Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Book review: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne was on my reading list for last summer, and I never got to it. I have some friends who've been telling me I need to read Jules Verne for a while now, so I went looking for it again and have just finished it. In a nutshell: his prose is gorgeous, but I think I need to read more of his books to appreciate his stories.

It honestly took me a while to get into this one. The book is basically a travelogue, and, since the main character is a marine biologist, there were exhaustive descriptions of all the fish and molluscs that live in the various seas (since 20,000 leagues is distance, not depth). The thing that kept bringing me back was the writing. Most books I've read that were originally written in French are somehow extra-beautiful. It makes me want to learn more than the dozen or so phrases I remember from less than a year of high school French.

There's more to it than I just described, though. The plot thickens the closer you get to the end. As we go on, more is revealed (or more questions are raised) about the mysterious Captain Nemo. I personally became more attached as I went along to the narrator, Dr. Aronnax, and his two companions, Ned Land and Conseil. And sometimes, the wonder and beauty of the ocean that Verne describes is really astonishing.

So, it's not thick on plot, but still thick on motivations. The writing is lovely, the characters are deftly portrayed, moments of humor and moments of drama are played thoroughly and well. If you've got time to take a bite out of something really worth chewing over, you might want to pick up Verne.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Book review(s): The Sebastian St. Cyr Mysteries

That's right, Wednesday summer book reviews are back. To re-kick off this tradition, I'm reviewing not one but nine books in a single blog post: the Sebastian St. Cyr Mysteries by C.S. Harris.

I've got kind of a thing for the Regency period. I've also got kind of a thing for murder mysteries, though I haven't much indulged the taste. Obviously I'm not the only one, or they probably wouldn't have put the two genres together.

In book 1 of the series, What Angels Fear, Sebastian, Viscount Devlin, is accused of murder. Things get tangled up quickly enough that he finds himself on the run, trying to find the real culprit to prove his innocence. By book 9, Why Kings Confess, Sebastian is regularly being turned to for help by others who know they won't get justice from the government of George, the Prince Regent.

These aren't Regency romances like Jane Austen or any of the imitators that are popular nowadays. They're not about, as Carol Howard puts it in the introduction to my copy of Pride and Prejudice, "the formal civility, the carefully prescribed manners... an English landscape devoid of industrial turmoil and the brisk pace of modern technology."

Basically, they're like an episode of NCIS in Regency England. As Harris puts it on her website, "Think Mr. Darcy with a James Bond edge."

And I love it.

Harris is an actual Regency scholar, so it's not just thrill dropped in a historical setting. Social customs are attended to (and occasionally disregarded by the maverick main character), real historical figures make well-researched appearances, and the intrigue which drives the mysteries are pulled from the war with France, the wide gap between London's elite and London's poor, and the corrupt leaders of the period.

I've compared the books to a cop show (and they do have all the chases, violence, and sex those entail), but Sebastian grows from book to book, slowly developing the beliefs that have been sleeping within him for years. For me, this process is shown more effectively than in many TV shows.

The tenth book, Who Buries the Dead, is due out next March. I hope to get ahold of it then.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Reviving

Spring semester kind of knocked me out.

This was probably apparent to those of you who noticed that I haven't blogged in two and a half months. Slowly, though, my energy has been regenerating.

I'm back home. I'm regularly spending time with family, fiance, and friends. I have a shiny new computer. I have a cat snuggled in my lap. And today, after weeks of rainstorms, I have sunshine.

I've always loved thunderstorms. Occasionally, I'll take a walk when it's raining just to get soaked. Particularly loud thunder makes me laugh with delight. However, even in farm country, too much rain can be too much of a good thing. Currently, two of my coworkers have flooded basements, flooding in northern Iowa has ruined fields, and power at my house was knocked out for 24 hours last week when a tree came down on our power lines.

Today, and possibly for a few days more, though, the weather is supposed to be calm and clear.

I'm glad for the calm after a storm. It gives space for recovery and growth. Despite difficulties, everything looks so green and alive. Even though I love rain, I am learning to relish the sunshine.

After a semester like I had, I'm glad I am.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tradition!

Disclaimer: this is a pretty much unadulterated copy of what I'm turning in for a homework assignment on cultural limits on expression tomorrow. Sneaky, you say? Certainly! But I only have so much time, so I better do double duty where I can. This is homework, you say? Forgive me, I shouldn't do homework when writing a present-tense semi-stream of consciousness reflection on browsing Pinterest sounds like a good idea.

I can’t sleep, so I get on Pinterest and look at wedding stuff. There’s lots of planning to do in the next year, and the best place to start is by looking at what everybody else has done, right? There is precedent for that method, after all.

Our expressions are just a filtered and regurgitated imitation of another person’s expressions. Classic artists recreated scenes from mythology and history—both things others did or created. Painters learn to paint based on the styles of people who came before them.

Now, thanks to the Internet, we can learn about what everyone else is doing ever more quickly. We see cool ideas, and since everyone can see them at the same time, it becomes a movement before most people know what the source was. 

So whose idea was it to decorate for weddings with burlap and Mason jars? I wonder as I scroll down. Is this going to be a tradition that will last? It’s certainly popular—there’s even a word for it now: the DIY wedding. Maybe it’ll eventually be a cultural movement that people will say reflects resourcefulness. Or maybe it’ll just be a weird thing that people will eventually get over, like wallpapering houses with arsenic in the Victorian age.

An anthropologist might look at all the frills of a wedding and identify the inherent ritual, from the truly ritualistic ceremony to the near-universal (at least in the West) extras that people have added over time (white dress, sending out save-the dates, color themes). He (or she) might also begin to notice how much the modern wedding has to do with expression—and the limits impressed upon them by social norms.

Maybe that’s what tradition is.

The white wedding dress was popularized by Queen Victoria. That was less than 200 years ago, but now it’s considered shocking to wear anything other than white. Though she chose the fabric in support of British manufacturing, we’ve attached the value of purity to it. As this theme has been played on a hundred different ways, people even begin to lose this falsely-impressed symbolism, since purity has nothing to do with most weddings. Again, the social norms of expression are key in maintaining the tradition.

The wedding blogs tell me it’s all about me and what I want on my day. It’s funny how lots of people tend to want the same things. I don’t want to be like everyone else by default, but the tradition still matters to me.

And because of it, I want to have a white dress.

And maybe a few mason jars.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Nature is broken

The world God made is so beautiful, sometimes it's easy to forget that it's as broken as the people who live in it.

If nature wasn't broken, loved ones wouldn't be born with illnesses that can't be cured. Mudslides wouldn't indiscriminately kill and leave families waiting for answers.

Stupid mother cats wouldn't ignore their kittens and let them die in the cold, even though they're right in front of her. And then people wouldn't have to wait, helpless, wondering which kitten will next go stiff and lifeless. And then try to rub life back into its tiny body, hear its tiny cry, and wonder if it even has the strength to suck its mother's milk. And realize they probably don't, and become resigned to waiting until they're all gone.

It wouldn't have to be that way. That mother cat could just as easily have licked them, warmed them, nursed life into them. But she didn't. No amount of hovering by people will fix it. Even if you could keep them warm, they won't live, because their mother won't take care of them.

I wonder if God sometimes feels this way. What does he think when we act selfishly, when we remain cold and heartless even though people who need us are right in front of us? Has he resigned himself to our free will, and waits, knowing that if we choose not to, no amount of hovering can change us?

They're just kittens. That's something you could fix without messing up free will, right? I ask.

Sometimes it all seems unfair. Sometimes my favorite hymn, This Is My Father's World, seems to be mocking.

This is my Father's world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings and 'round me rings
The music of the spheres.

But how much worse is it for God? He is omniscient. He can't put these sorrows out of his mind like we can. He knows when a sparrow falls. He knows when a kitten dies. He knows each person lost on the Malaysian flight more intimately than their own families do.

This is my Father's world; oh, let me never forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.

Some of the tragedies come from human selfishness. Others seem to be accidents—nature's rebellion manifesting in pain. Like us, nature is not immune to the effects of sin. It struggles, fights, and sometimes, by the grace of God, overcomes.

But still we wait, resigned, trying to remember what we know.
 
This is my Father's world. The battle is not done
Jesus who died will be satisfied
And earth and heaven be one.

Willing them to live.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Shades of Milk and Honey review

After a couple months full of theater and schoolwork, I decided to treat myself to some reading: Shades of Milk and Honey, the first book of the Galmourist Histories, by Mary Robinette Kowal. I had the pleasure of meeting Mary at GenCon 2012, but only last week did I manage to pick up one of her books. I'm glad I did. I wasn't sold on the idea of Regency fantasy when I started, but as I read, I came to enjoy how well Mary's magic system works itself into the Regency world.

I've been increasingly interested in the Regency period in the last few years. I've read Pride and Prejudice upwards of a dozen times. (I may or may not have dressed as Elizabeth Bennet for Halloween last year.) It's an era that really lends itself to the aesthetic, and Mary works it.

The magic system is called glamour. Glamourists use breath (ether) in different arrangements to create illusions, even sounds and scents. The process isn't described in much technical detail, but that's not the point. The subtlety of glamour blends very well into the social setting of the Regency and thus the relationships that populate the story.

Our main character is Jane, a woman who is so nice and polite I at first couldn't believe her, but she soon develops into a remarkably subtle character. She's learned to repress her emotions and put stock in herself based on her propriety. By the end, she learns how to open herself up to her passions (and eventually takes less crap from her spoiled sister, whom I just wanted to slap. Even the sister, though, is developed enough to be believable). Love and family, in traditional novel of manners fashion, take the forefront.

Mary's elevator pitch for the series is "Jane Austen with magic." There are a few sprinklings of humor of a type you wouldn't get in an Austen book, but the idea is true to the setting. I've read that the other books depart from the typical Austen-esque plotline, but I think these characters (and glamour itself) have the potential to make other story types not only memorable, but also fun.

You may need a love of Regency or romance to get you in the door, but the characters and the magic will keep you there. I enjoyed this story and the world of glamour very much.

Find Mary's blog here.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Full Life

One day last week after coming in at 3 a.m. from the theater, my roommate said to me, "You try to do too much." I told her that if I quit some of the things I'm involved in, I'd just find others. I've been thinking about that, and I wonder if it's true. There are a lot of activities around campus I'd like to be involved in, very worthy things, but I doubt they'd all suit me. I can also easily find ways to fill my time which aren't productive. What I want to do, though, isn't fill my time -- I want to fill my life.

What does a full life look like? This is something I've tried to work through in different blog posts before, and I keep coming back to it. As someone who is planning on graduating, getting married, writing books, and having a family, the future looks full. As someone who has the choice between working on some important writing or getting on Pinterest, I need to consider how what I do now affects my dreams.

I'll totally use all these in the future!
 Sure, I can waste an hour on the Internet. I can also fill an hour in the theater or getting homework done ahead of time or working on a craft project. Those last three are all productive. But are they getting me where I want to go? Are they helping me make my life what I want it to be? On a definite critical level, probably not. But if I skip those sorts of things, am I skipping over the stuff that really does make my life full?

Maybe I have too many other things to do right now to try and find answers. I need to search for an internship. I need to work on two writing projects which aren't my novel. In a couple of months I need to start planning my wedding.

Course of action: try to live in a way that I won't regret.