Tuesday, November 30, 2010


So Barnes and Noble has been pushing this Elf on a Shelf thing for the holidays and it is fucking creepy. I mean, it's a doll that has you under constant surveillance for the purposes of reporting your every movement to a mysterious spymaster with a secret North Pole base like some goddamn Bond villain for behavior evaluation and modification. TERRIFYING!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Just want to wish a Happy Thanksgiving to you, my marvelous readers. Whether it's a raucous family dinner full of alcohol-fueled recrimination and time-nursed bitterness, a quiet affair with friends, or turkey-fueled orgy, take a moment to do some Thanksgiving homework and realize how much you have to be thankful for.

A Puritan Thanksgiving

I guess a third year in a row officially makes my annual Thanksgiving read of Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates a tradition. Though it's actually about the Puritans, not the Pilgrims, it just feels Thanksgiving-y in its tale of religious fanatics plonking themselves down on a strange continent and proceeding to kill the natives whenever it was convenient.

When we think about the Puritans, we think of a bunch of dour killjoys in buckled hats hunting witches. But they were actually a really interesting bunch of dour killjoys who only occasionally hunted witches (though the buckled hats thing is a myth). They had a bookish bent to them that is endearing, at least to bookworms like me, as well as an intense, persistent anxiety, mostly about how much God hated them, which is also endearing to people like me who also exist in a state of intense, persistent anxiety, even if I'm a total heathen.

Their self-conception as a people so special that, so manifestly the best, that very world depended on and looked to their success, is incredibly important to America's own self-conception and history that they really shouldn't be dismissed or ignored. They perfectly encapsulate the tension between American ideals and American realities, with soaring words words of brotherhood and liberty on one hand and intolerance and raging hypocrisy on the other.

And, at least in Vowell's hand, the Puritans are fairly funny, if only ironically. Plus, John Winthrop, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson, the main figures Vowell talks about, are just interesting characters. Terrible, annoying, endearing, totally-glad-they're-dead-and-we-don't-have-to-put-up-with-them, interesting characters. As some of the foundation-layers of these United States, they and their fellow travelers are worth reading about.

Speaking of Puritans, inspired by the period between Halloween and Thanksgiving, I recently read In the Devil's Snare. I had heard of the book a few years ago when it came out thanks to Book TV, and always meant to read it. Turns out it's much more interesting being talked about than actually read.

It's an academic treatment of the Salem Witch Trials (or, to use a moniker she considers more accurate, if rather prosaic, the Essex County Witchcraft Crisis of 1692), and is thus... well, very academic. There's a lot of quoting primary sources (complete with the idiosyncratic orthography of the day), a lot of consideration of then-current legal theory, exhaustive examination of dispositions and court records, and a dizzying array of names, dates, and statistics. It's just not particularly fun, though the central idea, that the crisis was caused and nurtured by the Indian wars going on at the time in Maine and the resulting tensions and dislocations, is very interesting and well-argued. As an academic work, keeping in mind that I'm not a historian, it succeeds; as a popular work, not so much. Still, it is interesting and certainly provides a much broader and more nuanced view of an episode in American history that, like so many others, we know only in broadest caricature.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Coincidence? Or POWER?

I really was literally thinking the other day, "It's so unfair that Maria Bamford hasn't enjoyed the same success that her fellow Comedians of Comedy, especially Zach Galliwhateverthefuckis, when she's just as funny. I call sexism!" And then what happens? She shows up in a major (and majorly funny) Target ad campaign! It ain't The Hangover, but it's something.

BTW, can we say how much bullshit it is that you can't get the Comedians of Comedy reality show on DVD? It's total bullshit. You can get the documentary, but not the series. I bet Zach GallifalongGreekname won't release the rights or some such bullshit. Bullshit.


I don't care for cranberries, but they're surprisingly fascinating from a biological standpoint.


To what levels of celibacy-induced degeneracy have I succumbed when I think this is actually kinda hot? (NSFW? Maybe? Or just not-safe-for-retinas?)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Italian Christmas

It's the time of year, now, for me to promote my brother-in-law's Italian Christmas song. Watch it, won't you? My sister needs a new house!

Skimpy Sunday

(Via Joe The Lion; Overnight to London [NSFW]; Mimziz [NSFW])

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bourgeois Book Club

Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor by Tad Friend

Part memoir, part anthropological study, part family history, part therapy,Tad Friend examines what it means to be a "WASP" through the lens of his life and the history of his family. Charming, taciturn, reticent, boozy, snobby, conscientious, conservative-with-a-small-c, WASPs are a declining, but historically important, class that deserve, and here get, more than just to be the butt of jokes about Yale. Class expectations and emotional dysfunction thwarted and made unhappy many members of his family, from serial marriers to complete psychopaths. But they were also cultured, educated, and deeply rooted, with a sense of tradition and duty.

Though not fabulously wealthy, at least not anymore, his family were hardly paupers. Indeed, one could very well balk at feeling any sympathy for a man such as Friend, who attended elite private schools and Harvard and traveled around the world for a year and spent six figures on therapy, just to name a few of his perks, because his mother didn't hug him enough (his mother does loom large). But Friend is a good enough writer, and self-aware enough not to try to play the "poor me" card, to avoid that. This isn't really a plea for sympathy, but simply a reflection of and coming to grips with his personal and familial history, and his peculiar cultural baggage.

Funny, interesting, and sometimes melancholy, Cheerful Money is a fascinating exploration of the traditional American elite.

The House on Durrow Street by Galen Beckett

Sequel to The Magicians and Mrs. Quent. Jane Austen meets Bronte meets Lovecraft in this tale of magic, secrets, intrigue, and planetary mechanics set in a fantasy Regency England.

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

Medieval Europe, with magic and elves thrown in, is the standard template of the fantasy setting. This isn't a denigration; a lot of people have written a lot of fantastic stories in such worlds, and many have played with and inverted a lot of its standard tropes to wonderful effect. But we rarely get fantasy based in a non-Western setting and grounded in a different culture, and hardly ever does anything set in Mesoamerica get written. Servant of the Underworld changes that, introducing us to a world of jade and obsidian, where gods walk the world, mortals walk the divine realms, and blood powers the universe.

Servant of the Underworld's is not just unique in its setting, but in its genre-bending: it is not just a fantasy, but a historical fantasy, and not just a historical fantasy, but a historical fantasy mystery. Set in an Aztec Empire at its zenith, the blood of sacrifices fueling the magic of its priests, it beings with a relatively simple question: who murdered Priestess Eleuia? It's up to Acatl, High Priest of the Dead and estranged brother of the main suspect, to find out. What he finds is that Eleuia and her murder is just the center of a much vaster and more dangerous mystery and finding her killer is only the beginning of a quest to save the Fifth World itself from destruction.

In the backdrop of these grisly and momentous events, we're introduced to a totally different culture and its people, all while being reminded by Acatl's broken and dysfunctional family, the politics of the imperial court, and the human capacity for cruelty that no matter where we came from, we're all all-too-human.

The next book in the series, Harbinger of the Storm, comes out in January, and I for one can't wait to return to the shadows of Tenochtitlan.

Trying to Please: A Memoir by John Julius Norwich

One of my obscure little enthusiasms over the years has been the Byzantine Empire. Thus, the name John Julius Norwich was a familiar one to me, his books on Byzantium being the most well-known of the admittedly small supply of popular-level on the subject. I was thus intrigued to see this memoir of his in the bookstore. Being an Anglophile, and having a bit of a weakness especially for toffs, I dove right into this recounting of an upper-class life.

Name-dropping hardly describes Norwich's style. Name-anviling is really more like it. He's met and known a dazzling array of people, though I admit even with footnotes it's hard to keep them all straight or even figure out who the hell they even are. John Julius Cooper, Viscount Norwich, to give the author his full and proper title, has moved in only the most select and elite circles for his entire life.

It isn't surprising, then, that there's a whiff of old-fashioned British small-c-conservatism to him. Many is the time in the book when he bemoans modern Health & Safety preventing such jolly good pasttimes as drunk driving, the ghastliness of modern church architecture (a subject I actually wholeheartedly agree with), or New Labour. But, then, he is a peer, a former Foreign Office official, and the son of brilliant, well-connected people with friends like Winston Churchill. I suppose a bit of snobby codgerness is to be expected and forgiven.

He's a terrific writer, engaging and witty and not afraid to shy away from both the good and the bad, though not prone to salaciousness or gossip, sometimes to the frustration of the reader who wants a bit more of the juicy stuff. But he's certainly had an interesting life, full of travel and fascinating people, and it is certainly worth reading about.

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

As someone who had a visceral and perhaps-irrational dislike of the previous Culture novel by Banks, Matter, I was slightly leery of reading this new one, but I needn't have worried because it is FUCKING AWESOME. I need to reread Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games to make a true determination of the favorite rankings, but it's definitely up there.

If you've never read any of the Culture novels, don't worry: it's more a world Banks plays in than an actual series where you have to go in order to understand anything. Each book more or less stands on its own, though reading them all does add to one's enjoyment and the depth of detail. (A good primer for the Culture and its universe by the wonderful professional nerds at iO9 is here, if you're interested but don't have the time right this second to read all the other books.)

Perhaps the most ambitious Culture novel yet, Surface Detail is like an intricately woven carpet, weaving together many threads that especially at first don't seem to go together or even touch, but which are crucial to the larger design. An array of vibrant characters each contribute their part: Lededje, a tattooed slave given a literal second chance at life; Veppers, the evil corporate raider who owned Lededje; Prin, a pachydermoid social reformer and crusader who braves Hell itself for what he believes in; Chay, Prin's fellow crusader and mate who is (again, literally) transformed by Hell; Yime, a special agent for the dead; Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, a sentient, more-than-a-little-deranged warship out for some fun/bloodshed; and Vatueil, a solider of the War in Heaven, willing to go to any lengths to free the damned. These characters and the disparate threads of their plotlines eventually weave together, though not always in the ways you expect, to give a satisfying, if not always sunshiney, conclusion.

What I think I love most about Banks, and which is on full display here, is he can write a novel combining heaps of technobabble, sociological speculation, and a rollicking good story full of action and intrigue that also just so happens to be a heavy meditation on death, truth, identity, and morality. What does it mean to be immortal? How can we tell what is real? Just what is the difference between reality and the perfect simulation? Are we more than a collection of biochemical processes that can be recorded and replayed? What are we willing to sacrifice for the good of millions? How far will we go to get revenge on those who have wronged us?

Oh, and on a purely superficial note: the cover is reallllllllllllllllly pretty.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Shake My Moneymaker?

I was working on another installment of Bourgeois Book Club this afternoon, and as I pasted in an Amazon link to one of the books, I thought to myself, "I'm giving them business for free! I should make some money off of this!"

Bourgeois Nerd has never had, and never will have, advertising. I don't do this for the money (just the groupies), and if we're being frank, I don't like most of the online ads that are out there nowadays. It's all acai berries and belly-loss secrets and it's just not my scene. But joining Amazon's affiliate program and maybe making a coin or two from the links to Amazon I do anyway for nothing? It's totally logical and synergistic.

Yet, dear readers, is it the right thing to do? Would I be compromising my blogtistic integrity for the lure of filthy lucre? Would you feel betrayed that I sold out to The Man? Would you feel it intrusive and unseemly? And does anyone have any experience with the Amazon affiliate program and have any advice to proffer? Your response is both earnestly requested and appreciated.

There is no guarantee, BTW, that even if greed overcame me despite pleas to the contrary that I'd even be accepted into the program. I was reading the agreement, and it said they don't accept sites with "sexually explicit" content, so depending on how whoever it is that determines these things reacts to Skimpy Sundays this whole issue may be moot anyway.

We Weren't Magically Invented At Stonewall, You Know

Gay Vintage

(Via The Hairpin)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

His Bowcaster Is In The Shop

No matter what galaxy you're in, there's nothing like a Wookiee co-pilot.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Monday, November 01, 2010