Friday, May 29, 2009

Spam of the Day

"Stay amative!"

-I enjoy spam with a little pizazz. That's the kind of spam I'd want to take home to dinner.

Book Review: Lord of Scoundrels [1995]

Written by Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels is an engaging romance novel, recently recommended to non-romance reading NPR host Rebecca Roberts by the Smart Bitches (authors of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels, coming soon to a Western Massachusetts library near you). I got it yesterday, started it at 6 PM, and was done in time for the 11 o'clock news. Of course, I also barely paused for dinner and civilized conversation with my spouse. Despite some strange conventions (the capitalization of Male and Female also noted by Cassandra), a somewhat tedious subplot, and a heroine with the name "Jessica" Lord of Scoundrels is quite delightful.

Sebastian, Marquess of Dain, is a notorious rake. However, rather than make us guess what prompts his devastatingly awful behavior, Chase gives the reader a thoughtful back story and only gradually reveals it to her female protagonist, Jessica Trent. Also unlike some reformed rake stories, the novel is equally strong from both Dain and Jessica's viewpoints. The humor and electricity between the lead characters as they have increasingly heated encounters is admirably well orchestrated, and the final impediment between the lovers doesn't seem overly contrived. A light, fluffy read, perfect for a rainy day or beach vacation.

Grade: A-

Oh, and Rebecca Roberts liked it as well. Also, I don't care if Shakespeare used Jessica in The Merchant of Venice. I still don't like it as a Regency heroine's name.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book Review: Outlander [1991]

Are you interested in time-traveling historical romance? Do you yearn for the love of a good Scottish clansman? Diana Gabaldon's Outlander may be just the book for you. Despite the fact that it was published in 1991, Outlander feels timeless; it's a brick of a book that unstintingly immerses the reader in the often brutal clan life of 18th century Scotland. Protagonist Claire Randall, a former WWII nurse, is cast back from 1945 to 1743 after an unfortunate encounter with a group of standing stones. Despite being married in the 20th century, Claire becomes involved with dashing outlaw Jamie Fraser, ultimately making the choice (spoiler alert!) to remain with him rather than return to her own time. While there were a few places that Claire seemed to too conveniently forget her husband's existence, one could argue that that was a defense mechanism against her seemingly impossible situation . . . the best feature of the book is its ability to bring up such interesting questions; its worst is perhaps an over-reliance on coincidence (how many times can one reasonably expect to accidentally run into the villain?).

Despite the fact that she is US-born, Gabaldon has as good a grasp of Scots dialect as any historical author, as well as a strong sense of character development, managing to make a veritable host of minor characters strikingly memorable. Gabaldon leaves several questions unanswered: why is Claire able to travel through time? Does she have a larger purpose? Is she able to (or has she already) affect events enough to change her future significantly? A quick look at Fantastic Fiction shows that the book has at least six sequels, so presumably some of these questions will be answered. Finally, I've known for years that my mother enjoyed this series (and I can see why, Outlander was totally up her alley), and it is always nice to read something that I know she's also read.

Grade: A-

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Book Review: I Capture the Castle [1948]

I Capture the Castle, the first novel by Dodie Smith (of One Hundred and One Dalmatians fame) is utterly charming. Published in 1948 during Smith's stay in America, the novel is purportedly published directly from the pages of nineteen-year-old aspiring author Cassandra Mortmain's journal. While this sometimes causes the reader agonies of suspense ("A new chapter happened yesterday which I long to dash straight into, but I shall resist the temptation and bring myself up to date first."), the journal serves as an excellent window into the peculiar lives of the Mortmain family, including writer's-block plagued Father, social-climbing Rose, eccentric stepmother Topaz, sensible schoolboy Thomas, and pets Heloise and Abelard. Stuffed full of literary references, romance, well-developed characters, and the occasional philosophical musing, I Capture the Castle comes to a satisfying, but not cloying, conclusion.

Grade: A

ETA: I have the movie, and will post a review of it as well if I manage to watch it. I am trying not to go into it with a great deal of prejudice.

Further ETA: If you are choosing: read the book, the movie was a bit flat.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Movie Review: Milk

I'll just come out (heh) and say it: I didn't really like Milk, as a movie. The acting wasn't that strong, and it lagged enough at times that I found myself hoping that he would get assassinated earlier, so that we could get on with it. Somehow Dan White's story and character were more interesting than Harvey Milk's (despite Sean Penn's best efforts), and I always have trouble watching movies where there is one female character with a speaking role. Yes, I realize this encompasses Star Wars as well. Despite all this, the message of Milk is important, which I'm sure is why it was critically acclaimed. We didn't get where we are today--did anyone predict gay marriage in Iowa?--without the dedicated efforts of activists from an earlier time. It is still important for people in the GLBT community to come out publicly, especially celebrities, to let those in mainstream America (particularly teenagers) know that there are real people being affected by the Proposition Sixes and Eights of the world. Or we could just make them watch Milk.

Grade: C

ETA: Shame on California voters, anyway, for passing Prop. 8. I guess it's not going to be repealed in the immediate future. At least everyone who got married in the interim gets to stay married. Everyone else gets civil unions.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Spam of the Day

"Stop giving CVS YOUR MONEY! Get cheap meds - we don't want profit we want to help you."

--I'm not sure I believe the second part, but the first part is certainly a noble goal.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Restaurant Review: La Casita Azteca

Located on Cottage street in Easthampton, MA, La Casita Azteca is a relatively recent addition to the neighborhood. This family operation is tucked away from the street and has modest seating (6 tables inside, picnic seating outside, as well as a convenient hammock) but good food and reasonable prices. Chips and salsa made an excellent beginning--the server brought us some of the chef's special hot sauce, a tasty combination of oil and chili that cleared the sinuses. None of the salsas were terribly spicy to my companions' Western palates, but they were flavorful nonetheless. The entrees were also filling and delicious, our only complaint being the lack of vegetarian options for main dishes (which would save the trouble of ordering them with just rice and beans rather than having to specify "no chicken" for example), which could be remedied by a simple menu tweak. I'm sure we will be back to sample further, and perhaps even order dessert.

Grade: B

Any restaurant that offers Orangina is a winner in my book.

Menu here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Book Review: Laura Rider's Masterpiece [2009]

Once in a while I pick up a piece of contemporary literary fiction, just to keep my hand in for the purposes of reader's advisory, or to see what's out there and confirm that I'd rather be reading Fantasy & Science Fiction. Almost inevitably, as was the case with Jane Hamilton's Laura Rider's Masterpiece, I finish the book with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. Laura Rider has been married to Charlie for twelve years, and is tired of his sexual attentions. She also aspires to writing a "conscious romance" that explores the motivations of Everywoman. Enter Jenna Faroli, local radio show host and woman of interest to both Laura and Charlie, who begin an email correspondence with her that is engineered (by Laura) into a romance for her observation. Predictably, this does not end well. I would describe the novel as a character study of three fairly unsympathetic characters, but I felt that Hamilton never really spent enough time from a single character's perspective to make me sympathetic to his or her motivations. Charlie quickly fades to the background, and the book is nominally about Laura Rider, but the lack of depth and occasionally flowery descriptive prose prevent the reader from truly becoming connected. I did like the cover art, however.

Grade: B-

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Meditation on the Past Self

It seems to me that there has been a lot of meditating on our past selves going around. Stephen Fry wrote a letter to the 16-year version of himself. Miss Cassandra wonders what the 13 year old version of herself would think of the current version. And, of course, there's Dinosaur Comics. I wonder what my thirteen year old self would think of the current me? I have a feeling she would think I'm not reading nearly enough. Same with my sixteen year old self, who was still in the habit of bringing a book wherever she went, even to social outings, and reading it whenever she didn't feel like something more worthwhile was happening. My past selves were uniformly convinced that books were better company than almost any people (possibly even all people), and that is the major difference between them and current me: I've learned to appreciate the value of people over books. Yes, books will always be there for me when I need to escape. But people can be there too, and they give better hugs. I also hope that the current version of me is a lot more comfortable with herself than younger me. Hey, future self! When you read this, remember to take the containers to the curb on Wednesday night!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Book Review: I'd Rather We Got Casinos [2009]

I'd Rather We Got Casinos and Other Black Thoughts, by the Daily Show's Chief Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore, isn't something that I would have spent money on, but I did check it out from the library and got a few hearty chuckles. The book is a collection of essays, (completely fake) interviews, and random thoughts on race, some of which are amusing, some of which are a little head-scratching, and most of which go on a little too long. However, there are some hilarious moments, such as Wilmore's repeated attempts to get the NAACP on board with his plan to change "African-American" to "chocolate" ("At least four out of five black people like it and an impressive five out of five nonblacks do. In other words, everybody loves chocolate!") and the intriguing essay "How Come Brothas Don't See UFOs?"

Grade: C+

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Book Review: The Other Boleyn Girl [2001]

Somehow, author Philippa Gregory manages to take one of the Western world's best known stories, give it a new spin, and make it fresh and appealing. The Other Boleyn Girl is told from the perspective of Anne's (possibly) younger sister, Mary, but is ultimately a finely drawn portrait of a group of people that represent a pivotal moment in Europe's secular and religious history. Despite an enormous stable of characters, the reader never feels overwhelmed or bogged down with inconsequential details. The story is entertaining, informative, fast-paced, sweeping, and peppered with delightful period detail. Through her choice of narrator, Gregory manages to create suspense even though most readers will know very well how the story ends (spoiler alert: Anne Boleyn is not spared), and Mary also often serves as her mouthpiece to discuss the lot of noble women in Tudor society. Occasionally, I found it difficult to believe that Mary (who is often portrayed as the less acute sister) embraced such "feminist" notions as caring for her own babies and marrying for love, but overall I found her to be an engaging narrator.

Another interesting character was that of George Boleyn, who might as well have been "the Other Other Boleyn Girl," as his story was heavily intertwined with Anne's and Mary's. Gregory opts to portray him as a repressed homosexual, which, I gather, is not completely popular among historians. True or not, it does add an interesting dimension to the tale of the three siblings, only one of which sees their way through to a complete and loving relationship, and allows Gregory to give a similar weight to George's character. Despite the nuances of her portrayal of the Boleyns, Henry, and Katherine of Aragon, it is the short scenes and minor characters that give the story its depth, such as a scenes in which the courtiers skillfully contrive to lose games played against Henry VII, or labor at embroidering an enormous altar cloth. For me, the most intriguing thing about the book, after more than 700 pages, was its ability to make me so interested in the subject matter that I wanted to find out what was fact and what fiction.

Grade: A

Further Reading:
An interview with Gregory about the book.
Fraser, Antonia. The Wives of Henry VIII
Weir, Alison. The Six Wives of Henry VII.

Book Review: Girl from Mars [2008]

Girl from Mars, written by Tamara Bach, was originally published in German, but it doesn't lose anything in translation. It's a slim book (which only took me about two hours to read) told in the first person voice of fifteen-year old Miriam, who is suffering from intense ennui.
When you live in a city, life must be different. Different from here. In this small town, every day is the same. I get up but I'm not awake. I eat but I don't know if I'm hungry. I drink but my mouth stays dry. It's winter but I'm still asleep. Every day the same.
Miriam's parents are affectionately disinterested, and her older brother lives in the basement. Enter Laura, the new girl in school, who kisses Miriam and then pretends nothing happened, leading to a crisis in the teenager's life. What I liked about this book, as opposed to other GLBT "first time" stories, was its bits of stream-of-consciousness narration. Miriam's commentary is not italicized as "thoughts" as it might be in other contemporary works, but instead flows organically.
Laura pulls her legs onto the couch and clinks my glass with hers. "Cheers!"
Maybe we're drinking too much.
I want to kiss you.
I shouldn't drink so much. I should have eaten something.
I'm sorry. I'm so sorry that it's making me completely sad.
Bach (or her translator) does an excellent job of conveying the angst, the confusion, and the joy of falling in love with someone who is completely opaque to you.

Grade: A