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Pandora's Star by Peter Hamilton is a nostalgic return to the sort of old-fashioned science fiction where Mankind explores the stars in cool spaceships and battles aliens. It also switches viewpoint characters every few pages, is almost a thousand pages long, and ends in the middle of the story (the ultimate cliffhanger is weirdly parallel to the end of Colour of Magic). This was a Christmas present from a friend of mine, and I can see the motives for the recommendation: the interstellar train network is fun and unexpected, and when the evil alien bent on universe-domination (and sadly in need of some Loraxian consciousness-raising) finally makes its appearance c. page 500 or so, it's both interesting and rather quaint in its single-minded destructiveness. By the end of the book I did sort of want to know what happened next. At the midway point, though, I was only sustaining my interest by writing mental reviews and counting characters who weren't sex objects . . . because unfortunately, Pandora's Star is the sort of old-fashioned science fiction that thinks it's really progressive, but seems to have missed certain basic cues. One wonders, for instance, why the Afro is the only hairstyle that has never become fashionable again in three hundred years, or why the environment-obsessed multibillionaire decides, when founding his own town, that it should be reachable only by road (on a grade too steep for trains) and that residents should live in single-family homes each with yacht, dog, and (electric) car.

I found the sexual politics particularly distracting. The following passage is memorable. Patricia, aide to Elaine Doi, who is running for president of humanity, has brought a young, dumb, and good-looking girlfriend to a weekend retreat planned by a group of wealthy wheelers and dealers, who discuss her motivations:

Thompson dropped down in one of the winged leather chairs in front of the big fireplace. "Not like Patricia to take any sort of risk. The girls she normally fucks are completely sanitized as far as political connections are concerned."

"Maybe it's true love?" Justine said in amusement.

"That'd be a first," Thompson said. "Why the hell Patricia doesn't simply get a body reassignment while she's in rejuve I'll never know."

"She can't," Gore said. "Most of Doi's team are female; it's an image she's worked hard at for twenty-five years. Nobody's going to screw that up now by growing a dick in the tank."


(We later learn that Patricia has brought the girl to seduce Justine's ex-husband.)

The women in this future are genetically engineered, or re-engineered, to be long-legged and small-waisted and big-breasted; even slightly short is striking. They rejuve to late adolescence again every forty years or so. I think that's supposed to be enticing, albeit decadent. But it's absolutely not my fantasy. Especially with rejuvenated three-hundred-year-old men.

(When I was little, I hated being called cute, or for that matter "a kid"-- I thought, rightly, that it meant people weren't taking me seriously. In my own late adolescence I realized that I was more or less doomed to be cute for the rest of my life-- smallish and roundish and smiling were going to be my attractive physical traits, for anyone minded to be attracted to me. I realized, reading this book, that a future where everyone is tall kind of gets to me.)
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Gentlemen of the Road (by Michael Chabon) ought to be awesome: it's a swashbuckling tale of tenth-century Khazaria, complete with sentimental pen-and-ink illustrations of situations such as "refugees fleeing the city which the Rus have looted" and "soldiers deliver Our Heroine to the brothel". However, the Gentlemen belong to the world-weary school of swashbucklers, convinced that any divergence from their campaign of mild embezzlement will end ill, and it's difficult to invest in a project which even the heroes have fifth thoughts about. (I had a similar reaction to the Captain Alatriste books.) Around the end of Chapter Eleven, Gentlemen of the Road attains sheer gleeful improbability, and from there to the end it lives up to its promise.
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My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen is about a nineteenth-century Danish prostitute who gets a job housecleaning for the widow of a mad scientist and is catapulted into the future, where she discovers True Love with an archaeologist (after stealing his credit card to buy a whorehouse's worth of avocado-flavored condoms). I suspect that this book is exactly as enjoyable as its premise: if you think my summary is the best thing since sliced bread the book shouldn't disappoint you, but if you're looking for extra depth you will not find it. Or, to put it differently: this book is like the Thursday Next series crossed with the party game where you type everyday words into Google Image Search and see how long it takes you to find porn. ("Melon" is work-safe, but does land this.)
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The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France reads like two books: one is a theoretical exploration of the way gifts function in societies, in a "mode" parallel to the economic exchange of money and goods, and the other is a collection of details about everyday (and elite) life in early modern France. From the reenactment perspective, the details (followed through the bibliography) are a treasure-house of potential: étrennes are presents given at New Year's, usually to children and servants, but étrennes might also be poems for friends or patrons; Gaspard de Saillans wore his fiancé's blue taffeta garter tied about his neck. The discussions of patronage and the theology of gifts are interesting but incomplete: each could be a book of its own, mayhap is somewhere else in Natalie Zemon Davis' work.

Book One and Book Two of The Power of One by Bruce Courtenay each end with revenge, or perhaps it would be better to say cosmic retribution. I would have preferred less tidiness, a more sprawling bittersweet conclusion. From scene to scene the story, about coming of age in 1940s South Africa, revels in mess; shit, blood, and casual racism are taken in stride, while sadism requires intricate resistance.
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I put my name in for The Omnivore's Dilemma on the library hold list, and read it yesterday. The high school geek part of me feels a little bit odd about reading something so unabashedly popular, straight off the New York Times best-seller list or at least the year-end round-up of Important Books (the author's initials are monogrammed on the cover), and it's easy to make the book sound quaint, centered as it is around an unabashed conceit: Michael Pollan eats four meals, beginning with a McDonald's meal (in his convertible) and ending with one he has grown, foraged and hunted himself. But an overemphasis on the quaintness obscures Pollan's basic argument, which is not in substance different from [livejournal.com profile] mjbarefoot's recent rant: no label can substitute for personal knowledge of the places your food came from and the people who brought it to you. And an overemphasis on the warm fuzzy personal connections obscures the degree to which this is a specific political critique of specific U.S. government policies, in particular a subsidy system which encourages the overproduction of corn.
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[livejournal.com profile] glasseye's birthday is on Monday, so tonight I made baklava, fusing the recipes from five different cookbooks (Lebanese, Persian, Armenian, Madhur Jaffrey's Worlds of the East, and the Joy of Cooking.) [livejournal.com profile] ryunohi calls it The Great Honey Versus Sugar Syrup question. It looks to me as if this is a question of ethnicity, not just personal taste: I don't have a Greek cookbook, but I theorize that are two basic styles of baklava, a Greek version with walnuts, honey, and cinnamon, and a Persian style with almonds, pistachios, sugar syrup, cardamom, and a huge amount of rosewater, and everyone else interpolates between. The Illuminated Table, The Prosperous House suggests that in sixteenth-century Turkey, sugar was for the rich and honey for the poor, and perhaps the Persian style retains that theory of sugar as luxury? Or maybe they just don't want to drown out the rosewater. I went for an intermediate style: some honey (I would have used more, for [livejournal.com profile] glasseye's sake, but we ran out), almonds & walnuts mixed, cinnamon and cardamom together, and only a tablespoon of rosewater in the filling, as opposed to a half-cup in the syrup.

***

Yesterday I bought, and finished, the new Lois Bujold book. It would have been more satisfying if I hadn't just re-read Curse of Chalion. The romances are very similar: a wearied soldier of advanced years falls in love with a lively but practical girl of under twenty, and though one wearied soldier is thirty-five and the other fifty-five, their genetics and general level of wear make their apparent ages identical. And I was thrown once or twice by identical wordings: " '____,' he breathed" at moments of intense realization. (Does Miles Vorkosigan breathe monosyllables, too? I think he does.) I imagined the beginnings of Part III: a wearied female soldier of advanced years (almost forty!) falls in love with a lively but practical man of twenty-something, a noncombatant, possibly a potter, and angsts about the impossible age difference (when women are older, they can angst quite successfully with less than ten years' difference), until " 'Yes . . .' she breathed" and so on, and so forth.

The interesting bit to me, though, was the flora: I've wondered before what would happen if fantasy novels took a different landscape for their default-- New World, say, as opposed to vaguely-England-- and this landscape was decidedly American. It's sort of high-fantasy Pioneer, in fact, with farmers and coppery-skinned land-sensing Lakewalkers, and corn and poison ivy and racoons. In context, this may well be post-magical-apocalypse Midwest, rather than high fantasy on another world. I looked for puns in the placenames, à la Sheri Tepper, but if there were any they were too subtle for my coastal eye, and in general attitude this story feels like high fantasy, rather than the heavy-handedness of "What man has done once, he need not destroy the earth to do again" (a particularly unsubstantiated maxim, I always thought: cf. Roman Empire).
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Dear World,

Why didn't you tell me that Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote novels for adults? Or, for that matter, that she had a scandalous affair and was divorced twice?

SPOILER for A Lady of Quality which none of you care about anyway )

I don't care how much it talks about Christ, this is revolutionary, I tell you, revolutionary. Damn you, Trollope! Damn you, Barren Ground!

[Same game.]
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. . . I'm posting as myself. Questions from [livejournal.com profile] rivendellrose follow. As always, comment if you want five of your own.

1. How did you decide to go into math as your primary focus?

One answer is here, in a previous interview. Earlier influences were Halmos' Finite-Dimensional Vector Spaces, which I worked through with a professor at Reed in the spring and early summer of my junior year of high school, and The Thread, which is about a math professor who travels the world looking for people named Pafnuty. I don't think I was terribly impressed by The Thread the first time I read it, but it grew on me slowly.

I should note that I don't think of myself as especially mathematically talented-- I think of myself as a generally smart person with a bit more patience for mathematics than many other smart people. This made me slow to make up my mind about math, and it means that when I angst about grad school I angst about whether I care enough, rather than whether I'm smart enough. One of the conclusions from the latest round of philosophizing is that the clarity and inevitability of Finite-Dimensional Vector Spaces and its ilk are achieved by art (formal linear algebra isn't always beautiful? who knew?), and that one of the things I want to do when I grow up is write math texts.

2. What's your favorite (or just plain wackiest) memory from the SCA?

The strangest memory is Border Raids in Kentucky, on a gorgeous site among rolling hills. I sat by myself watching the fighting. Behind me, a woman in a lovely green cotehardie and a lot of eyeshadow argued with the man next to her about which of them was the most authentic hillbilly.

My favorite SCA memories are sitting around the campfire listening to my friends singing (yes, [livejournal.com profile] hanksan, that includes "If all the young lassies were little white rabbits . . .")

3. I don't think I've ever heard you talk much about music - what singers/bands/groups do you like best?

Er, yes, uh, notice that I didn't say "sitting around the campfire singing myself." If you asked me this question at a party, I'd tell you that I've always had a soft spot for "Lithium", and then name some subset of the Velvet Underground, the Beatles, the Magnetic Fields, Belle & Sebastian, and the Bats. Lately, though, I've been more curious about stuff in the blues/bluegrass/folk/early country range.

4. What knitting project have you been the most proud of to date?

I'm proud whenever I finish something at an insanely fine gauge-- the Egyptian socks I made for [livejournal.com profile] glasseye long ago seemed impressive to me then, and the relic pouch for [livejournal.com profile] alaric and [livejournal.com profile] thechemgoddess still feels like a major accomplishment. In terms of design, my favorite project is a pair of black merino gloves I made for my sister, with cuffs of angora I'd found on sale, one blue-gray, one blue-purple. Those gloves are lost, alas, but [livejournal.com profile] gwacie should have a similar hat.

5. Which of Ursula K. LeGuin's books is your favorite, and why?

I like Tehanu and The Dispossessed and any number of short stories (you could probably map my childhood by determining which parts of Compass Rose I understood on any given reading). I might pick "Another Story" from Fisherman of the Inland Sea.

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