Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Confession Time

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a confession to make.

I love Harlequin romances.

And I am not ashamed to admit it.

*I say this, of course, with the addendum that I am not a fan of Harlequin's business practices; authors are not compensated nearly as well as they should be, particularly for electronic copies of their works, and I hope that's something that Harlequin works to change in the future.

I've read nine Harlequins on my Kindle in the last week.  I've got a few more that I'm dying to get into, but which I'm making myself wait on, because the beach is in my very near future, and my idea of a perfect vacation is sun, sand, surf, and a romance novel. 

And I've been pondering the idea why.  This is coming from someone who spends a great deal of her time buried in dry academic texts (right now, I have a volume of Tennyson, William Paley's Natural Theology, Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural Creation and Arthur Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being on the desk next to me).    Harlequins often feature implausible plots with characters, who, in the real world, would be candidates for institutionaliztion.

And I love every minute of it.

It's easy. It's fun. The good guys always win. The girl always gets Mr. Right. For 50,000 words, everything goes perfectly. 

And yet some people make fun of other people who read these.  Book snobs will look down on them and say that there's no value in this kind of cultural commodity.

Well, screw it. You know what? If I can escape into a world where everything goes right for a couple of hours, why not?  Isn't that something of value right there?  It makes me happy.  One can get into the philosophical utilitarian arguments, but popular culture studies tell us that this kind of cultural consumption means we're looking for something as a society.  So what is it that these romance novels, whether Harlequin or longer works, give us that makes them stay in the best-selling lists?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: Crochet One-Skein Wonders

I...am a busy lazy blogger who has been otherwise occupied.  I have a lot of things I want to blog about right now: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Brad Paisley's new album, and Gail Simone's Batgirl #19.  This is, of course, in addition to the regular blogging that I normally do--I've just read Julie Garwood's Sweet Talk, and Janet Evanovich's Notorious Nineteen, some of my best friends are writing like maniacs, and in the meantime, I sent off a dissertation chapter two weeks ago to my director (which is awesome!).

But first things first.  I may get to these other subjects; I may not.  What I do have is a book review for you.

Durant, Judith and Edie Eckman. Crochet One-Skein Wonders: 101 Projects from Crocheters Around the World. Storey Publishing: 2013. Paperback. +288 pages.

Full Disclosure: I received a digital advanced reader's copy of this book for reviewing purposes.

I have but one complaint about this book: where are the difficulty guides?

This book is full of great projects, and as it says, they truly are projects from around the world--particularly, it features several amigurumi projects and several projects that feature Tunisian crochet.  Variety is certainly not lacking here--there are plenty of hat and scarf patterns, as part of the typical crochet fare (especially as you would expect for a book that focuses on one-skein projects)--but there are also pillows, jewelry, stuffed animals, baby clothes, and some neat projects like a water bottle holder, yoga mat bag, and e-reader holder.  And the authors have kindly added visual patterns as well as the usual scripted patterns for those who have difficulty following along with crochet patterns--they've thought of almost everything.

I tried my hand at a few projects, which is part of the reason this review has taken so long to come to light.  One of the first I tried was one of the fingerless gloves.  My hands are always freezing when I'm typing, so these were great.  I wasn't entirely sure that it was going to work when I was crocheting them, but they turned out.

I decided that I would try a few other projects out of the book as well.  The book is divided up into yarn weights, and I have a supply of worsted-weight yarn that makes my husband groan every time he sees it, so I thought I would try working with some of those projects, which was where I came straight into my complaint about this book.

I am not a novice crocheter.  I have made afghans and pillows, come up with my own amigurumi patterns, and to be honest, if Fox hadn't started sending cease and desist letters to Etsy shop owners who were selling versions of the Firefly 'Jayne' hat, I could churn those out without a problem.

Yet there are some real problems here with the fact that there aren't any clues on how difficult patterns are for crocheters.  Most of these patterns are for intermediate to expert crocheters, and even then, some might have problems, and I've wondered if there aren't any difficulty ratings because too many patterns would have a four or five out of five difficulty on them.

Still, for someone who's crocheted a long time and is looking for some variety, this book is a great resource.  A.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

News: Amazon buys Goodreads

I've never been particularly abashed about my love for Goodreads, particularly after LivingSocial decided it wasn't going to continue on with its original business plan. So I was understandable a little anxious when I read this article from CNET today about Amazon acquiring Goodreads

I use Goodreads for a number of things--first and foremost is to keep up with what I read.  I read so much that it's handy to have Goodreads there, especially as an app on my phone, to keep me from buying a book over again.  It also helps me track what I read. 

I also like being able to put my reviews down at Goodreads.  For my reviews, I often review a book here at the blog, then copy/paste my review, sans any graphics, over at Goodreads with a link to the original post.  Sometimes publishers also request that I put a review over on Amazon when I'm finished reading a book.  To distinguish myself from those reviewers, I always make sure that my disclaimer about receiving a copy of the book is front and center (though I have wondered if I should also put that my publication of the review there is at the request of the publisher, or if that is understood.  Thoughts?). 

I think what may concern me is privacy problems.  My Goodreads is linked to my Facebook, which I don't particularly want linked to my Amazon account.  I also don't want Amazon automatically updating my Goodreads when I order things. 

I understand what Amazon can bring to the table.  The message from Goodreads' founders that was on the site today expressed excitement about being able to connect to e-readers, though in this case that will mean the Kindle, and almost assuredly, the Kindle alone, which I think is going be a problem for Barnes and Noble. I would have much rather seen Goodreads move for some kind of e-reader integration across markets, instead of giving Amazon yet another tool in the box, however small, to keep hammering at B&N's market share.

Still, this could be good for Goodreads users.  Only time will tell.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Pick the cover for Elizabeth Gilbert's new book!

I got an email today from Viking about an interesting development in the publishing of Elizabeth Gilbert's  (author of Eat, Pray, Love) new novel, The Signature of All Things.  From tomorrow morning through Sunday, readers get to vote via Gilbert's Facebook page for which cover they'd like to see on her new book!

The Signature of All Things is "an epic novel of love, ambition, and 19th century botanical exploration," and to be quite honest, I'm rather looking forward to it!  The main character is a female scientist, and the title hints at the doctrine of signatures, the idea that God made things in nature look like body parts in order to indicate what they should be used for.  It sounds right up my alley, to be honest!

USA Today reports that while Gilbert does have a favorite, she's not telling what it is.  Personally, I'm going to be voting for the purple cover.  And I'll be curious to see how many people vote on the cover--is this something that's going to be a worthwhile business practice for publishers to drum up publicity for new books?  Certainly, it's a new tactic right now, and obviously, I'm covering this first foray into letting social media make a decision, so it seems to be working for now.  Will this strategy work long term?  I'm not sure, but I suspect novelty will have more to do with this than anything else.

The Signature of All Things will be released 1 October 2013.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book Review: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

Jansma, Kristopher. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. New York: Viking, 2013.  Hardcover. +272 pages. $26.95. Release Date: 21 March 2013.

Full Disclosure: I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.


"THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS follows the worldwide travels of a deliberately unreliable narrator and his two friends: Julian McGann, a brilliant but troubled collegiate literary rival, and the high-society Broadway actress Evelyn, also known as the girl who got away. Struggling to define themselves as individuals but inextricably bound together, the three chase love, success, and each other from jazz clubs in Manhattan to a writer’s colony in Iceland, from the mountains of Sri Lanka to a wedding on the lip of the Grand Canyon. After the trio has a disastrous falling out, the narrator weaves an intricate web of fiction around himself that allows him to dodge responsibility—but never fully escape it.   It is only once he is able to put aside his fictions and confess his own role that he is set free.

 As much a coming-of-age story about a young man and his friends trying to find their way in the world as an exploration of the nature of truth, Kristopher Jansma’s THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS will appeal to readers of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and David Mitchell’s The Cloud Atlas, with its elegant study of the stories we tell to find out who we really are." - Viking Press Release


I remember the first time a book reached out and, to use an Internet colloquialism, punched me right in the feels.  I was a teenager reading a book called The Mozart Season by Virginia Euwer Wolff, and when I was finished, I put it away, but the book stayed with me.  Six months later, I read it again.  Six months later, I read it yet again.  Each time, it kept making the emotional impact.

In graduate school, I recognized that feeling again when I picked up A.S. Byatt's Possession for a class.  I didn't have the luxury of putting it away, thinking about it, and picking it back up again months later; I had to sit down and write about in depth about it and pick apart the paradoxes and the tangles of plot.  I lived and breathed Possession for a semester until it infused my soul.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, like these other volumes, is one of those books that takes up residence right behind your breastbone and settles in, molding itself and wrapping itself around your heart and changing you, perhaps in a subtle way, until you are no longer quite the same person you were before you read it.  In the same way that Possession was about reading and literary study, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is about writing.

Viking noted, in their blurb to me, that this book and its narrator follows Emily Dickinson's lines to "Tell the truth, but tell it slant."  It also reminded me of a remark attributed to Mark Twain: "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," and something I've heard my father say: "In a room full of storytellers, the first liar never has a chance."

Simply put, this is a story about telling stories.  And it's intensely clever about doing so--at the beginning of the book, there's a note that asks the reader to contact "Haslett & Grouse Publishers" if the reader believes they are the author of the book.  I admit, I completely skipped over that--as most people would, I think--until I read a question and answer with Jansma.  The author's note is beautifully written, and I remember thinking, as I read the note, how much I would like to read that story, of how Jansma had lost his first novels.

It wasn't until I was well into the book that I realized the author's note was by the fictional narrator.  I paused, went back to the author's note, and read it again, suddenly realizing that I was reading the story I'd wanted to read, only that I'd made the cardinal mistake of literary criticism--one of the first things you learn not to do--to conflate the narrator and the author.  What's more--I'd been intended to.


I've spent two weeks contemplating how to write this review.  There are so many insights about writing as a profession, from the adjunct professor to the professional plagiarist to the world-class novelist (writing from the perspective of a writer for a paper mill was particularly inspired, I thought, and as an academic, I've always wondered about that thought process).

That is not to say that the book is perfect.  There is a break at the midpoint of the novel that keeps the book from being seamless in its narrative that causes an abrupt shift as the reader struggles to catch back up with what's going on and tries to figure out if the characters now appearing are the same characters as before; if there is a main weakness in this novel, this is it.

This book, will, very simply, take more time.  I'm going to have to live with it, come back to it and re-read it, think about it, and yes, perhaps write about it some more, because it is a book that is worth being written about, if only to figure out where, in this postmodern morass of lies and fictions, the germ of truth is (if there is one) that I, as the reader, will choose to believe.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Teachers Who Matter

The first time I met Bruce MacLaren was the spring of 2002. I was a pre-frosh, dual-enrolled for some college classes as a high school senior, and checking out the Honors Program as a possibility for my time at my alma mater.  I don't often remember the first encounters I had with professors, but I remember this one, because I was introduced to the word defenestration when Dr. MacLaren cheerfully offered to throw me out the window.

I think that day's Civ class, which my group of prospective students was sitting in on, was going over the Thirty Years' War and the Prague Defenestrations (either that or when James II threw the Earl of Douglas out the window, I don't quite remember, but there are only so many famous historical defenestrations to discuss).  But I do distinctly remember the encounter and having a new word added to my vocabulary.  I also remember thinking I have to sign up for the section of this class that he teaches.

I had not been a freshman long before I was pulled into Dr. MacLaren's orbit.  He has a tendency to collect students around him.  If students are wandering asteroids, then some will get find themselves inevitably drawn in by Dr. MacLaren's gravitational pullI was suddenly on the quick recall team, where I found, much to my chagrin, my trivia knowledge not nearly as good as I thought it was when I played Jeopardy! at home, and where practice sessions would immediately become derailed when Dr. MacLaren and Dr. Messerich began telling stories. 

He calls me Elf Shu.  My handwriting--at least my signature--is abominable enough that my name looks remarkably like Elf Shu.  There were tons of stories about him that were told and retold from well before I'd matriculated, including one about him looking at Mrs. Dr. MacLaren (also a professor in her own right) and trying to get her to let him have a piece of chocolate pie.  He and Dr. Messerich would always find a nice restaurant and get a good steak when we were on honors trips, if I remember correctly.  And he never minded the fact that I would sit in the back of the classroom and harass him from afar.  In fact, I think he liked it.

I had two semesters of Honors Civilization with Dr. MacLaren.  So have both of my brothers. But I think I perhaps learned more out of class, because Dr. MacLaren ate lunch in the cafeteria almost every day.  Others of his colleagues were often there--some of our other Civ professors, for example--but rather than sit at a small table, sequestered away from students, Dr. MacLaren held court at one of the long tables and facilitated discussions that ranged from Lord of the Rings to existentialism.  And while we all knew that Dr. MacLaren had his own political viewpoint--which he had no problem sharing at the lunch table--I, for one, never felt like my own, which did not always line up, was under attack, even when it was being questioned.  Dr. MacLaren is, however, the master of the uncomfortable question.

It wasn't until graduate school, when I started teaching, that I realized what Dr. MacLaren actually did.  He played devil's advocate in the classroom at every turn, challenging us to move beyond what we thought we knew and asking us to explain what we believed, rather than simply spout off the same drivel we'd been indoctrinated with through high school.  It didn't matter so much what we believed as that we could clearly articulate why we believed it.  It's something I've striven for in my own teaching.
It wasn't until I started my Ph. D. program that I understood what Dr. MacLaren actually did as an academic.  He is one of those rare souls who is a historian of science.  In the back of my mind, I think I'd always known this.  Going into his office (a magical place larger than any other office on campus, including the president's, filled with books and plants and a giant cardboard cutout of Einstein and which smelled of musty books, coffee and ink), there was never any telling what kind of books would be on his shelves.  (I wish now that I'd paid more attention.  I'm sure I would be green with envy at some of the volumes he stored in his office.) 

I had been sitting in Milton, reading Paradise Lost, specifically looking at a section where Milton is describing two different conceptions of the universe.  I think I'd gone to the library to look up an article on the section for an assignment and had thrown a minor fit. 

It wasn't right.  It simply wasn't right.  The academic in question simply had no idea what they were talking about.  The more I got into my research, the more I realized just how much literacy scholars often have no idea what they are talking about when it came to science.  Calling Milton's conception of the universe Ptolemaic was entirely oversimplistic. But would it make a good seminar paper?

In the back of my mind, I heard a deep voice with a Minnesota accent say "Why not?"

And so, not indirectly, Dr. MacLaren became at least partially responsible for my direction in academia.  If one can be a historian of science, then why can't one be a literarian of science?

(This is where, I think, he would probably apologize.  I should also apologize for coining the word 'literarian.')

My dissertation now traces Tennyson's anxieties about art in relation to scientific anxieties emerging in Victorian culture which Tennyson also wrote about in his poetry.  My youngest brother has to occasionally report back to Dr. MacLaren on what I'm doing.  Dr. MacLaren posts book titles that I need to read on my Facebook.  I want to get my doctorate and take a picture of my diploma and send it to him, because I want him to laugh and be proud of me, remembering that skinny, gangly teenager who asked him what "defenestration" meant and then looked at him with wide-eyes when he suggested practicing it on her.

This is Dr. MacLaren's last semester.  He's retiring after finals, and I can't say that I blame him.  There have been a lot of changes at my alma mater, and not all of them have been good.  I'm very grateful that my youngest brother was able to experience Civ with Dr. MacLaren like the rest of us were. 

There are teachers you remember.  Then there are teachers who change your life. Bruce MacLaren is one of the latter.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Care and Feeding of Your Depressive

No, believe it or not, I've not abandoned this blog, like I've abandoned so many other well-intentioned projects over the years.  I've been reading plenty, I've been lucky enough to be added to a list of people who get to review certain projects for Viking/Penguin, and there's been tons going on.  The Boy spent several months away from home out surveying, I've finished a chapter of my dissertation, I've been ghosting in and out as a staff writer for Tosche Station, and I made it through yet another semester.  The end of my Ph.D. program is in sight within the next year, I think, and I might actually make it.  But the problem has not been that I've had too much to do to write.

I've never made any secret of the fact that I have clinical depression and an anxiety disorder.  I don't keep it a secret from anyone--family, friends, even my students often know that I have a mental illness.  I'm open and candid about the fact that I have it because I know how hard it can be for people to seek help when they are having problems, and I very strongly believe that my openness about the subject can help lessen the social stigma attached to getting help for mental illness.

What I don't tell people is how severe my depression is.  I'm on several different medications and I regularly see a doctor regarding my mood issues. Most of the time, my issues have been more related to anxiety, but recently, depression has once again become one of the issues that has come back up.  Sometimes I honestly don't even notice the depression, except for the fact that I sleep between 12-15 hours a day. (At times, I have slept more, but The Boy has put a stop to that.)  It's not until the medication kicks in really well at times and I'm more cheerful than I've been in ages that I remember what it's like to be the person I was in high school before this started. 

It's also closely intertwined with my anxiety.  In the last few months, I've been so agoraphobic that even the idea of leaving the house has caused me to burst into tears, and the only place I've been able to go has been to school.  School, along with home, is safe, for some reason, and I can relax there, mostly.  Still, there are days when I hide in my office and sometimes fight the urge to hide under my desk, even though I enjoy all of my officemates. The Boy wanted to go see his parents for several weekends in a row, but I simply could not face the idea of leaving home, even to go see my in-laws, who are as lovely, loving, and generous people as walk the earth.

The hardest part is trying to explain to my husband how I'm feeling.  For being a writer, I'm crap with words most of the time, more so when depression is wearing me down, because that is the time when I want to talk the least.  Often times, when I do manage to talk, I'm flippant, and I know that frustrates him, because while I'm talking, I'm still not being communicative.  In fact, I'd thought about titling this post "The Care and Feeding of Your Depressive," because that's what I do when things get too serious--I make a joke, deflect it elsewhere, hold off the serious discussion.

But it's not a bad idea, in all seriousness.  So here's my best shot--for my husband, for my family, for my friends, for the universe--the things I can't always say, the things that people like me can't always say, but need to.  It's easier to write it than it is to talk about it.

1. I would give anything to be a Real Girl and to be the person you think I am.

Having depression sometimes feels like you've got someone working your puppet strings.  You're going through the motions without ever really living.  That's part of the reason it's hard to get involved in things, because it doesn't feel like it's actually you involved in the activity.

You can tell me that I'm beautiful, that you love me, that everything's going to be okay, and the voice in the back of my head is always going to be telling me that it's not true.  Sometimes I can make it shut up and believe you. Sometimes I can't. But a lot of the time, that voice is also telling me that you fell in love with someone who was better, who wasn't as depressed, who functioned properly, who was cheerful and fun to be around.  That voice is the voice that tells me that you would be better off with someone else who was right in the head.

2. I feel terrible.

I feel terrible on a ton of levels.  There's the wet blanket of the depression.  There's the heart-racing panic of an anxiety attack.  For me, migraines come right along with anxiety attacks.  Lots of people just experience general body aches and soreness from depression, actual physical symptoms that are no less real because they come from a mental source. I am tired all the time.  A lot of the times, I really don't want to eat much.  And I know that makes you worried.  But then that leads to:

3.  The Merry-Go-Round of Guilt.

I hate this.  I already feel guilty for not being everything I think I should be for you.  Then you want to help so badly, all the time, and it is so clear that you feel guilt for not being able to help, for not feeling like you are enough.  Then that guilt comes back around for making you feel bad.  It's less a merry-go-round than it is a gyre, circling around and around and never ending, whereas friction eventually causes a merry-go-round to stop.

Part of this is my fault.  The depression makes me overly sensitive, and so I take every sigh, every tiny look of exasperation straight to heart.  I appreciate the nods and the soft "Hey, call me if you need anything," but know that I won't call.  There are a few people who I will vent to--but only vent, not cry to--because I can't deal with spreading that guilt elsewhere.  There are some people who have to deal with it.  I don't want to add that elsewhere.

4. Hulk go Smash

I don't want to say I have uncontrollable anger, because my anger is very definitely controlled--otherwise, countless dishes and household appliances would have been smashed by now, and there would be any number of people nursing wounds inflicted by my tongue.  But it is always there lately.  The urge to throw something, to put hit something, to rip something to shreds is bubbling below the surface, and there's little that would fill me with as much satisfaction as being set loose in a ceramic factory slated for destruction.

I don't know where this is coming from.  It's something I've got to discuss with my doctor, because it's something that's been coming up again and again lately, more often as I get frustrated, usually with myself or with someone close to me, usually related to the merry-go-round of guilt because I simply want it to stop, and throwing something would be punctuation, the exclamation point to it all.

5. I'm trying.

It doesn't look like it. It looks like I'm lying on the couch, it looks like I'm diving into a book or the internet, or sleeping to get away.  Yes, sometimes that's true.  But I am trying.  Part of the reason I'm so tired is because I am fighting every minute of the day.  I try to do things to keep my energy up.  I listen to really awful pop music because the beat keeps me up and going. I had a really awful caffeine addiction going (I have had to stop that, though).  I try to have my classes scheduled as early as possible in the morning.

That also means I have to prioritize.  If I've spent all day at school, then no, I don't want to go out to eat or hang out that evening.  I'm tired, I've spent all my energy dealing with people, and I'm done fighting for the day.  I have to put my energy where it's most needed.  When you're suffering from agoraphobia, sometimes that means that you don't even have the energy to go to the grocery.  And trust me, it sucks.

So why am I sleeping?  Or reading some trashy book?  Because for a brief moment in time, it shuts my brain down long enough, either by shutting it down in sleep, or by living some other existence in fiction, that my own is not so overwhelming.

As far as panic attacks go, I have no idea what sets them off.  Sometimes I have a clear idea.  Other days, I simply wake up with them.  Sometimes they simply blindside me, and I find myself wanting to start crying for no reason.  But most of the time, I can control myself, and you'll never know I was having one.  I'd rather have it that way.

There is no "just getting over this."  If you've ever said that to someone with depression or other illness, you should be ashamed of yourself for perpetuating the myth that mental illness is not a real, valid illness, and you are partly responsible for every crime committed by a person with a mental illness who was not able to receive the help they needed.

6. The fact that my existence is sometimes overwhelming to me has nothing to do with you.

It is not your fault. My brain chemistry is screwed up. You want to blame yourself? Fine.  Then President Bartlet has something he wants to say to you.

You know what else?  It's not my fault either.


And I have news for some people out there.  I can and do pray about this. But continuing to have depression is not a measure of my faith or a sign that I do not pray enough or a sign that I believe things that God does not approve of.

It is a sign that God has great things ahead for me and that I will need the strength I am learning now to manage them.  


Mother Teresa once said "I know God won't give me anything I can't handle. I just wish He didn't trust me so much."  But if He trusts me in this, which is so relatively miniscule, then He will trust me with the big things.

This is my hope.  This is what keeps me going when I think everything is falling apart around me, even when I know better.  This is what helps me when I think that everyone else would be better off if I retreated from their lives and just lived my existence by myself with my cats, away from everyone else.

And hope is a thing with feathers.