Children of Earth and Sky – Guy Gavriel Kay – Simon Vance

Life turns on a dime, shatters in an instant. A word spoken, or not spoken; a decision made or deferred. A decision made by someone else, someone in power, in another part of the city or in a city in another country. Rain or sunlight on a given day. Everything is precarious … but joy can still be found …

There is an immediacy to Kay’s writing I haven’t encountered … anywhere. There’s no other author who can make my stomach knot up at a word, or an isolated sentence. An inopportune word, or a word forgotten. A character’s decision to take this turn instead of that. A moment’s inattention. If a stair creaks in one chapter, it will be important before long. And then he says something like “Then the big, red-bearded one said, changing her life, changing many lives …” and something’s about to hit a really big fan. Foreshadowing in Kay’s world is a heart-sinking thing, leaving me on edge with a knot in my stomach, because it’s not going to be pretty when it comes to pass. Not. At all.

And the humor in the writing – so much of it, so unexpected still, wry and dry and bawdy and crude. It would be so predictable for a book featuring such drama to be weighty, but GGK makes me laugh as ofen as he makes me anxious. He’s one of the best.

Children of Earth and Sky</> features, like Tigana, another brother and sister, long separated. There are in fact echoes of several of Kay’s other books, and oblique references – showing that his work all inhabits the same universe.

Words of wisdom from GGK:
Doing the right thing doesn’t always save you.
Legends, if you crossed their path, could get you killed.

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Case Histories – Kate Atkinson – Susan Jameson

It’s a little startling to see (hear, since it’s an audio book) bits of myself popping up all over this book. I bear a strong resemblance in a lot of ways to one character; another has a lot in common with me as well, though not in quite as “this is ridiculous” a way. I found myself finishing sentences in unison with the narrator – not because the writing was predictable, but because it was the way I would have written it. There’s even a character whose husband gives her the nickname Caro, which is a name I use in one of my seedling novels. And more. The coincidences seemed to pile up.

I’ve loved the Case Histories tv series since the first time I came across them. I really, really love Jason Isaacs (and really, really wanted him to play Black Jack Randall, because he would have been magnificent). So I was both looking forward to this … and a little afraid of it, because you know a good tv series doesn’t necessarily mean a good book, and vice versa. So I was very happy when the from the first disc this book engaged me, made me laugh, made me feel sympathy for the characters – and made me really, really love (or at least root for) Jackson Brodie.

The author is skilled at keeping her cards close to her chest. Near the end of one disc, while driving his daughter Marley home, Jackson gets a frantic call from one of his clients. The next scene sees him arriving at his ex-wife’s fiance’s house, and Marley mentions something that happened in a chapter just described, and then drops a reference to something not described, but the scene rushes on leaving just a smoky question mark in the air about that odd remark. But then comes a scene with the person who made the hysterical call, and … what happened? No way to know. It takes a little while before the scene which made me say “Ohhhhhhh…” – and while this might drive me up a wall with some books, I have to admire Kate Atkinson’s skills.

I love that the book is about the fantasies all of us build in our minds about everyone in our lives, be it the thin homeless girl on the street corner that we see every now and then, or co-workers, or parents, or spouses. No one can know even a fraction of what’s really going on in anyone else’s head at any given time, not for sure and certain. It’s kind of a wonder that we’re able to communicate at all… A kind of a throwaway line that struck me was, about people seen on a riverbank by someone in a boat, “And then they were gone, beyond a bend in the river, vanishing like a dream.” And that’s how so many people are to one another in this book. The women who hire Jackson to look for the little sister who disappeared over thirty years ago – will they continue to feature in his life once the mystery is solved and the book ends? Who knows? Will Jackson’s daughter Marley become one of the figures who disappears beyond a riverbend? Well, that one I do know the answer to, having seen several of the films, but at this point anything could happen.

The weaving together of the “case histories” of the title, the cases on which Jackson is engaged and the account of his own story past and present, is intricate and beautiful. Atkinson is a storyteller who requires patience from the reader. As mentioned before, there is no instant gratification to be found here – but the gratification, the satisfaction of the story well-told is deep.

I also loved the narrator, Susan Jameson; within the space of one commute she became a follow-anywhere voice. There were choices made throughout that took the book from a good read (listen) to an immersive, utterly believable experience. I loved this book.

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Fireball – Robert Matzen

I began to read this with some trepidation… I didn’t want these two to lose their luster. I also didn’t want to cry over them, but I was resigned to that – when one of a loving couple is going to crash into a mountain in the course of a book, tears are going to happen.

In the end, was the Great Love Affair between Gable and Lombard everything fond fans say it was? I don’t know. Probably not. (Two words: Lana Turner.) Would they have been divorced in a few years? Maybe. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s sort of like JFK’s presidency – cut untimely short, there’s so much room left for fantasy and imagining.

And, also like JFK’s presidency, press coverage resulted in a public perception of the situation which didn’t bear much resemblance to reality. Which goes back to the beginning of this review. I kind of like the fantasy, the he-for-her-only-and-she-for-him illusion. It’s not any fun to become resigned to the fact that Gable was a dog, and Lombard was no saint herself. But … well, the couple in this book are human beings, not Movie Stars. There’s the difference.

This is the story of a woman described as the kind of friend everyone longs for, energetic and loyal and fierce – a fireball – and the fireball that ended her. I knew little enough about her, except for her earlier marriage to William Powell, her love of animals, and the romance with Gable; I had no idea about the other accident that changed the course of Carole Lombard’s life. Shocked, I felt stunningly unobservant never to have noticed the scars … until I went looking for them. They’re most definitely there in some pictures – I can’t say I’m not unobservant – but in my defense, makeup and lighting were used skillfully to hide or at least minimize them. Her tremendous heart, her “salty” language – and the reason for the language; her “Causes” which ranged from parrots to people and everywhere in between… No, this exploration of her life and death did not dim Carole Lombard in my eyes.
Supplemental to the tale of Gable and Lombard and that damned mountain, this was a look inside Hollywood of the 20’s and 30’s, and how Gable hated playing Rhett Butler but Lombard longed to play Scarlett, and the often vicious process of casting and celebrity. “The result is equal parts biography, rescue effort, and mystery; it’s also a love story and an unimaginable tragedy that continues to haunt me, as it may haunt you.” And it’s about early air travel, the uncertain first steps of the country into war, about the other people who were on that damned plane and the people they left behind. It could have been a scattered mess – but it’s not. The method in which Matzen tells the history, in which the timeline is cut in half and braided until about the 60% point where they catch up to each other, and the story of Gable and Lombard is woven together with that of all the other people involved in the fireball, works to deepen the story. I don’t think it’s easy to tell a story with a foregone conclusion; reading another biography of a beloved celebrity, I thought about how I would probably get his death out of the way early and soften the blow a bit. I mean, as with this book, I went into it knowing full well that he died some years ago, but the exploration of the long illness that killed him, culminating in his death and funeral and a brief aftermath, left me a bit wrecked at the end – testament more to how I felt about the actor than to the book. So I liked the fact that there is no coyness or artificial buildup to the very definitely foregone conclusion in Fireball. The emotional impact is still powerful, the description of the crash is horrific in its detail, but it’s not what the reader closes the book with for the last time.

The cause, or rather possible cause of the crash is explored, and no real answer attained. I found it remarkable that even in this story there are conspiracy theories.

Yeah, I cried. “If I can do it, so can you.” I learned a bit more about the Golden Age Hollywood stars I love so much – Spencer Tracy, and Lucille Ball, and William Powell. Gable and Lombard. And it didn’t hurt my affection for them – on the contrary. They are more fully formed in my mind’s eye, and knowing that I like them as human beings will enhance my enjoyment of their performances.

We’re not really supposed to quote from advance copies of books, but … well, that never really stopped me before, and I want to make note of: “…Stand your ground, and make it look like you were planting flowers on that ground all the while.” I’d like that cross-stitched and framed.

And I want to close with another quote, the author’s summation of why I wish I’d known the woman born as Jane Alice Peters: “the soft-hearted, hard-charging, caffeine-fueled, self-promoting, profanity-laced, nicotine-addicted, business-oriented, and usually optimistic sexpot and perpetual motion machine known to the world as Carole Lombard”. God bless – and angels keep.

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Conjuror – John & Carole E. Barrowman

When I saw “John Barrowman”, I clicked request. Then I read the description. It’s a book by John Barrowman (and Carole E. Barrowman, his big sister, with whom I didn’t realize he’s written several books before besides his memoirs – where have I been?)

Honestly, and I truly mean no offense to anyone, I’m getting really tired of opening up a book’s description and seeing “Janie was sixteen” and “At sixteen, Mary knew she was special” and “On Jackie’s sixteenth birthday her life changed” and so on. I suppose the window for a Young Adult audience is pretty narrow, but there are so many sixteen year olds out there… In Conjuror, the three main characters are seventeen. Point to the Barrowmans. (She said sarcastically.)

That being said, I enjoyed the three young protagonists. Conjuror Remy is the first on the scene, a young man who has only just discovered his abilities to mold reality with music, fleeing from the horrific murders of his mother and aunt to try to fulfill the mission his mother was never able to see through. Unfortunately, his youth and inexperience combine with the sad reality of prejudice, and his general appearance along with his necessary actions to send him on the run again, and his disappearance into a statue of Shakespeare draws the attention of Orion, “the Animare MI5”. As a conjuror can use music, animares use art to create and travel, and twins Matt and Em Calder are young prodigies sent through a painting to assess the situation. Unfortunately, it turns into a great deal more than an assessment, and soon all three kids are in deep trouble.

While I credit the Barrowmans for an excellent job at putting the story over, I do with there had been just a smidge more exposition. In addition to bringing to life what they draw, he animares enter paintings, interact with the subjects, discover that instruments are being stolen from the subjects, and leave a man (a rather surprising man) prisoner in one artwork; they are described as stepping out into museums brushing flakes of paint off their clothing, and that made me shudder a little. The idea of paint being carried away from something like a Vermeer is a terrible one; I’d have loved a little more reassurance that there’s no damage to paintings used in this way. And I’d have loved to have learned whether that prisoner would ever be visible in the painting; whether the missing instruments left blank spots in the paintings (plain canvas or underpainting, or spaces where the background was visible, as if the objects had never been included at all?), and a few other details of the system of magic. No, a lot more details. Apparently the twins were featured in earlier books – which explains a lot, hopefully.

There are some very effective – by which I mean really gross – horror scenes throughout, and the villain of the story is effectively alarming. Setting is nicely done, from Remy’s home in New Orleans (New Orleans?) to Edinborough. The characterization for the three kids in the middle of it all is nicely done. I enjoyed the casual knowledge of art (and, unsurprisingly, music) that allowed that system of magic. I did not enjoy the occasional not-so-subtle glimpse of what I take to be authorial opinion (“‘That’s terrible,’ said Em. ‘The Church has done a lot of nasty stuff.'”).

But I absolutely loved the Doctor Who reference(s).

I look forward to more.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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American Heiress – Jeffrey Toobin

The stupid runs very deep in this story. Patricia Hearst was young and ignorant and self-centered; the revolutionaries were pretty much morons, or delusional at best; the FBI wasn’t any too sharp…

The other notable characteristic of the people featured in this book is a marked lack of loyalty. That is, among the SLA there seemed to be cohesion – sort of, for some, sometimes – but Patricia Hearst’s erstwhile fiancé Steve Weed seems to have been the weediest and weaseliest of weeds, universally despised (including by the author – and me). And of course Patricia herself turned on a dime, bending with whatever breeze most benefited her. Jeffrey Toobin’s sympathies obviously lie with her parents, most especially her father Randy; it’s natural, and I agreed, but it’s also a little startling to see such blatant bias in what I expected to be a journalistic biography/history.

Toobin is the reason I requested this book, along with the fact that I knew surprisingly little about the whole saga. The author’s name rang bells, and when I Goodsearched him his face brought instant recognition (if not exact memories of where from). But I wasn’t overwhelmingly impressed by the writing; it tends to loop and double back on itself, and the repetetiveness gets a bit old now and then. (Cujo, was the love of Patricia’s life. I know. I know. So was Soliah. I know.)

It’s a story of how the idealism of the 60’s died (“Nixon might not have brought the Vietnam War to a close, but he did end the draft. Freed from the threat of conscription, many thousands of otherwise apolitical young people drifted away from the antiwar movement.”) The sheer number of bombings in the country is shocking in this day of modern terrorism; the world hasn’t gotten more dangerous, in a way, but the danger now tends to come from different sources. Jaded cynicism seems to have been the rule in the 70’s, and is embodied by the … I hesitate to say “heroine” of the story.

Patricia, not Patty, declined to be interviewed for the book – which I have to say, given the tone of the book toward her, might not have been a good idea. It reminded me a little of the book about Mary Decker and Zola Budd; Decker refused to participate, and Budd was given a far kinder treatment in the book. Toobin’s attitude toward Patricia wasn’t quite so blatant, but he was less than kind in places; where there is any doubt as to her motivations or honesty or level of compulsion, he tends to land on the side of doubting her.

There were some side angles in the book which took me by surprise. I didn’t know anything about the “PIN” (People In Need) program that was initiated by the initial ransome demands, and the whole thing was disheartening. (For one thing, this Reagan quote: “It’s just too bad we can’t have an epidemic of botulism.”) The psycho contingent connected with the project was surprising as well – I won’t spoil it in case it’s news to you as it was to me, but … gosh.

The book covers how the kidnapping came to happen, one version of the events of the long period of Patricia’s captivity-slash-participation and how it all came crashing down, and the repercussions to all involved. It’s not a great book; I’m not sure it’s even all that good a book. But it was entertaining, and it’s good to have a gap in my education filled in.

Lessons learned from this book:
—Rich isn’t necessarily rich.
—Stupid is at least as scary as smart.
—Building bombs generates team spirit.
—Just because there’s no smell of cyanide doesn’t mean it’s not there – you might just be one of the ten percent who can’t smell it.
—Always know where your shoes are.
—Always know where your Molotov cocktails are.
And, most prevalently and most importantly:
—Change your story enough times, and no one – possibly including you – will ever know the truth.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Obligatory post-election post

I’ve been thinking about writing this since November 9. God knows I haven’t been able to write anything else; NaNoWriMo went down the tubes for me, as pretty much all I’ve been capable of since That Night is watching British crime drama and, when I can avoid thinking about the future of America’s space program, Star Trek. I can’t just go back to posting book reviews after that last entry, but this has not wanted to come together. Still, here it is, such as it is, and then I’m going to try to return the blog to its previously scheduled bookishness.

Early on That Day, I had posted an image of the “I Voted” sticker. I went back later and burbled a bit about what happened when I tried to vote, and about how the day had gone otherwise. I kept going back to it as I watched ABC’s coverage on the tv and the “Says Who?” podcast live YouTube event on the laptop. At 8:00, when it pretty much all kicked off, Hillary Clinton had a 78% chance of winning according to the polls that were being referenced. By 10:30 the New York Times page was showing … he… had a 95% chance. I don’t want to talk much about the emotions as they all but declared it over; disbelief begins to approach it. Shock, physical shock, like one suffers after a car accident or earthquake, is also accurate. I couldn’t hear very well; I was dizzy when I went to stand up; I was numb.

It took a couple of days for that to ease up. Wednesday I had trouble getting into work – not because I’d been up till 1 AM, or because I didn’t feel well (though both of those were true), but because I literally forgot how to use the (incredibly simple) security system at the office entrance. Just stood there trying to pull the door open. Couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t. I didn’t do much that required actual thought for the day, and went straight home after work – as opposed to most days, when I stay a little late and then go see my mother and/or do errands after work. My car radio remained off; I couldn’t concentrate on an audiobook, and actual live radio seemed like a very bad idea. (I don’t know when – if – I’ll be able to go back to it.)

That night, as I walked up to my apartment building, there was a young man propping open the automatically-locking door to the lobby as he waited for someone to pull up in a van. As I went up the steps, he looked directly at me – and stepped out of the doorway, letting the door close (and lock) literally inches out of my reach, leaving me to fumble my keys out and let myself in. This is not directly connected with anything. It was just … par for the course. And my first thought was This is how it’s going to be now.

“It felt like 9/11” … I’ve heard it a lot. It could almost be argued that it’s in some ways worse than that – there are, so far, thank God, no deaths, but … we did this to ourselves as a nation, and it is the whole country that’s been attacked, not three discrete locations. Someone on Facebook compared us to Poland as the Nazis rolled in, and I realized: no, the perfect metaphor for me is Paris, June 1940. “But … no – everything still looks almost the same. How can THAT be in charge now?” It’s impossible, and it’s true.

I never thought I would see the day when the last most embarrassing person to ever hold the presidency, George W. Bush, would start to look good. Well, no, not good – better. At least the worst Shrub ever did to a foreign head of state was vomit on him. I fear we have new lows ahead of us.

So here we are, on November 21, just about two months out from the inauguration of someone whose name I can’t even bring myself to type, especially in conjunction with the words “President Elect”. That Wednesday morning, I walked into my office proper (once I got in the building) and the little group over in the corner was chattering happily about the election, and I had to pick up speed and stuff earphones in my ears. A little while later I heard my manager on the phone saying something about how the work is still there no matter who’s president, and then she literally said “Whatever”. And I reeled, because – that’s part of how we got here.

When I was thinking about this post, and thinking about putting it up earlier, I pictured the title as something like “If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention”, because that’s something I’ve been saying for a long time now. And that’s part of it too. It goes back to that book review I wrote for The Design of Everyday Things, where I let loose a little bit of a rant on Wizard’s First Rule (which for those playing along at home is, simply, “People are idiots”). People don’t pay attention. People aren’t paying attention. Pushing it that much further: most people don’t think about anything at all except in how it affects themselves.

I’ve mentioned my literally sociopathic former boss in these “pages” before, who was a rabid Republican and who dubbed me the office’s “bleeding heart liberal”. That was, no kidding, how he introduced me to people who came into the office. It was extraordinarily uncomfortable, especially given how it was meant: nothing but derogatory. It took me a while to realize that – know what? Yeah: I AM a bleeding heart liberal, in the literal sense of the words. My heart does bleed (not literally) for anoyone who is suffering. This … this is a good thing, isn’t it? Or should be? The dictionary definition of “liberal” is “Tending to give freely; generous”. This is also generally supposed to be a good thing, right?

No, seriously – how can generosity be seen as a bad thing?

When all’s said and done, I would rather be an empathetic, generous person than the opposite. And I posit that it’s possible that the world would be a better place if more people behaved with empathy and generosity. Service to others is – or should be – the backbone (entire skeleton) of any religion or set of beliefs, and by extension of any … life. Someone needs help? Help them. It’s usually pretty simple.

What happens when people do not behave with empathy and generosity, when they do not take trouble to be aware of the consequences of their actions, when they live only in their skins and give no thought to how anything impacts other people … Everything from being stuck in a public bathroom stall with an empty toilet paper holder to death and destruction. A lot of needless negativity, from simple annoyance to anger to actual anguish. A president-elect who has no qualifications for the job and who is surrounding himself with like-minded, hate-filled people.

Something I’m incredibly tired of seeing and hearing is “well, I just didn’t like Hillary.”

You … didn’t like her.

You didn’t LIKE her??

What in the name of anything you want to name does that have to do with anything? You don’t like her – well, first of all, you don’t know her, do you? You like the other one? You don’t know him, either. Perhaps you’re confusing this voting process with American Idol?

You don’t like her – that means she’s not qualified to go out for beers with you, not that she’s not qualified to run the country. Me – after learning more about her I think I’d very much like to go have a glass of wine with her. I think she’d be fascinating to talk to. But that’s not a prerequisite for being President of the United States. Pushing everything else aside – gender, emails, lawsuits, fraud, sexual assault, ugly talk and actions, whatever else – look at the bare facts. One candidate’s qualifications for the job were far superior to the other’s. I will never, ever understand how the other won.

I have nothing but contempt for all the morons who didn’t vote for her just because they didn’t like her. They’re in the same category of – wait, sorry, basket of deplorables as the morons who didn’t vote, the morons who “held their noses and” voted for him, and the morons who threw their votes away on third party candidates who stood no chance (comment on Facebook: “I voted for love.” No, asshole, you indirectly voted for the most hate-filled candidate I’ve ever seen). As I said before, people don’t think. People don’t pay attention. And now we’re all going to be paying for it.

It frightens me a little – more than a little – to consider the possibility that one reason people just don’t like her is that she’s an extremely intelligent woman. I keep thinking of the word “bluestocking”, and all that went with it. It meant an educated woman, a smart woman, a woman who could hold her own or dominate in any given intellectual context – – and it meant a woman scorned and sniffed at by men who were, at base, horrified by women breaking out of the old molds of femininity. Men who were intimidated. Men who were terrified. I’ve seen in my own life, in my own office, how little intelligence is valued. In his 2004 keynote speech at the DNC convention, Obama spoke of the perception that poor black youths who read books are “acting white” – and this is bad; of course, whites don’t look on it with favor either. Not just men but people in general seem to be genuinely afraid of, and peculiarly disdainful of people who would genuinely rather watch a PBS documentary than “Dancing with the Stars” or who know Shakespeare better than Jay Z. I hope I’m over-inflating the issue, but given the way the election went, given that it had to have been said a hundred times during the week of the election that his following was solidly based in uneducated white men … I’m worried. I don’t think Hillary was not elected because she’s a woman – I think she was not elected because she’s a woman who’s smarter than the vast majority of the electorate, and that scared them silly.

What frightens me more is the prospect of whether, or how much, the next four years will encourage, exacerbate that attitude.

I’ve seen a lot of those “we all have to be kind to each other now” posts (preaching to the choir, I think, but anyway…). Yeah, I’ll try – the same way I do every day of my life, because that’s how I was brought up. But it’s harder now, when half the people I work with have shrugged and continued with their self-contained, self-absorbed existences; not much will change for them (until it does). I keep saying if you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention, and that’s the problem. They’re not. They haven’t been. That’s how we got here.

But anyone who feels the same way I do needs to get busy over the next four years. Everything from environmental causes to gay rights to funding of public radio and television to women’s rights have to be guarded and protected, and ways have to be found to pick up the slack when the, I think, inevitable cuts in government funding come.

And, arguably more importantly than anything else, steps have to be taken to dissolve the Electoral College. This is, I believe, the fourth time in history that someone who lost the popular vote still won the election, and the second time in recent years. And it makes no sense. We possess the technology to make that ridiculous system obsolete. One person, one vote – that’s what we’re taught from childhood. That’s what it’s supposed to be.

And doing something to counter the negativity from the White House might help quell the fear. Because – since I’ve been paying attention – I’m still afraid. Give him a chance? I have no choice. It is what it is. I’m one of those who have been saying for a year, never jokingly, that if he won I was leaving. Canada, maybe; we have lots of family all over Canada. But if it comes to war with someone with nuclear weapons – and that is a strong possibility in my mind – Canada would be too close. Ideally I’d go to Scotland, but maybe New Zealand would be better.

The problem with that plan is – well, twofold. One part is that I have no money. I printed out a passport application, but I can’t afford it for the foreseeable future – and if I can’t afford the $150 there’s no way I can afford to a) break my lease, b) fly anywhere, or c) live without any income until I found a job in another country. The other half to it is that … well, I have apparently frittered away my life without making myself into anything another country has reason to welcome as a new inhabitant. I’m an office worker, a paper pusher. England and New Zealand don’t need foreign admin staff. I’ve been researching since he got the nomination, and – I don’t know how hard it is to get into this country as just a person, but other countries? You’re welcome to visit. Don’t expect us to welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to flee the worst election result in US history. I meant it when I said “he wins I leave”, whole-heartedly. It’s not because – not just because I don’t want to live in a country led by … that; it’s not just an internet-style flounce. It’s a real and nagging terror that one day someone will piss him off, or he’ll piss someone else off, and buttons will be pushed and bombs will fly. I want out. It’s just not that easy.

So, being stuck here, what now? Keep the television and radio off; find a way to help and make things better; fill out that passport paperwork and start saving; maybe stockpile water and non-perishables and always be aware of emergency exits. And maybe research how the French did it in 1940. And hope. And maybe pray.

And pay attention.

OK. Enough real life. Back to the books. Here, anyway. For now. Which reminds me …

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Reblog: A Nasty Woman on Election Eve

When I was 6 years old, I learned to sew. Each morning, every girl in my class had to sit, gracefully and silently as elegant young women should, and etch dainty little patterns into a square of cl…

Source: A Nasty Woman on Election Eve

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The scandalous emails…

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God help us all.

ETA…I posted the above ten hours ago, this morning, after I got to work – late, because I went to the polls first. I shouldn’t have been late, and that’s actually the tale I came back to write. (Even if no one else sees it – I just want to remember this. Which I might not if I don’t write it down.)

I moved last year, and in a fit of paranoia sometime in September I put through a change of address thingy to make sure my voter registration was up to date (even though I was pretty sure I’d done it last year). I received a letter confirming I was good to go, and I guess I paid more attention to the fact that I was ok to vote than to where to go. And who knows where that letter went; I don’t.

So I checked online. There are lots of websites to visit to see where your polling place is, and the one I checked said to go to the elementary school five minutes away that -> way. Being still paranoid, not wanting to screw this up, I’ve checked a few times; I didn’t want to take a chance on wandering the streets this morning. Every time: the elementary school. Come to find out one of my co-workers, who lives a little ways away, was going to the same place. Nifty.

I told my boss I was voting before work, and got up early (though not as early as I meant to, which is no surprise to anyone who knows me), and off to the school I went. They have a remarkably small parking lot for a place serving as a polling station, but I lucked out on my first circuit and made my way up to join the line out the door of the school. I spotted my co-worker and said hello, and she asked if I was in the right line; I wasn’t, but that’s because the second half of the alphabet, where I needed to be, had a shorter line and was actually inside the building.

The mood was remarkably … happy. People were cheerful and friendly. Someone brought a service dog with them. Several people had kids on their hips (including one little girl with a hat knitted to look like a strawberry, which I’m totally stealing). There was a bake sale set up on a table against the wall (smart). Someone came out of the gym, where the voting “booths” were, and her toddler had a sticker on his coat; a man in line exclaimed with exaggerated shock “You voted??“, and the mother laughed and said “Well, he’s twenty-one!”

Finally, I got up to the table and announced my street. The woman with the binder flipped a chunk of pages, and then said “Oh, you need to go over to that table.” Oh…kay… I went over to the other table, where a man was just returning to his seat in front of a laptop. I explained, and gave the street name again, and he said “Ah! That woman I was just speaking with had the same problem!” What problem??? In short, I was in the wrong location. But every website I looked at said this one. Nope. I had to go to the middle school. And where, pray tell, was that? I was given a slip of paper with directions to a government center near the school – just go past that, he said. No, chipped in a woman nearby, it was before it. Oh… kay.

So I got back in my car (having seen my co-worker on the way out: “All set?” “Nope.”) Turns out that school I passed every day on my way to work before the office moved was the middle school – hey, I never noticed, my bad. So it was five minutes <- that way instead.

There was no problem parking, and absolutely no line at the middle school – which was actually a bad thing, as it turned out. I followed an older woman and a young woman into the building, and we all three (young woman in the lead) went in, past this school’s bake sale, and … wait, the young woman is a teacher? Well, then, where – ?? A handy bystander pointed the two of us back the way we’d come. There were no signs. At all. Muttering slightly, both of us backtracked and went into the gym (deja vu). For the umpteenth time I gave my street name, and the girl I spoke to said to go to the woman at that table who was wearing a red scarf. Well, it wasn’t red (more purple) … aaaand she directed me to the woman at the next table over. Under other circumstances I might have taken all of this as indication that I should just quit and go on to work, but not today. I gave my street name yet one more time, and – – there I was! I was given a ballot!

Off I went to fill it out, and … the minutes of smooth sailing ended. There was apparently one scanner in the building, and from what I overheard it had failed, or gotten unplugged, or something; a woman was standing there feeding in ballot after ballot, while an elderly gentleman stood by, apparently waiting to enter his. I think the woman put a good couple dozen ballots through.

But then it was my turn. And I put my ballot in. I literally crossed myself when I filled it out; as I said in a comment somewhere today, they say there are no atheists in foxholes, and this whole thing has felt like the world’s biggest foxhole. From the beginning, my sister has been saying that she keeps expecting Ashton Kutcher to pop out from behind a tree and say “Gotcha! How could you ever think that was for real??”

I will never, ever understand how it has been for real. How I’m sitting here at (as I type) 8:06 PM, watching as polls close and the states begin to be allocated, and the electoral votes start dropping like weights on a scale. (I’m keeping a spreadsheet. I know, every network and website is showing a map, but I want to.) I don’t understand how that one guy, whose name I might remember at three tomorrow morning, could watch his entire campaign unravel after a microphone picked up a broken-voiced screech in the middle of a rally … and yet the man Samantha Bee referred to as “America’s burst appendix” (and a “tangerine-tinted trashcan fire”) (and “screaming carrot demon”) (and a “crotch-fondling slab of rancid meatloaf”)
(and a “thrice-married foul-mouthed tit judge who likes Planned Parenthood and thinks Corinthians is a type of car upholstery”)(and about forty more, but I’ll stop now, except for:) and “the least qualified candidate ever to lurch into the public spotlight and shit on Gold Star moms” has won at least nine states so far. (Note to self: never visit these states.) After some of the foulest, vilest statements and reactions I’ve ever heard (the only time I heard the infamous bus tape all the way through, I literally cried – the sheer horror that a presidential election has produced this rancidness washed over me, and I lost it), millions are still rabidly behind him.

I understand being upset about how things are going. I can’t go to the dentist because I still owe money on the kidney stone I had clobber me Labor Day 2015. I understand believing that tipping the government upside down and shaking it might help.

But this man has never led anything greater than a board meeting, and the way things are experience is nothing to dismiss. Hillary Clinton has been there, done that, got the scars. She doesn’t need directions to the oval office.

Literally 99% of everyone I’ve talked to is afraid. The only people I know who support Trump are a woman at work who believes mammograms cause breast cancer and another who believes immunization is a big scam… And my mother’s hairdresser.

Anyway. It’s now 10:19, it’s much, much closer than I was even afraid it would be, and I need to sit and rock while watching results (simultaneous ABC and the “Says Who” podcast live YouTube thing.

From Twitter: “Look, Clinton’s gonna win. US President order has to follow Star Trek Captain order: white guy, white guy, black guy, woman, Scott Bakula.”

My next post may come from Canada … There’s lots of votes that haven’t been counted yet, it’s going to be fine … But I don’t feel good yet. I have to go.

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The Design of Everyday Things – Donald A. Norma – Peter Berkrot

The main question in my mind after listening to this audiobook is easily enough answered: How old IS this book, anyhow? In the introduction the author talks about how the book isn’t dated. Well, it was originally published in 1988. One of the most talked-about pieces of technology discussed is the videocassette recorder. The VCR. The computers being discussed are about a step beyond the ones that could add three numbers together using a bank of systems that would fill a room. Some of the book is relevant no matter what, as the prologue or forward or introduction or whatever it was points out. But not all of it is.

Much of the point of this book is: “When people have trouble with something, it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the design.” And I don’t buy it. Maybe it’s because I have less faith in humanity than the author does, but – well, I’ve seen it (including, to be honest, in myself). I did not like the book Wizard’s First Rule, but something I love and always use is the explication of Wizard’s First Rule: “People Are Idiots”. Yes, it should be obvious whether a door needs to be pushed or pulled to get the thing open – but in most if not all of the cases I’ve seen it’s not actively hidden. In my experience, people just don’t read.

Example: I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve sent, only to have to reiterate some or all of it almost immediately. I used to run an international online-based Secret Santa, and every year after the emails went out I braced myself for the slew of responses asking questions that were answered in the initial email. Because people don’t read.

I’ve learned that when I ask two questions or provide two pieces of information in an email, the second one is going to go completely unnoticed. More than two? Forget it. Now, I’ve long ago learned that my tendency to wordiness won’t fly in business emails – I’ve learned to pare it down. Still, people don’t read.

Recent example: in reply to a question from one of my bosses, I wrote “I’ve attached [three pieces of documentation for a delivery]; it looks like there was no delivery ticket created.” That was the first line of my email. One of them replied with “Do we have delivery ticket?” I sat and stared at it for a couple of minutes, and then just wrote back “There was no delivery ticket, as far as I can see”. I just don’t understand.

Example: I can’t tell you how many people go up to the fax machine in the office and ask whether paperwork has to be face-up or face-down. (The owner of the company asks every time.) (Every. Time.) How do you work in offices as long as these people have without learning that there is a little graphic on the machine to answer just that important question. (I also can’t tell you how many blank faxes I’ve received over the years, because people a) didn’t read and b) didn’t ask, and just faxed away. Upside down.) The design is just fine: the question is answered. I’m not sure how else it could be addressed; bright colors or flashing lights? Or big letters? Nah. It’s fine. People are idiots.

So your car radio is difficult to use while driving? Here’s a thought: Don’t use it while driving. You might want to watch the road instead.

The author talks about an expensive hoity toity Italian washing machine – it was so badly designed that the owners were afraid to touch it. “Why did they buy it?” the author asks. Well, because it’s an expensive hoity toity Italian machine – and they’re stupid. They wanted conspicuous consumption, or got snowed by a salesman who saw their weakness. Plus they probably hire someone to do their laundry anyway, or at any rate seem to be able to afford to.

And the author complains about the problems inherent in lowering a projection screen in a lecture hall – but it sounds like the hall long predates slide projectors. The projector had to be installed in the place long after the fact, and in such a way (I would assume) so as not to do any mischief to the structure or artistry of the room. So – yeah, it’s not perfect. It doesn’t exist in perfect conditions. Work with it. Or hold your lectures somewhere else.

And the author complains about senseless instructions for those VCR’s, and all I could think was, well, they’re often translated badly from Japanese.

The author talks about a design feature – or not – in an Audi which allowed the sunroof to be closed without the ignition key in place, but only if an odd sequence of steps were taken. Why, he asks, was it such a peculiar combination of steps? Well, a) because it was accidental, and/or b) because a non-peculiar combination might result in an accidental opening of the sunroof when you really didn’t want it open. (I say “you” because I’ll never so much as sit in an Audi.)

Now, I do agree with the basic premise of the book. Of course an object should be designed so that it’s not difficult to use. But … well, see, over the sink in my apartment there are three switches. When I had a tour of the place I was told that the one on the left controlled the light, the one in the middle controlled the garbage disposal, and the last one was for the dishwasher. When I moved in a little while later it took about five minutes’ trial and error. Now I don’t have to think about it. Figure it out yourself: you’ll probably remember it longer. “Control/alt/delete” isn’t an intuitive command for the computer – but the reason for that is pretty sensible: it’s not something that can be done using one or two close-set keys … because it’s not something you want to do accidentally. And once it’s learned, it’s easy enough to remember.

Okay, go back to the whole door thing. The author admits that he has problems with doors. And I get it – if there’s no label on a door it can be hard to know whether you’re supposed to push or pull or whatever. But – at least nowadays – I think every door I see in a public venue has a little sign. And … I’m sorry, I can’t muster up a whole lot of sympathy for the person who pulls on a door that says “push”, or vice versa – including me. Honestly, I have little patience with anyone who doesn’t read the damn directions.

I also don’t have a lot of patience for someone who goes out and buys a massively expensive Italian washing machine without making sure they understand how to use it. Yes, that can be blamed on the design; it can also be blamed on the salesman seeing dollar signs, and on the fact that any instruction manual is probably translated from the Italian – and on a level of carelessness and lack of preparedness by the buyer. I’m sorry – if you don’t put in a certain level of research into a big purchase, you deserve what you end up with.

If I need, for example, to make a spreadsheet do something I don’t know how to do, I don’t write a letter to MicroSoft complaining about the poor design of Excel. I figure it out, or I look it up. I work with people who don’t bother to try to solve any problem for themselves. If they don’t know how to do something, they sit in their seats and yell like children for help – literally. It sounds like the author is in favor of this attitude – everything should be obvious, and if it’s not you’re entitled to squawk. It’s learned helplessness.

My feeling on this is basically that if I can figure it out, or look it up, anyone can do it – and damn well should.

And read my damned email, jackass.

So, no – technology of any sort should not be intentionally or incidentally obscure. But also, and equally, people should be able to learn and follow the instructions that are present and hone their deductive instincts. It’s an ability that will only ever make life easier.

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