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Current Caprice: Cocoon GridIt Organizer

January 8, 2011

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.  I do, however, make New Year’s lists of things I’d like to have happen that only I am empowered to accomplish.  For 2011, one item on the list is to expand this underutilized blog by talking about (gasp!) things I like other than books.

For instance, my bags—pluralized because I tend to switch off fairly often, not out of any innate bag-houndishness (although I accumulate bags much more readily than, say, shoes), but because my daily bag needs vary greatly, usually based upon how extensive my paper-hauling needs are.  Sometime last year, the hassles of rotating all of my somehow terribly necessary junk from bag to bag led me to click “buy” on this Cocoon GridIt organizer ($19.28 as of this writing; also available on Levenger, although when I ordered from Amazon it was on discount and a couple of bucks cheaper).

After several months of use, I’m infatuated with this thing.  On an average day, my GridIt looks more or less like this:

My GridIt Organizer(For those wondering at the contents, it’s holding: an iPod touch, hand lotion, a pill case, Blistex, iPod headphones, a couple of pens, a mini-notebook, some hair pins, an all-important bottle of Visine, and a USB thumb drive.)

This is a 12″ by 8″ medium size model.  GridIt also makes a smaller and larger size.  I’m not sure how useful the smaller one would be unless I had a lot of smaller pieces to carry, and the bigger model (which is 15″ by 9″) seemed unlikely to fit into my smaller bags.

The back side of the GridIt has a zip pocket big enough to hold a slim mass market paperback, a hipster PDA, or whatever else you can imagine of a similar size.

Its elasticized straps, which have tiny rubber grippers woven in, hold a variety of miscellany securely and, most importantly, off the bottom of my bags, which consume miscellany as their primary food source.  It’s a vast improvement on enclosed pouches, which require digging around whenever you want to retrieve anything.  I chose the less sexy gray color over the black option to make it easier to see dark items.

I’ve found only two minor dampeners to my enthusiasm.  The first is that the GridIt is fairly heavy for its size.  I have a suspicion this is because the internal base has to be sturdy enough to support whatever contents get strapped onto it and resist bending with the elastic on the gripper side.  And it’s not a ridiculous weight by any means—the product info says 0.7 lbs., which seems about right—it’s just that it’s enough to be noticeable in a bag that you’re hauling around all day.  The second is that I’ve noticed that over time the straps have lost a tiny bit of their elasticity, which is probably to be expected.  It doesn’t seem like any of the bands will get stretched out beyond use any time soon, but it’s enough to be noticeable.

Nathan Lowell – Quarter Share

December 11, 2010

Considerations both financial and temporal (i.e., my ridiculously long car commute, for which there is no viable public transit replacement) led me to turn to podiobooks as a supplement to my Audible habit.

Happily, my first listen was Quarter Share, which has a lot of fun launching the naval coming-of-age story into space.  The first in a series dubbed The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, Quarter Share covers the coming of age of one Ishmael Horatio Wang (yes, the first line is “Call me Ishamel.”), who winds up serving aboard the Solar Clipper Lois McKendrick after the death of his mother leaves him no choice but to abandon the corporate-run planet where she worked and they lived.

Lowell’s direct style and sense of the pacing necessary to pull off a serialized project convinced me of the merits of podiobooks when a couple of years of hearing about them hadn’t.  Hard SF may find themselves unhappy with the lack of hard SF (…as when are they not?), and I had my quibbles–for instance, that some of the protracted discussions about the fairly self-evident mechanics of trading left me wanting to scrub the audio forward and make up for it by playing a few hours of Tradewinds 2 when I got home–but they were minor.  There’s no big bad here (although I can think of an antagonistic force that might get developed later in the series), no space-operatic action scenes, and not much by the way of romance; rather, Lowell’s focus is on the day-to-day, and I found myself looking forward to adding the daily life of the Lois McKendrick to my own.

Quarter Share and the other books in the series are available to download at podiobooks on a voluntary gratuity basis, and Lowell has also begun releasing print versions.

Fresh as a Wilted Daisy & Diving Back in With Sociopaths

August 22, 2010

I have been away on mysterious business, which also caused my normally rapacious reading pace to crawl.  Happily, I think the worst is behind me.

One of my 2010 reading resolutions was more nonfiction, and I have been following up.  One of the “stickiest” (in the still-thinking-about-it-months-later way) nonfiction reads of the summer was Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door, which was recommended to me by two different people after a group of my friends had an unfortunate blow-out with a person who certainly seemed to exhibit some sociopathic behaviors.  I read it despite an aversion to pop-psych, and I’m glad I did.  Stout describes and delves into sociopathy as the absence of conscience with a number of case studies that may raise frissons of recognition for anyone who has encountered a sociopath (which, given her estimates that as many as 4% of the population is sociopathic, may be more common than we’d think).  This in itself is useful, as encounters with the sociopathic can leave victims questioning their own psychological stability.

Where Stout fell somewhat short, for me, was in her focus on protecting “the rest of us” against sociopaths.  That emphasis is probably helpful, and perhaps the end of the issue, for many readers.  But the most unsettling part of my experience with the probable sociopath (I don’t feel at all qualified to render a certain armchair diagnosis here) in my circle of friends was not knowing how to pin down my own emotions, which included a fair amount of grief for the destruction of numerous relationships and for the person who destroyed them.  Do we feel sympathy for those who, by definition, cannot?  If the sociopath cannot form true friendships, what of those of us with consciences who identified as their friends?  These are questions that Stout makes clear the sociopath would not consider, but people with consciences, even when preyed-upon, likely cannot help but do so.

V.S. Naipaul – A House for Mr. Biswas

January 29, 2010

I somehow wound up reading A House for Mr. Biswas and listening to a (stupendous!) recording of David Copperfield at the same time, which is a truly interesting experience that I’d never try to repeat.  I finished the Naipaul first.  It belongs in the category of “people with highly objectionable ideas can create great art,” which, incidentally, is right where conventional wisdom appears to have placed it.  It is, true to title, a story about the unlucky, determinedly unhappy Mohun Biswas and his search for both a house of his own and a family to put in it.  The reader knows in advance that this quest is not going to end terribly well, but remains in constant tension about how tragic or comic this resolution will be.  Because almost none of its squabbling characters appear likable, they all become so, especially our protagonist.

I was startled at about 3/4 of the way through to see a magnificent post by Lydia Kiesling go up at The Millions that came very close to pinning my reaction.

Megan Whalen Turner – The Thief

January 17, 2010

One of my (many) reading resolutions for 2010 is to indulge in more YA skiffy titles.  The Thief proved a good start.

Megan Whalen Turner’s much-praised Attolia books is set in a Grecian-influenced land with three kingdoms: Sounis, Attolia, and Eddis.  Gen, the titular protagonist of this first entry in the series, lands himself in a Sounis prison when his arrogance gets the better of his professional skills.  At the beginning of the book, he is granted a potential reprieve when the King of Sounis finds himself in need of a thief to steal a plot device possibly mythical ancient treasure called Hiamathes’ Gift that could alter the balance of power between the kingdoms.  The King’s magus, his two bickering apprentices, and a lone soldier lead Gen on this coerced quest.

Much of the action of The Thief is consumed in trekking about hostile territory, but that journey builds up a series of reveals — of the kingdoms’ backstory, of the charmingly well-developed mythology of Gen’s people, of the personalities and histories of then men with whom Gen travels, and of Gen’s status as an unreliable narrator.  These revelations build neatly into a twist ending that manages to be fully rewarding even though it’s not surprising.  The ending would be abrupt if The Thief lacked a sequel; happily, this is not the case, and I look forward to adding its successors to my TBR list.

Michael Chabon – Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands

January 9, 2010

Chabon’s impassioned defense of genre entertainment first preaches to the choir, then offers it a few classic songs to try.

The debate over whether genre merits serious critical attention and appreciation is an old one, and I’m no longer sure who is giving much heed to those people who still answer “no.”  As a result, the early essays in the collection, in which Chabon tries to reassure the reader that pleasure is not a dirty word, come off as overly vehement.  Yes, it’s annoying that every time a mainstream litfic author ventures into (usually quite well-worn) genre territory, they are unduly praised, while the genre elements are either “transcended” by the luminary’s talent or “elevated” to the level of “parable” — but the people likely to read this collection already know how mockworthy such reviews are.  We are coming to a point when genre partisans (and I include myself) must realize that they have become the behemoth.  In recent years, as has been pointed out endlessly, many of the best-selling books (Harry Potter, the Twilight Saga, The DaVinci Code and the other ones, and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, along with quieter presences like Ken Follett and James Patterson), blockbuster movies (just this year: New Moon, Avatar, Star Trek, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Sherlock Holmes, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), and most-watched TV series (NCIS [this is really the top non-American Idol show in the country? OK.], CSI, Lost, The Mentalist, Battlestar Galactica, True Blood, etc.) have been…genre.  At a certain point, might at least bears the implication of right.  I’m not sure that genre needs defending these days as much as it needs interrogation (see, for instance and just for starters, the extremely objectionable racial politics of Avatar and the newest Transformers).

Where Maps and Legends picks up, then, is in its entries devoted to specific writers or works, which are compelling and detailed without giving away so much as to ruin the enticement.  In particular, I think Chabon may have made me at least respect Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a book I loathed reading.  He may even have convinced me to try Blood Meridian.

If there’s a weakness of the suggestions contained in this middle section of the book, it’s that Chabon’s greatest-hits list is a parade of white dudes.  Chabon is also suspiciously nostalgic for his childhood in the ostensibly then-integrated young city of Columbia, Maryland; I found myself wondering how an African-American contemporary of Chabon’s living in the same place (which sounds like a well-meaning white liberals’ experiment in constructed community) would have recalled it during that time.  My experience of “reading and writing along the borderlands” has been marked genre’s fraught relationship writers (and readers) from marginalized groups, who don’t, so to speak, already own the mainland.  For that reason, Chabon’s final essays, detailing how his Judaism has affected his career as a storyteller, were particularly welcome.  The final entry, “Golems I Have Known, or, Why My Elder Son’s Middle Name is Napoleon,” a performance piece in print, is not to be missed.

Winifred Watson – Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

January 7, 2010

I’m glad to jump on the post-movie bandwagon for this one. It’s as delightful as the film, combining two of my favorite narratives (an ugly duckling story + the everything-can-change-in-a-day framework). I’ve been trying to think of another mid-life Cinderella tale that doesn’t involve the transformee having to go through a complete nervous breakdown. They’re relatively rare, but enormously satisfying.

I listened to the Frances McDormand-narrated audiobook.  McDormand is, of course, spot on for Guinevere Pettigrew, but she’s equally delightful voicing Miss Pettigrew’s coterie of new friends, particularly Delysia.

The first thing I did after finishing was to poke around the Internet for Winifred Watson’s other novels, which appear to be very out of print.  I hope maybe the rediscovery of Miss Pettigrew will correct that.