Contented Reader

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Archive for September 2011

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Catherynne M. Valente

Feiwel and Friends




It isn’t often that I wish for children of my own.  I don’t know whether you are aware of this or not, but children ooze out of every single orifice on their bodies, are often very loud, and it is generally impossible to reason with them.  But when I started to read this book, I was aware that this book just begs to be read aloud to a child, ideally at bedtime.  Valente’s language is so rich and effervescent that it seems designed to be spoken.  Every sentence is its own little comic jewel.

The heroine, September, is blown away to Fairyland by the friendly but dangerous Green Wind.  She hopes to have an adventure or two, in the spirit of a story, but when she embarks on her adventure to retrieve the lost Spoon of a witch, she finds that Fairyland has a big problem in the form of its oppressive Marquess, who deposed the merry Queen and rules Fairyland with an iron fist.  Will September be brave enough to overthrow the Marquess?

This book reminded me a little bit of Alice and Wonderland in its playfulness, and a little bit of Matilda in the strength of its main character.

If you have a daughter between 7 and 11 years old, you have a parental obligation to get this book and read it to her.  I might get a copy, to hold onto until my two-year-old niece is the right age for circumnavigating fairyland.


I am just a girl from Omaha.  I can only do a few things.  I can swim and read books and fix boilers if they are only a little broken.  Sometimes, I can make very rash decisions when really I ought to keep quiet and be a good girl.  If those are weapons you think might be useful, I will take them up and go after your Spoon.

Written by Contented Reader

September 29, 2011 at 6:42 am

Posted in Reviews

Other stuff I’ve read this week

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  • Graeter’s Ice Cream: An Irresistable History, by Robin Davis Heigel
  • Lulu in Hollywood, by Louise Brooks

Written by Contented Reader

September 28, 2011 at 7:16 am

Posted in What I'm reading

To Say Nothing of the Dog

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To Say Nothing of the Dog

Connie Willis




This book isn’t a new one; it won the Hugo and the Locus in 1999.  I picked it up because some blogger mentioned it as entertaining and funny, and I remembered how much I’d enjoyed reading Blackout and All Clear this summer while I was preparing to vote on my first Hugo  (I did end up voting for Willis, and she won.  Good job agreeing with me, rest of fandom!)

As the title might give away, the book is inspired by Jerome K. Jerome’s 19th century novel Three Men in a Boat.  That older book I only read for the first time this year, and it is utterly funny as only a Victorian can be, about three upper-class twits whose vacation on the river goes comically awry.  If you haven’t read it yet, go read it now, and then come back and finish reading my blog entry.  Jerome is more important.

Good, you’re back.  Wasn’t that great?  Aren’t you already making plans to re-read it, ideally on a summer day while lounging on the grass by the river drinking Pimms?

To Say Nothing of the Dog is also set in the world of upper-class Victorian England.  A time-traveler in need of rest and quiet has just one simple delivery to carry out, and then he can spend his two-week vacation sleeping late, reading, strolling in the garden.  But of course that simple delivery is not at all simple, and complications arise, and rest and quiet are the very last things it is possible to get.  There is a trip on the river, a table-rapping spirit, a pampered cat, a possibly socialist butler, an Irish housemaid, and the ugliest piece of Victorian liturgical art known to history.  It’s all very light, very fun, and very entertaining.

I did figure out the conclusion to one of the book’s main puzzles about fifty pages before the book revealed it to me, but that was all right, and just made it more fun to watch the inevitable conclusion unfold itself.  I also felt good about that, because I am not usually good at figuring out mystery stories.  I get bored, and my attention wanders, and by the time the detective says, “It was the chauffer who killed Mrs. Lemon!”  I’m asking, “Who’s Mrs. Lemon?  They have a chauffer?”

I don’t think I had ever heard of Connie Willis before this summer, though she’s apparently been around for years.  But after three positive experiences, I’ll definitely pick up the next thing I see with her name on it.

Written by Contented Reader

September 28, 2011 at 6:54 am

Posted in Reviews

Free ebooks!

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Here are a few things that are new or updated on Project Gutenberg this week and might be fun to read.  They’re available for free in a variety of file formats, including something that’s compatible with your reader.

  • Emma, by Jane Austen.  One of the best novels ever.
  • Asgard Stories, by Mabel H. Cummings.  A collection of children’s retellings of Norse tales.
  • Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, by Harry Graham.  From a contemporary of Gilbert and Sullivan, a collection of poetry and black humor.
  • Strictly Business, by O. Henry.  A collection of short fiction from the master of the twist ending.
  • The Jewel of Seven Stars, by Bram Stoker.  The tale of an Egyptian mummy – Stoker was forced to change from the gruesome ending to a happy ending.  Which ending is in the Project Gutenberg edition?
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.  If you were forced to read this book in high school, you should consider reading it again.  It is brilliant on many levels from base humor to great wisdom.

Written by Contented Reader

September 27, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Posted in Project Gutenberg

On the read-me shelf

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My new camera arrived today!  I haven’t read the whole manual yet, but I did figure out how to charge the battery and take a picture.  The picture quality is much, much better than my old camera- even before the old one started being broken.  And here are the books I have on the read-me shelf right now.


Written by Contented Reader

September 26, 2011 at 7:29 pm

Posted in What I'm reading

The Magicians

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The Magicians

Lev Grossman


Once upon a time, I was a young fundamentalist, and my mother would read the Chronicles of Narnia aloud to me, and I would read them myself.  Insatiably, voraciously.  I couldn’t even begin to estimate how many times I have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Thirty?  More?  My favorites were The Silver Chair and The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’.  I wanted to be Lucy, small but valiant, meeting astonishing people, learning amazing things.

Once I got a lot older, the books lost a lot of their charm.  The Christian allegory which was exciting to me at 12 was heavy-handed and annoying as an adult reader.  The middle-class British wholesomeness seemed like a facade.  But those books were the best friends of my childhood and even of my adolescence, and there’ll always be a part of me that wants to be Lucy.

Lev Grossman gets it.  The Magicians is a little bit of Harry Potter and a lot of C.S. Lewis, moved into a world much more like our own, in which, yes, magic works, but young adults drink and use drugs and curse and have ill-advised sex, and in which things don’t always work out for the best, and adventures don’t always have happy endings, and the one thing you can count on is that getting the thing you want most will be a crushing disappointment.  Welcome to Brakebills, which is Hogwarts for real American teenagers, and welcome to Fillory, which is Narnia populated by adults who don’t care about your adventure.

Reading this book a second time, while I wait for my turn to read The Magician King to come up on the public library’s reserve list, I was blown away, even more than the first time I read it.  There’s a level of truth to this fantasy that is sometimes painful, but somehow comforting, too.  Yes, this is your real life.  It isn’t going to end with ‘further up and further in.’  It’s going to be confusing, and disappointing, and sometimes it will delight you, and it’s going to be a lot more complicated than you ever would have expected after a childhood of reading Narnian adventures.

It really is an astonishing book.

Written by Contented Reader

September 25, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Posted in Reviews

The Parable of the Shower

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“The Parable of the Shower”

Leah Bobet

Driving home from a visit to my parents, I found myself listening to a recent episode of Podcastle, Leah Bobet’s short story, “The Parable of the Shower.”

I wasn’t even sure that I was in the mood for fiction, and had been listening to pop songs from the 1940s, but the miles flew past beneath my wheels as I laughed at this tale of a young woman in Compton wrestling with an Angel of the Lord who appears in her shower with a mission from God she doesn’t want to accept.

The story has a serious message, about religion and free will, but it was the humor and the language that made me pause in the parking lot for an extra five minutes, when I got home, to hear the end.

The angel of the LORD cometh upon you in the shower at the worst possible moment: one hand placed upon thy right buttock and the other bearing soap, radio blaring, humming a heathen song of sin.

Fear not! he proclaimeth from the vicinity of the shampoo caddy, and the soap falleth from thy hand.

Motherfu—thou sayest, and then thou seest the light, the wings, the blazing eyes like sunlight and starlight both at once, and since thy mother raised thee right thou coverest thy mouth with one hand and makest the sign of the cross with the other. It is the soap-hand which covereth thy mouth: thou gett’st soap in thy mouth, and spittest—away from the angel of the LORD—and do not curse again though it is terrible hard.

The angel of the LORD he does laugh.





Written by Contented Reader

September 25, 2011 at 11:00 am

Posted in Reviews

Going Postal

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Going Postal

Terry Pratchett


I’ve read this book before.  This time, I was noticing Stanley, the archetypal Creepy Nerd.  I suppose that after decades as a fantasy writer, Terry Pratchett has probably had lots of encounters with creepy nerds.  There’s a book I’d love to read:  “True tales of life as a famous speculative fiction icon.”  With essays contributed by a variety of writers, actors, directors… for the first time, I almost wish for publishing clout.

Stanley is a natural obsessive stamp collector before the invention of stamps, so he collects pins.  He knows immense quantities of minutiae about pins.  He has a dark side, a part of his mind that shouldn’t be explored.  He needs his mind to be occupied with something other than darkness.  And so he finds something that can fully occupy his mind.  And then stamps are invented, by the new postmaster of the new post office, and he finds his purpose in life, and all is well.

I’ve known people like Stanley.  Nerds are my people, too.  People who… well, as ardent as they were in their hobbies, I could just sense something wrong with them, under the surface.  Something off, in a disturbing way.  Once or twice, I had a few unpleasant run-ins.  I’ve been Stanley, too.  I know how it feels when your brain just won’t slow down, and seems to be running programs that can’t possibly lead to any good for anyone.  Getting deeply involved with learning something new is a great way to deal with that.

Besides the Creepy Nerd, Going Postal also profiles the other kind of nerd- the ‘clacks’ engineers, in their semaphore towers, are images of the computer engineer- solitary, odd, devoted people who labor long and hard for little pay or thanks, for the joy of seeing the thing work, and though they know their work is controlled by people who use it for profit, or to harm, and always without understanding it even a little bit, they continue to work.  Because the work isn’t work, it’s life.  This is the kind of nerd who built the internet, and keeps it running, and I hope they see themselves in this book and are pleased with the picture.

So there’s the best and worst of geekdom in this book, the devoted programmer and the creepy obsessive.  That’s the way our subculture works; we make room for people whose brains work differently, and that attracts some awfully odd people and some surprisingly brilliant ones.  It’s a community of people for whom community, in general, doesn’t always work especially well.  Writers can occupy a strange position in that community, not always part of it and yet at its center.  It was nice to see the affection with which Pratchett created Stanley, who, despite his disturbing oddness, is a very likable character.

Written by Contented Reader

September 22, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Posted in Reviews

Other stuff I’ve read this week

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  • Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler
  • The Chairs Are Where the People Go, told by Misha Glouberman to Sheila Heti
  • Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde
  • Politics, by Aristotle.  Book one, anyway.
  • Wondermark, several different bound collections, by David Malki
  • Bucky Katt’s Big Book of Fun, by Darby Conley
  • I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight, by Margaret Cho
Started, but didn’t finish, Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole.  I see why people love this book, and maybe I would love it, too, on a different day, but I was having a crap week when I was trying to read it, and its narrator was just getting on my nerves, so back to the library it went.

Written by Contented Reader

September 21, 2011 at 7:11 am

Posted in What I'm reading

They Might Be Giants and Jonathan Coulton

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I don’t go to concerts.  I am not a concert goer.  I like music, but I hate crowds, noise, and staying up late at night, which, in general, means that concerts are not that appealing.

I do sometimes go to the symphony, where I get my own chair and get home at a decent hour, and no one is drunk.

But when I heard that They Might Be Giants was coming to Cincinnati, I decided to put aside my usual objections for a chance to see my longtime favorite band live.  Then when I found out that Jonathan Coulton was opening for them, I knew I’d made the right decision in buying the ticket.

Then when the concert sold out, I felt quietly smug toward the people who were complaining on Facebook that they’d wanted to go, though this desire hadn’t yet taken the form of actually buying a ticket.  You snooze, you lose, suckers.

I went and got in line two hours before the concert began, which put me not first, but close enough to the doors that I could have thrown a ball and hit them, if I were a better pitcher.  Once the doors actually opened, I was glad I’d come early: I’ve never been to Southgate House before, and I didn’t realize that most of the concert-goers wouldn’t get chairs.

The room was an old ballroom in a 19th century house, with stage and a dance/listening floor, then a gallery above with tables and chairs.  And bars on both levels.  Since I was early, I snapped up a chair with a comfortable view of the stage, and then invited a few random strangers to share it with me.  That meant that, besides having a good view of the musicians, I also had an interesting view of most of the audience.

First was Coulton, as implied by the term ‘opening.’  He was simply fabulous.  His earliest music is just him and his guitar, and he started the concert that way, too.  I love the simplicity of one musician with one instrument.  He opened with “Skullcrusher Mountain,” and went on to play a few things from his new album and a few of his “hits.”  He has never actually charted- why would he, when he’s a self-published musician who’s mostly famous on the internet? – but I think we can all still call “Code Monkey” a “hit.”  He was done after 30 minutes, much too short.  I would gladly have come to hear him in concert alone, after all.  But it’s okay.

Then the delay while the stage was rearranged, giving me time to hit the bathroom and get a beer.  Moerlein OTR, the pride of Cincinnati.

We’re also proud of our chili, our baseball team, our big ugly river, and our arts.

Surprisingly good artistic options in just about every way, considering that we aren’t a large city.  First-rate symphony and opera, exceptional contemporary art center, a few interesting companies doing modern and sometimes quite daring theatre.  You should visit.  Book a nice expensive hotel room downtown; eat at a Jeff Ruby restaurant.

And then They Might Be Giants took the stage.  Everything was loud music and flashing lights, like a real rock concert but everyone in the room a huge nerd.  They were fabulous, they really were.  I found myself inexplicably happy, watching the faces and bodies of the two Johns that go with the music I’ve been listening for so long that it’s part of my brain in a fairly fundamental way.  I hadn’t realized how many different instruments Flansburgh plays; he was on keyboard, accordion, and bass clarinet and sounded great on all of them.  Linnell did most of the talking.  Flansburgh was better looking.  There was a funny moment at which they made a mistake and sang competing verses of “Meet James Ensor,” but Linnell played it off with self-deprecating grace and then they started over and sang it well.

They brought a video screen, which I didn’t love because it made it harder to see their faces, and they did some silliness with hand-puppets that I could have lived without, but their list of songs was well chosen, and the audience was bouncing up and down appreciatively, singing along sometimes but not too much, and waving spoons in the air.

I didn’t understand the group of people with the spoons.  But they seemed to be having a good time, and that’s what’s important.

They stopped too early, but that was all right, because we had the fun of calling them back for two encores.  I was so delighted when they played “Birdhouse in My Soul,” a song they have to be well and truly sick of playing by now, but which is still awesome after all this time.  Thanks, Johns.

I had a wonderful time.

I also called in “sick,” since I don’t really feel like trying to teach on quite as little sleep as I ended up getting last night.  I don’t feel any guilt about that.  They can learn about adjectives from the book, from a sub, and I can come in tomorrow when I’ve had a reasonable amount of sleep.  I’m not doing them any favors by coming in impaired, and this was a special case- it isn’t as if I make a habit of it.  In fact, I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever gone to a rock concert before at all, that wasn’t at a street festival in the afternoon.  Not since I graduated from college, and those were all “Christian rock,” which sucks.  Except for Steve Taylor.  I still think he was a good writer and performer who was wasted on fundamentalism.  In my fantasy, he becomes an atheist and then starts a glorious new career.

I brought home a sack of essays, so I can do some useful work that doesn’t involve being as fully alert as teaching requires.  I figure I’ll go back to bed for a while, then get up, have breakfast, and alternate between grading essays and quiet pleasures like reading, taking a walk, and watching a little television.  With any luck, my students tomorrow will get, not just a teacher on the top of her game, but returned essays a bit earlier than usual, too.

I will probably listen to They Might Be Giants and Jonathan Coulton on my iPod while I grade essays.  Wouldn’t you?

Written by Contented Reader

September 21, 2011 at 7:01 am

Posted in Reviews