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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Round-Up

Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer: I first learned about Heyer through the (sadly, now defunct) book chats run by the Washington Post's book editor Michael Dirda, who was a big fan. Heyer is credited with starting the whole sub-genre of regency romances, and even today she is considered one of the best. The first book I read was The Corinthian (no, not that Corinthian), which I liked quite a bit. Then I read another, so tedious I can't remember the title. Devil's Cub was strongly recommended by the folks over at Smart Bitches, so that was next. I enjoyed it quite a bit; Heyer took the cliche of the love of a good woman reforming a rake of a man (it may not have been a cliche when she wrote it) and made it engaging and believable (well, believable in the context of the story).

Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas: I liked Smooth-Talking Stranger so much I wanted to try Kleypas's other books, so I picked up her first contemporary, Sugar Daddy. Unfortunately, it was not nearly as good. Kleypas is a good writer, better than most of the other writers I have read in this genre, but this book felt like it was two books smushed together. The first half was a coming-of-age tale as a young girl copes with hardship and the necessity of raising her baby sister after her mother dies. The second half was a romance, where she has to choose between two suitors -- one of which appears in the first half, then disappears until the very end, the other only showing up in the second half. I think this book would have worked better had she continued to focus on the heroine's development, and let the romance remain just a subplot.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill: After reading Dracula I immediately picked up this comic collection, which features Mina after her encounter with the vampire. League teams up several fictional characters from the second half of the nineteenth century -- Mina, Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Jeckyll/Hyde, and the Invisible Man (no, not that Invisible Man) -- as agents working for a mysterious man in the British government. It's a fun pastiche of nineteenth century storytelling and literature, but like all of Moore's work it is also quite dark and cynical; and as usual, being a woman in Moore's world is . . . not fun. The collection consists of the first 6-issue storyline, along with artwork, fake Victorian ads, and a prose story about Quartermain. This is an adventure tale told in a serialized format, telling of Quartermain's last adventure before joining the League, and includes Verne's Time Traveler and Lovecraft's Randolph Carter; the adventure itself draws heavily from Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos. Moore was very successful in parodying the late-nineteenth century's literary style -- too successful, because all the adjectives and dependent clausees made my eyes glaze over. There is a reason why I am not a big fan of English literature from that time period.

Thai Die by Monica Ferris: I'm a sucker for cozy mysteries, particularly those that have as their theme some sort of hobby or interest, so it should be no surprise that I like Monica Ferris's series, centered around the owner of a needlework shop in Minnesota. Fortunately, Ferris is a better writer than most in this sub-genre, and she has neatly addressed the Mystery Magnet problem by coming up with fairly decent reasons why a woman in a small town keeps getting caught up in major crimes. Like the others in the series, Thai Die was light and fun, although I did think the character who got into trouble was ridiculously naive, and I grasped what was going on a lot sooner than the characters did.

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman: A longish short story for children about a boy named Odd who helps the Norse Gods reclaim Asgard from the Frost Giants. Pleasant, but not much to it.

Square 11

Mmm . . . donuts . . .
I like this so much I'm tempted to make two more and turn them into earrings.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Square 10

I love the look of white on white embroidery; I think this and this are particularly stunning. I wanted to do something from this book, but the designs were too big for a square inch. Instead I decided to replicate some of the eyelet lace from this sampler, which I once made for a friend's wedding. Of course, being too lazy to go find the leaflet, I just winged it. There are five eyelets, with the center one having twice as many stitches, and four stitches that are a variation of a smyrna cross stitch (or tied long stitch). The design is framed with large cross stitches.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist is another book with an odd trajectory in my life. I picked it up years ago, I think in college, in Spanish (I don't know why -- was I in a Spanish-speaking country at the time?). It languished in my bookshelves, and then it disappeared. I heard about it again a couple of years ago, and bought a new copy (English this time), then I heard it was all new-agey and self-helpy, so I regretted the purchase. Then I heard it was a fictional tale, so finally a few weeks ago I decided to read it, thinking I could ignore the new-agey aspects. Unfortunately, that wasn't actually possible; the book was littered with self-help anvils.

This book was clearly not meant for me. I'm generally leery of spiritual self-help; with the vast majority of books that I read, more than anything else I want to be entertained -- I want a good story. This book had the potential for that, because it is a bildungsroman, a time-honored style that can produce exciting adventures. The Alchemist tells the story of Santiago, a Spanish shepherd who travels to the Egyptian pyramids in search of treasure, and discovers the meaning of his life (his "personal legend") in the process. Coelho, however, makes the actual plot very thin, focusing heavily on the message he is trying to send -- the only path to true happiness and fulfillment is to follow one's personal legend, no matter what; "[t]o realize one's destiny is a person's only real obligation."

The problem is that I found this message to be not only heavy-handed but vague and simplistic. Coelho reiterates throughout the book the importance of fulfilling one's destiny, without thinking through this completely. I'm sure Coelho, faced with a man who claimed his personal legend was to kill as many people as possible, would argue that he was horribly misguided about his destiny, but the blanket admonitions to follow one's destiny no matter what appear to lead to the conclusion that anything is ok as long as it is in fulfillment of one's personal legend -- classic moral relativism. It may be my lawyerly background, but I want precise, detailed statements expressing finished thoughts when writing about something as significant as the meaning of life.

Nor is any real thought given to the real world consequences of following one's personal legend. Coelho spends a lot of time on the story of a baker who long ago rejected his destiny to travel the world in order to open a bakery. Much is made of the fact that the man is unhappy (though he does not know it), and will never be fulfilled, and that moreover he is ignorant of the fact that at any time he could just leave his store and follow his destiny. But this baker, presumably, has a family to support and employees and customers who count on him. Dropping everything to travel might satisfy his personal legend, but more likely than not it would leave many people in the lurch. The fact is, people in the real world have responsibilities and obligations that may prevent them from following a dream; I do not think it is a character flaw to defer or even drop a dream in order to fulfill those responsibilities. (Coelho recognizes that there is a cost to following a personal legend, but only as to oneself -- he does not discuss the cost to others.) Moreover, most people are not lucky and privileged enough to be able follow a dream in the first place, even if they had no responsibilities keeping them. Life is messy and complicated, and criticizing people for coping with that life rather than finding their destiny seems rather arrogant. (In a particularly galling statement, Coelho writes that "[m]ost people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place." Well of course, wars and crimes and genocides and natural disasters only happen because of a lack of positive thinking!)

The most frustrating part of the book, however, was the portrayal of female characters. This is a flaw that is unfortunately common with many male writers, who either can't or won't write a decent female character but insist on inserting them as love objects. And I mean each word of that phrase -- the women are only there to be loved by the protagonists, and they function as little more than objects. Fatima is no exception. Santiago meets her in the desert, and immediately (I mean immediately) falls in love. What do we learn about her? She is young and female and beautiful (of course; funny how rarely protagonists fall in love with plain women). That's it. We learn absolutely nothing else about her, her personality, her background, her goals, her personal legend, nothing (neither does Santiago -- all he does is talk about himself, and all she does is listen). She is a complete cipher whose only purpose is to give Santiago something to come home to, meaning her only role is to wait -- something she explicitly states, as she explains that all she ever wanted to do was to wait for a man to come home to her (yes, really). This book is primarily about Santiago, so I don't necessarily expect her to become a protagonist in her own right, but that is not an excuse for Coelho to make her such an empty vessel. Why include her at all, then, if he will not bother to explain what makes her special, why Santiago wants to come home to her? We are told over and over he loves her, but why? "Because the entire universe conspired to help [him] find [her]." And she loves him because, well, Coelho says so. Fatima could easily have been fleshed out, given something to do (even if something irrelevant to the events of the book, taking place "off-stage"), but instead she literally does nothing but wait. This book takes place in the Middle Ages, in Spain and the Arabic world, so I would not expect her to pick up a scimitar and ride off into the sunrise with Santiago, helping him find the treasure with the ancient Egyptian knowledge she learned at the knee of her scholarly widowed father, but she could have been given something other than a name and dark eyes. No matter how circumscribed a woman's life may be, she still has a personality, hopes, dreams, opinions, thoughts. Why can't we see some hint of that?

The only other two women to appear in the book fair just as badly. The merchant's daughter (she doesn't get a name) is the first woman Santiago loved. But again, his only apparent interest in her is that she can listen to his stories; he even points out with pleasure her illiteracy, so he can impress her with his knowledge. The Gypsy woman (she doesn't get a name either) is corrupt and venal and stupid, convincing Santiago to give her ten percent of his treasure in exchange for interpreting his dream. Her interpretation? That his dream about finding a treasure in the pyramids of Egypt means he should go to the pyramids of Egypt and look for treasure. Neither of their personal legends is mentioned, and in fact those personal legends that are the purpose of the world and the central thesis of the book apparently only apply to men.

The Alchemist is a fable, and one does not expect strong characterizations in a fable. To a certain extent the people in them are archetypes, and they and the plot serve as vehicles to deliver the point of the story. However, there needs to be some characterization, particularly in a novela-length fable, if the reader is to become engaged. And there is, in Santiago and the Alchemist and King Melchizedek and the other male characters of the book. That makes Coelho's neglect of the female characters inexcusable.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

This Is Why I Didn't Try to Do a Square Every Day

It's so easy to get distracted by everything else in my life. Anyway, here is the ninth square of my neglected sampler:
It's a sacred heart, partly inspired by this.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Don't I Have Enough Jewelry?

On Friday I wore a brightly colored dress, and I wanted to wear some colorful jewelry to match, something large-scale and interesting. But I had nothing that seemed just right; the closest was the felt necklace I made, but that would be too hot and itchy for 90 degree weather.

Friday night, as I lay in bed, I remembered I had a long strand of Latin American beads woven from brightly-dyed straw that I had picked up a couple of years ago. Eureka! So Saturday morning, while Mr. Beadgirl took the Beadboys to the playground, I spent ten minutes restringing the beads onto black heavy cotton string. I interspersed the beads with small black wooden beads leftover from another project. Et voilà!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Speaking of Short Stories . . .

I just finished another McSweeney's collection, the rather lengthily titled Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren't as Scary, Maybe, Depending on How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn't Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out (heh, the url is shorter than the title). It is a collection of young adult short stories from many authors, some quite prominent, and proceeds go to 826NYC, a non-profit tutoring center in NYC. Standouts were "Small Country" by Nick Hornby, "Grimble" by Clement Freud, "Sunbird" by Neil Gaiman (also found in his collection Fragile Things), and "The Sixth Burough" by Jonathan Safran Foer. Kelly Link's "Monster," which I had read in her collection Pretty Monsters, was incredibly creepy -- so creepy I refused to reread it in this volume.

This being McSweeney's, I was not at all surprised to find an unusual element to the form of the book. In this case, the dust jacket unfolds to show a short story started by Lemony Snicket, with space to write in one's own ending and instructions to fold the dust jacket into an envelope to mail to McSweeney's. Supposedly the best entry was to receive publication in another book and some goodies, but I can't find any more information about it (the book came out in 2005).