Dear Publicists, Publishers, Authors and Generous Book People,
I am in graduate school, pursuing a Masters in Information and Library Science.
While the program is fascinating, the coursework and reading load are a little intense.
And I have fallen behind on book reviews. Please limit the books you pitch or send me to the following categories:
- Historical fiction
- Foodie lit or foodie memoir
- Historical mystery or forensic-based mystery
- Extremely well-written YA genre fiction (no vampire romance, please!)
I will still be posting book reviews here when I can. But I cannot guarantee a timely review of your book, though I will do my best.
Thank you so much for keeping me Surrounded By Books
It seems like everyone talking about television lately is talking about binge-watching a series. Netflix has even started to cater to that impulse, releasing an entire season of House of Cards, to much acclaim and discussion.
Grad school means I absolutely don’t have time to churn through an entire weekend’s worth of watching a series. I haven’t even caught up entirely on watching the new season of BBC Sherlock. My grad school addled brain can’t handle the intensity.
I’m amazed I’ve found time to read as much fiction as I have, given work and grad school. But, somehow, I’ve found a way to churn through multiple books of a series. On several different occasions over the past few months.
The Billy Boyle books. I read and thoroughly enjoyed the first two of these World War II mysteries, grabbed the next two for my Kindle and then forgot about them, and went off to read other things. I don’t know exactly what got me to pick up the series again, and discover that it had somehow grown to seven books. (Full list here). All of which I proceeded to read, one after the next. My favorite thing about the series is the glimpse at different settings and experiences of World War II. Billy’s adventures take him to Italy, Malta, and Northern Ireland. (Billy’s heritage as an Irish American from South Boston made that last one especially interesting.) Another good part of the series is the way Billy’s character matures through some dark, harrowing and violent events. In the first book of the series, Billy is young, brash, and frankly kind of a doofus. Later books leave their mark of danger and loss on him, and temper him into a more balanced character.
The Tiffany Aching stories by Terry Pratchett. This is sort of a series-within-a-series, as the books are part of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. It begins with The Wee Free Men and carries out into A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith and I Shall Wear Midnight. Young Tiffany is growing up in a village on the Chalk, where there are absolutely not witches. Ever. Tiffany is levelheaded for a young girl, brave, and good at making cheese. Tiffany is Granny Aching’s granddaughter. Granny Aching herded sheep, smoked terrible tobacco, knew everyone’s business and wasn’t a witch…. probably. Tiffany is a witch, has encounters with various mythical realms, and saves the day with a frying pan. Tiffany is also being looked after by the Nac Mac Feegle, tiny blue pixie men who like to fight, steal, drink, yell and swear, and are devoted to their Big Wee Hag. Just about every passage with the Nac Mac Feegle made me giggle. “Ach! Crivens!” The series was just what I needed: magic and adventure, some highly silly bits, and tensions and dangers far removed from the real world. I’d definitely read more of these.
The Mitford Years by Jan Karon. A friend who knows how much I love James Herriot recommended the first book, At Home in Mitford ages ago, and I found a volume of the first five books available as an e-book at the library. A few weeks (and a few stayed-up-too-late reading nights) later, I had churned through all five books. The stories center around Father Timothy, Mitford’s middle-aged Episcopal priest, and the doings of small town Mitford. Father Timothy has a giant dog who calms instantly when he hears Scripture quoted; a sullen teenage foster son named Dooley; Type II diabetes and a parish full of characters. I enjoyed the rural small town setting, that took place a few years ago, but because of the smallness of the town and the focus on individual lives, it could be anytime from 1950 to 1990. (a plot thread of being frustrated setting up the parish computer and modem was about the only thing that pinpointed the timeline). I enjoyed reading about a community drawn together by strong faith. I kind of envy them, really. The number of times when someone, faced with indecision and stress, would choose to pray about it, or the characters who make a decision to stop being antagonists, turning on the linchpin of discovering new faith. I found the books charming and comforting, good reads as counterpoints to my own stress. It also reminded me of the TV series Ballykissangel. Which I should try to find on Netflix and rewatch at some point.
Temeraire by Naomi Novik.
An alternate history of Napoleonic-era England. With talking dragons. I’m not honestly sure what led me to seek this out now. I have a long-standing prejudice against talking animals in fantasy. (Which reading the Diane Duane Cats of Grand Central series might be starting to shift).
I don’t remember who recommended these books to me.
I zoomed through the first, and have started reading the second. I like Laurence, adjusting to culture shock as he transitions between strict naval culture and more relaxed dragon rider culture. I like the sweetness of his relationship with Temeraire. I like Temeraire’s curiosity, and sense of humor. Temeraire kind of reminds me of the dragon in How To Train Your Dragon, lively and childlike.
I’ll probably be adding this series to my binge-reading list.
While the second book has decent enough exposition, these two books work well when read in sequence. I’d love for there to be more of this series!
The Book of Night With Moon
I’d been putting off reading this, even though I am an avid fan of Diane Duane’s Young Wizards universe, and a sucker for fantasy novels set in New York. I have never been a fan of having talking animals as characters. So I let that put me off. (My dubiousness about talking animals as characters comes from being very creeped out by reading Watership Down in junior high.
And boy, was I wrong. This was lovely. The cats worked as fully realized animal characters, with well crafted personalities. Point of view stays mainly in Rhiow’s head- she’s a house cat and a wizard. As a cat lover myself, I found her meditations on human bonds versus independence interesting. Rhiow and her wizardly associates, both cats and people, worked well for me as personalities. (And as a fan of the Young Wizards books, I was delighted to see cameos from familiar humans.) I do love the way Diane Duane constructs wizardry as a stand against the entropy of the universe, a humanitarian undertaking. (Given the feline protagonists, I’m not sure about “humanitarian” as a word choice.)
The cat culture is clearly defined, with a religious belief system, greeting rituals, power struggles and manners. Diane Duane always crafts new cultures beautifully, honoring their complexities. And of course, the wizard culture, familiar to me from her other series, plays with, and sometimes against, cats and their social frameworks. There are plenty of funny bits- Urrah is fascinated by singing, and particularly has a penchant for opera, which the others tease him gently for (it’s a tomcat thing, to love singing in any form). One of the greeting rituals cats have is to breathe breaths with one another, and this always comes with commentary about “wow, you ate pastrami!” or “hot pickles? Really?” It tickled me.
I may put off reading the second book, as a treat for later, but I’ll look forward to it.
I’m very, very picky about fantasy, and this one worked beautifully.
To Visit The Queen
So I didn’t even last a week before I decided I really needed to read the second volume, and get more of Rhiow, Urrah and Arhu’s adventures. So I downloaded it from the library.
If I loved the first volume for being well-crafted fantasy set in New York, I found the second volume also hitting a sweet spot. This time, the cats’ wizardly responsibilities take them to Lon
The Design of Everyday Things
Donald A. Norman
Basic Books, 2002
We were assigned the first three chapters for an upcoming class reading. I got so engrossed, I wound up reading the whole thing. I really like the way Morgan explains concepts of usability such as knowledge in the head versus knowledge in the world, affordances and constraints. Some terms he uses, like mental mapping and schemas were already familiar, applied to a design perspective. The emphasis is on understandability and usefulness, rather than simplicity. I enjoyed how often Norman scoffed at something sleek that “probably won a design award” but is difficult to understand or use correctly.
I flagged something as interesting, or underlined, on nearly every page.
Norman’s tone of writing has a kindness to it, and is forthright. Over and over, he returns to the idea that, if you find yourself frustrated with a site or an interface, or confused how to proceed that signals bad design, not your own fault or shortcoming. Given the number of fumbles, mistakes and frustrations I’ve encountered and then scolded myself for, reading this perspective is lovely and freeing. More people should read this book.
Later chapters struck me as a touch quaint, as we were assigned to read a book that has since been updated. The text we were reading relies on describing and discussing technology that predates smartphones. There’s a later edition, updated to include social and mobile technology. I think I would like to read it.
The Soul of a New Machine
Back Bay Books, 1981
I was expecting and hoping to like this book, but I feel like it was fighting with itself between telling the story of the technology and telling a story about the people involved as characters. it’s so crowded to keep track of. While it was interesting, if a little opaque, to read about the development of microcomputers, and to realize how much I take for granted about the inner workings of the laptop where I’m presently typing these words… I wound up feeling grumpy, as the book dragged along, crowded with all the personalities at Data General. I also had the odd thought that it resembled a sports team biography, or a rock band biography, very much told in that story arc. Band of oddballs and misfits get together, with just a little backstory about each as he appears on the screen. The merry band has a project that sounds too crazy to work, and the arc of the story is them trying to realize their big dream. The pattern of early hopes and setbacks, and then the sudden climactic tension of, in this case, the approaching project launch and debugging deadline, made me think of the pacing of a band getting ready for its first big gig, or the underdog sports team trying to get to the championship.
Also, I got the sense, repeatedly, that Kidder found the workings of the technology almost as opaque as I did, and, for all the time he spent working with the staff of Data General, he observed as a journalist with a humanities background, and missed some opportunities to tell the story of the tech in better context.
This week’s Booking Through Thursday asks:
For most of the east coast, at least, it’s a wintry, snowy day today, so … How do you like to spend your snow days? Feel free to gloss over the obligatory parts like shoveling unless you LIKE it. We’re talking ideal, best way to spend a snow day kind of thoughts, here.
For those of you who live in places where snow days simply don’t happen? Feel free to substitute “snow” with “rain” and think about the kind of days when you just want to cuddle up inside where it’s warm and dry.
When I first looked out my window this morning, I was amazed at how thickly the snow was coming down. I got the notice last night that classes were canceled for the day, so I am planning to have a day where I do not put on shoes or venture out at all.
The best way to spend a snow day includes wearing comfy clothes, drinking tea or coffee, reading things, and possibly catching up on Sherlock.
My plans for today come reasonably close to the ideal.
- Do reading for classes. UX reading looks decently straightforward. We’ve got another book on deck for Digital Curation, so it’d be good to get a jump on that.
- Watch Sherlock.
- Figure out what website to use for UX Cognitive Walkthrough tests- it needs to be decently familiar website that anyone could click through and use to do a task. A bunch of websites are Right Out, though, because they require either creating a login, or logging in with some form of social media account. Must ponder.
- Edit Wikipedia entries about jazz and/or computer science.
- Drink lots of tea. In a fit of devotion to my local coffee shop, I got rid of my own coffee pot. Experiencing some regret of that decision at the moment. May have a one-cup machine lingering in the back of a cabinet somewhere… That would be good!
- Edit a thing I’ve been needing to edit since before the semester started, but then the semester started and… yeah.
- Laundry. Hopefully, the entire rest of my building is not having the same idea.
A cozy day of reading, albeit some of it dutiful and scholastic, television (does book-related television get extra points?)
Hope everyone else on the East Coast is cozy, safe and warm, and has room to enjoy a reading day!
One of the major assignments for my Digital Curation class is to dive in and edit Wikipedia entries. Chiefly, the assignment specifies that we should be digging into entries pertaining to technology and its history and evolution, and libraries. It’s an exercise in learning Wikipedia’s coding and formatting, as well as the conventions of the Wikipedia editing community. The second part of the assignment is to weigh in on how a library or similar institution could, or should use or react to Wikipedia. Over the summer, I saw an outstanding presentation by Mary Ellen Bates about using Wikipedia as a research tool, covering the ways librarians could retrieve knowledge from it. (Side note: Mary Ellen Bates is a goddess. Moving on.) It makes sense: Adding to Wikipedia means writing, but it also means information retrieval.
All of this makes sense to me. And, as I set up the account and got started, I started to wonder why I hadn’t played with editing before. I’m starting off cautiously. A few small grammar checks here, a link here and there. Part of the issue is that, given the way the assignment is constructed, I’m learning both the topic and interface at once. I’m learning how to format Wikipedia headings and citations at the same time as I am reading about computer history, and inner workings. Two learning curves at once! Whee!
To get comfortable with Wikipedia, and give myself a break from staring at rather perplexing descriptions of the inner workings of early mainframe computers, I’m browsing for more familiar topics, and have left my mark on entries ranging from Billy Preston to Digital Libraries.
Last weekend,I went to my first Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon. It was at school, hosted by the Linked Jazz Project. It’s a project combining jazz history with linked data to show connections between musicians- collaborations, mentorships, influences. Professor Pattuelli and her team are doing terrific work with it.
One of the products of the project is a long list of names of jazz musicians who don’t have Wikipedia pages of their own. During the Edit-a-Thon, a roomful of us learned how to use Wikipedia by updating entries about jazz musicians. I think I’m getting the hang of it. I even started a Wikipedia entry from scratch! It’s just a humble stub, but it’s a start.
Updating Wikipedia entries is addictive. I predict that I will keep poking around entries after this assignment is done.
And after that, it’s only a matter of time until…
Have your reading habits changed since you were a child? (I mean, I’m assuming you have less time to read now, but …) Did you devour and absorb books when you were 10 and only just lightly read them now? Did you re-read frequently as a child but now only read new books? How about types of books? Do you find yourself still attracted to the kinds of books you read when you were a kid?
I didn’t get around to answering this in a timely manner, but I like the question.
I still read the same way as I did when I was a kid. I dive straight in, and the book’s world becomes sort of a waking dream that grabs hold and won’t let go. Being interrupted while reading makes me look around vaguely, wondering why it’s suddenly the 21st century, where the people who were just talking about a murder mystery have gone, and why I can’t cast spells. Or some combination of those things. Reading takes me deep into the book, entirely apart from my usual here and now and the way my mind works. A good book is, and always has been, soothing to my soul. Even when I know I don’t have time to read (hello, grad school) I make time to read fiction. It helps keep me on an even keel.
Come to think of it, I should try to read more poetry. It can be just as immersive, and it’s shorter, after all.
Yes, this kind of deep dive reading has led to: missed bedtimes, not hearing someone trying to catch my attention, and occasionally the odd missed subway stop.
As for the question of what I am likely to read- some of my tastes have changed, but not all of them.
As a kid, I loved stories steeped in magic and fantasy elements. I still do. I started reading mysteries at a young age- Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, and one that’s out of print now, that was terrific: Incognito Mosquito. Brain teasers and terrible puns! It was lovely. I zoomed through a large chunk of Nancy Drew novels. (I reread The Mystery of Lilac Inn at least four times.)
I first read The Westing Game as a kid. I still reread it. It still holds up.
I was a little late to discover Young Adult- I think I was 13 or so, and my peers had shifted over to reading that shelf years before. I always assumed I wasn’t old enough. I still read a ton of YA. Delightfully, there’s more of it, and it’s come into its own as both an age genre, and as a place for genres like fantasy and historical fiction, which I have always loved.
I have always been happy to spend an afternoon or a vacation doing little else but reading. I have always had a tendency to stay up very late with a good book I can’t put down. (And, as a grownup, no parents to yell that it’s lights out time. Fortunately, as a grownup, I also have coffee.)
Thing you wouldn’t expect a 10 year old to read: a steamy tell-all biography of the Beatles. It was the only Beatles book in the library. I’d been watching Help! rather obsessively. So I was used to nice, innocent mop tops. The Hamburg years came as quite a shocker. I also read John Lennon’s writings, and couldn’t make any sense of them. I don’t think that was because I was 10, though.
Genres I’ve started to like more as a grownup: Foodie lit, memoir, interesting pop science, YA.
Genres I liked more as a kid: science fiction (I still like it, but now I’m picky) sort of ordinary life tales, where there are no supernatural elements or mysteries, romances. (I read my first Harlequin when I was 11. I’m pretty sure the actual sex went right over my head.)
Into the second week of the new semester.
This semester’s classes:
Digital Curation: A combination of history of computing and computers (interesting for context), attempting to impart an understanding of how computers work at the smallest level of switches and bits and bytes. Wednesday’s lecture was very hard going for me, trying to understand and visualize the inner workings of computers at their smallest or earliest historical level. Still to come: practical discussion and tactics about restoring damaged data, using Wikipedia judiciously and effectively. The instructor is prone to turns of phrase that have one of my classmates creating a custom Twitter hashtag:
“Wikipedia, founded in the Bay Area, and has more Google juice than Google.”
“Program flow: it’s like going on a date in NYC and finding out the person lives off the G Train. Romance killer.”
It is not outside the realm of possibility that these witticisms are extra funny in an evening class on a Wednesday night, when you’re trying to push your brain to understand and trust that a computer’s inner workings are made of bits and bytes and switches and things. I need to go over my notes, because there were a lot of complicated terms about packets and program flow and data storage that left me with the impression of “very small, electronic voodoo.” I may be missing some key elements of understanding.
Current assignment in Digital Curation class. Edit Wikipedia articles about computer history, adding sources, and generally improving them. Current thoughts about current assignment: editing Wikipedia in a useful manner is hard. Anything I can think of to add to things has been done- to be successful at this assignment, you have to have the hipster mindset, of expertise in a topic “before it was cool,” otherwise it’s already well-cited and there’s nothing much that needs doing.
Last night was the first meeting of the User Experience class. Have heard very, very good things about the instructor, who teaches two classes: User Experience and Information Architecture.
Assigned reading for last night’s UX class was the first three chapters of The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. We were only assigned to read the first bits of it. But I tore through the entire book over the course of last weekend. Norman’s overarching theme can be summed up as “When you have trouble with things– whether it’s figuring out how to push or pull a door or the arbitrary vagaries of the computer and electronics industry– it’s not your fault. Don’t blame yourself: blame the designer.” A simple notion, and it sounds like common sense, as do most of the explanations that he makes over the course of his narrative.
Think about it some more: Fumbling and frustrated, not sure what button to push, or pushing the wrong button, and not getting the result you want. Feeling stupid? Stop feeling stupid and awkward. Start thinking in terms of design flaws. Shifting that perspective is tremendously freeing. I was pretty much highlighting and underlining something on just about every page. Common sense, once you form the thought… but if you’re used to the frustration and blaming yourself for your own fumbling with technologies and gadgets, it becomes a revelation. Definitely a fan of Norman’s approach. And curious about how the rest of the class will play out.