Sunday Sum-Up, or The Best Laid Plans of Mice

This week was an example of best plaid plans going somewhat awry. Not awry in a terrible way. More like, “I planned to do this, but I guess I’m going to do this other thing instead”. Part of it was due to the weather, which went mad with storms on Thursday and Friday, with Friday’s storm throwing hail, heavy rains, wind gusts of up to 88mph (100mph in Omaha, where several houses were destroyed), and a small tornado that touched down just three blocks from my apartment! Three blocks! And the tornado sirens didn’t go off!

Luckily, it was a very small tornado and touched down in an open field that belongs to the University’s agricultural college, so there was no damage. Around town, a lot of trees, tree branches, and power lines were downed and a lot of people lost electricity. It was not as bad as it could have been, though. No one was injured, even though this was a huge storm system that swept across the entire eastern section of the state.

Yesterday was thunderstorm-free, though it was cloudy all day and started raining off and on again. I had made plans to see the Flatwater Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at a park near where I work, but I decided not to because of the rain. It’s an outdoor production, so lousy weather is definitely a factor. Fortunately, it’s running for another couple of weeks, so I have more chances to see it.

Hence, ‘the best laid plans of mice’:

 

I went to the theater to see two movies this week! That’s more than I usually see in a month! First off was A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle.

imagesThis was an odd movie. It had a stellar cast and beautiful locations, but it was presented and shot very strangely. The actors spoke in turn without interrupting each other, even when they were angry, like they were in a play instead of a film. And while the language was period appropriate and went right along with the costumes and sets, it sounded strange coming out of their mouths. So while it was good overall, I don’t think I’d recommend A Quiet Passion unless you are a die-hard Emily Dickinson fan.

 

 

I had to take my car in for a lengthy repair on my day off, and because Panera prefers to refrigerate their customers, I decided not to stick around and read like I had planned to do. Fortunately, there was  a movie theater nearby, so I decided to go see a movie instead of slowly freezing to death while reading at Panera.

The movie I saw:

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Let me start by saying that I hadn’t intended to see this when it came out. When they announced it way back, I thought, “Oh. Another superhero movie. Great”.  I was going to let it pass me by, when I saw a post about it online regarding the fact that it stars a woman and is directed by a woman (and also, the screenwriter is a gay guy). The commenter stated that seeing Wonder Woman was like having the scales fall off her eyes regarding superhero movies. Finally, she said, there’s a superhero who isn’t being portrayed specifically for the male gaze. It’s not all T&A, or stick-thin actresses in corsets and stiletto heels. Here, the Amazons are powerful women with a range of skin color and body types, all of them with actual muscles, looking like they could wade into a battle and kick everyone’s ass. And who was leading them? Hippolyta, played by Robin Wright, a 51 year old woman in an action role in Hollywood where women are considered ‘old’ when they hit 30.

And can we talk about Gal Gadot as Diana? Another woman with muscles! And she’s not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl with an All-American accent. She’s obviously from ‘somewhere else’ (aka Themyscira), and that’s the way it should be. She’s an Amazon warrior. She shouldn’t sound like she’s from Iowa. Her armor, too, fits the character. The short skirt and sleeveless top don’t seem like they’re meant to show off her body so much as to mimic the armor of ancient Greek warriors. You know, like the Spartans who held off the massive Persian army long enough to let the rest of the Greek city-states gather to defend their homeland. And maybe there were a couple of missteps in the film, but they weren’t enough to bother me. I loved Wonder Woman.

Something else notable…  the battle scenes- with the Amazons on the beach of Themyscira, and later with Diana charging the German forces by herself- honestly made me cry. Not because some syrupy emotional element had been added in, or because I was scared that Diana was going to die or anything like that. It was because- finally– there is a portrayal of a woman warrior who can lead the charge, wield a weapon as well as any man, and fight for what she believes in without needing a man to speak for her or defend her. I didn’t realize how much that would mean to me, or how it really has been lacking in Hollywood. Historically, women have been warriors. Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Sarmatian, and other cultures I can’t think of right now have graves of warrior women that have been found, and more will be revealed as archaeologists and historians go back and test the DNA of the bones found in previously unearthed graves.

Diana, Princess of Themyscira, might have been an anomaly when she was first dreamed up, but history is coming to show that she is not such a lonely figure after all.

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Now, onto books! I finished Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe, Roshani Chokhi’s The Star-Touched Queen, and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. The Glass Universe brings many women scientists out of obscurity and describes how their work- often derided as mere drudgery- was truly revolutionary and in many ways laid down the foundations of modern astronomy. Thanks to Edward Pickering, who hired the first women at his observatory at Harvard, many women were able to get their start and contribute to the study of the stars.

Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is pretty much that. He discusses nearly every branch of science, goes into their history and talks about the various scientists (and their oddities) who contributed to their fields, and discusses the field itself. Physics, quantum physics, biology, chemistry, geology and others all get their say in this book, which is written with the same sort of wry humor as the other books I’ve read by Bryson.

 

I’m still working on Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, which I had to put aside for a bit so I could finish up A Short History of Nearly Everything before it was due back at the library. I’m looking forward to delving further into The Bear and the Nightingale! I haven’t gotten any further into Glen Cook’s The Black Company. I’ll try to get through more of it this week.


My pottery class is going well. It helps that we all have a background in art and have done at least some work on the potter’s wheel, so the teacher isn’t have to start with the “What is clay?” lecture. We dove right in, and the technique mostly came back, even though it’s been years since I had a lump of clay in my hands. The next class is tomorrow night, where we’ll learn about trimming pots.

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Proof that we are, indeed making things and not just eating cake and drinking beer (though we’re doing all three).

The Star-Touched Queen

queenThe Star-Touched Queen
by Roshani Chokshi
342 pages
Published April, 2016

From Goodreads: Fate and fortune. Power and passion. What does it take to be the queen of a kingdom when you’re only seventeen?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…

But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.


I’ve seen multiple reviews of this book here and there, always rated very highly, and so I thought I’d give it a try. After a short wait from the library, the eBook showed up on my Nook one day, so off I went into a mythology I am only vaguely acquainted with. I have encountered the Hindu mythos here and there- it’s touched upon in other fantasy novels I’ve read, I’ve heard it spoken about in the various travels shows I’ve watched, and we read a section of the Mahabharata in my Epic Tales class (Classics 389) in college. So Maya’s world wasn’t utterly unfamiliar to me.

But it was still strange. Maya’s horoscope foretold  a dark future of death and destruction for her, and so the women she grew up with and around in her father’s palace treated her terribly, blaming virtually every misfortune and death on a girl who, really, had nothing to do with these things.

And yet, there was something odd about her in the way that she smiled or the fact that sometimes her shadow refused to appear when the sun was high. She would frighten her tutors away and sneak off to watch her father as he ruled his lands, content to learn about politics and perhaps someday become a scholar. One day, though, her father declares that Maya must marry, and she will do so within a few days.

The man that Maya ultimately marries is a mystery to her, and he brings her to a strange realm full of locked doors and distant voices. He treats her as an equal, with his only demand being that she must trust him.

Of course, Maya’s trust falters to her misfortune, her husband’s, and perhaps all the worlds above and below.

One of the comments I kept seeing about The Star-Touched Queen was how beautiful the commentors thought the prose was. I agree to a degree. Compared to many of the YA books I have read or tried to read over the past couple of years, the prose is more poetic. Chokshi’s metaphors didn’t sweep me off my feet, though. What kept me reading was Maya and her characterization, and later on, the mystery of the realm she became the queen of- Akaran.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have my moments of, “Maya, don’t be a dingbat… oh, there you go. Being a dingbat. Go figure”. I had several of those. Fortunately, they weren’t so aggravating that they made me want to put the book down. Amar, the king of Akaran, was mysterious enough to make me want to keep reading, if only to find out what he was all about.

From here, we get a bit spoilery, but I don’t know how to best discuss my thoughts without giving away certain plot elements, so here we go.

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  1. I realize the whole thing with Nritti was set up early on, but somehow it didn’t quite feel like Nritti’s early, unnamed appearances were part of her story. It felt like she appeared out of nowhere in Akaran.
  2. While I’m aware that reincarnation is part of Hindu beliefs and that it was mentioned in various parts of the book, given that Maya’s realization about her own past lives and how they intertwined with Nritti’s, the occasional mentionings of this idea didn’t meld enough into the story to make Maya’s discovery of her past lives feel completely natural.
  3. I know this is a fantasy, and it is based on various Hindu myths and beliefs, but the section where Maya is going through the kingdom as a sadhvi felt a little like it came from a different book altogether- one that was more of a surrealistic or magical realist story.
  4. I’m not sure how the reunification with her sister Gauri was necessary to the overall, and why Maya was helping her to escape. Her conversation with the old harem-wife felt more relevant to Maya’s journey.

Overall, I did enjoy this book. It was a quick read with interesting characters and locations, but I don’t think it will leave a very deep impression when I look back at the list of books I read this year. There is a second book that just came out, A Crown of Wishes, but the synopsis indicates that it’s about Gauri, not Maya. I’m still trying to decide if I’m interested enough to read that one.

Goodreads Monday- What Lies Between Us

25663781What Lies Between Us
by Naomi Munaweera
320 pages
published February 2016

From Goodreads: From the award-winning author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors comes the confession of a woman, driven by the demons of her past to commit a single and possibly unforgivable crime.

“The walls of my cell are painted an industrial white, like albumen. They must think the color is soothing. Where I come from it connotes absence, death, unrelenting loneliness.”

In the idyllic hill country of Sri Lanka, a young girl grows up with her loving family; but even in the midst of this paradise, terror lurks in the shadows. When tragedy strikes, she and her mother must seek safety by immigrating to America. There the girl must reinvent herself as an American teenager to survive, with the help of her cousin. Both love and loss fill her life, but even as she assimilates and thrives, the secrets and scars of her past follow her into adulthood. In this new country of freedom, everything she has built begins to crumble around her, and her hold on reality becomes more and more tenuous. When the past and the present collide, she sees no other choice than to commit her unforgivable final act. This is her confession.


This is another book I found on my public library’s Pinterest feed that I added to my TBR because I want to read more books from around the world. Given its subject matter, I don’t know if it’s something I’ll read soon. Maybe in the autumn, when it’s not so hot and I feel like tackling stories with heavy subject matter.

Sunday Sum Up

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. Really. It’s been hot this week. I’m sitting here with a big fan about three feet from my face. The high temperatures might be part of the reason I devoured Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman in two days. Thinking of a snowy Norway helps keep my mind off the oncoming summer.

On the bright side, I’m taking a pottery class starting this week. I haven’t touched clay since I was in college, so I’ll be brushing up on some very rusty skills and maybe come out of it with a cup or bowl or two. I’ll keep you posted!

In addition to The Snowman, I finished up Conn Iggulden’s Bloodline and Jacqueline Carey’s Miranda and Caliban.

 


I am currently reading three books, and I’ll have to start another one pretty soon. I have several eBooks on hold from my library, and they usually auto-download when they come available, so I’ll be minding my business and all of a sudden a book shows up on my phone. The books I’m working on are The Black Company by Glen Cook, The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel, and The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is the most recent download.

 


I’ve read fifty-three pages of The Black Company, and I’m still not sure what I think about it. The characters are certainly interesting, but the plot is flitting around a little, and it’s hard to get a sense of exactly what’s going on, what with all the “that sucked, so we’re going over there. But we found out that it sucked over there, too, so now we’re going here”. I could do with a little more description of the events and the world, honestly, but I’m probably going to give it to page one-hundred before giving up on it.

The Glass Universe is as interesting as Sobel’s other books, but there are so many names to keep track of! Also, I’d thought it would revolve around the women of the story, but there is a lot to do with the men. It makes sense, given that it’s the men who are running the program that hired the women to process and interpret all the information they gathered, but still.

I haven’t really started on The Bear and the Nightingale yet. I glanced at the first page, was intrigued, and then decided that I should work on The Glass Universe on my lunch break today. I haven’t started The Star-Touched Queen at all. I don’t mind being in the midst of four books at once, but I’d like to get my mind made up about The Black Company and get closer to finishing The Glass Universe.

In other news, I ended up with two free tickets to see A Quiet Passion tonight, so I’m taking a friend out for a movie and drinks. Neither of us knows much about it besides the facts that it’s about Emily Dickinson and it’s been very well reviewed.

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Goodreads Monday- The Glass Universe

Goodreads Monday is a weekly feature where you randomly pick a book from your Goodreads To Be Read list and show it off. This week’s selection is The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

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The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
by Dava Sobel
320 pages
Published December 6, 2016

From Goodreads: #1 New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel returns with the captivating, little-known true story of a group of women whose remarkable contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations made via telescope by their male counterparts each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but by the 1880s the female corps included graduates of the new women’s colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates. The “glass universe” of half a million plates that Harvard amassed in this period—thanks in part to the early financial support of another woman, Mrs. Anna Draper, whose late husband pioneered the technique of stellar photography—enabled the women to make extraordinary discoveries that attracted worldwide acclaim. They helped discern what stars were made of, divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and found a way to measure distances across space by starlight.

Their ranks included Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid who went on to identify ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars, Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar classification system that was adopted by astronomers the world over and is still in use, and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, who in 1956 became the first ever woman professor of astronomy at Harvard—and Harvard’s first female department chair.

Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of a group of remarkable women who, through their hard work and groundbreaking discoveries, disproved the commonly held belief that the gentler sex had little to contribute to human knowledge.


 

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of other of Dava Sobel’s books, namely Longitude and The Planets, so I’m pretty sure I’ll like this one, too. I’ve been interested in astronomy since I was a little kid, and read everything that my little hometown’s library had on the subject. I’d heard of a few of these women even before they were included in Jason Porath’s Rejected Princesses, and it will be interesting to learn more about them. I should make a night of it, reading The Glass Universe followed by a viewing of Hidden Figures. 

Sunday Sum Up

Another Sunday has come around, and it is definitely June outside. You wouldn’t think that an 86°F day with low humidity would be so stifling, but there’s not a breath of wind outside so the air is just sitting there, slowly cooking under a sunless sky.

I am not looking forward to summer.

Anyway. I’ll cross that muggy bridge when I get there. Right now, books! I finished three of them this week- The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein, Margaret of Anjou by Conn Iggulden, and Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes (I’ll post a review for this later in the week).


I’ve already started two other books, Bloodline by Conn Iggulden, which is the third installment of his Wars of the Roses series. Thanks to a gripping plot and fascinating characters, I read in bed for an hour longer than I intended to, so I’m already to page 125. Looks like I’ll be finishing this one in a hurry. Because I always like to have a digital book handy in case of long lines at the grocery store or whatever, I downloaded Jacqueline Carey’s Miranda and Caliban, because who doesn’t love a good Shakespeare retelling? I’ve never read Carey’s work before, so I’m looking forward to it.

 

In other news, the podcast Invisibilia is back for a new season! It’s an offshoot of the stellar Radiolaband the first two episodes deal with emotions, how they are made, and the their consequences in both everyday and extreme circumstances. I’d be listening to it right now, but I can’t listen to people talking and type at the same time. Might have to hurry through the writing of this!

Neil Gaiman has been working to raise awareness and money for the plight of refugees around the world, so when the comedian Sara Benincasa jokingly asked if he would do a reading of the Cheesecake Factory menu if she raised $500,000 for refugees, he agreed. The campaign has raised just over $87,000 so far. You can find it here:  neil-gaiman-will-do-a-live-reading-of-the-cheesecake-factory-menu-if-we-raise-500000-for-refugees. The minimum donation is $10, so chip in if you can. It’s a worthy cause.

Margaret of Anjou

61w-zvQfd+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Margaret of Anjou (The Wars of the Roses #2)
by Conn Iggulden
464 pages
published 2014

From Goodreads: The brilliant retelling of the Wars of the Roses continues with Margaret of Anjou, the second gripping novel in the new series from historical fiction master Conn Iggulden.

As traitors advance . . . a queen defends.
It is 1454 and for more than a year King Henry VI has remained all but exiled in Windsor Castle, struck down by his illness, his eyes vacant, his mind blank. His fiercely loyal wife and queen, Margaret of Anjou, safeguards her husband’s interests, hoping that her son Edward will one day come to know his father.
With each month that Henry is all but absent as king, Richard, the duke of York, protector of the realm, extends his influence throughout the kingdom. A trinity of nobles–York and Salisbury and Warwick–are a formidable trio and together they seek to break the support of those who would raise their colors and their armies in the name of Henry and his queen.
But when the king unexpectedly recovers his senses and returns to London to reclaim his throne, the balance of power is once again thrown into turmoil. The clash of the Houses of Lancaster and York may be the beginning of a war that could tear England apart . . .
Following Stormbird, Margaret of Anjou is the second epic installment in master storyteller Conn Iggulden’s new Wars of the Roses series. Fans of the Game of Thrones and the Tudors series will be gripped from the word “go.”


The synoposis is not wrong. I think fans of Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire, if you’re talking about the books) would like this series. It’s full of political intrigue, battles, and spies, though there aren’t any dragons. I’m okay with the lack of dragons.

I’ve read about the history of the Wars of the Roses, I’ve watched the Shakespearean plays based on this time period, and I even watched the wretched The White Queen tv show that made witchcraft into a thing that actually worked (what…?).

Someone needs to stop turning Philippa Gregory’s books into television shows, and turn to Conn Iggulden instead. It’s one thing to read in the history books about battles and casualty counts, and who wrote what edict and when. It’s quite another to have someone write a vivid novelization of the whole affair, where you come to like and care about a character, only to have them cruelly cut down in battle. I even respected Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York who is presented as something of a villain, but he loves his country and has grown so frustrated with how Queen Margaret and her faction have ruled the country that he rises against them to ‘free his King from the wicked councilors who surround him’.

You have to respect Margaret, too, though. She came to England as a slip of a fourteen year old girl, and now, years later, she has a backbone of steel and is capable of raising an army to defend her husband, King Henry VI and secure her son Edward’s position as heir to the English throne.

There are too many things going on to summarize this book in a couple of paragraphs, and you could check the Wikipedia page if you want a summary of the dynastic wars that spanned generations and ended up giving us the Tudor dynasty.

Suffice it to say that Conn Iggulden has written another fantastic book that is fast-paced and full of action, but isn’t lacking in real human emotion, either. Take the queen, for example: as the years of Henry VI’s illness progress, Margaret’s love for him withers, and her motivation to fight moves away from him to protecting her son’s rights. The various houses are still at each other’s throats, there are betrayals, men who are loyal to the death, and overall brilliant prose that doesn’t let up or let you go.

And I don’t even mind that Iggulden will switch point of view from one character to the next without warning.

I already have to next book waiting for me on my bookshelf, and I look forward to getting started.

** Note, Margaret of Anjou is also titled Trinity, a fact that confused the heck out of me when I was looking through the books at the library.