Today – 2023-01-31

11:50 pm – Didn’t do much today except work and stay around the house. In the morning I finished outlining 7 of the 20 anti-trans bills that are going through the Indiana Statehouse. That was draining. Working on documentation for work.

Reading: Stayed up exceptionally late finishing Demon Copperhead. What an extraordinary novel. The narrator voice is fantastic.

TV Shows Watched:
Pokerface – first episode, then we discovered we have to pay the premium to buy the rest. Since we just canceled Paramount, we’re unlikely to pick up Peacock.
Vera – we’re in the 9th season and the show just seems dark.

Continue ReadingToday – 2023-01-31

Read 26 Indy Reading Challenge for 2014

Early in January of 2014, Indy Star Reporter Michael Anthony Adams issued a challenge to Indiana residents for the new year:

New Year’s resolutions are rarely acted on. I’m guilty of it, and you’re guilty of it. The trick is to have support, which is exactly what #Read26Indy is. But instead of having a few friends hold you accountable for your vows, you have an entire city.

The pledge: I’m calling on every Hoosier to read 26 books in 2014. Think of it as your informal education, a collective challenge. One book every two weeks. That’s 20 pages a day (if you figure that the average novel is 280-300 pages long). When you start a book, let everyone know about it on Twitter by using the hashtag #Read26Indy. Feel like telling us what you’re drinking while you’re reading? Have at it, but use #Read26Indy. Can’t stand a character? Want to rant about it? #Read26Indy is your pedestal. The point is to read. Like Faulkner said, “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad.”

Can’t decide what to read? Tweet it out. #Read26Indy has already gathered a large following, and people are eager to tell you about their favorite books. I’ll also be keeping this page up-to-date with what I’m reading and I urge you to join our Goodreads group, #Read26Indy, to discuss your picks with other readers.

Part way through January, they mentioned that comic books count! I could finish in a couple weeks if I include them. For my personal challenge, I’ll note comic books but not count them against my official total. I’m going to pin this post to my main page and update as I add titles throughout the year.

So far my finished titles are:

This Is How You Lose Her
Author: Junot Diaz
Rated: 4 stars. Very well written with strong characters. I just had a hard time identifying with the protagonist, because all of his problems came through his own self-absorption.

The Goldfinch
Author: Donna Tartt
Rated: 5 stars. Everything I love about reading – being so caught up that I forget the rest of the world exists, wanting to highlight whole passages and re-read whole sections, frantically looking up quotes and references to get at additional layers of meaning – all come together here. The book I set down after the I finished the last page is a completely different one than I thought I was reading after the first chapter, and winding up in a different place than I expected and yet feeling like it all made sense and could be true is, I think, a hallmark of a truly skilled author.

Hawkeye: Little Hits, Vol. 2
Author: Matt Fraction
Rated: 4 stars. Smart and sardonic, the story of a hapless hero who seems to swing and miss an awful lot. Beautifully drawn work.
The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender
Author: Sam Killermann
2022 update: – I’ve since come to understand that Sam Killerman is a cisgender man who co-opted the work of many transgender people to put together this guide, and unfortunately he makes money on it at the expense of the people who originally wrote the work. Rated: 4 stars. Available as a free ebook, so no reason not to pick up a copy. Worth reading for the discussion of the fallacies of The Golden Rule alone – Killermann suggest replacing “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” with the more thoughtful “do unto others as they would have you do to them” and his logic is impeccable; he challenged (and improved!) one of the basic principles I’ve always followed.

But the book really shines when it leads you through understanding of gender and especially how people who don’t conform to the male/female gender binary see themselves in the world. It’s eye-opening and will change your perspective in a healthy way for yourself and the people around you.

Veronica Mars: An Original Mystery by Rob Thomas: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line (Vintage)
Author: Rob Thomas
Rated: 3 stars. Iffy. It didn’t advance the story threads that were left open in the movie at all.
Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man
Author: Chaz Bono.
Rated: 3 stars. I understood Chaz’ story a lot better, and had a lot of sympathy for what he dealt with in coming to terms with his gender identity. I had trouble relating to some of the ways he spoke about transitioning, because he rejected completely and didn’t identify with any female experience from his life. I think in contemplating my own gender identity I feel an ownership of both feminine and masculine experiences and identities, so the way Chaz wrote about things seemed foreign to me. After reading this I watched the documentary “Becoming Chaz” and related a lot more to what Chaz was saying as he transitioned on screen. In some cases that seems hard to put into words, but when Chaz speaks with his own voice it’s easier to understand.
The Actor’s Guide To Murder
Author: Rick Copp
Rated: 1 star. This is a terrible book and I’m not going to link to a sales page for it. It’s incredibly transphobic – in fact it’s worth spoiling the “mystery” – the killer is a trans woman who commits murder to pay for her transitions. Because of course those crazy trans folks will go nuts and murder people in order to transition. Just a piece of crap writing all around.
The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel (P.S.)
Author: Helene Wecker
Rated: 5 stars. A delightful read by a first-time author. Very impressive.
The Woman Upstairs
Author: Claire Messud
Rated: 4 stars. I have a friend who disliked the ending, but I loved it. I was afraid it was going to be a tragic book throughout, but was happy to find that was not the case.
Tony’s Treasure Hunt
Author: Holly Peterson
Cute children’s book that I happened to buy a single framed page of several years ago. Tony finds a series of clues and follows them to find a treasure.
Seating Arrangements
Author: Maggie Shipstead
Rated: 4 stars.
Funny, exasperating, self-absorbed white people who behave outrageously while convinced they’re proper and upstanding. It seemed very realistic to me. Not sure why there are so many angry reviews about this book on goodreads. Certainly the characters were idiots, but they were engaging idiots.
Mrs Queen Takes the Train: A Novel
Author: William Kuhn
Rated: 3 stars.
An upcoming book club selection, so I’m bound by the first and second rules of book club – “Don’t discuss the book before book club” I’ll circle back and write a review after.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel
Author: Robin Sloan
Rated: 3 stars
Another fun light read. It prioritizes using technology and computers over doing the work yourself, and seems to promote the idea that reading is done strictly for data gathering purposes. A very google-like approach to books that entirely misses the point. As does Google, in general.
The Secret History
Author: Donna Tart
Rated: 4 stars. I enjoyed the storyline but didn’t really care for any of the characters, even the protagonist. A bunch of jackasses, all of them. It’s well-written and smart but I feel some impatience at stories where there are literally no sympathetic characters in sight. I supposed there are groups of utter jerks out there, but why bother with them? Do we need to hear their stories?
Miss Buncle’s Book
Author: D.E. Smith
Rated: 4 stars.
When I picked up this funny little book to read the back cover, I was dismayed to find that it was very like a story I was writing myself about a woman who writes about her neighbors in a smash hit book and then has to weather the storm of their consternation. I was a bit put out, actually, until I realized the story was originally published in 1936 and reprinted recently with a very charming cover. I suppose I can’t be too upset that someone had the same funny idea I did 32 years before I was born. And my story only starts there and then gets pretty racy, where this book remains charming and sweet throughout. The characters are sharply drawn and the controversies are small, the conceit of a book within a book is nicely recursed with yet another book being written by the characters of the book inside the book inside this one, and there is a rather outrageous denouement with a kidnapping that it’s fairly easy to forgive given that they satirize it themselves. They only think the didn’t tie up was whether the Mrs. Goldsmith’s dilemma with the bakery buns solved itself; they leave you to return to the beginning and work it out yourself.
Continue ReadingRead 26 Indy Reading Challenge for 2014

John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ – a book review

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

It isn’t good manners to talk about the book before book club; in fact that is the first and second rules of book club. But I am a few pages away from the end of this book, and it’s not exactly a book that sits around waiting to be discussed, so the book club will probably forgive me, especially because I actually managed to finish a book for once instead of getting bored part way through and going off to look at comics instead. My ADD has gotten much worse over the last few years. My brain is shallow; I cannot help it.

So there are a number of things that you need to know about this book, and I’ll actually number them for you, just for entertainment, although none of these items actually takes priority over any other. Numbering shit is just fun.

  1. The Fault in Our Stars is a really great book. (I never ever bury my lede.)
  2. It is a novel about a 16-year-old young woman named Hazel, who is dying of cancer, so yeah, you’re probably going to cry. You should read it anyway. Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything by telling you about the cancer; you learn that on the first page.
  3. The book is set in Indianapolis, so if you live here, you should especially read it, because it’s very cool to actually read a really good book that’s set in Indianapolis, with places you’ve been to popping up all over the text like delicious little surprise bonbons. I imagine this is how New Yorkers feel every time they read about their precious city: “Oh, yes, I’ve stood on that corner/eaten at that pizzeria, how droll.” Well I’ve been to that Speedway on 86th and Ditch, and I can say… it’s a gas station. But it’s OUR gas station. Wait, this is a better one: I’ve been to that Funky Bones sculpture in the 100 Acres behind the IMA, and watched kids playing on it, so I know exactly what the characters saw and felt at that particular moment, so I have better idea that any dumb New Yorker what it’s supposed to mean. I’m inappropriately chuffed that I understand one thing that New Yorkers don’t.
  4. This is not a depressing book. Well it is in parts, but it’s also intelligent, and moving, and uplifting, and cathartic and ultimately not depressing at all. More than likely you will finish this book and be glad that you read it, and also feel very alive, which you have been reminded of because several of the characters in it are not. Unless you are actually dying of cancer, in which case, I am a huge asshole and should check my privilege. Yikes. Now do I delete this list item or not? Aw, fuck it.
  5. Although you will recognize lots of the settings by name, the author inexplicably changed the name of the hospitals that appear in the book, which made me wonder throughout. You will still recognize them, though, especially if you, like I, have an unwanted familiarity with any of them. That only adds to the verisimilitude. That is both good and bad.
  6. The author, John Green, is a resident of Indianapolis, and you have probably met him at one time or another, possibly without realizing it. He’s probably that guy you/I flipped off in traffic, or cut off to get in the grocery store line. Or was introduced to, and promptly forgot his name. (For me, most likely that one.) Unlike Vonnegut or James Whitcomb Riley, or George Ade, or Meredith Nicholson, he’s actually around here somewhere. I know it’s an assumption that we may, you and I, have met him, but it’s not that big of a stretch. Indianapolis is a city, but it ain’t that big.
  7. I have not (yet) read his other works, but just based on this one, John Green is a huge literary asset to our city, on par with any of the dead literary figures I listed in the bullet point above. And he has the advantage over those dudes of being accessible to you and I – not in the sense that we could run into him on the street (although we probably have) but in the sense that he’s writing in a contemporary Indianapolis that we see every day, and not an historical city that doesn’t have the same sensibility that Indianapolis did back when true literary figures last walked the streets here. Aside from the characters residing in a city we recognize, they also reside in a time period we recognize, with pop culture and technology we recognize, and when they look in the mirror we see our faces reflected back. John Green is a voice of Indianapolis in the modern day, and his writing reminds us we are also intelligent, and moving, and uplifting, and cathartic, and that we have the power to move people with our words.
  8. I once had a conversation with my friend Rachel about whether there could be another major literary figure in Indianapolis along the lines of Riley, writing works that were set in Indianapolis in a way that could be transformative, and she disagreed with my assertion that there could – she felt that there was nothing going on in the city culturally that would lead to Indianapolis being represented in that way. When I tried to suggest that a well-written literary work could spark a cultural change like that, she got irritated with me, and snapped “It’s not a tautology!” and ended the conversation. And went I back to my desk and looked up the word tautology. I knew what it meant, I swear, I was just refreshing my memory. Anyways, Rachel – this book proves you wrong.
  9. Another thing about this John Green fellow, is that he is a huge asshole. I’m basing this not on having met the man, as I’ve already said I haven’t, or on anything specific that he’s written. I’m basing that assertion on the fact that he’s setting the curve. He’s raising the bar, and I don’t like it at all. He’s like my older brother who always got As and as soon the teachers met me, they were like “oh, yay, another Mineart” and then when I daydreamed my way through class, all my report cards said stuff like “not living up to her potential” and “she never pays attention; disappointing.” It was one thing to live in a city where all the good authors were dead ones, and their writing was mostly too boring to read (except Vonnegut, he was cool). I liked it that way. I could write whatever shit I wanted – I could write ridiculous things about sex in a way that I hoped would make people laugh and not worry about whether what I’m writing matters, because it’s only Indianapolis; it’s not like we’re striving to achieve here. Hell, our city motto is “no mean city” which is basically just a way of say “the city doesn’t suck too much.” (Can I point out this phrase, originating in the bible, is usually recognized as a reference to another city altogether? That’s the kind of thing we could expect from Indy, before John Green.) I was happy; I was writing something that I could self-publish under a pen name and push out there without worrying. Now there’s a fucking curve. So thanks, John Green, for writing a really good piece of fiction. You huge jerk.
Continue ReadingJohn Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ – a book review

Nancy Drew “Girl Detective” T-shirt

I’ve loved Nancy Drew since I was a kid, and I had a cool shirt with Pamela Sue Martin’s face on in when I was in elementary school. I always wished I had one with the silhouette on it, so I made one for myself. And you, if you want to buy one. They’re for sale on

Nancy Drew T-shirt

Nancy Drew T-shirt

I also put the design on a iPad case, if you’d like to carry your Girl Detective around that way instead.

Nancy Drew iPad Cover

Nancy Drew iPad Cover

Continue ReadingNancy Drew “Girl Detective” T-shirt

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

December’s book club book was State of Wonder and I managed to get it read this time. (It’s been hit-or-miss the last several book club meetings because I’ve been doing my own writing or reading other books or *ahem* reading tons of fan fiction.) The synopsis — which I usually tend to steal from somewhere else, and in this case, cribbed from booklist — goes like this:

Marina Singh gave up a career as a doctor after botching an emergency delivery as an intern, opting instead for the more orderly world of research for a pharmaceutical company. When office colleague Anders Eckman, sent to the Amazon to check on the work of a field team, is reported dead, Marina is asked by her company’s CEO to complete Anders’ task and to locate his body. What Marina finds in the sweltering, insect-infested jungles of the Amazon shakes her to her core. For the team is headed by esteemed scientist Annick Swenson, the woman who oversaw Marina’s residency and who is now intent on keeping the team’s progress on a miracle drug completely under wraps.

The thing I was struck by just three chapters in was the parallels to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel I really disliked, as it was one of the titles on the Great American Novel class I took in high school. I was sure I ranted about this sometime in the past, but I can’t seem to find a reference to it, so please indulge me while I go off on a tangent to explain: In my junior year of high school, we had a (male) teacher for a class called “The Great American Novel.” The reading list was lopsided in favor of male protagonists, war settings, and general testosterone. I can’t remember the entire list (possibly because I’ve tried as hard as I could to block out the experience) but this is at least part of it:

Strangely, these were missing from the reading list: To Kill a Mockingbird, Iris Murdoch, Edith Wharton… you see my point? Too much war and males finding themselves in colonialist exploration. The Great Gatsby was the one of the few novels where the author didn’t spend the whole book polishing the knob of the protagonist. Vonnegut would have been good if not for the juxtaposition with Catch-22. After reading Hemingway, my only feelings were that it would be a good idea to learn manly sports like boxing and fighting if only to beat the crap out of guys like Hemingway. Henderson The Rain King just seemed like a giant tool.

The topper on this cake was that we got extra credit for taking the summer before the class to read more from the “canon” of accepted titles, so I spent the seminal summer of my high school experience reading war novels, working in the public library and a chicken restaurant, and wondering what the girl that I had a massive crush on was doing during her break and if it was possible that she would ever ever fall in love with me, none of which was good for my psycho-sexual development as an estrogen-aligned homo girl.

Anyways, When I noticed the parallels in State of Wonder to Heart of Darkness/ Apocalypse Now, I wasn’t heartily encouraged by the book, despite the fact that State of Wonder has a female protagonist. Oh me of little faith. Patchett didn’t let me down with Bel Canto, so I don’t know why I expected her to do so here. Without being too much of a spoiler, she does take the notion of ‘the company man pursuing a rogue operative in the wilds as a metaphor for exploring their own inner darkness’ and neatly turns that notion on its head, exploring themes that never would have occurred to Conrad about exploitation, what the nature of civilization is, and what responsibilities corporations have to the world while using its resources. I was fortunate that Stephanie read the book before I did, and as I kept exclaiming with frustration over the actions of the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson, she kept telling me “Keep reading! Keep reading! You’ll be glad you did!” She was right; the book had a very satisfying ending, and you too should keep reading until the end.

Continue ReadingState of Wonder by Ann Patchett

A Song of Ice and Fire

The HBO series A Game of Thrones starts tonight, and author George R. R. Martin responds on his blog to the off-base New York Times article by Ginia Bellafante claiming that the fantasy genre of literature is “boy fiction” and that his series attracts women by spicing up his novels with graphic sex. As he notes in his post, female fantasy fans all over the internet are enraged about the charge that fantasy isn’t for girls, and that Martin’s series attracts the women folk solely through sex.

I’ve read a lot of fantasy series, but have veered away from the genre in the last ten years because many of them are so formulaic – which I’ve complained about here before – many follow the Joseph Campbell tropes – orphan hero with royal heritage goes on travel quest guided by mentor to defeat evil lurking in the mountains to save the world – that is pretty misogynist and repetitively boring as well. One of the many reasons I enjoy Martin’s series is because it blows that annoying trope out of the water – there’s no “one true hero” – but many; a huge cast of characters, all with their own motivations, moving against and with one another advancing the plot in their own ways. Drawing comparisons, I’d say The Wire is the closest I can think of in story construction to Martin’s series. It’s fascinating to see so many characters viewing the same story from different angles, all with partial understanding of what’s really going on, and succeeding and failing without always knowing entirely why.

And Martin has strong female characters – who are strong in different ways from each other – and who are acting on their own agendas, which may or may not be related to men’s agendas. That is a huge appeal as well; to see women acting like actual women act and not like cardboard cutout princesses from some distant mythic fairy tale.

So I’m glad that there’s been an outcry about the characterization of the series, especially since Martin’s fandom has been pretty critical of him of late; he’s had writers block over the last several years and the recent installments of his novels have been delayed. It’s nice to see them fiercely defend him for once, instead of giving him a hard time. I’m looking forward to the series. And if I get around to it, I may need to re-read the novels.

A Game of Thrones (Song of Ice and Fire)

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2)

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3)

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4)

A Dance with Dragons (Song of Ice and Fire)

Continue ReadingA Song of Ice and Fire

Some Thoughts on “Gang Leader for a Day”

Again cleaning out some old notes and writing, I came across some thoughts I had about the book “Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets” and the subsequent discussion we had about it in book club. I started to write this, but felt I needed to do some additional research to back up some of my ideas, and shelved it. Dunno if I’ll ever get around to doing the research, but the ideas I had are interesting, at least.

We were talking about the architecture of the Robert Taylor Homes, and how it was, to some extent ill-suited to Chicago and the climate, and about the galleries being built outside, etc. and I was thinking about that and what I have skimmed from the Christopher Alexander book “A Pattern Language” about how profoundly architectural components can affect us and how we interact as a family, a neighborhood and a community, etc., and it made me wonder if they had, when they had decided to build the projects, taken an entirely different approach to building for low-income families, whether there would have been an different outcome.

For example, the way the buildings were constructed had a lot of influence on how the people interacted as a community. People were required to live in a fashion that was more intimate than other communities might have been, and it forced dependencies on people like Mrs. Bailey that wouldn’t have existed in other settings.

Architecture also had a powerful effect on how the gangs were able to seize control of the buildings and use them – controlling halls and stairwells, using empty apartments, etc. I wondered if that wasn’t part of the difficulty the gangs had with establishing other places, like Iowa. They didn’t have as much control over their members because they didn’t have as much control over their locations.

That caused me to wonder whether the architecture of the projects actually contributed to the rise of the gangs and the influence of drugs throughout the community. Jane Jacobs in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Modern Library Series)” talks a extensively about how the city can curb criminal activity by sculpting the streetscapes so that people can see the street from their windows and keep an eye on what is going on.

Separately from those ideas, I was thinking about how easy it is for me to judge Mrs. Bailey and JT – because I have the freedom to be an ethical person because I have enough money to be moral. When the economic system you’re trapped in gives you absolutely no incentive to be moral when being moral can get you killed, and when there are additional powerful reasons — like survival — for you to engage in unethical and immoral behavior, you’re going to do what you need to. The odds are stacked against moral behavior and right conduct.

Continue ReadingSome Thoughts on “Gang Leader for a Day”

Me and my shallow brain

Howdy? How have you all been. It’s been so long since we talked. I’ve been cheating on you with Facebook, I admit it. But Facebook is giving me tennis elbow, (damned Farmville!) so I need to lay off the junk for awhile.

Also, according to Nicholas Carr in his rather alarming book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains – Facebook is making me stupid. Actually, the whole internet is. It’s probably your fault.

Seriously, though – the book set off some alarm bells for me. The central idea is this – the way we read on the internet is fundamentally different than how we read books and longer works of literature, and that difference in the way we read is re-writing our neural pathways and fundamentally changing the way we think as well. People who have been reading and writing on the internet, because it makes us prone to skimming, focusing in short bursts, and jumping from one thought to the next, have lost the ability to concentrate on reading a single lengthy work. We’ve lost the ability to focus on tasks for long periods of time. We’re addicted to feeding our brains with short bursts of knowledge, and we keep going back to that like lab mice to the food.

I heard Carr speak at SXSW, and I immediately could recognize on a personal level what he was talking about – it’s partly the concept I was struggling to express in my “Goodbye Twitter” blog post:

2) Micro-thinking
When you have to parse every statement down to 140 characters, you throw out complexities, paraphrase, and, inevitably, make your meaning less clear. You start to think in simpler thoughts. After tweeting for so long, I find it to be a struggle to think things out and examine ideas in a more complex form. Hence the lack of longer writing on this blog. That is a trend I desperately need to reverse.

I can sit down and read light reading, but if I have to sustain attention for any length of time, I’m screwed. I’ve been trying to pick up and read Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” for three years. It’s only 7 volumes. I read more than that in a year. I should be able to read and comprehend it. But I can’t stay focused for anything more than the first 30 pages. That’s ridiculous.
And other books have given me problems, too. The Diane Arbus biography was a struggle. Non-fiction leaves me stranded mid-chapter. To tell you the truth, even this book “The Shallows” is giving me fits. And I whole-heartedly want to read it.

So how do I “fix” it? That is indeed my question, and one that I tried to ask him at SXSW in vain, because I couldn’t get his attention. So I snapped up the book as soon as it was published in hopes that he provides an answer. I haven’t finished the book yet (see above problem) so I don’t know the solution.
Carr dives pretty deeply into how the brain works – especially the insight science has gathered over the last 30 years. Turns out that our brain makes new neural pathways throughout our lives – our development isn’t stuck in one place after adolescence. We can re-write and re-map our brain’s functionality throughout our lives, simply by doing different things, training our brain to act differently. And the internet is training us to think differently than we have in the past — that may or may not be a good thing.

I’m going to finish this book – I swear I will. And at that time I’m going to revisit this subject and answer some of the outstanding questions in my head. We’ll see if I get there.

UPDATE 2012: I never finished this book. So…
2022-03-12 Update: I went back to Twitter eventually, but not under my own name, and I mostly do political posting.
Continue ReadingMe and my shallow brain

Reading in Cambridgeshire

Sometime last year I managed to lose track of my reading list. I started to keep better track in January of this year, but I never managed to keep the list updated. So after 14 years of tracking every book I’ve read – I managed to lose track hopelessly. Ah well. I’m happier this way. Something about enforced routines made reading a chore instead of an escape. And every year the list of books I’d finished was depressingly shorter – less free time, more household repair obligations, a sense that what I was reading was on the lighter side and less worthy of examination and recording. All that plays into it, really.

I took two books with me to England:

1) The Night Climbers of Cambridge seemed appropriate, since I knew I’d be visiting the city. It was written pseudonymously by students of Cambridge University in the 1930s, about their adventures scaling the building walls of the various colleges in Cambridge.

The book is a cult classic and inspires the exploits of a band of modern-day dare-devils who have cheekily placed Santa hats on the spires of various chapels over the last several years. I picked up the book after hearing about their exploits in 2008, and this past year’s simultaneous placement of 4 hats on each spire of King’s College was a particularly noteworthy feat. I’ll have my photos edited soon of Kings College chapel, which will help explain why. I had hoped to get photos of some of the key drain pipes and chimneys involved, but alas, I only have photos of the buildings themselves. Too much to do in Cambridge in too little time.

2) Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making — Curran was able to study 70+ notebooks that Christie wrote in over the years as she plotted out her mystery stories, and he details key discoveries about how she crafted some of the major stories. This books is a revelation – so fascinating to see behind the finished product and see how she worked. She would have an idea pop into her head and she would just noodle on it; sometimes a plot would spring directly to life, and sometimes she would continue to play with the idea for years before the completed story came about.

Because it was so interesting, I picked up a couple of Christie’s books from Toppings & Co. Books in Ely: Dead Man’s Folly. The added advantage of that was that I got book covers that aren’t available in the US – much nicer designs, frankly. I read nearly all of Christie’s mysteries as a teenager and still have copies of some of my favorites on my shelf at home. I particularly favored Tommy & Tuppence stories and so have all of them, and I loved Marple. Poirot? I liked him, but he wasn’t my favorite. Curran clearly loves him, though. Most of the novels he covers in the Secret Notebooks featured the mustachioed detective. After I returned home, I picked up seven more of the top ten Christie novels according to Curran – I already owned the other three. So I’ve been reading through those as well, and then flipping back and forth between the book an the novels.

Another great England acquisition was the third Stieg Larsson book – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I managed to get it and read it there in England before it was available in the US, which wasn’t much of an advantage (it was released here on May 24) except that I could taunt friends on Facebook. It was very good – he’s pretty great at keeping you riveted through lots of exposition between action scenes. Long, but I read through it without difficulty. I’d recommend highly the whole series.

And a couple other books I’ve read recently back here in the US, but set in Ely and surrounding villages, where we were staying. The first is The Nine Tailorsa Dorothy L. Sayers mystery set in a village church similar to the one in the village my sister lives in.

It was the inspiration for several mystery novels by author Jim Kelly about Ely and environs: The Water Clock and The Fire Baby are the first two I’ve read. Not bad reading, although his prose could use some polish, he has a rather bleak view of the area, and his books on the gritty side. But fun because I can picture streets he references and places he sets his scenes.

Continue ReadingReading in Cambridgeshire

Diane Arbus

I picked up Diane Arbus: A Biography at the library without really having an idea who she was. It happened to be on a kiosk of other photography books that the Nora branch was featuring, and I thought – “hey a woman photographer. I should check her out.” I’m not sure why I have that gap in my education, but I was until recently pretty unaware of iconic photographers other than knowing the names of a few, like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Annie Liebovitz.

There are relatively few of her photos reproduced in the biography, probably due to it being unauthorized (but still regarded as the generally definitive account of her life). So I probably approached her as a topic in the opposite fashion that most people do – I suspect most people are familiar with her work first and then are drawn to discover more about the woman driven to create it. I’m rather glad I stumbled into the backwards approach, mainly because if I’d seen her work first I don’t know that I would have been driven to seek out more about her. Off-putting would be a mild description of her photos. I can definitely see why they are iconic, and her bio gives me clues into why she was compelled to create them, and I understand that need. I can also see why there are so many young photographers who fall into the trap of imitating her; it’s easy to imitate her style. It’s also easy to attempt (without succeeding) to imitate her subject matter — but not easy to capture what she was actually trying to capture – people who are genuine and lacking in artifice.

About her subjects, she said: “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”
I’m not sure I agree complete with her that people on the fringes are they only people in which you find that quality of authenticity and lack of guile. It might be somewhat easier to find the authentic self among people who have no use for masks, but it can be found amongst the everyday as well. And there is also an authenticity to be found amongst people who are joyous and celebratory as well.

But it seems from her biography that she was also a danger junkie, putting herself in positions quite different from her own background and upbringing. I also wonder if she was seeking something in her subjects that wasn’t actually there, or maybe was more present in her than them – like she was looking in them for an image of herself.

Either way, I found her as a subject far more interesting (to me personally) than her photographs, although I do agree that her work was extraordinary and very important. I think I just don’t see the world the same way she did.

Continue ReadingDiane Arbus