Tag Archives: book

Book Review: Color (Victoria Finlay 2002)

Rating: 3.5/5

Color by Victoria Finlay is about the history of various pigments and dyes. We learn about where and when colors arose and their influence on culture. This parts of the book devoted to color were totally and utterly fascinating, almost rapturous.

So why 3.5 stars? This book had two faces– one about the colors (which I loved), and another about the author’s travels to find these colors (which I didn’t love). I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to others. But I have little interest in reading more work by Finlay. The history of color is in itself compelling, at times in spite of Finlay.

The details of Finlay’s travels really don’t inform the main interest, the colors; they seem more to congratulate her for traveling so well. The travel descriptions are not brief, and are at times she romanticizes them to a nauseating degree. In Taliban Afghanistan, she remarks that burkas (the type where even the eyes are covered by lace) seem to increase flirting. Well, isn’t that just quaint and lovely, then? A large portion of the chapter about blacks involves Finlay “imagining” what a woman from a Greek myth might have done with various black pigments. It was useless and nonsensical, solely there to add artsiness without substance. In the chapter on orange, she travels to the city where Stradivarius and others made fine violins, and asks the natives how they managed to be such a center for fine instruments. “I don’t know,” replied the clerk at the tourist desk, people in the street, and I asked myself why they ought to know, and why their uncertainty was worthy of including in the book.

These bits I mention so annoy me because the subject is excellent, and otherwise the writing is good. I learned a whole new appreciation for my paintbox and the paintings at the art museum. Much of the book highlights the difficulty in obtaining permanent and good color. In the search for attractive, permanent colors, people traveled the world, poisoned themselves, invented absurd multistep processes, spied, and died in mines. All of this for color, something that is only there in the frequency of light reflected by these paints, something whose value is really a function of our eyes and brains rather than nature.

Lead white was the main white paint for many years. As you might imagine, it was toxin. But more, it can turn black in the presence of certain chemicals. Cochineal red, used in make-up and cherry coke, is made of crushed bugs. Before this red, brazilwood was a common source of red, the namesake of Brazil. Brazilwood is still considered the best wood for the bows of string instruments, though now it is terribly rare.

Gamboge yellow comes from one specific tree in Cambodia, though it takes a whole year to collect the sap. Brilliant arsenic-based Scheele’s green may have killed Napoleon, leaching from his wallpaper in the humid air of St. Helena. Most of the lapis lazuli, and ultramarine paint, in the world comes from one little valley in Afghanistan.

It takes 17 steps to dye something Turkey Red, and no small amount of espionage went into learning this process. Before this book, I had no appreciation for the difficulties and sophisticated chemistry of dyeing something. Many pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer started first as dye works. Black was a very hard color to make; in order for the puritans to have their modest black clothes, pirates had to transport trees from halfway around the world.

There were two aspects to this book, a beautiful wonderful one that inspired my curiosity, and a self-indulgent, tedious one that made me roll my eyes. I would have liked there to be more chemistry, but I understand that this doesn’t enhance the joy for most people, and I don’t state this lack as a negative. I learned a lot from this book and learned to see colors in a new light, and in all likelihood, you would too.

 

Book Review: The Witling (Vernor Vinge 1976)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 3/5

As far as I can tell, “The Witling” is Vernor Vinge’s second novel, and to some extent, it shows. I enjoyed reading it, but it doesn’t have the depths of Vinge’s later works like “A Fire Upon the Deep” or less-known but also good “The Peace War”. The book is only about 175 pages long; I’m not the fastest reader and I finished in two pretty short sessions, also unlike Vinge’s other novels.

The story opens with two humans who have become marooned on an alien world with human-like inhabitants. Only after being captured do the humans realize that the natives have what we would call supernatural abilities: transporting themselves or objects by will of the mind. The magnitude of this ability varies from person to person; those with the least ability are called witlings. The two humans, with no ability, fall into this category. The prince of the realm also happens to be a witling, which is a great source of shame for him. He is intrigued by the humans, especially the woman. The humans must get off the surface, as all the alien foods naturally contain heavy metals, and continued exposure will be fatal.

Although he provides no supporting science for the abilities of the aliens, Vinge does what I like best in sci-fi–he takes a simple premise and runs far with it. With these abilities, how would you imprison someone? How would you travel the world? Would you even need doors? How would you conduct warfare? These issues come up again and again through the book, and each time they are a delight.

Another interesting point touched upon is body image. The book starts with the human male describing the woman, Yoninne, as ugly and unpleasant, too stocky and temperamental. The aliens, who it’s hinted have a slightly stronger gravity, are stockier, and to them, Yoninne is close enough in build, but different enough to be exotic and tantalizing. I haven’t read much sci-fi of this era that deals with such issues of perception; unfortunately, this thread is not continued throughout the book.

The primary reason I rate “The Witling” as a 3/5 and not higher is because I found the ending unsatisfying. I won’t go into specifics in this review. The action was quite good and fun, but it conceptually bothered me.

With that caveat, I would recommend this book, especially to those who have read a lot of other works by Vernor Vinge. It’s interesting to see the form of his early, less perfect work, plus it’s a super quick read.

Achievements!

Today I submitted my second technical paper. I should know its status in a couple of months. I really hope it gets accepted, because I think it has some really good results.

I also finished binding a rough draft of my novel. I finished the draft itself last Thursday =). To reward myself, I bound a copy for myself. Then I’m going to reread the words and mark up alllllll the things that are wrong or that I want to change. I’ve never gotten this far before, though, so I wanted to recognize that achievement with a binding. I’ve included some pics below. 360 pages (including some blank pages for my comments between chapters) and 82,000 words. Hooray! Just simple photos for now, maybe I’ll get around to a nice photo shoot in a few days.

photo-1 photo-2 photo-3 photo

A novel attempt

I finally decided that I will try to write and finish a novel. Of course, I’ve been entertaining such ideas for years, as I suppose a lot of people have. So why do I feel like I can do it now, when I’ve only failed before? You gotta keep trying, but there’s that old Einstein definition for insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So I am trying again, but I’m doing things differently, and hopefully this will lead to more success.

1. I first wrote the plot arc as a short story. It was originally meant to be a short story but there were so many things I wanted to touch on that I didn’t have time for, even at 7000 words in length. I know how I want the characters to develop, how they feel about each other, and what their motivations are. I know all kinds of societal details that play into the characters actions and motivations.

2. I’m in a writing group now. I know a bunch of people who might have suggestions on how to do better, or what to do if I hit a wall.

3. I’m approaching the writing differently. In the past I said, whelp, 100,000 words, here I go. Around 25k, I got bored, felt like my work was unfocused, and quit. This time I’m thinking of it as a series of short story ish chapters. I have a bunch of little stories to tell in 2-5k words or so. Per point 1, I already have a rough outline of the overall story. As I go, I’m outlining a few chapters forward with further details– what scenes happen in each chapter and where do they happen. So I have a macroscopic outline of everything and a microscopic outline subject to the flow of events. We’ll see how it goes. I’m planning on writing one chapter a week, with weeks off allowed for alternate projects.

I’ll continue to post my progress. It will be interesting to see what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. Any suggestions are welcome too! But basically, it’s time to just write. Chapter 1, here we go…

Miniature Books!

This weekend at the festival of the book, I saw an exhibition about miniature books. The exhibition is a traveling show from the University of Akron including about 80 small or odd books. At the exhibition, Molly Schwartzburg, the curator of the miniature books collection at the University of Virginia, gave a talk about the exhibition and about mini books in general. The university has a collection of several thousand miniature books, which by their definition means no bigger than 3″ in any dimension when closed. Some of the mini books are made for artistic purposes, and others for practical purposes. The Knights of Columbus used to send miniature books containing short stories to soldiers during WW1, packing the tiny books with cigarettes. The Akron exhibit didn’t adhere to the 3″ limit, but all of the books were eccentric.

Below are a few pics from the collection.

photo copy 2

This does fold flat- “Solar Terms” by Ling Luo

photo copy 3

“Altar of Transformation” by Cathie Bleck

photo

A bunch of accordion style mini books.

photo copy

“Pig, hog, bacon” by S. V. Medaris, showing the life cycle of a pig on one side and bacon on the other.

photo copy 4

“I went to the mountains, but they were not there” by Rachel Mausier- a really cool combo of book arts and something more like origami.

 

Learning about Graphic Novels and Publishing from Barbara Slate

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I attended a talk by comic book writer Barbara Slate (at the VA Book Fest). She was one of the first female comic book writers, and has since branched out to her own graphic novels. After her talk I picked up one of them, “Getting Married and Other Mistakes“. It looks like a lot of fun, and like Slate herself, seems to have a nice sense of humor. She also has a book about how to write graphic novels.

She also spoke about the process of getting “Getting Married” published. She said that she was rejected about 60 times. I didn’t pay attention to that detail much that day. I wrote Monday about my own excitement, that I perhaps had a publisher interested in Zish and Argo. After further research, it looks like one of those pay-to-self-publish rackets, dressed up. I felt so duped! I was so excited, and they misled me. Fortunately, I figured it out quickly and for free. I channeled my frustration to overcome my fear of sending the manuscript off; on Monday after my realization I sent the manuscript to 5 places. Afterwards it occurred to me–if a woman like Slate who is familiar with the industry, knows publishing and knows people takes 60 rejections to place her book– then people aren’t going to be jumping out of bushes to publish me. It will take sober, dull work for me to get published, just like her. As it likely will for all of us. Please, may some eager publisher fall from the sky and praise me, but it’s not something I can expect or even take at face value. So last night I thought up a new story for Zish and Argo, and I will continue the slow marathon towards my goals.

Meeting goals at the Virginia Book Festival

Between attending the book festival and playing a water polo tournament, I had a very busy (but wonderful) weekend.

I went to several of the book festival sessions, which I will write about at greater length later in the week:

But the most exciting day was Saturday. I played a polo game in the morning. Then, reeking of chlorine, I went to the book fair to talk to publishers about Vironevaeh and Zish and Argo. One publisher seemed particularly interested, and I will post updates as I learn more about that. Then I popped back to the pool for some more water polo. The goal of this website and much of my work the last several months has been to get out there and try to publish something, to talk to a wider group of people and engage in a field I’ve cautiously eyed since middle school at least. So this weekend was a big step forward and I’m still high on it all.