Mini Review: I’ll Have What She’s Havingby Rebecca Harrington

This book only took me about an hour and a half to read, so I don’t have an awful lot to say about it.  But it was a fun concept and parts made me smile, so here’s a little review.  Compact and to the point like Victoria Beckham.  (Now I know more than one fact about Victoria Beckham!  An educational evening was had by all.)

source: randomhouse

My rating: *** (3 stars).  This book is amusing and fun without really bringing anything new to the table. (Excluding all the bizzar-o foods that probably should never have been brought to Harrington’s table at all.)  It’s sort of like reading the facebook updates of your funny friend – the one who actually keeps up with pop culture but isn’t an asshole about it.

I’ll Have What She’s Having: My Adventures In Celebrity Dieting was not even on my radar until yesterday afternoon.  I was reading Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea on my lunch break, when suddenly a scene that I remembered as violent from when I read it as a teenager turned out to be even grosser than I recalled.

First of all: kittens are sacred and should not be harmed. Obviously I’d blocked that passage from memory in my youth.

Second of all: ewwwww, not what I wanted to be picturing while I ate my chickpeas and za’atar.  So I had to put that beautiful classic of Japanese literature aside for the duration of my meal, and cast around for something else to distract me.  (I also hadn’t read any nonfiction books this month and now I can brag that I fit one in at the last minute!)

When you’re in the back room of a bookshop, distractions are always close at hand.  And my hand happened to fall upon this brightly colored little foray into the weird world of celebrity dieting.  The basic premise is this: Rebecca Harrington loved reading about celebrities and she loved dieting.  So, in the name of journalistic integrity, she decided to walk the walk.  Eat the eat.  Suffer and slave away in the kitchen for the reader’s amusement.  Disastrous “celery loaf” and other experiments occasionally exiled her from the kitchen in horror, but she keeps on making cabbage stew and green risotto. Rebecca is one determined diet-investigator.  She’s not going to let Beyonce’s physically dangerous cleanses beat her down without a fight.

Obviously, the author’s sense of humor is what kept me reading this book.  If it were just a report on how different celebrities’ eating habits were totally messed up, I would have had to put it down pretty quickly.  I, too, have been obsessed with diets.  So obsessed that my eating routines were even stricter and more dangerous than some of the ones we’re meant to laugh at in this chronicle.  So while I appreciated the miserable details of totally unrealistic diets, I appreciated Harrington’s ability to laugh at how unsustainable the worst ones were even more.  This isn’t to say that she deplored every famous person’s smug routines.  On Gwyneth Paltrow’s food rules she reports: “If I wasn’t going to go bankrupt doing it, I would follow the Gwyneth diet to the letter every day.” (p 23)  Luckily for my own welfare, I don’t even have the funds to try one week of the It’s All Good way of eating.  Even Gwynnie’s books are a little out of my price range.  (And let’s not even get started on the beluga caviar Jackie Kennedy used to consume…  That was one of my favorite chapters, and I might be the only New Englander who doesn’t give a shit about the Kennedys.)  But when things got really wacky, like with Greta Garbo’s live-in nutritionist or Karl Lagerfield’s ten diet cokes a day, our faithful guide Rebecca is honest about how much these regimes suck the energy, fun, and friends right out of your life.  No wonder so many famous people are irascible waifs.  I could barely sit through a lecture on J.R.R. Tolkien while I was starving, and they have to film interviews while probably hallucinating that the reporter is an ice cream cone.

The most amusing question Harrington answers in her adventure is, “Would my friends stay with me until the end even though I kept making them come to my house for dinner parties where they all told me to my face that they despised all of my food?”  That’s the sort of dilemma most readers should be worried about when they buy a diet book, not how much weight they’ll drop in the first few dehydrated and muscle-deteriorating months.  I’ll Have What She’s Having made me want to write letters of apology to all the friends who had to suffer through my over-planned and under-seasoned meals when I was myself obsessed with diets.  Also, I should probably thank them for never ordering pizza right in front of me like Harrington’s friends have reportedly done.  It also made me realize just how silly it is that so many famous skinny people make even more money by writing books telling us that we can be just like them if only we eat more yeast or drink nothing but eggs mixed with milk in the mornings.  Why do we keep buying those books?  Why do we need to know about Elizabeth Taylor’s obsession with putting steak on half a peanut butter sandwich?  I don’t know, but I enjoyed hearing Rebecca Harrington’s results of the investigation.

And, yes, it quickly distracted me from the cat-violence.  In short: a fun, conversational jaunt through one woman’s experiment in living through several celebrities’ bad decisions.  I even learned some facts about famous people along the way.  (Madonna will forever be associated with seaweed in my brain, now.)  Don’t read this if you’re still in a tenuous recovery from an eating disorder, but you might enjoy it if you, like so many of us, can’t help but flip through every glossy-photoed “eat like me” hardcover that features a skinny white girl eating fake pasta on the cover.

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Thoughts on Some Stories in Rogues (ed. George R. R. Martin)

Earlier this week, I was hit with a fantasy craving.

I needed to read something completely engrossing, something with really cool magic and characters full of surprises.  But I didn’t know exactly where to start.  Should I try an author I’d never read before?  Should I return to an old favorite?  Did I want to read fantasy set in our world or another one entirely?

Luckily, there’s a solution to those questions.  An anthology!  And how convenient for me that an anthology has recently come out containing a huge selection of engrossing, magical, surprising stories.  Surely one or two of them would do the trick.

I got Rogues out of the library that very night.  I really like the concept of new stories about each author’s rogue-ish and mischievous characters.  They’re usually my favorites in Fantasy series, anyways.  I only read about five or six of the stories, and started a few others without continuing on, but there were a few I really enjoyed.

Obviously Neil Gaiman’s story, “How The Marquis Got His Coat Back”, was fun.  The Marquis de Carabas was easily my favorite character in Neverwhere, and his adventure was funny and twisty. It took us back to the underground and slightly sideways world from the novel, and even introduced us to the Marquis’ brother!  The story wasn’t a long one, but it was good to re-visit a character who I sort of consider an old friend. (**** 4 stars)

Michael Swanwick’s “Tawny Petticoats” had a sort of alternate wild-west feel to it. The setting was a futuristic New Orleans, with throwback fashions and some not-quite-human characters.  I’ve never read any of Swanwick’s fiction before, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying his story of con men and tricky ladies.  There was an interesting take on zombi-fication, which was a little freaky, and the villains weren’t very nice.  In fact, even the hustler protagonists weren’t exemplary citizens, but it was fun to root for them and see what would happen. (**** 4 stars)

“Now Showing”, by Connie Willis, was really incredibly strange. It was about college students in such a near future I felt it could be a peek into life ten years from now.  There wasn’t much magic to speak of in her story, aside from the enchantment caused by mysterious boys who make you want to listen to them even when they’re being cryptic assholes.  In the end I did like the story, even though I was making a really puzzled facial expression the whole time I read it.  I then recommended that one of my film-geek friends read it, because I knew she would like the cinematic theme and all the hidden movie references. (*** 3 stars)

As for “A Year And A Day In Old Theradane”,  it was my favorite story (of those I read) and another one by an author I’d never tried before.  How, exactly, have I made it through 23 and a half years without reading Scott Lynch?!?  This situation needs to be rectified ASAP, because I LOVED “A Year And A Day In Old Theradane.”  It was EXACTLY the sort of story I wanted to read, and nearly cured my fantasy craving all on its own.  The cast of characters was largely female – this deserves an extra huzzah in “high fantasy” literature, where that’s not always the case – and they were all so bloody cool!  

This was another heist story of sorts, with lots of entertaining plans and slapstick failures while the fatal clock runs down.  The main character and her old crew have sworn off crime after being granted clemency, but they’re getting restless in their retirement.  When a wizard battle shatters the serenity of Therandane by causing huge creatures to fall from the sky and into their favorite bar, Amarelle goes and gets herself in trouble.  She and her friends have a year and a day to steal an entire street, or an extravagant and powerful woman will ruin them completely.  The magic in this story was unique (enchanted mixed drinks, anyone?), the setting was vivid, and I felt like I’d known these characters for years.  Next time I want to read some good old fashioned grown-up Fantasy — with creates characters so lively they might walk off the page, and a touch of humor to even the most dire circumstances –I’m absolutely going to try Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series. (***** 5 stars)

I didn’t get a chance to read about half the stories, but there are a few which caught my eye that I’ll surely try to read during my next visit to the library.  Some others failed to capture my attention, but the beauty of an anthology is that you can just move one and find something more appealing.  I’m not sure that every author gave the roguery prerequisite an equal amount of consideration, but whatever.  The stories I read were pretty good, I now have some new authors to read who might soon become favorites, and the fantasy craving was assuaged.  So Rogues is worth checking out, for fantasy fans, whether you’re familiar with these authors or not.

(These thoughts were originally posted within a longer fantasy rant at my blog.)

Reading vs. Research: Pirate Edition (and a reading list)

This is yer Captain speaking.  We’ll be taking a quick break from the folklore and fairy tales for this very important compendium of pirate and nautical literature I compiled a while ago.  I’ve attempted to make clear the distinction between books I read for fun and books which are research, but those lines keep crossing over themselves whenever I least expect it. This is by no means a complete list, but for anyone who wants to read some jolly swashbuckling tales or learn more about the Age of Sail, you might find something of interest.  Please comment with any recommendations, if you will!

One of two pirate shelves in my room.

As if my poor brain wasn’t taxed enough trying to keep books I just want to enjoy separate from books full of information I need to understand, there are certain times when I think I’m just reading something for fun, only to realize that I ought to be taking notes for a novel or story I’ve got in the works. And there are times when the opposite is true: I expect to learn a lot from a book and then I close it hours later having had a jolly time between the pages, but I’m no more educated than I was when I started. I’m going to try and explain this distinction using some of the books I’ve read or researched on the subjects of piracy and maritime history/adventure, because no time spent reading about scurvy knaves and mutinous plots is time wasted.

1. Black Jacks: African American Seamen In The Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster = RESEARCH

This book is full of exactly the sort of information I desperately needed to figure out for the Middle Grade novel I’m writing. The author did a phenomenal amount of research, and has peppered his facts and figures with some truly excellent anecdotes of brave seafaring escapes and daring (well deserved) rebellions. It’s an exciting book, but definitely a history text instead of a fast-paced narrative. I doubt I’ll end up reading every page of Black Jacks, as it’s due back at the library soon, but will probably end up skipping around to all the passages which talk about black pirates specifically. That being said, there are some history buffs, nonfiction readers, and salty souls out there who could probably get through this book as a weekend’s reading. It’s written well and super interesting, and I do heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in this most worthy of subjects. If my own word is not enough for ya’ (and why should it be? I want to steal boats for a living!), here’s an article about an inmate who was imprisoned for bank robbery, but got inspired by Black Jacks to work towards a goal of eventually becoming a sailor, as the sea had always called to him.

Source: Washington Post

My weather-beaten and unfeeling heart was warmed near to cooking when I saw that W. Jeffrey Bolster and Gregory White had kept in touch throughout his incarceration, and that this fellow sea-rover had realized his dream of freedom at last. Good stuff, eh? That’s one of the most uplifting true stories I’ve read in a while. Three cheers for books, for the sea, for Gregory White, and for the long list of Black mariners from centuries past who are getting attention at last! Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah!

2. Powder Monkey by Paul Dowswell = READING TURNED RESEARCH

I took this one off my nautical shelf after I finished reading Bird because I needed to get myself back into pirate-mode but I still wanted to get lost in some good children’s fiction. Powder Monkey is a novel for young people, though I’d not readily give it to any youngsters who are too faint of heart as it’s bloody and historically accurate in its grim portrayal of the 19th century Navy life. I thought this book would be a gripping adventure, and was thus prepared to get fully absorbed in the shipboard drama and perilous environment which I so adore in my favorite books about Naval sailing ships. Powder Monkey seemed like a Young Adult foray into a genre which boasts excellent historical fiction like Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin series. There were plenty of similarities, to be sure, but Powder Monkey wasn’t quite so up-to-snuff in the plot and character divisions. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. On the contrary, I had a great time reading it, despite the many gruesome sights our poor young hero must face as a pressed lad helping to man a cannon in a time of war. The thing is, I think that I liked Powder Monkey so much because I expend an unusual amount of brain power worrying about press gangs and trying to figure out how a sextant works or what disaster would have to befall a person to warrant a hook for a hand. These are not necessarily the concerns of every young scamp. What might have been a somewhat less-than-inspiring quest for entertainment turned into a really exciting two days of research. Once I stopped grumbling to myself about the thin plot and started admiring Dowswell’s portrayal of life aboard the Miranda – not an easy life for a lad – I was happy to read Powder Monkey all the way through. Some of those harrowing facts and descriptions will haunt me for a good long while. I just wouldn’t press the book on a kid who wasn’t already interested in learning about the age of sail.

3. Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer = READING

Just read this book, you lubbers, and you can thank me later. This is everything a YA novel about the age of sail should be. It does provide a fairly faithful picture of life for a wayward ragamuffin at sea, but the story and – most importantly – the characters are so good that you won’t want to put the book down for a moment even to find a pen or look something up on Wikipedia. I’ve written a longer review of Bloody Jack here and can assure you all that it’s one of my top fifteen favorite books of all time. The following two books in the Jacky Faber series, The Curse of The Blue Tattoo and Under The Jolly Roger are also excellent, though the series gets a little drawn-out from there. No matter! Jacky Faber is one of the best narrators in children’s fiction, and the sort of scallywag I wish I could be. I re-read this first book frequently whenever I’m missing Bar Harbor, and while it certainly gets me keen to write my own pirate book, I’d absolutely call what I do “reading” instead of “research,” because I’m usually clutching at my heart in a fit of emotion or laughing way too hard to get any real booklearnin’ done from these adventures. Go and find this book right now. Captain’s orders.

4. On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers = READING

I bought this book years ago, when the pirate novel I was writing at the time bore very little resemblance to the book I’m working on now. I wanted to have a supernatural bent to my own story at the time, and maybe include the ghosts of some pirates past. Years went by, I read many a book which included real historical figures as characters and sent hapless young protagonists back in time, and I eventually decided to toss those notions overboard. Maybe when I was trying to fit ghosts and magic spells into my own story, On Stranger Tides might have had some useful information in it. But while it is definitely a thrilling and swashbuckling romp, the details of the plot must be taken with a whole fistful of salt. For one thing, there’s voodoo and magic. I love me some voodoo and magic – in fact, I write about them all the time! However, it’s important that we remember that most pirates terrorized the shores and sea without the assistance of talismans or curses. Even as far as superstitions go, Powers has definitely adjusted the historical facts to suit his narrative. And why shouldn’t he? This is storytelling, after all! I liked the supernatural aspects of On Stranger Tides just fine, but would not take anything I discovered from the story as historical inspiration unless I’d found some other trustworthy sources. There’s also the weird inclusion of very real pirates in the totally fictional story, which might be fun for some readers but never failed to trip me up. Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, Jack Rackham, and several of my other heroes make cameo appearances in On Stranger Tides, and whenever I encountered one of them I always wondered, “but what were they actually doing on that particular Wednesday?” These were real live ladies and gents of fortune, and it’s perfectly fine to fictionalize their lives to enrich the plot of a novel, but that makes the novel good for entertainment purposes only.

5. Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities by Terry Breverton = RESEARCH

This handy encyclopedia contains “a miscellany of the sea and all things nautical,” and it’s been a stalwart companion while I write. A good friend gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago, in Scotland, and she clearly knew me better than I knew myself because I don’t know how I would get through a chapter without it, now. The entries are brief and fascinating; it’s not exactly a complete account of every fact ever associated with the sea, but provides excellent inspiration when I’m wondering, what nautical fact could I throw into this chapter to make it more…briny? Breverton’s collection contains a whole list of Pirate Haunts And Targets; explanations of how common phrases originated from shipboard life; tiny biographies of impressive sailors, including scores of sea-dogs I’d never heard of before; and very helpful explanations of weapons from the Age of Sail, which I have consulted many a time this month. The chapter I’m working on right now deals with weaponry and I’m completely baffled by the amount of Things Designed To Kill You which existed back then. So thanks, Terry Breverton, for making my research so easy to tackle! This book is invaluable to my own research, but I promise you it would make an excellent gift for anyone who likes sea stories and/or random curiosities. Pages and pages of fun facts, I tell you! Amuse and impress your friends, enemies, and that person next to you on the ferry with obscure histories about doomed warships and the etymological origins of sea-slang. Or just give them Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities and they can amuse and impress themselves…

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Other pirate books to read for fun:

Pirates! by Celia Reese – Good historical fiction and girls kicking butt!

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates by Caroline Carlson – A jolly adventure for younger readers.

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie – My favorite story in the history of stories.  Captain Hook is a classic.

Capt. Hook: Adventures of a Notorious Youth by J.V. Hart and illus. by Brett Helquist – Great twist on Captain Hook’s backstory.  Obstinate young scallywags causin’ all sorts of trouble.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – Another classic sea adventure.  Long John Silver is one of the best pirate characters in history.  I want to be him when I grow up.

Silver: Return To Treasure Island by Andrew Motion – I bought this in Edinburgh last year and still haven’t read it.  Once it’s summer I intend to re-read Treasure Island and then dive into this continuation.

A High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes –  Wildly under-appreciated novel about a pirate crew which ends up in charge of a bunch of children.  I get really excited about it here and even have it as one of my “staff picks” at the bookshop.

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton – Ridiculous but fun swashbuckling thriller.  Best taken with the same grains of salt as On Stranger Tides.

Other pirate books recommended for research:

If A Pirate I Must Be: The True Story Of “Black Bart”, King Of The Caribbean Pirates by Richard Sanders – I read this when I was in high school and Bartholomew Roberts has been one of my favorite pirates ever sense.  Entertaining story of an unbelievably cool captain.

The Republic Of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard – I think the subtitle says it all.  A rather sensationalized account of pirates and their enemies, but includes tons of great facts and talks about several important figures.

The Pirate Hunter: The True Story Of Captain Kidd by Richards Zacks – Whole book entirely about Captain Kidd, which was a gripping read but had tons of great information.  Helped me appreciate the sea shanty, too. 

Under The Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly – Real pirate adventures were sometimes even more bloody and thrilling than the myths Cordingly dispels.

A General History Of The Robberies And Murders Of The Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson (pseudonym) 1724. – Excellent contemporary account of real pirates written during the Age of Sail.  Shows how the world pirates lived in viewed them and profiles some Captains best not forgotten.  This book is still in print today.

Easy-to-read history books which mention some admirable pirates:

Famous Last Words by Jonathan Green – A morbid and entertaining collection of the last thing people said before they died.  Includes some great 18th century zingers as well as criminal’s last declarations before being executed, tragi-comical accidents, and some rather touching examples too.

Badass by Ben Thompson – An entire book devoted to famous badasses from history, written by the fellow behind badassoftheweek.com.  Naturally there are plenty of sword-weilding action heroes from the sea as well as land.  Includes Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, and Lord Nelson, amongst others.  You can read an old review I wrote of it here.

Princess Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie – Each chapter is about a princess from history who decided to lead thrilling lives of ill-repute.  Includes lady pirates and generally inspiring role models for every young lass who likes sporting a crown and a cutlass in equal measure.

There are plenty more books on the subject which I recommend, and infinitely more which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.  Only last week I was at a bookstore in Central Square which had a whole little section devoted to Nautical resources!  As you might imagine, my inner pirate capered throughout the shelves in jubilation.

2014-03-01 13.36.42

By the time I’m finished writing this damned book, I’m sure that there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of additions to this list.  Some books will be full of shocking facts, others with thrilling stories, and undoubtably some with appallingly bad writing.  To all of the above, I say huzzah!  Bring it all on, me hearties, because there’s a lot I still don’t know about seafaring life.  The only solution is to keep on reading.

Tiny Review of The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks The Spot by Caroline Carlson

Just a tiny review tonight, because it was recently Talk Like A Pirate Day and I talked about this new middle grade novel on my blog.

I read The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates in only a few hours, and while there are bits of it which I thought could have been done better – the setting was a little vague with elements of fantasy mixed in with traditional old-fashioned English references, and some of the minor characters seemed rather one dimensional – I must say that I heartily enjoyed the novel’s message and admired the heroine’s spirit. It was also quite refreshing to read a middle grade book about a young girl defying high society’s expectations in which characters who wanted to be governesses or accomplished ladies were treated with respect rather than scorn. Not all of us want to be rogues, and Carlson did a marvelous job of encouraging her readers to follow whatever path truly calls to them by including a governess with as much mettle as the fiercest pirates and a fishmonger’s daughter whose wit and compassion is never dampened by the effort she puts into finishing school. Even though I wish there had been a bit more detail to the actual piracy than mere treasure hunts and violent exclamations, I can safely say that my nine year old self would have adored this book! I’ll be recommending it to boys and girls alike who like quick witted characters and rollicking adventures. There’s also a talking gargoyle who may have been my favorite character.