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Books I’ve read lately

December 31st, 2010

This is not a “best of 2010″ list, because I don’t take careful notes about what I read, and I often read older books.  But here are a few books I’ve read recently that I recommend:

  • The Avengers, by Rich Cohen.  Cohen is one of my favorite authors.  I’ve read and enjoyed Israel is Real and Sweet and Low.  But nothing prepared me for The Avengers, the story of some of Cohen’s relatives who were Jewish resistance fighters during World War II.  The story is amazing and heart breaking and inspiring.  I read Israel is Real before The Avengers, but I strongly suggest they be read in the reverse order (which is the order they were published in).  Together they provide a deeply personal, compelling story that opens a unique window on Israel and Israeli politics.
  • Dead Sea, by Brian Keene.  An action-packed, fantastically bleak zombie novel.  If you liked World War Z and haven’t yet read more widely in zombie fiction, Dead Sea is a great next step.  It’s the story of one man and two children who are trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, and is by far the most pessimistic zombie story I have ever encountered, in print or film. It’s also creative, something that cannot often be said about books in this genre.
  • Mark of the Lion, by Suzanne Arruda.  This is the first book in a series that features Jade del Cameron, an ex-ambulance driver fresh from the front lines of the Great War who has run away to British East Africa.  She’s a magazine writer and photographer on assignment, and seems to encounter — and confront and solve — murderous crimes where ever she goes.  The author has done a really nice job of presenting the scenery and people of the period and place in a way that feels true, and Jade is an amazing character.  People who know my reading habits know that lengthy descriptions annoy me, but I savored Arruda’s writing and appreciated her beautiful depictions of Africa.  You can tell that it’s a place she really loves.  I’m reading the second book now, and so far it is as good as the first one, although I’m withholding judgment until I get to the end.  The “strong female hero who solves the crime by nearly becoming a victim” cliche is so easy for this genre to fall into (I’m looking at you Kinsey Millhone and Stephanie Plum).

About my Kindle

December 30th, 2010

When Amazon first introduced the Kindle, I thought it was pointless and expensive.  Who would want to read a book on a handheld device?  And pay for it?  Craziness.  I don’t like to own a lot of books, and the library serves my needs just fine, thanks.  Three things changed my mind:  (1) my library stopped acquiring new entries in several genre series I enjoy, (2) my mom got a Kindle that I got to play with a bit, and (3) the price came down.

I thought my mom’s Kindle was neat, and if I was going to have to pay for books anyway to keep up with some series, I still didn’t want to have the physical books cluttering my house.  I understand that with Kindle you don’t own the book — you merely license it — but I’m comfortable licensing genre titles that I’m likely to only read once.  In the end, the price drop was less important since I received the Kindle as a gift (thanks Mom!), but I had started to think hard about getting one for myself because of the lower prices.

I have the wi-fi only version of the 3rd generation Kindle.  I like that it’s not white.  I also like the way the eInk mimics the look of a printed page.  When I’m reading the Kindle, the physical object recedes and doesn’t distract from or interfere with my reading.  The feel of the Kindle in my hand is comfortable and pleasant — if it weighed any more or less, I think it would be difficult to hold.  The placement of the page turning buttons is a bit counter-intuitive at first, but makes sense the first time you use it while laying down — you can easily page forward with either hand at most any angle.  Paging back is a bit more cumbersome, but since I do that less often, it works just fine.

Having the wi-fi only version was a bit of an irritant at first, since I was at my Mom’s house and she does not have wi-fi.  My husband and I hopped in the car and drove around until we found an open network — I used that to register the Kindle and download my first books.  I used it a lot over the holidays and the trip home, and I love it.  It was especially nice to use on the airplane, since I could hold it in either hand and turn the pages easily without bumping my drink or knocking into the person sitting next to me.  With a bit of planning, I think having the wi-fi only version will work out just fine.

It’s incredibly easy to download books from Amazon for it, and only slightly more complicated to download and transfer free books from archive.org and Project Guttenburg.  I’ve loaded it up with classics that I’ve always meant to read, like The Three Musketeers and Cranford, out of copyright books by more contemporary authors (like Phillip K. Dick and Ben Bova) and favorites like Pride and Prejudice.  I’ve also downloaded a couple of thrillers, zombie novels, and mysteries that my library doesn’t have.  It’s a well-designed device that just works.

One slight irritant is that I keep trying to touch the screen to select things — I’m used to my iPhone.  I hope that I’ll stop doing that in time, although even if I don’t it’s not a big deal.  I notice that Amazon uses the lack of a touchscreen as a selling point (no fingerprints!) which makes me laugh.

As much as I like my Kindle, I don’t intend to give up physical books any time soon (my Mom only reads Kindle books).  I’ve spent a couple hours today lazing on the couch reading physical library books, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself.  However, I’m very happy to have the Kindle as an option, and expect that I’ll never travel with a library book again.

Prayerful movie

December 21st, 2010

I love documentaries.  Stories about people doing things?  Sign me up.  I especially love documentaries about small groups of people engaged in an unusual pursuit.  I watch a LOT of documentaries.

Audience of One is from a few years back — it’s the story of a church/film studio making a movie about Joseph (the one with all the brothers) set in the future. With robots. The movie is ostensibly being made for God — hence the title of the documentary — by a paranoid pastor/director with a vision. The crew prays about every decision, from who to cast to what technology to use (ever heard of 65 millimeter film?), and the set has higher security than most banks. The pastor, Richard Gazowsky, is equal parts megalomanic, true believer, studio executive, prophet, and visionary. No matter what hardships the church encounters, they keep the faith and keep trying to make their movie. Even after their electricity gets cut off because they couldn’t pay their bills.

I suspect the documentary filmmakers were going for a sweetly quirky story about these earnest believers, but by the end it felt like a portrait of one of those cults that end in mass suicide.  I recommend the movie.

Product of the Year

December 10th, 2010

The Copper Fox Distillery barrel kit I wrote about a while ago won a product of the year award from the 2010 Virginia Food and Beverage Expo. Cool. As I wrote before, I think the genius of this product is that it strongly encourages repeat business. That, and it’s cool.

Christmas Music

December 7th, 2010
A bauble on a Christmas tree.

Image via Wikipedia

I love Christmas music.  I don’t love that stores start playing it the day after Labor Day, but between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Christmas music is a huge source of joy and comfort for me.  I sing along to the radio in my car, the muzak in stores, and whatever’s on my iPod.  I’m addicted to Amazon’s free Christmas music downloads.  Last night I bought the Rat Pack Christmas album — ring-a-ding-ding!!

But this year, the Christmas music that’s making me happiest is old.  When I was a kid, there were a few rituals I looked forward to every year — my advent calendar, decorating the Christmas tree, and my special Christmas record — Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, by the Peppermint Kandy Kids (otherwise known as the Peter Pan Records Studio).  I had — and still have — every word of every song memorized. My mom kept the record in the box with the Christmas ornaments, and it was a big deal when we got it out.  I suspect she did this to keep me from listening to it year round, but for me, this just made it more special.

The songs tell the story of Rudolph’s Christmas Party.  He invites everyone in the world to his party, except for a Moose called Morris.  Morris is really sad about not being invited — his song is my favorite. There’s also a pair of penguins who are really excited about the party, a Polar Bear named Roly Poly, and a perfectly ridiculous version of All I Want for Christmas.  That last one doesn’t really fit in the story line, but whatever.  The songs are sweet, fun and non-commercial.  They aren’t really selling anything but themselves — there’s no licensed or branded characters, no toys to buy, no treats to eat.  They’re just songs.

I haven’t listened to this album in years, because it’s vinyl and I don’t have a turntable.  This year, a friend of mine (who is welcome to out himself in the comments) did me the HUGE favor of ripping this record to mp3 for me.  I’m so excited to have this album back in my life.  The songs make me really happy, and although I haven’t yet given up the rest of my holiday music collection, I seem to always listen to these songs first.  And last.  And sometimes in between.

And although my husband is threatening to pack my iPod away with the Christmas ornaments, I couldn’t be happier!

Meaty content

December 5th, 2010

A few days ago, I wrote about how much I love Instapaper for reading long, juicy articles on my iPhone.  That may, in fact, have been like writing about air — everyone knows everything about it already!  As I go about my day, I use the Instapaper bookmarklet to save content for later, but sometimes I find my self about to run out the door to some appointment where I know I’ll have time to kill and I want to “top off” the articles in Instapaper with meaty goodness beforehand. These are my go-to sources when I’m in a hurry:

  • Give me Something to Read is operated by Instapaper.  An editor handpicks articles that are displayed in blog format, with the first paragraph or so showing above the cut.  There’s a button to click if the article looks interesting enough to continue reading — and that button loads it into Instapaper for you.  There’s usually a very nice assortment of topics and styles to choose from.  There’s also a Best of 2010 list.
  • Arts and Letters Daily. This is an obvious source, but the best source here, after ALD’s picks, is the sidebar, especially the “Nota Bene” and magazine sections. A few clicks, and I’m almost guaranteed to find content that intrigues me.
  • Boston Globe Books section is my favorite source for really in-depth book reviews, of the kind that provide information, context and content, not just a review of the book.
  • Google Reader. I have a serious love/hate relationship with Google reader. On the one hand, Google knows enough about me. On the other? Convenience, ease of use, and that little link at the bottom of each feed that says “send to” — click that and you can send anything to Instapaper. It’s like crack.

I read long form. Do you?

December 2nd, 2010
Cobalto couch

Image by courtneyp via Flickr

Like Evernote, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, Instapaper has changed the way I live my life.  It’s an app that allows you to save the full text of articles to read later.   The cool bit is that the text is formatted for you to easily read on your device — I use it on my iPhone, but there are versions for other devices (including iPad and Kindle).  I really love Instapaper and now that I’ve been using it for months, I can’t imagine doing without it.

Saving full text seems like such a small thing, but there are several nice features that make Instapaper a pleasure to use:

  • Saving an article to Instapaper removes all extraneous content.  Key photos that illustrate the article are retained, but ads, sidebars, links to other weblogs or stories, are not.
  • The text is appropriately formatted for the device you are using.  I’ve only used it on my iPhone and on the web, but it looks great on both.  I understand that iPad users really like the way text is displayed on it, although I’ve not seen that in person.
  • Typically, the full text of the article is saved, even if it goes across several pages on the website.
  • In the rare situation where the full text is not saved, there’s a link at the bottom of each page that quickly loads the next page.
  • You can organize the articles in folders, and easily remove articles once you no longer want them, so that they aren’t taking up space on your device.
  • You can easily email full text or links of articles directly from Instapaper.  The really nice thing for me is that I can email the full text of articles directly from Instapaper to Evernote.  This is a surprisingly powerful feature.
  • You can install a bookmarklet that allows you save an article to your Instapaper account with just one click.

When I first bought this app, I thought it would be useful for reading in doctor’s offices, between meetings and other interstitial moments.  It’s great for that, but it has also fundamentally changed the way I use my feeds and other content sources.  As the Instapaper FAQ says, “The times we find information aren’t always ideal for consuming it. Instapaper helps you bridge that gap.”

For me this translates into “lean forward” and “lean backward” activities — finding information is an activity I do while I’m leaning forward in work mode and looking at a computer screen (laptop or desktop).  Consuming information is an activity I do while I’m leaning backward in a relaxed posture and looking at a smaller screen (laptop or iPhone).

Because of Instapaper, I read a lot more long, meaty articles and weblog posts than I used to — and because I can easily move content from Instapaper to Evernote, I’m more likely to be able to retrieve things later.  Instapaper is not ideal for reading very long items, like books. The Kindle for iPhone app works better for that. I have a few favorite sources for finding long, interesting articles.  I’ll write those up later.

(I’m not affiliated — I’m just a satisfied user).