Wednesday Videos: Is It a Good Idea to Microwave Christmas Lights?

WednesdayVideoI don’t know how I managed to survive all these years without knowing that there’s an entire YouTube series called “Is it a Good Idea to Microwave This?”    I feel a whole new lease on life now that I’ve found this series.  I plan to spend the rest of my weekend doing nothing but watching stuff blow up in these guys’ microwave.  Items include, but are not limited to:  bubble solution, matches, fireworks, and a plasma ball.  I’m going to take a wild guess that the answer is usually “No.”

Anyway, in case you were considering microwaving your Christmas lights now that you’ve taken down your tree, here’s a helpful video:

Happy Holidays Everybody!

the sun's movements on solsticeI am collapsing on the couch post-Christmas, pre-New Years’ and catching up on my reading.  I’m so behind!  and I have eaten so many cookies!

I hope that you all had a lovely holiday whether it was Hanukkah, Christmas, Festivus, Solstice, or none of the above but hey you got the day off work. I hope that you had ridiculously unhealthy food and that you regret nothing.  I hope that you are still speaking to all of your family members, unless you’ve realized that detachment is a healthier option, in which case, I support you.

It has been a great year at Geek Girl In Love.  Thanks for reading, and may you have much happiness in 2015!

History’s Hidden Heroes: format change

TaipingRebellion.com-rebelsHello my lovely Geek Girls, Guys, and People Who Identify as Intersex or Other-Wise Non-Binary.  We have a format change here on Geek Girl in Love because to my great delight the amazing Sarah Wendell at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books has asked me to write a monthly column for her about real-life women in history.

The only problem with this delightful development is that I don’t actually have time, in between reviewing shows and books and raising my kid and trying to round up freelance projects, to write multiple columns a month on amazing people in history, much as I’d like to.  So once a month I’ll be sharing a link to Kickass Women of History at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

This month’s Kickass Woman is Su Sanniang.  She was a Robin Hood style bandit who became a general during the Taiping Rebellion.  She was said to have “powerful arms and the air of a hero.”   My kind of woman!  Click on the link above to learn more about her, or go to smartbitchestrashybooks.com.

CrossingsCon: Celebrating the work of Diane Duane

tumblr_static_tumblr_static_7abj0w89wnk80sso4kgocc8s0_1280Interviewing the organizers of CrossingCon is the easiest gig ever.  They are so excited about the work of author Diane Duane, and so excited about the convention they are putting together, that the interview (me, in this case) really has nothing to do except nod and take notes.  I had such a great time listening to the group who are clearly good friends talk about their upcoming convention.  I’m sure that anyone who attends the con will be warmly welcomed and will have a great time!  Here’s some highlights from the interview.

I did an interview via Skype with Holland, Eli, and Claudia, three of the board members of CrossingsCon.  CrossingsCon came about because of a tumbler group that the three are on.  Someone proposed a meetup…which turned into an idea for a series of meetups.  Finally, according to Eli, someone said, “Hey, why don’t we have a Diane Duane fan convention?”  Thus, the very first Diana Duane fan convention (specifically devoted to the Young Wizards fandom) was born.  It will be held June 24-26, 2016 at the Courtyard Newark Downtown in Newark, NJ.

collection go Young Wizard covers

 

I can tell that Eli, Holland, and Claudia are true fans because they seemed even more eager to tell me about Diane Duane than they were to tell me about the convention!  The Young Wizards series starts with the book So You Want to be a Wizard, first published in 1983.  Currently, there’s a total of nine books, plus short stories.  Duane has released an updated version of the series, in which she updates the technology and corrects some inconsistencies.  She also took the opportunity to improve her depiction of a character with autism, pointing out that she was much better educated about autism now than in 1983.  These revised books are known as the “New Millennium” editions.  If you are wondering where to start, all three of my interviewees were adamant that the New Millenium edition of So You Want to Be a Wizard is the way to go.

puzzle_complete

This series has touched so many people’s lives.  Because it started pre-Internet, fans usually read them without realizing that there were so many other fans.  When a tumblr fan group started, it launched a tight-knit, supportive community of fans who were thrilled to discover that they weren’t alone in loving these books.  In the books, wizards refer to each other as “cousins” and this has become a name for Young Wizard fans.  In keeping with this familial term, the online fandom is warm, personal, and inclusive.

In coming up with ideas for CrossingsCon, the board is concentrating on fostering that personal, inclusive feeling.  They haven’t finalized a schedule, but are planning a tour of sites in Manhattan that appear in the series “So You Want to See Manhattan?”  They are also looking at having panels and speakers, but having a greater emphasis on opportunities for people to connect socially.  They expect a small group this year and although they would be happy to be surprised, a small group is just fine with them.

If you are interested in CrossingsCon, you can find more information at their tumblr page and be sure to check out their new IndieGoGo Fundraising Page!  Rewards include Holland’s homemade pumpkin bread, and stretch goals include having Mark Oshiro (who is reading the series as part of Mark Reads) and Seanan McGuire attend CrossingCon as guests.

People have based their own ethical systems on the Wizards series, which is about “how to be good in a world that is evil”.   It has a diverse cast of characters who deal with both magical and mundane problems.  Eli pointed out that the characters know that they can’t stop all bad things from happening, but the points of the books is that every little bit you can do is helpful.  “Every little bit you o is your part you have to play in defying entropy.”  I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of photos from CrossingsCon of online friends meeting at last!

 

Ancillary Sword and Ferguson

51MguDFDWUL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I read Ancillary Sword during the week that a jury failed to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown.  I am writing this post on the day that a jury refused to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner.  Justice is on my mind.  Inequality is on my mind.  Privilege is on my mind, as is a sense of helplessness.  As it happens, these topics are all addressed in Ancillary Sword.  Science Fiction uses metaphor to address real problems.  It is up to us to move that metaphor into literal action.

Ancillary Justice was a book that (justly) won a ton of awards and had a huge amount of buzz.  It introduces a character named Breq, who is the sole survivor of a spaceship.  Breq was an Ancillary, meaning that she was part of a hive mind that included the ship.  Breq spends the novel seeking vengeance on who or what had her ship destroyed.  I reviewed Ancillary Justice here.

Ancillary Sword is the second book in the trilogy.  At the start of this book, Breq has allied with part of her maker’s personality and has been assigned to Athoek system.  This book continues to upend expectations about gender by having Breq, the narrator, refer to all characters by female pronouns.  The book also paints a picture of a world in which some lives have more value than others.  Breq refuses to believe in the concept of the expendable person, and this puts her at odds with the governing body of the system she’s supposed to be stabilizing.

Ancillary Sword is very much about inequality and justice.  An ethnic group is forced to work on tea plantations.  They are not given access to education, other job opportunities, or adequate, respectful medical care.  They are paid wages, but forced to spend them at the equivalent of the Company Store at which all commodities are over-priced.  Thus they are always in debt and of course they can’t leave without paying their debt.  It’s a form of covert slavery that is all too familiar (if you are unfamiliar with some of the forms of forced servitude practiced in the US today, you might start your research with This Article From The Atlantic).

Meanwhile, in the book, when new worlds are colonized, the planet’s inhabitants are captured and put into suspension until they are needed as Ancillary bodies.  These people are disposable – their bodies are more useful than their selves.  And the Ancillaries they become are equally disposable, because you can always download a new mind into another body.

On Athoek Station, there’s a level that is densely populated but utterly ignored.  Medics allow people to bleed to death because there’s no point in going someplace that no one is supposed to be in – despite the fact that people are quite clearly living there.  For the same reason, the lifts are broken, there’s no plumbing, no services of any kind.  One of the plot threads involves an aristocrat who frames these underworld residents for various crimes – knowing that they will always be blamed.  Because of the aristocrat’s status, she will never be accused of a crime, even when she is filmed at the scene.  It can’t be her because she is who she is and people like her are never blamed, never punished, Q.E.D.  That means someone else has to be punished – and they are punished for minor crimes by having their bones broken and in some cases by being shot.

Science Fiction has always been a realm that tackles tough topics by using metaphor.  Sometimes these metaphors are heavy-handed.  Remember that episode of Star Trek: The Original Series in which war was fought between people who had black and white faces, but one guy had white on the left and one on the right?  The episode was “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” and it was unforgivably unsubtle – but it was able to talk about racial prejudice in a way that other shows simply could not get away with.  Sometimes the metaphors are deployed more gracefully.  The fact remains: science fiction can address hard things by disguising them as something else, or at least by pretending that they are happening to someone else, somewhere (and sometime) else.

On salon.com, Sonia Sariya wrote a searing article titled “Mockingjay’s Eerie Echoes of Ferguson: Our Real Dystopian Nightmare.”  In this article, she discusses the way protestors around the country and the world are using imagery and slogans from “The Hunger Games” trilogy.  “The Hunger Games” portrays a dystopia in which the lives of children, most specifically poor children, are expendable.  Sonia points out that most of the victims of police brutality and other violence have been not only black but also young.  “The Hunger Games”, she says, are happening now.

The frills might be different, but the basic underlying hypocrisy of “The Hunger Games”’ Panem and the present-day United States is the same: Some children matter more than others. Mike Brown was eight days out of high school when he was gunned down. Trayvon Martin, 17. Cameron Tillman, 14.  Tamir Rice, shot the same weekend “Mockingjay” premiered, a mere 12 years old.

And these are all children killed by the state. At what point do the fine distinctions between “Hunger Games peacekeeper” and “American police officer” break down? At what point does the knowledge that black teen boys, aged 15-19, are 21 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement not sound like dystopia? How profound must this feeling of disenfranchisement be, that these young people in Ferguson would even for a moment consider equating Panem and America? So profound, apparently, that for them there is no significant difference. The odds, as the rebels scrawl with their graffiti in “Catching Fire,” are never in their favor.

Ancillary Sword addresses what happens when some lives count more than others.  It also addresses our terrible failure to see and acknowledge what is in front of us.  Police brutality against people of color is not new.  Neither is the kind of racial violence that has made the news in the last few years, such as the shootings of Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin.  White people seem astonished to discover that to be a black person is to live in danger, and some white people seem determined to dismiss this reality rather than acknowledge their role in allowing it to continue.

Mallory Ortberg, in The Toast, said of the jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo,

Eric Garner died unarmed. He died on the ground. He died because of an illegal chokehold. We saw it. The grand jury saw it.

They saw it, and we saw it, and collectively we said, “We didn’t see that. That didn’t happen.” And Daniel Panteleo won’t be arrested. He won’t be charged. We saw it happen, and we said that it didn’t happen, and until we solve that problem, body cameras won’t do a bit of good.

One of Breq’s frustrations is that every time she tries to get some kind of justice or basic services for the residents of the underworld, she’s told, “People aren’t supposed to be here.”  A variety of people say this to Breq, usually with the implication that because people aren’t supposed to live in the underworld, they aren’t actually there.  They will say this as residents of the underworld bleed to death at their feet.  It’s not supposed to happen, so it isn’t happening, and since it isn’t happening, no one has to fix it.  Nor can the residents fix it themselves, because they are caught in a Catch-22 of oppression and perception in which passivity is rewarded with inaction and protest with punishment:

“These people are citizens…When they behave properly, you will say there is no problem.  When they complain loudly, you will say they cause their own problems with their impropriety.  And when they are driven to extremes, you say you will not reward such actions. What will it take for you to listen?” 

Earlier this year, the Isla Vista shootings prompted thousands of women on twitter, Facebook, and other media to share their stories of living in fear as women.  The #yesallwomen hashtag came from the common, defensive response:  “Not all men are like that.”  “No, not all men threaten women,” was the response sent out through social media, “but yes, all women have been threatened by men.”

Now we see a similar movement with the hashtags #blacklivesmatter, #HandsUpDon’tShoot, and #ICan’tBreathe.  There is a desperate struggle to be seen, for injustice and inequity to be acknowledged.

But beyond recognition, there is a desperate desire for change – and no one seems to know how to get it.  Breq’s frustrations in Ancillary Sword resonate with readers because they are our own frustrations.  I want to take the principles that I admire from heroes in science fiction and apply them to the challenges of today, but I don’t know what is the most effective action to take.  Breq’s actions seem to suggest the value of small victories.  I don’t know if it will make a difference if I march, or write a letter, or sign a petition, or talk to other people.  But I do know that silence is complicity and inaction is death.  I learned that from science fiction.

 

Wednesday Videos Present: The Christmas Collider

WednesdayVideoOK, this is adorable.  From the YouTube blurb:

A mysterious, yet strangely familiar visitor turns up at the Digital Science offices in London and deposits a package on one of the desks. Inside the box – an instruction manual explaining how you can build a working particle collider solely from seasonal decorations, and discover the secrets of quantum mechanics from the comforts of your very own home of office.

This entirely scientifically accurate video was created by Digital Science to celebrate the 2013 winter holidays. For more information on who are and what we do, please visit http://www.digital-science.com/

Presenting:  The Christmas Collider!

Legacies of War: an Interview With Steven Mix

263f8beeb37f6ea3c29eb2e44ddde42e_400x400I had the great pleasure of meeting Steve at Convolution 2014, where we were on a panel at which we had to answer questions pulled out of a hat at random.  It was a hilarious experience and I certainly hope to repeat it at future cons!  

Steve has a pretty amazing story behind his novel, Goodbye From The Edge of Never, and I’m so happy that he’s agreed to talk about his experiences here. Steve experienced a traumatic brain injury in the military as well as PTSD.  His comments about PTSD in particular are intense but ones that I think we all need to here.  I’m very grateful to Steve for sharing such personal and powerful information.

Tell us the origin story of your novel, Goodbye From The Edge of Never!

I had nine concussions in the army (on record) and after my last one a bunch of weird things occurred. My eyes spasmed and shook in bright light. They thought it might be a seizure sign. It still happens, and I can’t drive a car now because of it. The strangest thing was I couldn’t stop thinking about zombie pop culture. I did feel like a zombie at that point so maybe it influenced it a bit. I would later find out that some people with traumatic brain injuries can get obsessions with things. Everything from playing piano music to collecting coins. My obsession just happened to be dark and fun. About a year after the army that obsession bled into my dreams, and I had these visceral nightmares about zombie attacks. I always woke up with a mixture of fear and excitement. They were fun! I had been carrying around a notebook everywhere and wrote everything down to balance out the short term memory issues. It just made sense to try and write a novel. If everything was written down, my memory and cognitive issues weren’t a huge deal. I could always look back through my notes and step things through my confusion. So that’s how Goodbye from the Edge of Never came to be.
goodbye-from-the-edge-of-never-steven-mix
How did reading help you when you were overseas, and how has it helped with your recovery?
Reading was a good distraction overseas. Fiction takes you away and keeps your mind off the war. Nonfiction reminds you to be diligent in your duties because better soldiers than you have done greater things. Celebrity magazines remind you of home. Sad, but true. I think the number one thing you find in guard towers overseas is celebrity magazines.
After my head injury, reading has just helped to keep my brain, less foggy. You can tune out and do most things in life. Watching movies, cleaning around your house, making coffee, but the second you pick up a book you have to soak in imagination.

Are there any books that you feel do a good job of depicting the effects of a head injury?  Do you think that it is important that authors depict the kind of injury accurately?  Why?

There is a book called, My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. She suffered a stroke and wrote a book about it. It captures the frustration of a TBI pretty well. It describes a lot of the little things. I remember hearing people say things to me and knowing I understood the definitions of their words, but I couldn’t sort out what they were trying to get across to me. Or I would reach for a word, and it was just gone. That still happens. It feels like it is there, but I just can’t reach it. I also remember feeling like I smothered in some kind of static from an old television channel. Whether I was talking or thinking or even breathing, I was just drowning in static. I think Jill Taylor’s book explained some of that well. Also the book/movie The Vow, gets the emotional side right. I would get angry or find myself fighting back tears and not understand why. I don’t know if a doctor had explained to me that I might find myself uncontrollably emotional. It was pretty confusing and frustrating to my family. I felt like I was just torturing my loved ones flying off the handle, for no reason. Then I saw Kim Carpenter’s account of it in the movie The Vow (sorry; I saw the movie first!)  That was where I went, “Oh my god, that happens to me! Exactly like that!” For the record, my wife made me go to that movie. She swears we’ve lived a reverse version of that story, although I think she just wishes I was built like Channing Tatum. Hell, I wish that too.
For me, it was important to find these other examples because I felt like I was a lunatic. I thought that no one could relate with my experiences. I just felt confused and awkward. It was a relief to find out I wasn’t the only person having these these things happen to them. As it turns out, some of my issues were pretty common.
The_Vow_Poster

As someone who has lived with a traumatic brain injury and with PTSD, what do you wish people knew about these conditions?  How can people support veterans?

With a traumatic brain injury, I don’t know what to tell people. I was pretty lucky that I could learn ways to work around some of my issues. Just keep waking up and hoping the next day you’ll feel less foggy. Get a good support network filled with a neurologist, a cognitive therapist and family that care about you. Read other’s accounts of it, so you don’t feel so alone. Hell, even write me, and I’ll be glad to talk to you about what you’re going through.
We haven’t discussed much PTSD/Survivor’s guilt up to this point, but that one is hitting home for me right now. I lost my Sgt Major on November 21st, 2006 and my friend Chris Mason on November 28th, 2006. I named both my son and a character from my novel after Mason. I’ve already got some emotional issues from my head injury. I’m sure you can imagine how hard things can get when I edge near these anniversaries. I usually confide in my good friend who was my roommate in the army.
Except, Kevin killed himself this past June.
I had sat up most of the night talking to him before it happened. I even got him laughing. I was pretty certain he was calm and in good spirits.
Now survivor’s guilt is eating me alive because I feel like I should have known better and somehow reached out further. Maybe I could have somehow known and hopped on a bus or a train to drag him away from that fate.
We took different paths though. I gave up drinking. He drank more. My wife fought to keep me sane. His wife divorced him and took his kids from him. I decided to write and use creativity to crawl away from my monsters. He gave up drawing and pretty much embraced his demons.
His dad and the rest of his family loved him, but I’m sure he just pushed them away.
There’s no easy answer for any of this. You need to talk to other people who have been through these things, so you don’t feel alone. Everyone needs family and friends who they can lean on when this stuff feels too heavy, so you DON’T FEEL ALONE! If you don’t have this kind of a support group or you aren’t getting the help you need, reach out.
Don’t keep drinking. Don’t beat yourself up over things you can’t change. Don’t let go of your creativity. Do reach out if you need help. The rest of us are out here fumbling through this stuff, and we don’t want to be alone either.

Book Review: Goodbye From The Edge of Never, by Steven Mix

goodbye-from-the-edge-of-never-steven-mixGoodbye from the Edge of Never is a weird, fun, confusing, and wildly uneven book by first-time writer Steve Mix.  Disclosure – I met Steve at Convolution 2014 and he flattered me to bits and gave me a free book, which he signed.  So, obviously, I have huge bias in favor of Goodbye, although I also have some bias against it as it’s a horror/action book with a lot of gore and that is not my genre of choice.  I’m also aware of the book’s back story, which makes the book far more interesting than it is on its own merits.

Bias aside, I thought this book was a mess, but a fun, interesting, creative mess.  Twenty years from now I don’t think Steve will think of this as his best-written book, but I do think he’ll still be writing and publishing, since this first effort shows a lot of promise.  We have an interview with Steve coming up tomorrow and you won’t want to miss it, as it contains powerful stuff about brain injury and PTSD.

If you are reading Goodbye, be sure not to skip the foreword.  In the foreword, Steve describes the origin of the book.  Following nine concussions (as well as PTSD and several other injuries) in the course of military service, he began having dreams about zombies.  As he struggled with his own physical and mental healing, he wrote this book as a therapeutic experience.  Knowing this puts the book in a different light, particularly the action sequences.

Goodbye features a motley cast of characters who travel California post-zombie-apocalypse.  Donathon is a gunslinger, Ashley takes out zombies with her beloved baseball bat, and Mason is an artist who loves pop-culture references.  Zombies have mutated in many exciting and bizarre ways and humans have adapted in methods ranging from forming enclaves staffed with slave labor and with traveling raves.

Technically, the writing is awkward.  I, for one, would like a complete moratorium on the phrase “lush vegetation”.  There’s a running motif of people saying something followed by a careful description of their tone of voice.  I have to tell you, dear readers, that the first few times this happened, it was awkward, and by the end of the book, it was annoying as hell.  When someone give directions, it is not necessary to follow this by saying that the person spoke in an informative tone.  Let the dialogue speak for itself.

Also, this book is written in the “throw in everything cool style.  This made for madcap fun, but I didn’t have an opportunity to attach to any of the characters.  I never understood what the stakes were (which may have been the point, actually – I may be longing for an end game where the point of the book might be that all you can do is survive day-to-day).  Villains appeared out of nowhere, and I didn’t have an emotional investment in the confrontations.

Technical issues and character issues aside, this book survives largely on the basis of “rule of cool”.  While reading about someone driving a wheat harvesting combine through a crowd of zombies is extremely gross, I can’t deny that it’s cathartic.  In fact, I think you could safely determine whether or not you’ll like the book by assessing your level of interest when I use “wheat harvesting combine” and “zombies” in the same sentence.

There’s some great moments of humor, mostly involving Mason’s obsession with art.  There’s some great “Oh yeah!” moments (helloooo combine).  There’s also a really haunting, evocative chapter early in the book that describes someone becoming a zombie.  As his senses become increasingly distorted, his sense of smell overtakes all his other sense as well as his memory and coordination.  It’s this kind of beautiful and insightful writing that makes me think that Steve has a long writing career ahead of him.  That and the art jokes, and the combine, which really I just can’t say enough about.

Technical issues aside, I think this book would be a good fit for hardcore horror and zombie fans.  Steve is a fan of Hunter S. Thompson, and it shows in the hallucinatory, madcap tone of the book.  If you like that kind of hallucinatory, more-is-more writing style, then you’ll like the book.  Also gore…so much gore.

Virtual Cookie Exchange: Persimmon Cookies and the Value of Time

VirtualCookie Exchange Blog Hop (1)We’ve all been to those parties (or at least heard of those parties) where people exchange cookies.  The idea behind these parties is that each person leaves the party with a vast number and variety of cookies for all their holiday entertaining needs, although if by “people” you mean “me”, at least two-thirds of those cookies will be consumed solo while watching Miracle on 34th St.

Since we can’t actually send cookies through the screen, author Linda Poitevin (author of the Grigori series) put together this Virtual Cookie Exchange, in which we trade recipes.  Linda kicked things off with Snowballs.  The following week Mia Marshall, urban fantasy author, shared a recipe for Urban Legend Christmas Cookies.  Marie Bilodeaux, science fiction and fantasy author, shared Chocolate Chip Cookies of Might and Magic.  Kerry Schafer shared her recipe for Melting Moments.  Kerry writes urban fantasy – and also has a blog with a gorgeous design that I covet.  Not to be outdone, D.D. Syrdal took a break from writing about vampires to post a recipe for Ruby Linzer Bars.

Persimmon Cookies are a family favorite that my Grandma Mac always made.  After she died, no one made the cookies, because we couldn’t remember what kind of persimmons to use (hachiya), but at last the secret was unearthed and I can make the cookies again.  They are so closely associated with my grandmother that the first time I baked them for my mom she cried.

My grandmother was never going to win “Mother of the Year”.  She encouraged sibling rivalry between her six children to suit her own ends, and placed high demands on the older children in particular.  She failed to protect them from predators.  She said horrible things to them.

But once she became a grandmother, she hit her stride.  In my mind, grandmothers, ideally, only have to fill one purpose – they adore you. Grandma Love, as I experienced it from Grandma Mac, was unconditional and unfettered by worry or responsibility.  The closest thing I could compare it to is Dog Love.  Grandma Love at it’s finest is similar to Dog Love in that it says, “You are perfect just the way you are and I adore you in an utterly uncritical manner.”  People who have not known the love of a dog are saying, “What?  She compared her grandmother to a dog?” and people who have known the love of a dog are nodding their heads and saying, “Ah, she was a fantastic grandma, I see that now.”

Of course, while my grandmother’s love for me was as unconditional and unchanging and unreserved as Dog Love, it was much more complex and densely textured.  Sometimes she was the boss of me.  Sometimes I was the boss of her.  She thought Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation was cute (so did I).  She also liked the Lawrence Welk Show, thus proving that an individual’s taste can be varied.

These cookies require persimmons that are old.  That period when they are firm and shiny and look great?  Not their best time.  In that state, they are bitter and harsh and hard.  Leave them on the counter and walk away for a couple of weeks.  They have to sit on your counter for so long that they are totally mushy – like, almost soupy. That mushy goo, when mixed with flour, eggs, shortening, sugar, and spices, makes something sweet, rich, and full of nourishment.  Whenever I make these cookies, I remember Grandma Mac, and I think about how sometimes we have to wait for a long time before we turn into something sweet and nourishing.

So here’s the recipe:

1 cup of hachiya persimmon pulp

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup shortening

1 egg

2 cups flour

1 cup nuts (optional)

1 cup raisins

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1/2 teapoon nutmug

1/2 teaspoon salt

Beat pulp, baking soda, sugar, and shortening until creamy.  Add egg.  Sift flour with spices (confession – I just dump everything into my Kitchen Aid mixer).  Add to creamed mixture. Stir in nuts and raisins.  Drop spoonful on greased baking sheet.  Bake at 375 degrees for 12 – 15 minutes.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies and a lot of memories!

 

Book Review: For All the Tea in China, by Sarah Rose

cover._for_all_the_tea_in_china[1]For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History is a fascinating nonfiction book.  In writing about the pursuit of one man to steal tea seeds, plants, and methods of making tea from China, the author reveals the astonishing impact that tea had on the economies of China and Britain.  This is part science, part history, part adventure story.  My only problem with the book was that I would have liked more detail, and I felt that I did not know much about the personalities of the people I was reading about, which was both unsatisfying and, in the case of the Chinese characters, uncomfortable.

All the Tea focuses on the efforts of Robert Fortune (that’s his real name, y’all!) to steal tea and the secrets to making tea from China.  The East India Company was the worst company ever.  It made the Weyland-Yutani Corporation from Aliens look benign.  At the start of the book, in 1845, the East India Company was involved in a highly lucrative triangular trade in which they grew opium in India, sold it in China, used the proceeds to buy Chinese tea, and sold the tea to England.  As Britain expanded its territory in India, The East India Company realized that the Indian Himalayas might be a prime tea-growing location – if only they had the plants as well as the methods for processing tea.  If they could grow tea in India, they could break the Chinese monopoly.

The weakest part of this book is that while it focuses the story on Robert Fortune and his assistant Wang, neither person left many personal documents behind.  I have a good sense of Fortune’s accomplishments, but very little of his personality.  Meanwhile Wang is described in stereotypical, comical terms.  The normal practice in China is for people in Wang’s position to take a cut when negotiating deals – this cultural norm causes Wang to be described by the author as “crafty” instead of “astute”.  In describing Fortune’s frustrations with his servants, including Wang, the author fails to adequately explain the motivations behind the servant’s actions.  A more balanced approach would have been a great improvement.

Although Rose fails to convey respect or understanding for Wang, she does point out at length that Fortune never bothered to learn Chinese etiquette, and that he depended entirely on Wang for his survival and success.  Elsewhere, Rose takes pains to describe the unfair treatment of Chinese workers in India.  I was unaware that when slavery was abolished, Chinese workers were forced into a kind of covert slavery to fill the labor gap.  Rose also points out how damaging the opium trade was, although she does not talk much about the Opium Wars.

This book is more fascinating when it talks about tea and about history than when it talks about people.  In particular, a chapter at the end lists a number of way in which the availability of cheap tea transformed Britain.  I drove my husband crazy with this book, because every few minutes I would say, “Did you know…” and then launch into some kind of trivia while he was trying to do something else.  The historical framework is incredibly interesting and not at all well-known.  Plus, as a tea-drinker, I was endlessly fascinated by the information about tea.

This isn’t a perfect book and it left me hungering for a Chinese perspective on events.  But it is a good book for history buffs and nerdy tea drinkers.

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Reading Through Depression: An Interview with Amanda Diehl

 AmandaAmanda is a regular contributor to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  In early November, she wrote a fantastic post over at SBTB titled “Depression and Amy Poehler”.  I loved the post so much that I asked Amanda if she’d be comfortable talking more about depression and reading.  Here she is!
In your essay for Smart Bitches, you talk about Amy Poehler’s book Yes, Please inspiring you to get treatment for depression.  What was it about her book that inspired you?
 
I’d like the book about that song – you know the one – that always seems to come on right when you need it. You’re feeling down or happy or angry and the radio gods smile upon you and give you just what you need to feel better, or even just something that perfectly mirrors what you’re feeling. Sometimes, depression is hard to express, especially to people who don’t have any experience with the disease. It’s more than just feeling sad all the time or listless. It’s a really complex thing to experience and to communicate. I picked up the book after her event and I didn’t open it and start reading until I got home. I then read it on the train, during breaks at class, whenever I could. There are little nuggets of wisdom, phrases and sentences and experiences, that seem to perfectly capture what I was feeling. It’s one of those “Yes! That’s it! That’s exactly it!” moments. 
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I wouldn’t say I was reluctant to talk about how I was feeling with my family and friends. Partly, I was embarrassed. Not that I had depression, but that I couldn’t keep it at bay. I had hoped I’d be lucky enough to go through it once, but mental illness runs heavily on the female side of my family. The odds were against me anyway. The book, Yes Please, gave me a talking point. It was a conduit that enabled me to broach that topic of conversation with others.

As a romance novel fan, do you find that you read more or less romance during periods of depression?  
Truthfully, I have a hard time reading anything during depression. For me, it makes me not want to do anything at all. I think the only reason why I was able to finish Yes Please was because it aligned so acutely with what I was experiencing. When I’m depressed or feeling lower than usual, I tend to just get tired and I’ll spend hours upon hours in bed, sleeping or trying to sleep. One bad thing about the disease – and there are many bad things – is that something that would normally relax you or make you happy suddenly…doesn’t. And then that makes you even more depressed that you can’t even enjoy something as simple and fulfilling as reading.

 What fictional books do a good job of describing what depression is like?

Hm, this is a tough one. I haven’t read many adult books that deal with depression, though I’d love to find a romance where the heroine has it and/or is coping with it. A lot of young adult titles address depression though and there are a few good ones that I’d recommend. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, and Looking for Alaska by John Green. I know quite a number of teens struggle with a number of things and not all of those teenage fears go away once you hit adulthood.

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What do you want people who experience depression to know, and what do you wish people who don’t experience depression understood?

For people who have it: It’s nothing to be ashamed of. After my post on Smart Bitches, there was such a lovely outpouring of comments and some of my favorites were the ones reminding me that the disease isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s part of a chemical imbalance in the brain. And there are so many people who have it – famous people, rich people, students, mothers, CEOs. Luckily, I came from a family where treating a mental illness wasn’t taboo, and whether you come from a place where admitting you have depression is frowned upon, the biggest thing I can suggest is not letting that aspect keep you from getting help.
For those who don’t have it: Exercise some patience. I know it’s tough dealing with someone who has depression. Before I was diagnosed, my mother had it severely. It may seem simple on the outside, that all they need is some cheering up, but it’s a disease. You cannot treat them, but you can help them by being understanding and being available should they need you.

Book Review: Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas

cover of Jane and Twelve DaysJane and the Twelve Days of Christmas is the latest in a long line of Jane Austen mysteries by Stephanie Barron.  In this series, Austen is something of a Miss Marple character (but younger).  Jane runs into murder everywhere she goes (prompting considerable teasing from her family).

In Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas, Jane, her mother, and her sister Cassandra go to visit her judgmental brother, James, and his whiny wife, Mary.  They are rescued from the prospect of a dismal holiday by an invitation to The Vyne, a nearby estate.  There they meet:

  • William and Elizabeth Chute, master and mistress of the estate
  • Lady Gambier, her daughter Mary, and her son, Edward
  • Mr. Raphael West, a painter, son of the famous Benjamin West, who shows a marked interest in Jane
  • Lieutenant Gage, a naval messenger, who seems to have a romantic interest in Mary Gambier

Since this is a mystery, someone has to die, and someone from the part must have done it, but who?

This is a cozy mystery, and it’s a little bland – on the other hand, it’s not too dark or disturbing for holiday reading.  The real delight here is the description of a Regency Christmas.  I also got way too much enjoyment from the doll clothes that Jane and Charlotte make for their niece.  On the first day of Christmas they give her a doll.  Each subsequent day brings a new outfit.  This was enchanting on many levels – it was sweet, it felt magical and fun, and the descriptions of the outfits are both lovely and educational.  Similarly, in this book we hear about the Yule Log, the Children’s Ball, and of course Charades.

This particular book is out in time for Christmas shopping, and it’s in a lovely hardback edition with a deep red background and gold writing.  Clearly the marketing department knows a good gift when they see one.  I’d say this book is for a particular reader – a Jane aficionado, but not a Jane snob, since I think the version of Jane we are presented with is much less acerbic than the actual Jane was.  I enjoyed the book greatly as a relaxing, interesting read that got me in the mood for the holidays.  Having said, that, it’s nothing terrible brilliant or exciting or deep – which is just as well.  During the holidays I’m much more capable of enjoying a light book than something new and deep!