Thursday, April 26, 2012

Book Review: Leaving Mundania

Stark, Lizzie. Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2012. Paperback. +272 pages. $16.95. Release Date: 1 May 2012.

Full disclosure: I received an advance digital copy of this book for reviewing purposes.

Leaving Mundania was one of the more interesting books I've read in a while.  Being a geek myself, I'm familiar with live action role-playing games.  Many of my friends in college played, and while I never made it to an actual LARP event, I knew the basics of how to play, had my own boffer sword (think a homemade Nerf sword--a pool noodle carefully duct-taped around a PVC pipe), and enjoyed practicing beating the crap out of my friends with it.

I never went to a LARP event, because when you got right down to it, it meant camping and tromping through the woods, and well, I didn't want to go.  I've always been much more of a table-top gaming girl myself (which I loved doing with these same friends).  In the intervening years, the LARP that I knew has gone under, unfortunately, so my husband and his brother don't spend weekends "playing whoop-ass" (as my mother-in-law likes to refer to it).

This is the LARP I knew--going out, dressing up in funny costumes, and beating the crap out of your best buds with a Nerf sword while traipsing through the woods after "treasure."  It meant many weekends making swords and sewing costumes (We learned how to make spider legs out of pantyhose) and a lot of fun.  While I never went, I knew exactly what was going on, whose characters had done what, and what the plot was.

What I didn't realize until reading Leaving Mundania, is that is only one kind of LARP.

I suppose, in retrospect, I should have realized that.  After all, I've played more than one table-top RPG and they all come together different.  Star Wars and Star Trek play on two different systems (d20 and d6, respectively), while Dungeons and Dragons takes a different approach, and anything involving Cthulhu is completely different.  Stark moves through several different kinds of LARP, from the boffer weapon LARP, to one that exists in a Nexus and allows people to play any kind of character they want, to the Society for Creative Anachronism, Cthulhu, and the more intense and strange Scandinavian LARPs.

First of all, Stark gets credit for being a nerd herself, though she obviously didn't start out as a LARPing nerd (few of us do, after all).  She recognizes someone playing Susan from Terry Pratchett's Discworld, she cracks Star Trek and Star Wars jokes, and one of her chapters is titled "Cthulhu fhtagn!"  So what I really liked about this book was that Stark went into it with respect.  She even devotes an entire chapter to the misconceptions people have about LARPs, Dungeons and Dragons, and even Magic, after the 1980s and 1990s when parents were all told that these kinds of games were converting their children to devil worship, not realizing that a D&D game looks more like the 8-Bit re-enactment than something out of a bad Johnny Depp movie.

Despite her respect, there are a couple of problems--she highlights the polyamorous relationship of three players, which has very little to do with the actual game and is something that people who might be uncomfortable with LARPing to begin with could then use an an excuse not to get involved, if they were just exploring it based on Stark's book.  But I am assuming that the people in this relationship said it was okay to use their full names, as Stark respects the wishes of those she interviews and withholds their names, as they don't want to be outed as LARPers.  In the United States, she notes, LARPers can be outcasts even in the geek community.

What's of more interest to me was Stark's journey through LARP in history, which points out that entertainments put on for queens and kings of Britain mimicked LARPs.  She also spends some time with the military and the exercises they use to immerse soldiers as much in a real world combat simulation as possible.  And then she goes to Scandinavia to take part in more artistic LARPs that focus much more on emotional character development than anything else.

For all the time that Stark spends playing in LARPs and her conclusion, I'm still not sure that she would consider herself a LARPer, though.  This still feels very much like the tale of an outsider, carefully trying to negotiate her way through a strange, new society.  While granted, this may be true, I think I was hoping for an ending where she hadn't just gotten more comfortable with herself because she'd been around all these weirdos who had no problem dressing up, but an ending where she actually still felt like LARP would be part of her life.  For all the tales of acceptance and fun of the LARP community, it still sounds like she's not entirely comfortable with it.

And granted, that's okay.  LARP isn't for everyone.  And overall, this book really does open LARP up to more people.  If you're interested in learning about the different forms of LARP and LARPing, this is a great book to get you started.

Leaving Mundania - B+

Monday, April 23, 2012

Book Review: Gravity by Brian Clegg

Clegg, Brian.  Gravity: How the Weakest Force in the Universe Shaped Our Lives. New York: St. Martin's, 2012. Hardcover. +336 pages. $25.99.  Release date: 22 May 2012.

Full disclosure: I received a digital advance copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Gravity is one of those books that is trying to do two things and doing neither very well.  At once, it's attempting to be a history of gravity as we know it and to explain gravity as well as possible in layman's terms, but reading through it, I found it a huge disappointment on both sides.

This is partly because of the organization.  Clegg jumps around from historical ideas to explanation with little to no transition.  I'm not sure that there would have been a better way to organize the book--after all, one must understand Newton before one gets to Einstein, but it's not well done.

I think the largest problem is that Clegg is not a historian of science, and I'm inclined to think that he had a bad experience with one somewhere in his career--either that, or he is one of those unfortunate souls who got to college, realized that things did not work the way he'd been told in high school and has continued to resent it the rest of his life.  Most of the beginning part of the book is correcting misconceptions from high school science and history, which I truly have no problem with.  After all, Clegg does address the fact that the Greeks and the medieval world knew that the world was round, for example.  He points out that Christianity and Islam in the Middle Ages did not repress science, but encouraged it, and he points out that the medieval world, while not yet at the point to recognize that the earth was not the center of the universe, did realize that the earth rotated.

Yet at the same time, Clegg's also correcting things that really don't matter.  No, according to the Gregorian calendar change, Galileo did not die the same year Newton was born.  But does it really matter?  And is the brief digression into Latin philology necessary?  And Clegg makes assumptions about the feelings of scientists without any evidence for them, sending him into one-sentence flights of fancy that is incredibly distracting from the rest of the text.  The same thing goes for a brief discussion about the inside-out nature of anti-space and his completely gratuitous mention of Galaxy Quest, without any real meat to the analogy.

Clegg is best at underscoring some of the newer developments, such as Horava Gravity, which he claims may, if future experiments work out, may someday reconcile Newtonian physics and general relativity.  These are relatively new developments, which I'd not heard of.  Granted, while I am an English professor, the history of science is one of my specialties, and I'm by no means ignorant of much of what he's saying.

One section which really bothered me was Clegg's digression regarding the rubber sheet analogy.  Oftentimes, physicists use the rubber sheet analogy to explain how space-time is warped by gravity.  Here's an illustration from Stanford (from an article about Gravity Probe B, which Clegg does discuss in the book) that might help explain.

If you want a really useful explanation, I'd click through to the article.  But the point is that everything with mass distorts space-time around it.  This is an example of it simply in one dimension.  But Clegg has problems with it, because in this illustration, if we pretend the probe in the picture is a marble rolling around to the center of the well, we forget that there is also a little distortion around the probe.

Clegg's point is not that this is necessarily wrong, but that it's overly simple--we forget that it's distorting space-time, not just space.  That's all well and good, but the digression wasn't necessary.  Clegg could have made the point without the need to attack the model. 

And I suppose that's the real problem with this book.  Clegg is constantly on the offense, either against bad history, bad illustrations, bad politicians who are cutting money from projects, and bad scientists who are letting them.  His explanations aren't clear, and the book itself would be immensely improved by illustrations for visual learners. 

All in all, if you want a good explanation of gravity and the way quantum mechanics may work with relativity, go read Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe or watch the NOVA series.  It may not be as up-to-date as Clegg's, but you'll learn more and you'll learn it more easily.

Gravity- D+

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

I'm Guest Blogging!

For anyone who's interested, I have a guest blog post over at  Tosche Station this morning on an academic defense of fanfiction.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Pulitzers and Review: Pirate King

The Pulitzer Prize winners were announced today, and for the first time in 35 years, there has not been a fiction prize awarded.  I've not read any of the three finalists for the Pulitzer, but I find it odd that none of them won.  After all, if you're a finalist for the Pulitzer, doesn't that, on some level, suggest that you are an author of a high enough caliber to win?

In any case, perusing the list, I was excited to see fellow academic and father of the critical theory of New Historicism, Stephen Greenblatt on the list for his new book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.  I'm a fan of Greenblatt's for several reasons--I use the Norton Shakespeare, for one thing, and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare is a delightful book.  That's not to mention that New Historicism is part of my own particular critical viewpoint (more folded in with cultural studies, though).  Obviously, anyone with as many honors as Greenblatt has doesn't need the help of a lowly graduate student blogger, but I think The Swerve is going to be a book I'm going to want to read. It deals with finding a manuscript by Lucretius called On the Nature of Things, which might be the first written work to definitively challenge the idea that nature required a God and which, among other things, posited the existence of atoms.  I think it might be helpful when it comes to my dissertation--at the very least, it's right up my scientific/literature alley.

On to the book review: Pirate King by Laurie King!  I've loved King's Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series ever since I picked up The Beekeeper's Apprentice five or six years ago.  Russell is Holmes apprentice of sorts, and she does eventually end up marrying him.  It's highly entertaining to watch Russell go through all sorts of madcap adventures (some more so than others), outwit Holmes at his own game, and generally solve all sorts of problems in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (though I have to wonder if Holmes isn't getting a bit old now, since Pirate King was set in 1924, though apparently only ten years have passed since the beginning of the series).

That said, Pirate King is definitely one of Russell's more madcap adventures, to the point where the plot is almost too tangled to pick apart.  But the plot is designed to be this way, as Russell (and Holmes, by extension) is investigating a mystery involving a silent film company who is making a movie which--if I understand this correctly, and I'm not sure that I do--is about a silent film company making an adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance.

Yes, I'll let the silent film of a silent film of a musical part sink in for a moment.

In any case, hiring of pirates, an insane voyage over the Mediterranean where Russell must shepherd 13 young actresses, a kidnapping and heroic escape all ensue.  One thing I did notice was that there was quite a bit of what we academics would refer to as gender-bending.  One of the actresses is actually an actor dressed up as a girl.  There's also quite a bit of reference to some of the characters possibly being gay.

This strikes me as odd for one reason in particular.  Though sexual attitudes got progressively more open after the turn of the century, 1924 was still only thirty years after Oscar Wilde's trial.  While World War I had opened up a lot of new ideas, the odds of a proper lady thinking about the possibility of homosexual activity would have been unusual.  Now, granted, Mary Russell is never truly depicted as a proper lady, but the previous novels had been very much more in character with contemporary literature of the fin de siecle.

I'm not suggesting that people didn't know or talk about homosexuality in that era--obviously that's not true.  I suppose to a certain extent, I've been so deeply stuck in Victorian literature for the past several months that anything that would have been considered "transgressive" during that time period strikes me as odd--anything Sherlockian seems like it needs to be firmly Victorian, though Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes stories were written from 1881-1927.  But I do think that this is symptomatic of a larger problem that King is having as she progresses through the Mary Russell series.  It almost feels as if the previous novels were more carefully researched and set than these later novels. King has said that Russell is what Holmes would be if he was a woman, of the twentieth century, and interested in theology.  I think the problem is in the twentieth century.  Mary Russell might be, dare I say it, too progressive for the time period?

Maybe I'm wrong, but something seemed a little bit off about this novel, and this was the only thing that straight out jumped out at me as being that little bit odd.  It still is a rip-roaring adventure, though a bit slower paced than I remember some of the other Mary Russell novels being (despite the seeming frenetic pace of the action Russell seems to be amidst), Holmes makes his surprise appearance, and Mary saves the day with her philological talents.  It's not the best of the Mary Russell novels, but it's hardly the worst detective story I've ever read. (I'm looking at you, Catherine Coulter and James Patterson).

Pirate King - B

Friday, April 13, 2012

Update and Copper Beach Review

1. Dear Google, I hate Blogger's new dashboard.  It sucks.

2. Well, as to where I've been the last few weeks, I've either been obsessively studying for prelims, taking prelims, or obsessively checking my email waiting for preliminary exam results.  The good news is that I passed the written exams!  I take my 18th Century oral exam on 19 April, and am still waiting for the Victorian exam to be scheduled, but I feel much more confident going into orals than I did going into the written exams.  It's one last hurdle.

3. In the meantime, I've really got to get cracking on my dissertation prospectus, as it's due at the end of the month, but let's face it, I kick ass when it comes to deadlines.

4. In other news this week, I was also awarded the McDaniel Award for Excellence in Teaching by my department, which recognizes excellence in teaching by graduate students.  This was a huge honor, and I was blessed to have a good friend and mentor present me with the award at the Liberal Arts Award Ceremony yesterday.  I certainly could not have asked for a better role model as either a grad student or a teacher.  Love you, A.T.!

5. I have so many reviews to catch up on.  In the next few weeks, I have several galley reviews to post for the following books:

Gravity: How the Weakest Force in the Universe Shaped Our Lives by Brian Clegg
Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games by Lizzie Stark
Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise by Mark Clark
Scotsmen Prefer Blondes by Sara Ramsay

So those are on the immediate to-do list for the next few weeks, starting with Brian Clegg's Gravity.

6. I've been able to take some really good advantage of the used bookstore and the used book section at Hastings recently.  I've come up with the first novels in some series by Christine Feehan and Kresley Cole, I managed to find my own copy of The Help, which I've been dying to read.  I got an awesome book called Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant (yes, it was the pun that won me over).  And I found one of Stephanie Lauren's Cynster novels that I've NEVER read.  I didn't think there was one out there I hadn't read, but I have a copy of it now too!

Plus, the university library has opened a new popular reading collection for new books that come in, which makes just browsing the shelves looking for something to read much easier.  Right now, I checked out Sherrilyn Kenyon's Retribution (again, since I didn't get to it last time) and Charlene Harris' Dead Reckoning.  Oh, and did I mention that I finally found a used paperback copy of Janet Evanovich's Smokin' Seventeen?  I realize that a lot of time my reviews are way behind the publication dates of novels, but there you go.

And--let's not forget that I've read Copper Beach by Jayne Ann Krentz recently too, and I need to review that as well.

7. Well, on that note, there's no time like the present.  So, Copper Beach!  I borrowed this from the library's popular reading collection as well, and I did enjoy it.  It's the first book in Krentz's Dark Legacy Trilogy and the plot is fairly standard--Abby is a rare book seller with psychic powers, Sam Coppersmith is after a book to help his family understand/keep bad guys from getting the power to unlock the psychic power in certain rocks his family owns.  The characters are your stock romance novel characters, and that's just fine--after all, that's what we read romance novels for--the feisty female who needs protection but doesn't want it, and the alpha male who is determined to provide that protection, be it from physical or emotional bad stuff.

What was difficult was transitioning from Krentz's Arcane Society series to this one, as this one doesn't seem to fit into the Arcane Society universe.  There is no mention of the aforementioned Arcane Society or Jones and Jones.  But Krentz seems to still be using a lot of the same ideas about psychic phenomenon that she developed while writing the Arcane Society books, such as dreamlight energy.  This makes me wonder if this will intersect back in with Arcane Society or if she's working on creating a new universe here.

To be honest, I'm not upset that Krentz is moving away from the Arcane Society.  The last few novels have been somewhat disappointing: you can see my reviews of Quicksilver and In Too Deep and  Canyons of the Night at the links provided.  But especially after reading In Too Deep and Canyons of the Night, I had really started to wonder if the Arcane Society stories were kind of played out, especially after In Too Deep, which just fell kind of flat for me.  Copper Beach was much more--I keep wanting to type flavorful here.  Flavorful in that you got lots of stuff besides the romance and mystery.  Sam had to come and help rescue Abby from her insane family, for example.  There was much more depth to this novel than there has been to the last few Arcane Society books, and that's a definite improvement in my view.

Copper Beach - B+

ETA: I should also note that I need to review Laurie King's Pirate King, but that'll have to wait until later.  :D

Friday, April 6, 2012


Prelims are over. AAAAAHHH.

Cue the obsessive checking of my email to see if I passed.  I will post as soon as I know.

In the meantime, I have spent some time reading for fun.  Ended up reading Jayne Ann Krentz's Copper Beach, and I've started on Laurie King's new Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novel Pirate King.  I've also read the last two Wallflower novels from Lisa Kleypas which I managed to get used, so look for reviews on all of these coming up.  Also, I've got four (count 'em, four!) galleys to review in the next few weeks, so it may be a very exciting week over here at Bookshelf Love.

And that said, if you enjoy what I do and have a GoodReads account (or even just have a Facebook account that you can connect to a GoodReads account), then vote for me in the Independent Book Blogger awards!  I'm not terribly confident in my chances, but one never knows.  Voting begins April 10th!

Independent Book Blogger Awards
Vote for this blog for the Independent Book Blogger Awards!

I will catch up more this weekend.  I'm now in the place where I'm going back to academic books for my dissertation (yay!) instead of studying for prelims, and it's kind of weird readjusting.  Still, I wouldn't trade the readjustment for the world.  Now if I just passed so I don't have to take them over again!