Category Archives: Reviews

My Year in Books

Here is an infographic of “my year in books” from Goodreads:

https://www.goodreads.com/user/year_in_books/2017/6065445

Fun thing to see. If you use Goodreads, you can see yours too.

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Bradford Challenge: Jade City

The next book I read for the Tempest Bradford Challenge is Jade City, by Fonda Lee.  Lee is a Chinese-Canadian woman, and this is her third book.

It’s an unusual book, what you might call “second-world urban fantasy.”  It takes place in a city, in a modern context — there are planes, cars, and TV sets.  But it is in an imaginary world, the world of the mysterious island of Kekon, somewhat like Japan, wherein is found the magical stone jade.  In this world, jade bestows wu xia-like magical powers on those who have the ability to use it: flight, strength, enhanced perception, and the like.  Usually I don’t dig this kind of stuff, but I saw this on the Popular Reading shelf at work, and it caught my attention for whatever reason.

The book is about a clan war between jade wielders (called Green Bones) in the city of Janloon on the island of Kekon, which has only recently emerged, along with the rest of the world, from the World War II-like War of Many Nations, and claimed its independence from colonial overlords in the aftermath.  Two clans, the Mountain and No Peak, fight for control of the city of Janloon.

The clans operate mostly as crime syndicates: they run whorehouses, gambling, collect protection money from local businesses, smuggle things, and the like.  The marketing for the book pitches it as a “fantasy Godfather,” and that’s accurate enough.

Woman author or no, I found this to be a very masculine book.  Most of the characters are men, and since they are all crime kingpins, there is a lot of posturing, fighting, and general dick-waving.  The women in the story are not fighters or enforcers; even the ones gifted with magical ability have the usual supportive roles you’d expect women to have in that milieu: wives, mothers, healers, caretakers.  I was a little disappointed by this.

About halfway through, I realized the story Lee was telling was too big to be told in one volume, and I became very annoyed. I hadn’t bargained on a trilogy.  In the end, she does manage to bring the story to a natural, if temporary, conclusion, but the war between the clans is obviously a long way from over.  More books will follow.

This would be a good book to check out if you enjoy crime fiction and don’t mind magic, if you like urban fantasy, or if you want to read a fantasy set in a non-Western-style milieu, which I am always up for.

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Tempest Bradford Challenge – The Left Hand of Darkness

The first book I chose for the Tempest Bradford Challenge is The Left Hand of Darkness by the late, much lamented Ursula K. Le Guin. I read this book when I was in high school, and I wanted to see if I understood it better as a middle-aged adult.

I’m not posting spoiler warnings for a fifty-year-old book.  One has to draw the line somewhere.

First of all, I’d say, no, I did not achieve a deeper understanding of this book on re-read.  I think I got it well the first time: men and women are basically the same; humaity trumps gender.  This is something I have always believed, and I daresay reading this book as a teenager probably influenced my thoughts on the subject.  As well as my own life experience. I was already leaning that way anyway.  Someone raised with more strict gender boundaries might find this book quite threatening.

This is a very serious book, seriously written by a serious author, about serious people doing serious things, with a serious theme.  No humor in this book.  I remembered most of the big set pieces, and some individual details, like Genly Ai, the Terran protagonist, calling the gender-neutral proprietor of his apartment building his “landlady,” because they were pudgy and gossipy.  (That annoyed me.)  I’d forgotten that Estraven, Genly’s native friend and guide, is killed at the end.

In brief, this book is about a diplomatic mission from Le Guin’s human space league, the Ekumen, to a world, Gethen, where the people, although of Hainish “ancient astronaut” human stock, still have a sexual estrus cycle with an unusual twist: when not in heat, the Gethenians are sexually neuter, with no visible sex organs and no sex drive.  When they come into heat, or kemmer as they call it, once a month, they become either male or female, influenced by the development of their sex partner and random chance, with no way to control or anticipate which gender they will manifest.  All people, therefore, are at times both male and female, and can both bear or sire children.  The children one bears are considered closer than the ones you sire, and inherit property first.  The Gethenians are scandalized by Genly’s permanent male sexuality; they call people who are stuck in one sex “perverts,” and consider them disabled at best, dangerous at worst.

The book doesn’t actually go into detail on the sexual rites and practices as much as you might expect.  Written by a less wise author, this book could have become very prurient, even pornographic.  In one scene, Genly is trapped in a snowstorm with Estraven, who is in kemmer, but they don’t have sex, even though it is supposed to be very painful and distressing for a Gethenian in heat not to engage in sex.  This seems like a missed opportunity to me, upon re-read.  It wouldn’t have to be explicit, but it could have illuminated human sexual relationships on Gethen in a whole other way.

This was a landamrk book when it was written, winning both the Hugo and the Nebula awards.  It was part of the “New Wave” of “soft” or “anthropological” science fiction that developed in the 1960s, that rigorously examined social and cultural issues and transgressed stylistic and thematic boundaries of science fiction, as part of the whole counter-cultural movement back then.  It is considered a classic of science fiction, and as far as I know, has been continuously in print since it was first published.

One thing did come to bother me over the course of the book. Le Guin chooses deliberately to refer to the Gethenians, genderless beings, as “he” throughout the book, writing that “he” is the most “neutral” of the pronouns, instead of creating or using a Gethenian gender-neutral pronoun, or switching the pronouns around, or saying “they,” or any other such scheme.  But that is not the effect in the book as written.  Because Genly, the narrator, is a man, he tends to perceive and write about the Gethenians as men, and the constant use of “he” reinforces this. The scene where Esatraven is in kemmer is the only time that Genly is forcefully reminded that Estraven, or any Gethenian, is as much a woman as a man.  It undercuts Le Guin’s point, to me.  I’m reminded of Ann Leckie’s much more recent book Ancillary Justice, wherein the default pronoun in the narrator’s language is “she,” and how completely disconcerting it is to see that in practice, everyone always referred to as “she,” and not know whether the character being referred to is male or female.  (And how it drove many of the angry Rabid Puppy types right round the bend – especially when it won all the big sci-fi awards.)

But to be fair, I have to admit that Le Guin writing and thinking about this idea at all in 1969 was revolutionary, and Left Hand won many of those same awards in its time.  It’s still a good book, and still has useful things to say.  As classics do.

There’s also this quote from near the end of the book, that I found quite relevant to our time, and wanted to share:

… I had asked him if he hated Orgoreyn; I remembered his voice last night, saying with all mildness, “I’d rather be in Karhide…”  And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend’s voice arises, and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry.  Where does it go wrong?

Where indeed?  One might write a whole other science fiction book about that.

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The Tempest Bradford Challenge

While poking around on John Scalzi’s blog, I became aware of something called the Tempest Bradford Challenge, which was posited by spec fic author Tempest K. Bradford in xoJane magazine in 2015.   The challenge is to read books by authors who are not straight cis white men for a whole year.

A salutary challenge, I thought. Something to expand my literary horizons.  I don’t feel I, personally, am particularly in hock to white male authors — I read plenty of female authors, for example.  And I can’t say I really notice much of a difference in the writing between men and women; humans are humans, to my mind, and writing is writing.  But I don’t think I read too many people of color, or non-American authors.  Not because of bias, just because I mostly read F & SF, and that mostly is written by white American people. That is the default.  As it is in most of American culture.  (Or British — the picture headlining the xoJane article is an image of Tempest disapprovingly holding up a copy of American Gods by Neil Gaiman — and you can bet all the Gamergate/Red Pill types absolutely lost their shit over that.)

But that is not to say there is not plenty of spec fic by people of color, non-Americans, women, LGBT people.  And good stuff, too, award-winning books — think of N. K. Jemisin, who is black (and a woman), or Charlie Jane Anders, who is a trans women.  Or Samuel R. Delany, who is black and gay and an actual SF Grandmaster. That is the point of the challenge. To increase awareness.  So it seems like a good thing to do, to broaden my horizons and give these authors some support.

And if you’re going to get all butthurt about it and rag on me, I don’t want to hear it.  I mean come on.  We’re all adults here. And as I keep reiterating, in my work and in my life and on social media, life is not a zero-sum game.  There is enough for all.  If I read non-white male authors for a year, that doesn’t mean white male authors are going to starve and die.  Plenty of other people read their books.  Neil Gaiman does not need my help.  It’s all good.

With the caveat that I’m talking fiction here, novels and stories.  When I read non-fiction, I read for the information contained within, the author’s voice is secondary.  It informs the work, of course, but it’s not my primary interest in that arena.

I will log the books here as I read them. In honor of her recent passing, it seems good to me to start by re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, a book by a female author that interrogates the very idea of gender roles, and see if I understand it any better than I did when I was a sixteen-year-old virgin.

I am impatiently waiting for it to come in for me at the library where I work.  All copies are checked out. I was not the only person who had that idea.

Check back for further entries.  Wish me luck.

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My Report on Blue Apron

 

A while back I posted on Facebook that we were going to try cooking dinner at home with the Blue Apron meal delivery service. Ever since I did people have been very curious about what it’s like and how it’s going. So I thought I would write a report on our Blue Apron experience so far.

I decided to do this for our health — due to weight, blood sugar, blood pressure issues of creeping age, my husband and I just need to eat better, which ultimately means cooking at home and controlling our own food. Not eating out at restaurants, fast-food or takeout, and not eating heavily processed prepared foods. But the problem has been, I hate cooking. Absolutely despise it — I loathe every single thing about it. I hate shopping for food and planning menus. I hate the actual activity of cooking itself — chopping and preparing raw food, juggling all the dishes so they come out at more or less the same time, cutting and burning yourself, running back and forth like a chicken with no head. I hate the cleanup afterwards. I hate that cooking is so much work, all that preparation and labor, and in about 15 minutes it’s all done and eaten, and you are left with the cleanup.

I needed something to simplify cooking for me so it wouldn’t be so overwhelmingly hateful. So we decided to try a meal delivery service. What these services, like Blue Apron or Home Chef, do is deliver you all the raw ingredients to home cook a meal, plus the recipe, once weekly in a chilled and frozen box. On the Blue Apron couple’s plan you get three meals a week for two people, for twenty dollars a meal, planned out using seasonal ingredients, and delivered right to your home. It’s kind of a subscription, in that they have a meal plan that they send you if you don’t choose, but you can choose some limited options. You choose three of six meals offered a week, but you can’t choose just anything. Some meals automatically go together, because of shared ingredients or economies of scale. Like, if you choose Meal X, you can also choose Meal Y, but not Z. You can skip a box if you don’t like what’s offered, for as many weeks as you like, and can cancel anytime. They offer omnivore, pescatarian, and vegetarian options.

Inside the box are recipe cards, the fresh produce in the top section, and what they call “knick knacks” — the spices, liquids or other components you need to make the meal. And they really do send everything, in just the size you need it — pats of butter, tiny bottles of vinegar, flour for frying batter, uncooked pasta, even eggs. The only thing Blue Apron expects you to have on hand is salt, pepper, and olive oil for frying or sautéing.

In the bottom of the box, packed among cold packs, are the meats. Often when I get my delivery they are still comfortably frozen. I have not had an issue with spoiled meat yet. Some eggs broke, and a batch of arugula was spoiled once. But if you receive spoiled components, just email Blue Apron and they will credit you back some money.

One good thing about the service is that they only send you exactly what you need for each meal, so there is no problem of food waste. If the recipe calls for one carrot, you get once carrot. One tablespoon of soy sauce, that’s what you get. This I especially appreciate, as we always had a problem with food waste — if a you buy a whole bunch of carrots or head of lettuce, two people are hard pressed to eat it all before it starts to go bad.

Getting Blue Apron practically eliminates shopping and menu planning for me. Someone else plans the menus, and the food is delivered right to me. When I’m ready to cook, I know what I’m making, and the food is right there in my refrigerator. Such a weight off my mind! Sam always used to tease me after work every night by demanding, “What’s for dinner?” Now I know. Or if I don’t feel like cooking, I can make it the next night.

After looking at the websites of several of these meal delivery services, I decided on Blue Apron, because all the recipes are freely available on the website, and I could see exactly what was getting. I also liked the variety.

So far — it’s been a few months — it’s working well. We have liked everything we have eaten so far, and I am finding the cooking manageable. I still don’t like it — unfortunately Blue Apron does not address the one thing I hate most about cooking: chopping up mounds of vegetables. But I just have to power through. I understand some other meal services send you pre-diced vegetables and meats, but that is probably more expensive, due to the added labor costs, and also not as healthy — veggies and fruits begin to oxidize and lose their nutrition once they are cut. I wouldn’t want to go that route. So I am just going to have to continue to gut it out. Blue Apron does have little videos on their website showing you how to prep various foods — they really are coming from the position that their customers know absolutely nothing about cooking, and are lucky to posses one pan, one pot, and one knife. These videos have actually helped me. I know how to “supreme” a citrus fruit now. And I learned you can cut a plank out of the bottom of a round vegetable like a carrot, to make it sit flat on the cutting board and make it easier to chop. Who knew?

It takes me about an hour to cook a Blue Apron meal. It takes me a while to chop all those vegetables. An experienced cook would take much less. It’s still time out of my day, but I’m doing it for my husband, for our health, so for now it is worth it.

So, how about the food? What you are cooking? How is it?

It’s good. There hasn’t been a meal yet that we actively disliked. I think the quality of the ingredients is good. Blue Apron buys from organic, smaller, and artisanal suppliers as much as possible. Eggs are cage-free, the meat is raised without hormones or antibiotics. The vegetables are fresh and seasonal — the recipes have fresh corn right now, for example. And we like the variety — so far no meal we’ve received has been the same, although they tend to fall into the pattern of a protein, a veg, and a starch. So, some kind of meat (if you’re not on the vegetarian plan); potatoes, rice, or pasta; and some vegetables. Fresh herbs, citrus fruits, and custom spice blends lend flavor. I am getting a little bored with pan-frying some meat and sautéing veggies every night, so I have ordered more noodles, sandwiches, and pizza in the coming weeks, for variety. I order a vegetarian meal occasionally. Sam moans, but he eats them, and it’s good for him to eat vegetarian once in a while.  Also it’s convenient to have something ready to cook, if you forget to defrost something the night before.

One thing we do like is the variety. We’re not the kind of people who can eat the same thing day after day or week after week. So far no two meals we’ve cooked have been the same. I read on the BA website that they don’t repeat recipes on the different plans at all in a year. We love that. On delivery days, Sam runs to the door to see what’s in the box. We have tried many vegetables we have never had before — Swiss chard, bok choy. We are eating way more vegetables than we ever did before, which is good.

Some of the meals are weird and awkward — like the Cod Kedgeree, which was kind of like fried rice with fish, given a weird licorice-y flavor by fenugreek in the spice blend. But none of them have been bad enough that we couldn’t eat them. A lot of subscribers had trouble with the recipe for Brothless Ramen with Pork, because it wasn’t clear in the recipe as printed that you had to boil the noodles separately before putting them into finish with the pork. Reading complaints on the BA website, I was able to avoid that pitfall, but at the end of the day, no matter how you try to gussy them up, ramen noodles are still ramen noodles. We were not fans of that recipe. Some meals we have absolutely loved, though, like Salmon with Walnut Pesto and Chicken Adobo. Mostly, we like that there is something new and different to try three nights a week.

So let me list what I like and what I don’t like about Blue Apron:

What I like:

Convenience: I don’t have to shop or plan menus and the food is delivered right to me at my home. It couldn’t be more convenient.

Fresh produce: This is good. We are eating way more vegetables than we ever did for a long time. Sam was raised in a vegetable-hating family, so I never cooked them very much even when I did infrequently cook. But one needs vegetables to eat healthily. We have been exposed to things we never tried before — we had a recipe with hen of the woods mushrooms a couple weeks ago. (They taste just like regular button mushrooms, sadly.)

No food waste: This is huge to me. When I was struggling to cook as a young wife, we wasted a ton of food. It’s hard to buy portions at a grocery store for just two people. And my long stretches of not being able to stand cooking meant a lot of food we bought with good intentions went to waste. Blue Apron only sends us exactly what we need, everything from butter to meat. Nothing goes to waste. This is better for us and for the environment.

Portion control: Blue Apron meals run 500-700 calories, which isn’t exactly diet, as I understand it, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what we would usually eat at restaurants or as takeout. Part of how they do this is portion control — tiny little steaks or chicken breasts, half a cup of rice, filling up on green vegetables like collard greens. It’s going to take some getting used to — we’re used to huge restaurant portions, fried food, and stuffing ourselves. But it’s a better way and I appreciate it.

Variety: This is also a huge factor in Blue Apron’s success for us. I have a co-worker who cooks at home all the time, who makes a pot of spaghetti sauce or a giant meatloaf on Sunday, and then eats that for dinner every night for a week. Works for her, but I could never do that. It would drive me insane.  We can’t eat the same thing day after day. We need variety. Blue Apron has great variety. You won’t get the same meal twice in a year. You do get the same components — we have been getting a lot of collard greens lately — but prepared in different ways. The recipes showcase cuisines of different cultures, too — tacos, udon bowls, tagines. It’s fun to try new things every week. This is one of the biggest parts of Blue Apron’s appeal for us.

What I don’t like:

Waste:  Not food waste, but the excess packaging.  As I said, Blue Apron only sends you what you need — two tablespoons of butter if you need it, in a little plastic tub. Two tablespoons of soy sauce, in a little plastic bottle. Half a cup of flour in a plastic tub. That’s a lot of plastic! Excess packaging is something I worry about a lot, and try to avoid in my purchasing decisions. It’s unavoidable with BA. They say all their packing is recyclable, and I’m sure it is, but I don’t have much confidence in the curbside recycling program of my own city. I strongly suspect that they are just selling off our “recycling” to a landfill in another state. It’s the kind of thing our government would do. So, all the stuff may be “recyclable,” but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s actually being recycled. That’s why it’s better to eliminate it at the front end.

I did realize, the other day when I was cleaning mushrooms for a recipe, that if I had bought them in a grocery store, they would have come in the exact same kind of little plastic basket that they were in. So the packaging may not be quite as egregious as I feared at first. But those little tubs of butter and sauces! So wasteful! I comfort myself with the hope that the food waste we are avoiding is a net gain for the environment and the food industry. But I don’t really know that it is. Perhaps in the future Blue Apron will require their subscribers to be a little more self-sufficient — only send fresh meat, dairy, produce, and spices, and let the customers provide pantry staples like flour and vinegar on their own. Or they may offer a two-tier pricing plan, one for noobs and one for more experienced cooks. Right now, the packaging waste is something that bothers me, but I just have to live with it. I hope it’s balanced out by all the other good things Blue Apron provides us.

So, is Blue Apron a good value? Would I recommend it?

That depends.

If you are on a tight budget, or are trying to feed a large family, then no, ten bucks a head for dinner is NOT a bargain, it’s exorbitant.  But if you’re like my husband and me, childless professionals with disposable income, then yes, compared to the rest of our lifestyle, it is.  We can easily spend more than twenty dollars a meal on takeout or a restaurant.  Quite a bit more.  Heck, if two people go to McDonald’s these days, it’s about seventeen dollars.  So for us, this is very reasonable, a savings even, and we are getting much better food.  It is definitely worth it.

I have to add here, that this would be working much less well for me, if my husband were not washing the pots and pans every night.  I told him, if we try this, you have to do your part, and he is.  I plate the food and serve it and just walk away from the kitchen, and he cleans up.  If I had to that too on top of the cooking, I’d be much less enthused.

So we are liking the meal delivery service so far, and it looks like we will be able to stick with it.  I have some coupon codes for free meals to try, for Blue Apron and also Hello Fresh, if you are interested.  Email me, and I’ll forward you the codes.

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