishing well after I would have been reading YA regularly). :eye roll: I'm not usually quite this unobservant. I can only figure I was so excited about acquiring a whole bunch of books at once that I didn't pay enough attention to individual titles.

Hesse's Out of the Dust is a Newbery Medal winner (nope, didn't notice that either, which would have been a tip off) and it's quite lovely (also quite quick -- at 227 pages of usually short lines, easily less than an hour). It's written in first-person free verse, like a poetic journal of sorts. The protagonist is Billie Jo, a 14-year-old farm girl living in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. She and her family endure enormous hardship and she learns a great deal about her strengths and challenges in the face of tragedy.

I'm not sure the voice is entirely genuine - Billie Jo is a fairly typical 14-year-old, emotionally, but her use of language is far more mature than that. To me, Billie Jo's is an adult voice expressing 'tweener thoughts. But that didn't bother me. The language is beautiful and the emotions ring true. And it's a very vivid account of the Dust Bowl that calls to mind Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck. which are mighty big references for YA fiction.

Out of the Dust also reminded me of how many stories I read growing up that fanned my interest in history: Johnny Tremaine, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, the Little House books, Mary Poppins, Little Women, Island of the Blue Dolphin, Hold Fast to Your Dreams, Adam of the Road... Experience with a middle school teacher later blew any love of history right out of me, which is unfortunate. Teddy loves the Horrible History books, and I hope he'll retain his interest.

In the meantime, Out of the Dust is a keeper.



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February 7th, 2015

06:35 pm: 2015 Reading Challenge: Weber's Treecat Wars (nonhuman characters)

I'm a long-time fan of David Weber's Honor Harrington series, whose protagonist is an officer in the Manticore Space Navy. She's a native of Sphinx, a planet with higher gravity (and thus stronger people) and a sentient native species called treecats (also strong, also known as people). Treecats are a fairly large (60 cm) sort of ferret/feline mix with six limbs (2 hands, 2 hand-feet, 2 feet) that look very snuggly and sweet until they rip someone's face off for threatening them or the people (human or 'cat) with whom they've bonded. They are both empathic and telepathic, though humans don't know the full extent of their sentience until a few generations after the 'cats are first discovered.

When I re-read Weber, I generally skim the battles and the engineering to focus on the treecats (and other relationships). Weber and others have written a few short stories that I've thoroughly enjoyed, so I was all kinds of excited when I found out that he'd co-written a full-length story with Jane Lindskold: Treecat Wars. While it's set in the "Honorverse," its characters are from the generation that discovered the treecats (specifically, Honor's ancestor, Stephanie Harrington). No Space Navy, no endless engineering descriptions, no battles.

w00t?

Well, not so much. It's fine. There's interesting back-story on the Honorverse and 'cats. But I didn't realize it's a young adult title (though I enjoy the Divergent, Hunger Games, Golden Compass, and Percy Jackson books* and adore Harry Potter), which may be why it felt so very, erm... young. Dunno.

It's a quick, easy read. You certainly could read it with no prior knowledge of the Honorverse. I kinda doubt you'd enjoy it much, but you wouldn't have any trouble understanding it. There are references to the other stories (specifically Linda Evans' "The Stray" from Worlds of Honor), which are not particularly important to the plot. And the plot does hum along and the book does provide details that aren't found elsewhere.

Overall, I'd give a "cautious recommendation" for those who love the 'verse or the 'cats and a "don't bother" for those who don't.

* not a fan of Twilight



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February 5th, 2015

07:58 pm: 2015 reading challenge (audio books)

I recently read about the 2015 reading challenge. I've never done a reading challenge, an error which clearly I must correct. I love the this particular challenge , because it provides a whole bunch of unusual ways to identify books (author has your initials, book is set in your home town, there's a number in the title, etc.). So I'm going to track what I read.

Although I won't count audio books toward my goals*, I figured I'd start with a quick summary of what I've heard so far this year during my long commutes. Many are things I'd planned to read anyway, but I wanted to try the Audible application and service. I've never liked audio books because they're juuuuust toooooo sloooooow, but if I'm just sitting there anyway, I might as get something out of it.

The longer my thoughts, the more likely they're negative.


Author

Title

Challenge Category

My Thoughts
Jane Austen Mansfield Park (dramatization)

  • >100 years old

  • became a movie

  • never finished

  • set in a different country

  • book I hadn't read from an author I love

  • female author

Because I love Jane Austen, I've tried and tried to read Mansfield Park, but I've never finished it. I know it's supposedly an indictment of indolent landowners blah blah blah but Fanny is such a prig (reminds me of Cordelia, whom I've never liked; the reference to Lear was apt), her cousins are mostly sort of evil in a benign and boring way, and I've just never been able to get into it.

The dramatization was, to my surprise, utterly engaging. Perhaps reading the Cliff notes would've given me a similar experience, but I suspect this is a story that's singularly well suited both to condensing and to focusing on dialogue.

Note that the volume is a bit uneven in the recording. Some dialogue seems to be deliberately muted, which bugged me. Thank goodness for volume control on the steering wheel!

danah boyd

It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

  • non-fiction

  • female author

I learned a lot from It's Complicated. I always learn from danah boyd... she's wicked smart and has an apparently unique perspective on teens and social networks. One stand-out moment for me here was that it's adults who focus on their devices to the exclusion of people, rather than teenagers. Teenagers use social media as a way of connecting with their friends; if they're with their friends, their use tends to be sending pictures and texts to share with friends who are not present. Their use is far more intermittent than adults'.

boyd uses more social-science language than I expected, like "networked publics" to refer to places (geographical or virtual) where people gather. The language actually helps to make parallels between, say, Facebook and malls; both are places where teens go to hang out with friends. It took me a while to re-adjust to the social science vocabulary.

I was taken aback by the constant references to demographics. Every example seems to start with name, race, age, gender, town, and location ("I talked to Mary, a white 16-year-old girl, at home in Northern California"). Demographics very rarely had anything to do with the story, so it felt as if boyd included the information to prove the diversity of her samples. It's probably a good idea (and is standard in social science writing), but it did get repetitive.

There's tons more to the subject and it is, in fact, complicated. I highly recommend the book to anyone with kids. There's specific information to help you understand teenagers in a technically-enabled world, with many (diverse) examples.

Giacomo Casanova Casanova: History of My Life (abridged)

  • something I was supposed to read in school but didn't
    (I did read everything that was assigned, but this could've been)

  • became a movie

  • set in a different country

  • based on a true story (probably, mostly)

  • bottom of to-read list

  • >100 years old

  • author I've not read

  • banned book

  • originally written in another language

I admit it: I bought this because Benedict Cumberbatch narrated it. I prefer Ode to a Nightingale, but that voice? Oy! I'll listen to just about anything he reads (I'm not a fan of Ngaio Marsh, but might have to make an exception).

I'm glad I listened to this, and not just because of Mr. Cumberbatch's beautiful baritone. The language is somewhat florid and I suspect I would have become impatient with reading it.

It reads as if it was written more than 200 years ago (gee, I wonder why?). In terms of literary history, it is arguably the first salacious memoir (earlier memoirs tended to focus either on battles or on intellectual discourse).

Although the writing is circumspect, there's no getting around the fact that this a smutty book. Whether you consider that a good or bad thing is up to your own judgment.

Cary Elwes As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

  • memoir

  • set in a different country

On the other end of the spectrum, there is nothing salacious about As You Wish. Elwes dishes no dirt except stereotypically dry, British, self-deprecating dirt.

I heard it primarily as an ode to Andre the Giant (Fessik), who died a few years after filming, with large doses of appreciation to Rob Reiner, Robin Wright, and (fight masters) Bob Anderson & Bill Tomlinson. Elwes has nothing negative to say about anyone except himself, and seems to have genuinely enjoyed working with the cast and crew on the movie.

This is a gentle, mildly humorous, intermittently entertaining description of making one of my very favorite movies. If you don't love The Princess Bride, or really really love to hear about the movie-making process specifically from an actor's point of view, the book would be a disappointment (why the heck you'd buy the book without those interests, I have no idea... it's not intended as great literature, after all).

Atul Gawande Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

  • non-fiction

  • book I hadn't read from an author I love

  • made me cry

I loved Complications and Checklist Manifesto. I liked Better just fine. So I was eager to read Gawande's latest. And I'm glad I did. No, really. This is an important book to read if you or someone in your life will ever die.

To no one's surprise, it is depressing. I cried several times while listening to it. Gawande relates many deeply moving stories, and some really hit home for me. The hardest parts for me to hear were probably the most essential ones.

There are also many uplifting stories; the happy ones were just as likely to make me cry as the sad ones (have I mentioned that I'm a sap?). I've resolved to make sure I participate in more happy ones, and hearing this book helped me understand how to increase my chances of achieving that goal.

Leonard Sax
(warning: horrific website)

Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic
of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men

  • non-fiction

You know how I am about parenting books; this one felt like a natural one to me. It had mostly good reviews, too.

While I think Sax has some good points and the book sure got me thinking, it also infuriated me on occasion. Sax is definitely a controversial figure (particularly in gender studies), so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

Here are the 5 factors Sax identifies as causal factors in boys' becoming less motivated:


  1. Video Games. Sax believes no one should play video games, except Sims & Wii bike racing, because he plays and likes them. :eye roll: Really undercuts his own argument there. OTOH, I'm very squidgy about first-person shooter games myself. The book was written in 2007, so doesn't cover Minecraft. He equates video games with watching pornography, which seems like a stretch to me.

  2. Teaching Methods. Sax is a fierce advocate for single-sex education, about which I have mixed feelings. I'm sure there are some boys (and girls) for whom it could be very effective, but it seems more like a stop-gap than a true solution. He doesn't specifically address the problem with treating boys like broken girls, but he certainly implies it. He's also very disturbed by the push for reading and writing in kindergarten, but doesn't address whether pre-K programs are providing similar exposure to a "school" environment that focuses on play and builds positive experiences for kids.

  3. Prescription Drugs. I'm a very crunchy-granola type o' parent, so it's no surprise that I agree that medications are over-prescribed. I was not aware of potential irreversible damage to the motivational centers in boys’ brains as a result of using these medications, which is alarming. I don't find Sax a credible source (given citations to dubious sources), so I would need to do further research on this myself.

  4. Endocrine Disruptors. Again, crunchy parent here. Environmental concerns will always be big for me. Environmental estrogens from plastic bottles seem like Bad Things, and Sax's arguments seem logical (estrogen slowing boys' maturation and speeding girls', creating further disparity).

  5. Devaluation of Masculinity. This is the one that really made me angry, though I think Sax has some good points buried in there. He points out that shifts in popular culture have created very different exemplars of manhood (Jim Anderson [Father Knows Best] in the 60s; Cliff Huxtable [The Cosby Show] in the 80s; Homer Simpson in the 00s). But his ideas of manhood are very... subjective. John Wayne isn't real and isn't a good example. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is.

His bottom line seems to be that men should always sacrifice for their wives and children, which is kind of horrifically sexist, yes? Should adults be willing to sacrifice in appropriate circumstances? Absolutely. But willingness and doing aren't the same thing - most of the time, there's time to consider choices and make worthy sacrifices. And why should men have a special requirement to sacrifice? Do women need some kind of extra protection? Are we less able to sacrifice?

Weird. Still, there is some good information here, as long as you don't get swept away by the author's occasional ridiculousness


I've listened to all of the episodes of Cabin Pressure, which isn't a book, of course, but is nonetheless completely hilarious and highly recommended to everyone who laughs with their eyes open (otherwise too dangerous to listen and drive).

* I'm not sure why, but it seems less legitimate to me. I'll also only be posting about books I'm reading for the first time (perhaps with thoughts on others that meet the criteria).



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January 18th, 2015

05:42 pm: First house-hunting trip in NH
12 houses (or lots) in 2 days. It's kinda hard to keep 'em all straight in my brain, but a few stand out...

First house we saw was in Durham, right on a river, across from 20 acres of conservation land. Fantastic views. Big, gorgeous fireplace providing most of the heat. In-law apartment in the basement. Somewhat small, but really interesting place. Sadly, way over-priced for the amount of work that needs doing (updating kitchen and baths, replacing baseboard heaters).

Incredible, really big house near Durham. Current owner is a veterinary pathologist and kind of an artistic hoarder. The house is like a museum, filled with all kinds of instruments and art and just plain weird shit. A bit expensive for us, and pretty isolated (at the end of a private road with maybe 4 other houses). Fabulous place though.... Giant dinosaur on a (very high) slanted ceiling. Had to have been at least 8 feet long. A big lamp made out of plumbing fixtures. Gorgeous gourmet kitchen with high beams... and a dining room chair resting on one beam. No idea if it's even fastened in any way. Beautiful collection of colored bottles.  Toy railway tracks decorating a stairway wall. A very large fire screen mounted on a quilt rack with framed photographs displayed on the screen. A collection of microscopes. Lovely, surprising, really fun house.

1840 house outside Exeter. 3 acres on the Pow Wow River. Another really fun house. Lots of nooks and crannies. Gorgeous library with lots of windows and a good-sized porch, overlooking the river. First floor, generally, was wonderful. Beautiful floors, lovely fireplace. Good price. Bathrooms need updating and upstairs would need cosmetic overhaul. Somewhat low ceilings, but Peter doesn't mind. Definitely staying on our list.

Nice house outside Exeter, newer (1988, I think). 2 acres. Terrific neighborhood. Good layout, good size. Needs too many (small) fixes for the price (and has carpet in all the bedrooms, which we'd have to replace with hard wood for the master bed room at least). If our house sells for more than expected, we would put this one back on our list.

Our #1, for the moment, is a really surprising house, also outside Exeter, that :gasp!: doesn't have a garage. It does have a barn that could probably be converted relatively cheaply, and room for a carport, if we went that route. It's another fun one, with a great kitchen, plenty of room, and a really interesting layout. It's also 2 doors down from the town library. And it's a reasonable price

We also looked at 5 lots, on which we could build (ranging from .25 to 2 acres). We're going to look at the floor plans online to see what's possible. The idea of picking the stuff we want is pretty compelling, and some of the prices are quite good.

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