Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Grow Great Grub by Gayla Trail

I'm not done with the gardening books, not by a long shot. Gayla Trail (of and the beginner gardening book You Grow Girl which I thought was good with minor caveats) has written a new book, entitled Grow Great Grub. It's about growing edibles organically, and no matter what your space constraints. I had it on hold at the library, got about halfway through it, and then decided to buy it. I've got my own little copy here beside me now. It's that fabulous, and I can see using it again and again, right up there with my favourite gardening book of all time, Patrick Lima's The Organic Home Garden.

First of all, this book is gorgeous. The pictures are lovely and the layout is both attractive and easy to follow. Just looking at the cover makes me want to get out into the garden. But it's not just the photographs, either -- the text gets my gardening fingers itching. This is something I appreciate in a gardening book: it doesn't overwhelm, confuse, or make me feel hopeless. It gets me excited about trying new things, or about trying again things I did last year that didn't work out the first time. (Actually, it's a very rare garden book that convinces me to give spectacularly failed experiments a second shot.)

It's organized in such a way that it's easy to find the information I need. One of the not-overwhelming parts is that Trail doesn't drown the gardener in information; there is enough, but for super-detailed info like specific planting depths or spacing, or long lists of varietals this might not be the best book. The thing is, I have discovered that, after three summers of attempting a vegetable garden with varied results, I don't need or want excessive detail. I can get the detail I need from the seed packet. The information I want is of the more general sort, anyways. I wish someone had been a little more clear, for example, on how damn difficult winter squash can be to grow instead of going on about specific varieties and finding disease resistant ones. Reading the section on squash, both winter and summer, made me realize that it's not actually as easy as my grandmother makes it look. Again, rather than frightening me off, Trail's little section on squash made me want to try again, this time forewarned and forearmed. I've got some small, easy tips to try out, including a suggestion not to worry about the male flowers all dying before any of the female flowers actually bloom. And how to give my squash a better chance against powdery mildew. I'm still not going to expect ten beautiful buttercup squash. I will be satisfied if I get any. And I might even try frying up some of those early male flowers at Trail's suggestion, if I can bring myself to steal them from the bees.

As with You Grow Girl, there are little projects stuck throughout the book, from making a teatowel storage bag for produce to making a self-watering container out of plastic bins to planting potatoes in a garbage can to recipes. I want to try nearly all of them. The entire last section of the book is about the harvest. There are ways to preserve the harvest, and yet again, it's not overwhelming, it's encouraging. Simple things like how to best freeze food, or how to can it. This is stuff that may be second nature to my grandmother, but aside from my yearly forays into new types of jelly, I'm pretty clueless.

But the best thing about this book, for my money, comes in the form of Trail's encouragement of and tips about growing food in containers. We have three little vegetable garden beds. This will be the first year that I'm not planning to dig another one, or enlarge any of them. The one that lends itself to enlargement is currently planted up with garlic, so I'm not even going to bother this year. So, if I want a larger variety of veggies than I can fit in my three little beds, I'm going to be growing in containers.

Trail makes this so easy. The second section of the book is called "The Plants" and as advertised, there is a page or two for each grouping of edibles (ie. root vegetables, leafy greens, beans, brassicas, etc.). And in each section, in a little box, is some information on growing plants from that group in a container. Each box includes general tips, suitability of the plant for container growing as high, medium, or low (but nothing is off-limits for container growing, as far as Trail is concerned), a suggested minimum depth for the container, suggested varieties best suited for containers, and any additional things a container farmer might need to know. This may seem a small thing, but it is excellent. I am feeling confident that I can try some of this in a much more organized and hopefully successful way than I managed last year.

There's a lot more to this book than I've managed to discuss. It is going to be useful throughout the seasons, including winter with the projects I can see trying. I highly, highly recommend it for anyone interested in food gardening, even and maybe especially if you don't think it's something you could ever do. It's budget-conscious, helpful, and enthusiastic; and the best part is, you really don't have to have a backyard. Even a sunny window can grow at least some tasty things and Grow Great Grub will help you do so. Now excuse me while I go stare at the seeds I have been trying to sprout.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

This is a strong book. This is a really strong book. I haven't yet read a Discworld novel I thought wasn't good, but some are stronger than others, and Pyramids is one of the strongest I have read so far.

Where do I start? Teppic is training to be an assassin. Actually, when we meet him, he is in the midst of his final exam. This is an exam one does not want to fail, as one might expect from an Assassin's Guild examination. Teppic also happens to be the heir to the throne of the small, well-placed but impoverished kingdom of Djelibeybi. Events conspire to see him back on the throne, contending with being a rather worldly king in a rather backwards country, building the pyramid to end all pyramids, and entering into an association with a camel aptly named You Bastard.

I think the thing I appreciate about this book so much, aside from Teppic whom I absolutely adored, is the way it unfolds. As a quick aside, if you pick up this book, unless you are the sort of person who can stop reading in the middle of a chapter, make sure you have a day or two free to read it. There are no chapter breaks. Pratchett gets me with this every time. I mean, there are paragraph breaks in which it would be appropriate to stop, but... let's just say I have gotten nothing at all done today. Instead of chapters, it's set up as four books: Book I: The Book of Going Forth, Book II: The Book of the Dead, Book III: The Book of the New Son, and Book IV: The Book of 101 Things a Boy Can Do. We don't really start to get an idea of the shape of the plot until Book II, by which I mean, we only begin then to see the shape of the problems Teppic is about to face. Book I is perfect, though -- it sets us up to know Teppic, to understand a little about his background and his home country. I suppose it could be construed as a slow start for the plot, but it never feels like that.

The plot then blossoms, slowly and surely. We get several perspectives, all carefully coming together to create a creeping understanding of what is going on. Not one character ever really gets the full picture, but the reader does, and I am in awe of how well it all unfolds. And I think I'm going to have to read Pyramids again in order to fully grasp everything. There's a lot of symbolism (a theme throughout the book) that I think I missed out on, although I caught some things. There's foreshadowing too, but done so skillfully that I didn't even notice it -- once in a while I would be reading, and then think, "Wait. Wait. There was something back there..." and then I'd flip back a few pages or even more, and be astonished anew at how clever Terry Pratchett is.

Which is not to say that Pyramids is a dense read, or a difficult read, or a frustrating one. It never, ever is. It doesn't require a re-read, but it certainly will inspire one. Pyramids has gone on the list of books I want to own.

I shall leave you with a footnote that makes me smile as a librarian, but also cringe:

The fastest insect is the .303 bookworm. It evolved in magical libraries, where it is necessary to eat extremely quickly to avoid being affected by the thaumic radiations. An adult .303 bookworm can eat through a shelf of books so fast that it ricochets off the wall.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ranma 1/2 Volumes 28, 29, and 30 by Rumiko Takahashi

Now that we're coming to the end of Ranma 1/2, with only six volumes after this set to go, I am starting to get anxious to get to the end. Not because I want it to end, but because I want to know how it ends. See, the thing is, six volumes from the end, we're not any closer to solving Ranma's main dilemma, and it has really taken a back seat to everything else. We know he must solve it, because his life depends on it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it's going to be an incredibly simple, stupid solution and I'm not sure how I feel about that. Or, Takahashi might surprise me greatly and give us a multi-volume story arc to cap this series off, which would be awesome. We'll see. I'll have fun either way.

So, as promised, three volumes this time. Volume 28 is somewhat notable in that there is a Ryoga storyline in which I don't find Ryoga highly irritating, just mildly so. And it was even a sort of affectionate irritation. A new love interest for him is introduced, and I surprised myself by hoping that it might actually work out. He also showed a side of himself I've suspected firmly for a while: he's not as wildly in love with Akane as he thinks he is. There is a forgettable but fun storyline about Genma's hair, a forgettable and rather meh episode involving Ranma and Akane's teacher Hinako, a very forgettable (I only remembered it existed when checking the volume again to make sure I hadn't missed anything) storyline about Kuno and a cursed cherry tree, and then a really sweet final story involving Ranma's mother and Ranma taking ill. I think I might be a sucker for the stories about Ranma's mom. They're generally extra coherent, and combine slapstick humour with a little extra feeling.

Volume 29 is in the same vein -- generally no movement on the main storyline, although a couple of the short episodes are really cool. There's one involving a doll that I found somewhat creepy (well, for Ranma 1/2, and all you have to do is put a doll in stuff for me to find things creepy) and I really enjoyed it -- it illustrated how well Ranma and Akane are starting to know each other. And I liked how Akane didn't give up even when she was completely incapable of action; though sometimes she seems to be a little thick and reckless, here it came across as natural and brave. This volume also includes a Happosai storyline that I enjoyed a lot. I always enjoy Happosai as a side-plot. More Ryoga in love, which cements my generally low opinion of him, and a Shampoo storyline that did nothing to improve my opinion of her.

And then Volume 30, despite my high hopes based on its cover, only very briefly begins to resolve a few issues. I should know better. The cover never has anything to do with the content of the volume. The final storyline in this volume is a clear romantic moment, although it's going to take until the next volume for me to see if anything has truly changed or whether it's back to business as usual for Ranma and Akane. I'm guessing business as usual -- though it is true that, going back to the earlier volumes versus now, business as usual is different now from what it was back in the beginning. Their relationship really is growing. I'm enjoying the pace of it, even if I sound like I'm impatient. Ranma and Akane are generally a great team now, and they're certainly friends. I think they even recognize that, even if they don't realize it's progressed a fair bit further. This volume is a stronger one than the preceeding two, even without the final storyline -- there's a Drowned Yeti-Holding-A-Crane-And-A-Snake-Riding-An-Ox plus Drowned Octopus storyline, and I always like him. The low point is a Kodachi storyline in which Ranma appears to lose ever bit of martial arts prowess he's ever had, sacrificing things we know about his character for the sake of generating plot and humour.

All right! The library has Volumes 31 and 33, so I'm waiting on Volume 32 to come in ILL so that I can read them all together. And after that, it's three more left. I'm going to miss it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Passionate Gardener by Des Kennedy

I thought that after diving into You Grow Girl that I might be done with the gardening books for now, until the snow has melted. I know myself better than this, but I had hopes. Instead, while browsing at my local library, I happened across another collection of gardening essays by one of my very favourite garden writers, Des Kennedy. His collection An Ecology of Enchantment was one of my favourite reads of last year, and The Passionate Gardener is the latest collection. It appears that he's got a memoir coming out this month, titled The Way of a Gardener, which I will certainly have to get my soil-chapped mitts on.

If you are a gardener, even just growing a potted plant or two, you really need to read Des Kennedy's gardening books. To be honest, I much preferred An Ecology of Enchantment -- I thought it was a more graceful book, in a lot of ways, and it had a very pleasing arc in the form of a monthly chronology. There was wider variety in the pieces, too. The Passionate Gardner is still a lot of fun to read, inspiring and entertaining. But there doesn't seem to be the same driving force, and some of the essays start to feel a bit samey. The hyperbole gets to be a little excessive as opposed to just straight humourous by the end of the book, although this might not be as much of a problem if you are smarter about reading this book than I was. I was enjoying myself so much, and needing to feel like spring was a possibility so much, that I have read this book in two days. Which might have been just a little too much at once.

But that's a very minor complaint. Very minor. I have thoroughly enjoyed my romp through Kennedy's garden and brain. It's funny, it's occasionally rather raunchy (there's a chapter that's a torrid love story about gardening based entirely on plant names, and it's steamier than one might think) and it's informative. It's also largely beautifully written: in the introduction, Kennedy talks about how "gardening burst into our lives like a howling southeaster." There are wonderfully quotable bits throughout the entire book. And it's all pretty much dead on. His observations resonate perfectly. He might be a little over-the-top, but I recognize where he's coming from exactly. This is about garden clubs, but it could just as easily be about naturalist clubs (I suspect there's significant membership overlap) or several other types of meetings I've been to:

(from the essay "Garden Clubbing")

Invariably, the introducer begins by describing the guest speaker as someone who "needs no introduction." One might thereby conclude that the introductory remarks will be brief, but it is soon revealed that the lack of a need for introduction will in no way hamper the introducer from launching into a peroration of unimaginable length and complexity during the course of which the guest speaker's accomplishments, both real and imaginary, are paraded for the admiration of all.

And when I say inspiring, I mean that it's nice to know that I'm not alone:

(from the essay "The Ten Commandments")

Perhaps the most problematic of all is the fifth commandment: "Thou shalt not kill." You know as well as I do that if gardeners ever took this commandment to heart, plant sales would plummet, the garden supply business would grind to a halt, and nurseries would declare bankruptcy as often as airlines. Fortunately, no such crisis is imminent, because if there's one thing gardeners are good at, it's the sustained and systematic killing of plants.

And, just because I enjoyed it, from my favourite essay in the collection, "Darwin Was No Gardener":

The early years were not easy. The little tree was disinclined to grow, and what marginal growth it did attempt was invariably in a contrary direction. We came to recognize that it was afflicted with a fear of heights, a considerable disadvantage in a tree.

This collection is recommended. I enjoyed this one enough that I've finally gone ahead and ordered my own copy of An Ecology of Enchantment so that I can re-read it as I wait for the crocuses to get their act together and burn through the snow. The essays range from travel reports, to musings on the gardener's various neuroses and quirks, to loving descriptions of plants. Lots of fun for gardeners and armchair gardeners and anyone who might want a little insight into this strange passion from which we gardeners suffer.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

You Grow Girl by Gayla Trail

My reading plan for the week (Popular Music from Vittula by Mikael Niemi) got hijacked by sunshine. By which I mean, there is sunshine out there and when I walk outside it smells like spring. This means that it is time for me to break out the gardening books, because I can't actually get into the garden yet, probably for another four to six weeks.

Waiting for Gayla Trail's hugely popular (at our library) Grow Great Grub, I have instead picked up her earlier book, named after her blog, You Grow Girl. It's like gardening's answer to the young-hip-knitter books like Chicks with Sticks and Stitch 'N Bitch. It's a very basic guide to gardening, which I need more of like I need a hole in the head, but this one had a few perceived advantages over others.

First, Trail's Canadian. She lives in Toronto, not too far from me. I prefer to read advice from gardeners who have had to put up with crappy, too-hot-or-too-cool unpredictable summers and long, snowy winters. However, I've noticed that despite the fact that Trail gardens basically a stone's-throw (well, if I was Superman) away from my backyard, there is next to no Canadian-specific advice. It's very general leaning towards Americanized, even mentioning things like "state borders" instead of "provincial borders" and it has an inset telling me how to get my soil tested, if I'm American -- but no Canadian info on that. This is particularly galling as I had mentioned to a patron at the library that she was Canadian, and the patron was excited to read something specifically Canadian. Ah well. She does have an entire section on making it through the winter, so that helps. Particularly at this time of year.

The other perceived advantage was Trail's somewhat laissez-faire attitude, and on this she has delivered. I do not mean lazy (this is the sort of gardener I am), I mean try-it-and-see. With a helpful dash of let-it-go-don't-worry-about-it. See, though I am a lazy gardener, I am also an anxious gardener. Or I was, when I started. I am much less now, because let me tell you, being lazy and yet anxious is an exhausting combination. It helps to have books that essentially remind me that plants want to grow, much like The Potted Plant (reviewed lo these many years ago). Sometimes bad gardening books can be like bad parenting books: they make you feel like an idiot if you aren't doing things The Right Way. Trail's writing, however, is neither patronizing nor admonishing, and that's a great thing in a beginner book.

In this book, too, I have also discovered several nifty little ideas that get the creative gardening juices flowing. There are a few little recipes, sewing patterns (I'm going to try to make my own reusable tea bags now, when I get around to it) and other crafty ideas and plans, all very straightforward. The illustrations are cute and hip. Despite not focusing so much on Canada, Trail does provide some reassurances for container gardeners, including those who grow plants on fire escapes and tiny balconies. She's got some great ideas for people who are gardening in very small spaces. I don't have to put up with this anymore, but I still appreciate it.

Finally: if you're a young, hip, male gardener, there is no reason to not use this book, despite its title and despite the introductory paragraphs which do target young women. Generally, after that, Trail doesn't bother with making any distinctions; she just basically mentions the continuing trend of women of my generation in our particular culture picking up things for pleasure that our grandmothers had to do. I'm always sensitive to anything excluding one gender or the other, and this book certainly starts off with the impression of doing so. Part of me wishes she hadn't bothered with that and just kept it to the rest of the completely gender-neutral book, but I guess in the field of beginner gardening books one has to find a way to distinguish oneself.

Overall, Trail's gardening tips are simple to follow (largely) and organic; and her writing style is very accessible, enthusiastic without being terrifying or overwhelming. It is written as a book for raw gardening beginners and as such it delivers admirably. Someone like myself, who considers herself an expert armchair gardener but a bumbling beginner outdoors, can also pick up a few things, but there's not a lot here that will be brand new.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ranma 1/2 Volumes 26 and 27 by Rumiko Takahashi

I have to say, as much as I enjoy the series, I am sort of running out of things to say about Ranma 1/2. I mean, I think I have covered all the bases: it's silly, it's funny, it's sometimes a little bit emotionally affecting, I like many of the characters, and I think most of the stories have their good points, even the ones that are completely forgettable. We're sitting at Volume 27 complete, now, and we're not getting that much closer to Ranma solving his little dilemma. I have decided that this isn't really the point of this series, though.

Volume 26 contains one of those slightly more "deep" (note the quotation marks, they're there for a reason) storylines, in which an impostor comes to claim Ranma's place in Mrs. Saotome's heart and get revenge on the Anything Goes School. Ranma is pretty awesome in this volume, inspiring some genuine sympathy from me; and Takahashi does that thing she does so well where she appears to be getting serious and then pulls the rug from underneath the reader, laughing all the way.

I really despised Ryu, the false Ranma, at first. I thought pretending to be Ranma to gain his mother's trust was a pretty jackass thing to do to her (as does Ranma) and it doesn't help that he looks an awful lot like Ryoga, who still irritates me. But I have to admit, by the end of the story I'd re-evaluated him. Significantly. I'm glad to see the end of him, but I'd actually come around to accept his character. This is interesting, because I don't think I've had that experience in this series yet.

Which leads well into Volume 27, in which there is a Shampoo heavy story. Given that Shampoo has been around for considerably longer than Ryu was, one would think I might at least be okay with her by now. I'm really not. She bugs me. Now, this storyline was actually okay, because there was lots of Shampoo getting a little taste of her own medicine, and the eight-year-old in me appreciated that a lot. Akane also had a great moment to shine, which she rarely does when Shampoo is around, and that made me happy too. There were a couple of other short stories in this volume, including a Nabiki-heavy one which one would have thought I would have enjoyed, but it was just kind of meh for me. I did enjoy the fact that instead of donating money to adorable children she ended up making money off them -- that was the high point of that storyline for me.

I'm going to start putting the Ranma 1/2 volumes on hold at a rate of three per go-round this time, which will mean... only three more Ranma 1/2 entries on the blog. I am ambivalent about this. I have really been enjoying this series, but my suspicion, as stated at the beginning of this entry, is that I'm coming to the close of things to say. There's only so much I can squeeze out of "it was ridiculous! i like this character! i dislike this one! it was completely stupid and hilarious!"