January 23, 2009

Off-Topic: Kate's Paperie Rocks!

I was browsing Miss Snark's archives recently, as I am wont to do, and I cam across a reference to a store called Kate's Paperie. Miss Snark often wrote of herself in the third person, and she said this:
Miss Snark loves paper. Kate's Paperie is one of her favorite places on earth. Crane and Company at Rock Center too, but in a pinch any office supply store can provide a fix.

I, too, have a great love for stationery, pens, notebooks, and the like. I collect journals, although I don't fill them particularly completely. And I'm always on the look-out for stationery, so I naturally clicked through to the link above. And oh, boy, it is a good thing that I don't live in NYC, because I would be in that store every day and soon I would have many kinds of beautiful writing and office supplies, and no money at all. But at any rate, I found my way to the sale page, and found some gorgeous, elegant stationery (for, like $3!) and proceeded to order some.

... Which is where the trouble started. [But please don't stop reading at this paragraph -- the troubles got better! And if this blog post was a novel, this would be the huge duhn duhn duhn foreshadowing!! section.] To make a long story short, the ordering process was fraught with errors, funky forms not working & 404s and such, and I was not able to successfully place my order. Woe! Disaster! But not to be long daunted, I fired off a note to their customer service department, detailing the nature of the errors that I had received. Then I went to bed.

Yesterday morning, I received an email from Kate's, and shortly thereafter, a (long distance) phone call from a very sweet lady -- I didn't catch her name -- who apologised for the errors, offered me free shipping, and took my order over the phone. And the email thanked me for my list of things and promised that their IT department would look into it.

And then, today, I got home from work and lo and behold, there was a package on my desk. And inside that package was the most beautiful paper and envelopes in the world. The world, my friends!

So, to conclude, Kate's Paperie not only has beautiful products and unimaginable sale prices, but some of the best customer service I've ever received in my life. They were courteous, prompt, and genuinely helpful, and deserve huge kudos. So if you're in the mood for some really excellent paper products, do consider choosing Kate's.

The Face of The Earth

(Yes; I've fallen off it.)

Things have been very, very busy lately and I haven't had time to blog -- in fact, I realized this morning that I hadn't read a book for pleasure for two or three weeks. No wonder I've felt so off-kilter; I am now ripping through Possession and I feel much better for it.

Regular posting (and regular life!) should resume after February 1st. Very soon, really. Not quite soon enough for my tastes... but still, it's coming.

How is January treating the rest of you?

January 10, 2009

Review: An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green



This book: it's good! I mean, that's not a huge surprise, I really liked John Green's other books and occasionally drop by his blog as well. Seems like a smart kind of dude. Writes good stuff. But I was still a little bit surprised that I liked this book so well.

Here's the thing: it doesn't seem like it'd be particularly interesting, somehow. I know that this book has been blogged about all over, but I'll give a short summary: dude gets dumped by nineteen girls named Katherine, goes on road trip to Nowheresville Tenn with best buddy, finds adventure and himself and maybe true love and does some math, blah blah blah whatever. Honestly, it didn't sound that interesting to me in the beginning. Here's the official blurb:
19 Katherines and counting. . .

When it comes to relationships, Colin Singleton's type is girls named Katherine. And when it comes to girls named Katherine, Colin is always getting dumped. Nineteen times, to be exact. On a road trip miles from home, this anagram-happy, washed-up child prodigy has ten thousand dollars in his pocket, a bloodthirsty feral hog on his trail, and an over-weight, Judge Judy-loving best friend riding shotgun -- but no Katherines. Colin is on a mission to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, which he hopes will predict the future of any relationship, avenge Dumpees everywhere, and may finally win him the girl.

I dunno... it just doesn't really grab me. But what the hey, right, it's John Green, and I got it for Christmas, and so I read it, and it's very well written and a fine book indeed. I quite enjoyed it, although I don't think it's as good as either Looking for Alaska or Paper Towns. There's lots of complicated math that I don't understand but still admire (and an appendix that explains some if it). There are many anagrams ("A rearrangement mash, Ya!" / "Remarry a manganese hat"). The tone is definitely more light-hearted than Looking for Alaska. It's funnier. And still quite profound in spots, of course. I particularly like this passage, about stories:
Even Colin could only name a handful of people who had lived, say, 2,400 years ago. In another 2,400 years, even Socrates, the most well-known genius of that century, might be forgotten. The future will erase everything -- there's no level of fame or genius that allows you to transcend oblivion. The infinite future makes that kind of mattering impossible.

But there's another way. There are stories. Colin was looking at Lindsey, whose eyes were crinkling into a smile as Hassan loaned her nine cents so they could keep playing. Colin thought of Lindsey's storytelling lessons. [spoiler sentences redacted] And he found himself thinking that maybe stories don't just make us matter to each other -- maybe they're also the only way to the infinite mattering he'd been after for so long.

And Colin thought: Because like say I tell someone about my feral hog hunt. Even if it's a dumb story, telling it changes other people just the slightest little bit, just as living the story changes me. An infinitesimal change. And that infinitesmal change ripples outward -- ever smaller but everlasting. I will get forgotten, but the stories will last. And so we all matter -- maybe less than a lot, but always more than none. (p. 213)

See? That's the kind of reason this book is more than just another YA coming-of-age novel. Because stories matter, and this story knows it.

January 7, 2009

No Arguments Here

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm
You're probably in the final stages of a Ph.D. or otherwise finding a way to make your living out of reading. You are one of the literati. Other people's grammatical mistakes make you insane.
Dedicated Reader
Literate Good Citizen
Book Snob
Non-Reader
Fad Reader
What Kind of Reader Are You?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

And you, dear reader?

January 5, 2009

Review: Parenting, Inc. by Pamela Paul



This book is simultaneously encouraging and horrifying. Pamela Paul's Parenting, Inc.: How We Are Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmers -- and What It Means for Our Children has a doozy of a title and also one heckuva message. I think I can sum it up. It goes like this:

"Congratulations on your new baby! Now please USE YOUR COMMON SENSE."

That's really what it comes down to, albeit with much more engaging prose, incredible statistics, and the like. Here's some of the jacket text:
From the moment the self-pregnancy test confirms the happy news, the sales pitches begin. A shower of catalogs hawking the very best in organic onesies, lavender-scented diaper creams, and designer rubber duckies. The pressure to buy the "it" ergonomic stroller, specially engineered for bustling parents. A never-ending cascade of DVDs and baby classes that promise to make your child smarter, socially adept, and bilingual before age three. The onslaught of promises is overwhelming and incredibly difficult to resist. That's because time-strapped mothers and fathers are the perfect mark -- for the mammoth "parenting" industry.

In Parenting, Inc., Pamela Paul uncovers how, over the past generation, the parenting industry has convinced parents that they cannot trust their children's health, happiness, and success to themselves. From the statistically warped warning labels touting deluxe car seats to the booming supply of baby consultants charging hundreds of dollars, parents are assaulted by a whirligig of marketing hype, social pressure, and celebrity expertise, transforming the way they raise their children.

[snip]

Parenting, Inc. offers facts and freedom for every parent who wants to escape the spiral of fear, guilt, competition, and consumption that characterizes modern American parenthood.

Here are some of Paul's lessons for parents: Surprise, Baby Einstein (and the like) actually retard language and social development in infants. It's great to take your babe-in-arms to Music Together, as long as you understand that Mommy's probably the only one getting anything out of it. "Interactive" toys that whirl and beep and blink and direct play are leaving small children with no idea how to play imaginatively on their own. Babies can learn multiple languages at once, but only if they're learning from humans, not screens. And most of the things that parents do in a desperate bid to give their children more than they had leave kids worse off than otherwise. Your children are brand-aware from the time they're bout a year old. Worried yet? Maybe you should be.

Paul pulls no punches in this fairly easy read. She takes a hard look at the "parenting industry" -- at the billions and billions of dollars spent around infancy and early childhood -- and some of the facts she digs up will surprise you. I had no idea so many crazy things were on the market (like those floating duckie bath thermometers -- what, your elbow's not good enough?), and I'm glad that I'm now aware of at least some of the parenting industry's sneakier tactics, well before I actually have children. I don't know how comfortable I'd be giving this book to people who are already parents -- just because that can be a touchy issue, you know, "Here's a book about all the ways you're screwing up! Merry Christmas!" -- but if you're cool with doing that sort of thing, give away!

I would recommend this book both for parents and for people who think that they might be parents one day; there's a lot of good stuff in here to think over before you find yourself with a small someone to take care of. Plus, it's very well indexed.

January 3, 2009

Review: Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome



Somewhere, somewhen, I have seen or heard Three Men in a Boat described as "the funniest book in the English language", and I am not inclined to disagree. Very, very few books can actually make me laugh out loud -- but here, I found something new to giggle at on almost every single page. It's quite incredible, actually.

The premise is simple: three men (and one dog) hire a boat to take a holiday along the Thames, and have, in the course of their holiday, many amusing adventures peppered with even longer, more amusing, anecdotes and narrative digressions. It is all utterly charming. Here's the back text:
"We agree that we are overworked, and need a rest -- A week on the rolling deep? -- George suggests the river --"

And with the co-operation of several hampers of food and a covered boat, the three men (not forgetting the dog) set out on a hilarious voyage of mishaps up the Thames. When not falling in the river and getting lost in Hampton Court Maze, Jerome K. Jerome finds time to express his ideas on the world around -- many of which have acquired a deeper fascination since the day at the end of the last century when this excursion was so lightly undertaken.

Of course, it's now two centuries that have come to an end since this was written and published in 1889, but the rest still stands. Occasionally Jerome comes out with a passage that seems particularly foreknowing:
Why, all our art treasures of today are only the dug-up commonplaces of three or four hundred years ago. I wonder if there is any real intrinsic beauty in the old soup-plates, beer-mugs, and candle-snuffers that we prize so now, or if it is only the halo of age glowing around them that gives them their charms in our eyes. The 'old blue' that we hang about our walls as ornaments were the common every-day household utensils of a few centuries ago; and the pink shepherds and the yellow shepherdesses that we hand round now for all out friends to gush over, and pretend they understand, were the unvalued mantel-ornaments that the mother of the eighteenth century would have given the baby to suck when he cried.

Will it be the same in the future? Will the prized treasures of today always be the cheap trifles of the day before? Will rows of our willow-pattern dinner-plates be ranged above the chimney-pieces of the great in the years 2000 and odd? Will the white cups with the gold rim and the beautiful gold flower inside (species unknown), that our Sarah Janes now break in sheer light-heartedness of spirit, be carefully mended, and stood upon a bracket, and dusted only by the lady of the house? (pp. 53-4)

Yes! Yes, they will. I know: I have an uncle who collects tea cups and carnival glass custard bowls and the like, and though they would surely have been cheerfully tossed about when new, I tell you that this is no longer the case.

As mentioned, much of the narrative is not strictly concerned with the actual boating voyage. Jerome's narrator (who seems to be he himself) spends considerable time relating anecdotes, and thinking about life, and the like. In a favourite passage of mine, he has been thinking about the awkwardness of sharing a home with a courting couple, and then relates that to a certain historical pair:
It must have been much like this when that foolish boy Henry VIII was courting his little Anne. People in Buckinghamshire would have come upon them unexpectedly when they were mooning round Windsor and Wraysbury, and have exclaimed, 'Oh! you here!' and Henry would have blushed and said, Yes, he'd just come over to see a man; and Anne would have said, 'Oh, I'm so glad to see you! Isn't it funny? I've just met Mr Henry VIII in the lane, and he's going the same way I am.'

Then those people would have gone away and said to themselves: 'Oh! we'd better get out of here while this billing and cooing is on. We'll go down to Kent.'

And they would go down to Kent, and the first thing they would see in Kent, when they got there, would be Henry and Anne fooling round Hever Castle.

'Oh, drat this!' they would have said. 'Here, let's go away. I can't stand any more of it. Let's go to St Albans -- nice quiet place, St Albans.'

And when they reached St Albans, there would be that wretched couple, kissing under the Abbey walls. Then these folks would go and be pirates until the marriage was over. (p. 110)

Pirates indeed! I am wholly delighted.

January 2, 2009

Review: Reconciliation, by Benazir Bhutto



This book, Reconciliation: Isalm, Democracy, and the West, came into my house via my brother -- or via his friend Z, rather, who gave the book to my brother in hopes that he might read it. But I yoinked the book from him before such a thing could happen, and so far my brother hasn't read it, and I have. I grabbed it from him because I'm interested in the Islamic world, and the places women make for themselves in that world (or that they don't). Bhutto's book lived up to some of my expectations, and fell short of others.

The manuscript for this book was finished mere days before Bhutto's assassination, and was published posthumously. It's a look at Bhutto's theories about (duh) Islam, democracy, and the Western world, and where she sees conflicts and solutions. A large middle section gives a compact history of democracy in the entire Islamic world, one country at a time. That section was interesting and informative. And her conclusions are stirring:
I appreciate that what I propose -- from what the Muslim states must do to what the West must do -- is huge and may seem daunting and even impossible. I make these recommendations because the times require something more than business as usual. Much of what is recommended is somewhat out of the box. But staying within the box has brought poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, violence, and dictatorship to far too many Muslims around the world. Staying within the box has set Islam and the West on a dangerous and unnecessary collision course. It is time for new ideas. It is time for creativity. It is time for bold commitment. And it is time for honesty, both among people and between people. That is what I have tried to do in these pages. There has been enough pain. It is time for reconciliation. (pp. 317-8)

I don't take issue with Benazir Bhutto's ideas, or not many of them, but I do take issue with her writing and some of her scholarship. She has lots of annoying habits, like quoting paragraphs and phrases with no attribution. They're hanging quotations, too, just stuck places where they don't necessarily belong. That irks me; it's sloppy. I don't write essays like that.

The other thing is her tone. A lot of the book is fairly neutral in its voice, but there are these huge swathes that are just blah, blah, blah, me, me, me. And I know that it must seem a little ridiculous to say something like that -- this is Benazir Bhutto after all, she's not some schmuck off the street, she was an incredibly important and influential public figure. But I think that we could stand to be told how awesome and amazing and important a little less. Praise is always less credible when it's coming from the subject of the praise, right? And it's seriously off-putting sometimes, like when she's describing how a bunch of volunteers formed human chains to protect her, and died, and now she has to do her job to honour them -- but there's just this little bit of self-satisfaction in it, a bit of underlying "these men and women died for me, because I'm better than you", and it's really kind of prideful and icky. I don't know if I'm reading things that aren't there, but passages like that gave me serious pause.

Reconciliation is a fascinating book but still a very flawed one. Her analysis is clever, and her ideas are visionary, but her prose is off-putting and her scholarship is questionable. Ultimately, it didn't hold my attention very well.