Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Book Review: The Sharing Knife Part 4: Horizon

Horizon (The Sharing Knife, #4)Horizon by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book 3: Passage, dealt with Dag and Fawn's journey down the rivers Grace and Grey and the experiences, good, bad, and ugly, that they have along the way. When Horizon opens, they have come to the end of their river journey, in the seaside town of Greymouth. Here Dag meets Lakewalkers of a nearby camp who are able to direct him to a medicine maker of great repute, and he is at last able to begin an apprenticeship. But the usual problem, Lakewalker non-acceptance of his farmer wife Fawn, asserts itself, and it's not long before Fawn and Dag are on the road again.

I found this to be the weakest of all the Sharing Knife books. The problem of too many characters, some of whom never get developed, cropped up to some extent in the previous book, but here it's a good deal worse. By mid-book, there are so many people tagging along with the party that it's hard for the reader to remember many of them, especially since a good five or six are little more than names, and four or so others get such short shrift that their motivations are unclear, their behaviour inconsistent, their characters murky—Calla especially. I think the book would have been better if she had been edited out altogether. I also would have edited out that poor family in the wagon; I don't think they added anything of value. Granted that there have to be some farmers around for the climactic malice encounter, they don't need to be that darned numerous. The excess of characters also bogs down the story, especially around three-quarters through, and the proceedings get downright dull for a while.

Which is a shame, because pulled down by all that bloat is a fine story, with many dramatic and even horrific elements, and once again, Fawn's talent for thinking outside the box proves essential. I mentioned Fawn's increasing domestic yearnings in my review of book 3. That does not change in book 4. Fawn still wants to settle down and have an iron cook-stove and babies. Yet she can still come through in the crunch, and so really, though fans of kick-ass women in fantasy fiction are unlikely to be pleased, I think it's for the best that she is presented this way; she makes for an unusual, and even unusually well-rounded, female heroine. And though Dag and Fawn may seem to have somewhat disparate needs, they manage to get them all met in the end while remaining together.

Speaking of Fawn having babies, there is a consistent theme of birth and pregnancy throughout the series, which culminates in an unexpected and bizarre fashion in Horizon. I haven't yet managed to work up a good analysis of this theme, but I feel it could and should be done, and that Freudian psychologists could very well have a field day with some of the imagery. Perhaps later I'll manage to come up with something.

I wonder if the book's problems may be due in part to its being fourth in a quadrilogy. It is an unusual form, and there may be a good reason for that; perhaps it is an unwieldy one as well. And of course, the longer and more complex a story is, the harder it is to wrap up. But wrapped up it is, neatly enough at the last. Whatever flaws Horizon has, it is still worth reading to see how well everything is resolved at the end.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I ate cricket! (In chip form, mind you)

We had a treat for lunch today: my cricket chips, which I pre-ordered way back in mid-winter, arrived this morning. Amusingly called Chirps, these chips come in three flavours and are the creation of a new company called Six Foods.

As you can see in the picture, the chips came with a nice canvas tote bag. I quite like the slogan on it: "Bug Appétit." I'll definitely be carrying that around in public! Also included was a sweet handwritten letter, thanking us "Bug Lovers" for supporting the company, and also providing some interesting information on their process from dream to product:

We've worked with a food pilot plant for eight months to create the recipe & it has been a huge learning experience for us. We've experimented with 50 different recipes, obscure ingredients (teff anyone?), and called over 400 manufacturers till we found the right partners.

Thank you for being patient with us through this process. As a token of our love + appreciation, there's an extra Six Foods tote for you.

Bug Appétit!
Laura, Meryl, + Rose

Wow, Laura, Meryl and Rose, you are some hard-working entrepreneurs! Good for you.

The Chirps packaging advertises that Chirps contain "3X more protein than regular potato chips," but really, they should be compared not to potato chips but to tortilla-bean chips. So I'm doing that. According to caloriecount.com, Kettle Tortilla Black Bean chips contain 3g of protein, 18g of carbohydrates and 7g of fat. Beanitos are another chip worth comparing with, as they also contain beans, although not corn. According to the Beanitos web site, Black Bean Beanitos have 4g of protein, 15g of carbohydrate and 7g of fat. Chirps chips contain 6g of protein, 12g of carbohydrates and 6g of fat. So yes, Chirps win, in terms of having the most protein. They also have less fat and a better carb to protein ratio.

At this point you may be thinking, "Never mind all that, how do they taste?"

When I ordered Chirps, I opted for the variety pack so that we could try all three flavours: natural, cheddar and BBQ. So we had to decide which one to open first. I thought the natural bag first would be a good choice, as it would allow us to better appreciate the unadulterated flavour of cricket. So we did that, and... they're quite tasty. Better than original Beanitos, I would say. They have little black dots in them, but those are the chia seeds, not the crickets. No visible bits of cricket can be detected in this product, so if you're squeamish about that, you can set your mind at ease. They look and taste somewhat like tortilla bean chips, but with a slight difference, and I'm not sure how much of that is the chia seeds and how much is the cricket. Also, they are stiffer and crunchier than the typical tortilla chip. In terms of hardness, they remind me of Mary's Crackers.

So I can recommend Chirps by Six Foods as a gentle introduction to the world of bug-eating for anyone who would like to take the plunge but is not ready to stuff a whole cricket or mealworm in their mouth, a la Millennium Farms. That's quite advanced for us weeny Westerners, and I'm happy to leave that for later.

Ingredients in Chirps, Natural Flavour

  • Navy Beans
  • Sunflower/ Safflower Oil
  • Corn Flour
  • Chia Seeds
  • Pea Flour
  • Cricket Flour (Gryllodes Sigillatus and/or Acheta Domesticus)
  • Salt

Allergy Alert

The Chirps packaging advises that "If you have crustacean shellfish allergies, you may also be sensitive to crickets."

Friday, April 10, 2015

Enforced Hugging and the Easter Bunny

I witnessed an ugly scene recently, at an Easter brunch buffet. Not a locale where one would expect to see an ugly scene, but then, I'm sure not everyone would see it as I did.

This Easter buffet had a giant bunny on hand, strolling about. What I mean, of course, is that some unfortunate fellow was paid to put on a ridiculous bunny-humanoid costume.

This is apparently something that has become a tradition while I wasn't looking. I was at the mall yesterday and there was a lineup of parents with their children waiting to sit in he Easter Bunny's lap. Is Santa Claus not enough anymore? Who decided that children didn't have enough opportunities as it was to be compelled to sit in the lap of a total stranger? At least with Santa Claus, you know you're going to get presents out of it. (Leaving aside the fact that that's a lie and you get the presents anyway.) What are kids getting out of sitting in the lap of the Easter Bunny?

Anyway, an extended family sat at a nearby table. There were at least three generations together, and one little boy. The guy in the bunny costume came along, and soon the little boy was standing next to him, fidgeting, while the adults took pictures. The coercion started immediately. "Give the Easter Bunny a hug. Go on, give him a hug. Go ahead, give the bunny a hug." And so on.

It was obvious that the child had no desire to hug the stranger in the grotesque bunny-humanoid costume, and equally obvious that his mother was not going to let up until he did. I tried to be of some aid&8212;"You don't have to hug him if you don't want to!" I called out from my table a couple of times&8212;but what authority did I have, compared to his mother? And the Easter Bunny was playing along, spreading his arms and waiting. Eventually, the boy gave in, moved into the waiting arms. I looked away.

"It's all right, he can hug the Easter Bunny," the mother said afterward&8212;aimed at me, I suspect&8212;"I don't want him to be afraid of things."

Of course no one wants their child to be overly fearful. But what does that have to do with hugging total strangers? What does that have to do with teaching a child that his own feelings are of no importance?

I think that as a society, we have a view of children as cartoons, as not real. I don't see how else we could possibly make such bizarre demands of them. I imagine that the mother's inner cartoon is of a child that loves everybody and wants to go about hugging everybody and everything. One does occasionally encounter children like this, but the nice thing about them is that they are acting out of their own inclinations. They're not doing it because someone told them they have to, but because they feel like it, and that makes all the difference.

That mother was probably not thinking of the issue of sexual predators. People don't want to think of such things, because it's unpleasant, so they put it out of their minds and go on doing the same things their parents did. If the mother had thought about sexual predators, as she should have, she might have asked herself this question: which child is more at risk from a predator, one who's been allowed to go with his own inclinations about physical expressions of affection, or the one who's been repeatedly coerced into providing insincere hugs and kisses?

Back in the 80's, it was starting to dawn on people that we have a child sexual abuse problem. And so, books and courses began to appear that tried to teach children to differentiate between touches that feel good, and touches that don't, and to be able to say, "No." There has been little discussion about why this is something we even need to teach our children. Aren't children born with the ability to discern what feels good and what doesn't? Of course they are, and they have no trouble saying "No" at age two, when they enthusiastically say "No" to everyone and everything. Until they are taught that their feelings are irrelevant and they have to kiss and hug Auntie and Grandpa and the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus and promiscuously give unfelt affection to everyone their Mommy orders them to.

So the books and courses have to fight an uphill battle. They're trying to teach one thing, and the average parent is teaching the opposite.

I'll tell you what breaks my heart. Children have so few defenses as it is. They don't have size, they don't have weight, they don't have authority in the world and they don't have easy, articulate speech. All they have, to begin with, is their clear understanding of their feelings and their ability to say "No!" And parents like Easter Bunny Mother are working hard to rob them of even that.


Further Reading

I did a search on Google Scholar to see if any research links forced displays of affection with greater vulnerability to sexual predators. I didn't find any research, but I did find this: Why Your Child Should Never Be Forced to Hug a Relative.

Also this: Parent Tips for Preventing and Identifying Child Sexual Abuse. Note that bullet point number two says, "Children most susceptible to sexual abuse have obedient, compliant and respectful personalities."

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book Review: The Twisted Sisterhood by Kelly Valen

The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female FriendshipsThe Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships by Kelly Valen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is important subject matter that merits more thoughtful treatment than it receives here. One might think that Valen is just the person to write on this issue, given her painful experience of being blamed by her sorority sisters for her rape. But I think that may be what handicaps her: the issue is just too painful for her, and she lacks perspective. Whatever the case, this is less a nuanced look at a complex issue than it is a generous helping of familiar mean-girl, queen-bee and green-eyed-monster stereotypes, padded with a lot of tiresome ranting and unsuccessful attempts at humour.

First comes a chapter on how wonderful female friendships allegedly are. It's unnecessary and outside the book's purported mandate, but it's there because Valen is scared that women won't like her if she doesn't put it in; after all, she was flamed online after writing of her sorority experiences, and is understandably nervous. It strikes me that if there'd been more here on this female fear around not being liked, and the inauthenticity it produces, this would be a better book.

But Valen deals only with nastiness, not excessive niceness, and thereby misses half the female equation, in my opinion. There is some interesting, in fact horrifying, information about female bullying and the damage it can do, from various sources as well as the author's own survey. What is lacking is insight on what created this state of affairs, and how it can be bettered. Valen makes it clear that we can't just blame men—much ranting is expended on that issue. Fair enough, but patriarchy is something that men and women both participate in and keep alive, and I would have liked to see some thoughtful exploration on how it might be contributing. What, after all, must it do to girls to be told explicitly that they can be whatever they want, while receiving the message implicitly that they must first and foremost be beautiful and desirable? Is this not confusing and disturbing, and might it not explain some of the strange behaviour girls exhibit towards other girls that they perceive as too pretty, or not pretty enough?

But Valen is tired of "blaming men," which is what she thinks feminism is all about. She even suggests that feminism may be part of the problem(!). "How is it..." she writes, "that we can progress into a new age of female competence and greater equality... only to find that our competitive spirits have deepened and we're tearing down one another as much if not more than ever?" The evidence that we're tearing down one another as much if not more than ever is nowhere to be found. We are expected to take it on faith.

Subtlety and insight are in short supply. Valen can't seem to decide whether she should be outraged, appeasing, or attempting to diffuse tension with humour, and so we are treated to sentences like this: "Maybe you're among the legions of women I heard from who were traumatized or marginalized in school, in girls' summer camp, sororities, at work, or in the cotton-pickin' sandbox because you were fat, Jewish, poor, acne prone, dressed like a dork, boasted a confidence, brain, or beauty that threatened others, or did something that managed to trigger an estrogen-laced, Lord of the Flies-like wrath." There's a lot to cringe at in this sentence, but what tops the list for me is "cotton-pickin'." Good grief, lady, you're writing a book about how women should be more sensitive to each other's feelings. How about showing some sensitivity to other races while you're at it? (The author is white.)

I think ultimately Valen is too close to this issue to see it clearly or analyze it well, and this sinks her book more than either her questionable writing abilities or her questionable sense of humour. Still, I admire her for having had the courage to write it.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book Review: The Sharing Knife Part 3: Passage

Passage (The Sharing Knife, #3)Passage by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the end of Book 2: Legacy, Dag decides to leave his Lakewalker camp and travel among farmers so that he can find a better way for Lakewalkers and farmers to live together, neither apart nor as lords and serfs. (Somewhat to my annoyance, he does not discuss this ahead of time with Fawn; he just makes the announcement. This marks Fawn's transformation into traditional tag-along wife and helpmeet.) Fawn arranges them passage on a riverboat in exchange for work, and they float down the Grace and Grey. Joined at the start of their voyage by Fawn's brother, Whit, and an injured boy, Hod, they soon pick up a couple of young Lakewalker patrollers, and a sort of unofficial river patrol begins to form, with Dag as leader. The boat Boss, Berry, is on a mission to find out what happened to her father, brother and fiance, missing since the previous season. They find out the ugly truth, not a Malice, but malice in human form, and the unofficial patrol camp joins up with several boaters to deal with the matter.

While Book 1: Beguilement is devoted to Fawn and Dag's blossoming romance, and Book 2 shows us how Lakewalkers live and fills us in on their history, Book 3 is very much Dag's book. Dag is struggling to develop his new-found medicine maker powers with no mentor to help him. He performs odd experiments, sometimes putting himself in danger, but overall he has more success than failure, and his powers grow. Fawn falls into the background, making dinner, offering support, going shopping and coveting wood stoves, dreaming of settling down and making babies. As Dag discovers power, she nurses domesticity. Some readers may find this unsatisfactory. For myself, I'm not sure. Certainly the traditional depiction of women in SF and F as either sexpots for men to rescue or career women embittered due to lack of a man, was inadequate. But the common modern-day solution of demanding that all women in fantasy be "kick-ass" and apparently infertile and without menstrual cycles is also inadequate. Bujold's depiction of this particular 19-year-old woman in this particular universe may be the compromise most appropriate to the story.

An aspect of this book that I appreciated is Bujold's handling of trauma. This too stands in sharp contrast to most SF and F fiction, in which the hero goes through all sorts of horrible experiences and emerges totally unaffected and free of PTSD. Bujold's handling of Fawn's flashback and emotional reaction as she revisits the malice cave (from Book 1) is sensitive and true.

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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Book Review: The Sharing Knife, Part 2: Legacy

Legacy (The Sharing Knife, #2)Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Beguilement, Book 1 of The Sharing Knife, Fawn and Dag successfully overcame farmer opposition and Fawn's lack of groundsense to become both married (in the farmer tradition) and string-bound (in the Lakewalker tradition). But more than simple newlywed bliss awaits them, as Dag takes his new bride to his Lakewalker home and has to deal with opposition to his union. It turns out to be much more intense than what he faced from Fawn's family. His family, arguably the more dysfunctional of the two, decides to challenge the validity of the string-binding in counsel. To complicate matters further, another malice has appeared, this one much larger and more powerful. Dag and Fawn must separate for a time, so that he can go fight the malice. But Fawn is no passive female, and in this book, as in the previous one, her unasked-for, unrespected farmer interference in Lakewalker business turns out to be essential. Not that anyone other than Dag appreciates it, and their marriage is none the less challenged in counsel.

While Book 1 was devoted largely to Dag and Fawn's relationship, this book fills in more of the backstory of this world. We are given at least a sketchy idea of how malices came to be in the first place, and we learn that Lakewalker/farmer relations used to be very different—which is not to say better.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Book 1, I loved Book 2. I am eagerly anticipating my dive into Book 3: Passage.

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Book Review: The Sharing Knife, Part 1: Beguilement

Beguilement (The Sharing Knife, #1)Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When farmer girl Fawn gets herself in trouble (in the old-fashioned way), she runs away from home, but ends up finding even greater trouble, in the form of a malice. Fortunately, she also finds Dag, the alluring though much older Lakewalker.

Lakewalkers roam the land seeking out and destroying malices, creatures that suck the life out of everything around them. Despite performing this important service, they are not well-liked by farmers, who fear them as necromancers. Lakewalkers, in their turn, hold the farmers in contempt and see them as something like ungrateful children. So you can imagine that when Dag and Fawn fall in love and want to get married, the reaction on either side is less than positive.

This first book is mostly about the romance blossoming between Dag and Fawn, but it also begins to fill in the background of a complex and fascinating world, where everyone has a life force, known as a "ground," that can be detected and manipulated by those with a "groundsense"—mostly Lakewalkers, but also the rare gifted farmer. Where immaterial, immortal beings called "malices" clothe themselves in flesh and gain strength by consuming the ground of all living things around them, resulting in dead areas called "blights." Where said malices can be "taught mortality" through the sharing knives, which are made through the deaths of two people, and are so called because they share their deaths with the malices they pierce.

Featuring likeable characters, tense adventures, and even a believable and sensitive sex scene (yes! who would have thought it possible?), this is a compelling and promising start to the quadrilogy.

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