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What I read in January

I thought it would be fun to do quick reviews of what I read each month this year. Let’s see how long I keep it up.


 

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

I honestly had no previous knowledge of Carrie Brownstein’s life, so this was a surprise. Enjoyed how open it felt.

4/5 stars


Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg

Hilarious and nerdy, this autobiography includes interludes of fanfiction.

4/5 stars


Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

Packed with info and artwork, this bio on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a must-read.

5/5 stars


People I want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots and Other Suburban Scourges by Jen Mann

Funny shorts on life as a suburban mom. Didn’t think I’d like it since I hate kids, but the author is just as cynical as I am.

4/5 stars


Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Had to read it for book club. I dare you to find one chapter where someone isn’t crying.

2/5 stars


Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

Heartfelt hilarity with Carrie’s crass voice dancing vividly throughout. Read this as we wait for her next book.

5/5 stars


What Would Lizzy Bennet Do by Katie Oliver

Interesting Austenesque story. Not bad for a beach read.

3/5 stars


Strike! by Larry Dane Brimner

Easy read for anyone who wants an intro to the farmworker movement.

3/5 stars


Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Gag. Two people love to hate each other and drive everyone else into ruin for kicks.

3/5 stars


Star Wars: Ships of the Galaxy by Benjamin Harper

For kids, but a good introduction to the main ships in the Star Wars films.

2/5 stars


Star Wars: The Force Awakens Incredible Cross-Section by Jason Fry

Glorious photos with info about the characters, locations and ships in the newest Star Wars film.

3/5 stars


Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: And Other Geeky Truths by Ryan Britt

Geekery reaches its peak in this collection of shorts ranging from sharp studies of genre to amusing observations.

5/5 stars


Star Wars: The Force Awakens: The Visual Dictionary by Pablo Hidalgo

Filled with great details about The Force Awakens. I loved that we got a chance to learn all the random things about main characters and background folks.

4/5 stars


 

The Perfect Weapon by Delilah S. Dawson

READ. THIS. SHORT. It focuses on Bazine Netal, a character we see for all of five seconds in TFA.

5/5 stars


 

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I’ve been single-handedly promoting this book every since finishing it. A fairytale for adults who adore a good story with amazing ladies.

5/5 stars


Star Wars, Vol. 1: Skywalker Strikes by Jason Aaron

Just reading to fill the void while we wait for the next Star Wars film.

4/5 stars

 

Meet Bazine

It’s about time.

As someone who obsessed over the Star Wars Expanded Universe (now called “Legends” by people who aren’t as bitter as I am), I was devastated when I learned it would no longer be canon. Long before we got Padme and Rey, we had Mara Jade.

Why did so many of us cling to our blind devotion to the dark Jedi turned Skywalker wife? Because before Rey, we only really had Leia or Padme to look to for female presence in the Star Wars universe. Leia does a lot of great diplomatic work and Padme has good intentions, but Mara Jade was a BAMF. She overcame a crazy past, always held her own against the scoundrels of the galaxy and still managed to come out kind of ok.

In the newest movie we got Rey, who shows great promise at being this trilogy’s ass-kicking heroine. But we also get Bazine Netal.

Who?

Bazine is one of the many characters we meet in Maz Kanata’s palace.

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 3.58.54 PM

There she is, right before she goes and reports she’s sighted BB-8. Wait. She’s a villain? Well…

She’s more of a mercenary for hire. So she isn’t always on what we’d see as the “good side,” but Mara Jade wasn’t a “good guy” all the time either, and she’s still a great character.

I recently read “The Perfect Weapon,” an all-too-short story about Bazine. I won’t ruin the story itself, because it’s really short and well worth your time to read, but I will highlight my favorite things about this character.

  1. She has a past: We learn that she was an orphan raised in combat school, which explains why she’s an expert at espionage. After that there are allusions to Bazine learning in other schools and teaching herself a lot. She also appreciates learning new things from folks around her.
  2. She doesn’t put up with men who underestimate her because she’s a woman: In the short, one character greets her with “Kloda didn’t say you were a woman.” As if that somehow made her less able to teach this youngin’ a thing or two. She quickly puts him in his place.
  3. Fashion with purpose: In the film we see her dressed rather vividly, and her outfits are described in detail in the story, but everything about her dress is carefully planned out. She can camouflage herself to suit her needs and still conceal a multitude of weapons. At one point we learn exactly why her heels are so high, and a man who had “once chided her for her taste in footwear” is silenced.

I dearly hope we get more about this character because she seems really well-developed and there aren’t enough lady characters to appreciate right now.

Book Review: Junkyard Planet

When it comes to environmental sustainability in America the three tenants taught in school are: reduce, reuse, recycle. The last of the three is the most visible and most used option because the culture we live in does not really move toward reducing or reusing. We are a single-use society that loves new things.

As someone who has worked in sustainability I appreciate Adam Minter’s “Junkyard Planet” for laying out the journey of scrap metal. In some ways you could say he plots an ethnography of an object. We follow metal from the yards of America to the sheds and scrappers of Asia and then back to the brokers who make the shipment deals and flit around in the world of metal supply and demand. There is also a fantastic briefing on recycling in America (or “grubbing”).

What is so vitally important, and what I think Minter does a good job of highlighting, is that there are high levels of materials that must be managed in some way. While some of the striping practices are not the most eco-friendly (or just plain safe) there is some solace in knowing that the items are not merely being piled in a landfill. (Some solace, not a lot.)

He circles in on the more important issue of consumption. Recycling is the last of the steps toward waste reduction, because in the end that recycling bin is still going to produce some waste. What is more crucial is changing buying habits. The author ends the book with the message that we should “demand” companies be responsible for making products that embrace the three “r”s, especially when it comes to repairability and reusability.

I think anyone who works in sustainability can always benefit from understanding the cycles around certain waste streams.

Book Review: Best American Magazine Writing 2013

Like any avid reader I am the first to admit that I don’t have time to read as many articles as I would like, which means that many of the best slip completely past. Lucky for us the “Best American Magazine Writing” series continues to gather the best of the best so that we can all take a moment at the end of the year to catch up on the mesmerizing stories we somehow missed.

The beauty of magazine writing is that it has so much more space for creativity than straight news. The editors of this edition have curated a fantastic variety of stories, from hard-hitting investigations to first-person trials, the book contains shining examples of “writing well” (as William Zinsser would put it).

This year’s anthology contains not only great works, but within those works so spectacular perspective on the news that was. It starts out with a powerful analysis, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, of Obama’s politics, race in America and how very far we have yet to go.

There were two pieces about the decline of old age that were approached in very different ways, yet left me meditative and touched. As someone who was raised by a grandmother and great-grandmother I was confronted with situations that I’ve already faced, and some that I hope never to encounter. Michael Wolff’s personal account of a declining mother touches on bigger issues within our own medical system while Stephen King entertains with a fictive, yet realistic, account of one afternoon that encapsulates a lifetime.

Stories bounce around American politics, troubling accounts of war, strange news stories and interesting figureheads. After reading the diverse stories I was glad the collection ended with Charles C Mann’s State of the Species. Somehow he flits around the history of homo sapiens, bacteria behavior and agriculture to highlight how humans being responsible for their own demise is actually, in the grand scheme of things, the natural progression of a successful species.

 

I recommend this for anyone who feels they don’t have nearly enough time to skim every publication they would like, teachers looking for examples of great writing and writers who need inspiration occasionally.

Book Review: Status Update – The Tech Scene Under the Microscope

Marwick’s ethnography of the tech scene in San Francisco is as addictive as the very media she is discussing. Her findings confront the ideas surrounding “authenticity” as defined by this population that puts value on number of followers, retweets, traffic, etc., while actively denying that those things really matter. There are many keen observations about micro-celebrities, anti-consumerist consumerism and, most importantly, the inequalities within the scene. The later chapters circle in on sexism within the scene, how it is maintained and has become a part of the institutions in tech.

The study takes place between 2006-2010 when Twitter was booming, which accounts for why there is such a focus on that particular sharing mechanism. I was particularly amused because I work around the corner from Twitter’s offices at Civic Center. I passed by the hordes of Twitter employees going to lunch, sporting their Twitter gear and probably discussing the very things Marwick noticed in her book (the latest technology, last night’s invite-only party, next week’s conference).

I thought her keen observations of the nuanced meanings of “authenticity” converged well with her early assessments about neoliberalism becoming an aspect of how we present ourselves online. The self-governance that we partake in can help us build the status that is so essential to what we now deem important in forming our identity. What’s so interesting is what is seen as “acceptable” behavior and what is not, and who tries to dictate and maintain these standards. For instance, those just starting out on Twitter will retweet other users with more followers in order to increase their own numbers, a practice that is frowned upon by those who already have a booming following.

Marwick’s strength is her holistic approach to presenting her findings (she gets that not everyone is going to know the insider lingo or history, so she explains it). Her overview of the history of Web 2.0 was a fantastic briefing and actually featured one of the professors I became close to at USC. The background information really helps build a reference point when she starts to flesh out the communities and individuals that take center stage in her research.

Really fascinating read for any anthropologists, journalists, tech fiends, or even just tech users. In fact, I would love to see this replace some of the older ethnographies in curriculum (the subject-matter would actually appeal to modern students anyway). I could see the Web 2.0 overview being really useful in web-based courses that just want a basic briefing. Though I would have loved to see more on racial inequalities, which she hints at, I understand that that was not the focus of her study. Hopefully she will continue her study one day and give us more fabulous observations and insights.

Book Review: Dancing on Air

The thrill of a Victorian romance meets the drama of the ballet world in Dancing on Air. Lisette has known only the world her aunt has allowed her to see between the seemingly endless dance practices and performances. It’s no surprise that the theatre is her home, but this ingenue is perfectly content in avoiding the limelight, and all that comes with it, until a certain young Lord catches her eye.

What makes the love story compelling is way that the poor, neglected Lisette finds solace and salvation in the arms of Lord Gainsworth in a Cinderella-like performance worthy of a ballet in itself. Both are concerned about picking a happy future with each other over the wishes of those around them. In Victorian England one could not easily choose the whims of the heart over the expectations of society.

While the lovebirds are caught up in deciding their fate there is a perfect storm brewing behind-the-scenes of the theatre. Lisette’s aunt and Lord De Vale have a long history and soon the stakes in their games become too high. Strange things are happening to the ballerinas and Lisette’s swift rise does not come without a price. The concluding chapters leave all in suspense and agony, hoping that the love of Lisette and Lord Gainsworth will prevail, even though few ballets have happy endings.

Overall I thought this was a carefully written story, weaving the past in subtly enough that it did not take you out of the present action, but did give you hints at the motives and backgrounds of some characters. The descriptions of the ballets and theatre were very vivid and sometimes made you feel as if you could smell the dusty curtains, feel the creaking floorboards or hear the roar of the audience. There is a good balance of intrigue, love and menace, making this a perfect book to curl up with on a winter’s evening.

I wish there had been a bit more development between Lisette and her theatre family, since she does reference her connection to them frequently. This is a short read, so I wasn’t expecting to read full bios on every character, but I would have liked to have had more details on the characters themselves. The villains seems to be given the most back-story, while I was hoping the even Lord Gainsworth would get to tell a few tales. Though the year is given at the start, we get few reminders that this is set in the Victorian era, or even London itself. This would have been a huge, bustling city, a few hints at that could have gone a long way in portraying the world beyond the theatre.

Short review: Quick afternoon read. Nice ballet details (for the appreciation of dancers). Kind of predictable.

Book Review: Best American Travel Writing 2013

For many of us Fall means being cooped up in offices during the limited daylight hours, swaddling ourselves in layers of fabric and hunching over warm cups of tea. If you are like me, and long for an escape, then you find this time of year the perfect time to fantasize over future vacations in remote locales.

What Best American Travel Writing 2013 offers readers is not just a collection of articles, but the feeling of having been there, experiencing the adventure with the author. Elizabeth Gilbert is the guest editor for this edition and her introduction makes the distinction between the travel articles that map out your three-day trip and those that make you feel as if you already took that trip. By that logic this collection is a success because each author brings a unique voice to the locations they describe, making you feel the adrenaline of running with the bulls, the fear of a gravity defying airplanes and feel the creak of boardwalks beneath you as you taste freshly caught fish from Maine.

If this isn’t indulgent then maybe the true meaning of the word can be found in Lynn Yeager’s Confessions of a Packing Maximalist. Here she highlights the joys of packing heavily, an opinion often railed against and not seen in such a playful, thoughtful way. You can take a walk through Dickens World with Sam Anderson, marveling at the ingenuity around literary tourism. Better yet, sit down with David Sedaris and laugh at another one of his perfectly tailored stories about Paris.

A compelling element of travel writing is its ability to touch on underlying economic, political, environmental and human rights issues. I found that this anthology offered a good balance between the almost leisure trips and the ones with powerful issue driven themes. From Marie Arana’s Dreaming of El Dorado, which take you to the harsh mining cities still existing in Peru, to Dimiter Kenarov’s look at the winter sports push in Serajevo, still tinged with the wars that ravaged the area. Then there is Colleen Kinder’s first-person account of walking through Egypt that will haunt you as you walk down the street in whatever city you live in.

In the end I was amused that, though this is a book of travel writing, so many of the authors take a moment to reflect on their homes. Somehow these experiences are not lone events, but another thread interwoven in the fabric of their pasts, presents and futures. Even in the most exotic locales we never stray far from home.

 

Book Review: Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute

Never for the faint of heart, the newest adventure in the necromancer’s vivid life is a dizzying tour of Dreamlands and beyond. Johannes Cabal (our fearless necromancer) is hired by the Fear Institute to help them traverse the mysteries of the other alternate planes in order to track down the Phobic Animus (fear) and defeat it once and for all).

This amusingly absurd wandering is reminiscent of the first book in that there are far more opportunities for Cabal to be frustrated in a metaphysical world than the real one. There are jumps in time, geographical anomalies, strange cats and a general disdain for the laws of physics. What I mean is, there is no disappointments in Jonathan L. Howard’s fantastical storytelling abilities.

The previous volume allowed us a glimpse at Cabal’s past heartbreak and slow acquisition of compassion (against his will, of course). Here we get many more hints about just how far Cabal is willing to go in order to restore his love to the land of the living. We’ve had little pieces of the puzzle that is the necromancer’s past, but more and more we see that even if he portrays himself as a heartless fiend all of his motives point toward a man with a big (but oft misguided) heart.

Though Cabal himself is generally not phased by the (often) hilarious events around him, readers will find themselves laughing out loud on public transit systems and unable to explain just why, exactly, zebras are suddenly the funniest thing in existence. The last chapters are the best and most frantic, but once you come to the conclusion you are both baffled that you somehow didn’t see it coming and pleased that it ended so well.

As always, I look forward to the next crazed adventure. My predictions: another nefarious adventure with the undead (or soon to be deceased), more mechanical masterpieces and another step toward his ultimate goal. It should be interesting to see how he feels about his past actions when he eventually reaches his goal (if ever that does happen). Is damning himself for all eternity many times over worth reviving his lady love?

Book Review: Star Wars: Razor’s Edge

In this adventure our heroes find themselves fresh off the success of defeating the Empire in A New Hope and in the midst of trying to build a solid Alliance (before Empire Strikes Back). On her way to securing a meeting for the Alliance Leia (and Han, by association) get caught up in an adventure with survivors of the Alderaan catastrophe.

The Star Wars Expanded Universe has come a long way since Timothy Zahn’s first foray, and this book follows in his tradition of forging new ground, yet maintaining the tone of the universe we’ve grow accustomed with. There are major improvements since the first novels, and this book shows that the characters can become dynamic and the plot can be compelling. We get the first whispers of something between Han and Leia, glimpses into Luke’s growth away from a home and a good amount of exposure to the rest of the rich universe.

I liked that the focus of the book was not solely based on epic space battles (though there are definitely space skirmishes, so don’t worry), but on issues that would sprout from massive warfare, like the refugee experience. Through Leia’s eyes we gain exposure to the pain of losing Alderaan and the attempt to find home with those that have survived. I’m assuming that the rest of this series (titled: Empire and Rebellion) will go along the same lines and build on the ships and crews we see here.

Leia and Metara are fantastic foils for each other, but also act to show that there are strong, female, leaders in the Star Wars universe. Both women want to do what is best for those under their protection, but both choose drastically different paths, which really drives the first half of the novel.

I highly recommend this for fans of: Star Wars books, Star Wars, Star Wars films.

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