Finally my turn at the library to read Philip Hensher's The Missing Ink. Since the subtitle of the book is "The Lost Art of Handwriting" and since in...moreFinally my turn at the library to read Philip Hensher's The Missing Ink. Since the subtitle of the book is "The Lost Art of Handwriting" and since in interviews he talked about why handwriting is important, I thought the book might be different than it was. In the introduction he suggests the book is going to be about what might be lost if the habit of writing by hand disappears. But the book turned out not to address that except briefly in the first and last chapters. As a whole, it is not much different than Kitty Burns Florey's book Script and Scribble which I read in 2009. Hensher's book had a lot of padding in it, snips of interviews with people talking about their handwriting, two and a half chapters on graphology, one about Hitler's handwriting, and a few others. He does provide a bit more detail on the history of teaching handwriting in schools than Florey did. In Hensher, each of the "great" reformers gets a chapter.
Hensher is also British so his perspective was especially interesting when he was talking about American handwriting. He claims Europeans can always pick out the handwriting of Americans because we are the only ones who have loops in our letters. Is this true? He spends a chapter admiring the way the French teach handwriting and thinks theirs is the nicest writing of any western country.
I enjoyed the social history aspects of the book especially all those reformers who believed that moral improvement could be had through learning to write a beautiful script. The chapter on a brief history of ink was interesting as was the history of pens. Did you know that fountain pens were available in 1710? They weren't very popular though. Manufacturing had also not yet figured out how to make a flexible metal nib which meant it was somewhat akin to trying to write with a knitting needle. Quill pens wore out fast but they had the advantage of flexibility. Now, of course, there are ball point pens and Hensher has a fun chapter on the history of the Biro.
I expected the book to be rather light and it was. And while I did enjoy the parts I mention above, I almost didn't make it past page 25. Hensher's sense of humor is often rather crude and insensitive and not funny at all. In the introduction he takes a swipe at "fat Denise" whose "obese writing" also "contains the atrocity of a little circle on top of every i." A few pages later he creates a scenario of a fender-bender in the farmlands of Indiana between a Subaru and a tractor, neither have anything to write with, the cell phone of the Subaru driver has a dead battery, and "the farmhand don't be holding with them thar smart phones nor with that new-fangled Internet." Still later in the book he makes a bad joke about lesbian hairstyles.
A mixed bag overall. If you are going to read this book, be prepared to take the good with the bad.(less)
I was delighted to learn in the physics chapter that we are basically chewing on sunshine when we eat. In the astronomy chapter I learned that we real...moreI was delighted to learn in the physics chapter that we are basically chewing on sunshine when we eat. In the astronomy chapter I learned that we really are made of stars:
The overwhelming bulk of our mortal cargo--the carbon in our cells, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood, the electrolytes of sodium and potassium that allow our hearts to beat and our cells to fire--was stoked in the furnaces of far larger stars than ours and splattered into the cosmic compost when those stars exploded. 'We are star stuff, a part of the cosmos,' said Alex Filippenko [a Berkeley astronomer]. 'I'm not just speaking generically or metaphorically here. The specific atoms in every cell of your body, my body, my son's body, the body of your pet cat, were cooked up inside massive stars.
How amazing is that?
One of the things I liked about the book is even though Angier has separate chapters on the different sciences, more often than not they all overlapped. Physics and astronomy of course, but also astronomy and geology, geology and evolutionary biology, molecular biology and chemistry. She does a marvelous job of connecting them all together without even having to spell it out. And of course the umbrella under which all these science chapters gather is calibration (measurement), probability, and scientific thinking.
The first chapter of the book orients us to how scientists think, how they approach their subjects and research, how they make experiments and come to conclusions. Angier explains,
Science is not a body of facts. Science is a state of mind. It is a way of viewing the world, of facing reality square on but taking nothing on its face. It is about attacking a problem with the most manicured of claws and tearing it down into sensible, edible pieces.
And math, yes math is important. It is a language in which scientists describe certain phenomena. A language that can also be translated. Angier knows people are afraid of math and makes a point to talk to a variety of scientists who admit that they suck at it and that it is ok to be bad at math and still be a successful, well-respected scientist.
I wish someone had told me all this when I was in high school and starting out in college. I got A's in math in high school but I had to work hard for them. Faced with what looked like an overwhelming amount of math classes for a degree in the sciences (biology was my declared major at first) I felt like I could never be successful and so gave up science and took the literature road. I am glad I pursued studies in literature but sometimes I think back and wonder, what if? But that's where wonderful science books like Angier's come in. I may not have studied science but I can still get my science geek on.
Angier writes with a sure touch and a quick pace and doesn't talk down to the reader. She tosses in lots and lots of jokes. Sometimes the jokes got to be a bit annoying or were eye rolling bad, but for the most part they are in the service of making a point. The Canon is a great overview of science basics, all those things you learned in high school but forgot or should have learned but didn't because you were too busy passing notes, napping or skipping class. And there are also things I didn't learn about like proteins. I never knew what protein did, only that you're supposed to eat it regularly for good nutrition. Now I know how incredibly important it is and what it does and let me say, it is gosh darn amazing.
I could keep babbling on about all sorts of fascinating stuff, like how the snowy interference on your TV (sans cable) is the result of cosmic microwaves created at the time of the Big Bang. But I will stop with that and just say, if you are looking for a fun and fascinating general science book to read, you can't go wrong with The Canon.(less)
What a marvelous book is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I know a lot of people didn't like that it is written in t...more
Beneath every history, another history.
What a marvelous book is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I know a lot of people didn't like that it is written in the present tense but I found it gave an immediacy to the story it would have otherwise lacked. It is historical fiction and to write of a historical period so well known and in such fine detail in the past tense, I think that would have bogged it down. Also, I liked the interiority that calling Cromwell "he" gave the book. It made it reflective and thoughtful, it made me pay attention.
Things that surprised me. How detailed and slow moving through time the story is. We start with Cromwell as a boy getting knocked down and beaten by his blacksmith father. There is a speedy tour through Cromwell's youth and then he is an adult working for Cardinal Wolsey. And Wolsey doesn't die until just over a third of the way through the book. The next huge chunk is taken up with the minute details of Cromwell worming his way into the good graces of Henry and dealing with the problem of his marriage to Katherine and his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. Then the final shorter section after Henry and Anne marry, Anne becomes queen, bears a child that will become Queen Elizabeth I and then miscarries a second child. The book ends with the death of Thomas More.
For best effect, it helps to know at least a general outline of events but it is not necessary to be highly familiar with them. Knowing what is going to happen, where things are leading, creates a certain frisson. The book is dramatic irony at its best.
I did not expect the book to be funny but it was. No, I didn't laugh my way through, but there are lots of humorous moments like this one in which Anne has sent one of her ladies off to find a Bible:
Mistress Shelton comes careering towards him. 'My lady wants a Bible!'
'Master Cromwell can recite the whole New Testament,' Wyatt says helpfully.
The girl looks agonised. 'I think she wants it to swear on.'
'In that case I'm no use to her.'
And there is a young man sent to work for Cromwell whom he suspects is there to spy. Cromwell takes it all in stride, he has sent his people to spy on others so it is only natural. The boy is named Wriosthesley and tells them "Call me Risely." So Cromwell and his son and others in his house start referring to Wriosthesley as "Call Me." That doesn't sound so funny when I type it out, but in the book it is a hoot, you'll have to take my word for it.
I work at a Catholic University though I myself am not Catholic. Thomas More is a saint who died for his religion. There is a statue of him by our practice courtroom. The way he is portrayed in Wolf Hall is far from saintly. A book that a student requested came in the other day about Thomas More. It was written after Wolf Hall and had a chapter in it about how Mantel is very wrong in how she characterizes More. Unfortunately I don't remember what the title of the book was, but I thought it interesting that a work of nonfiction felt it had to address how More is portrayed in a book of fiction.
Before reading Wolf Hall my impression of Cromwell was not a positive one but as I read I quickly came to like Cromwell very much. He is not a man I would want to cross but he takes care of his own and cares deeply about them. He is a brilliant man and an opportunist. I know he meets a dreadful end but I could not help cheering him on, this son of a blacksmith who refuses to buy himself a title and an aristocratic ancestry. Towards the end of the book there is some foreshadowing of his downfall which is years away yet:
Rafe says, passionate, 'How could I think to keep a secret from you? You see everything, sir.'
'Ah. Only up to a point.'
And when he misses that thing it will be off with his head.
But that is for another book, Bring Up the Bodies maybe. Though according to Mantel there are three books. Since Cromwell is the star, I imagine his end won't come until the end of the third book. (less)
I enjoy Ben Yagoda's columns in the New York Times now and then. He's one of the few people who can write an essay about commas and make me laugh. Whe...moreI enjoy Ben Yagoda's columns in the New York Times now and then. He's one of the few people who can write an essay about commas and make me laugh. When I was offered a review copy of his newest book, I couldn't say no. I own and have read plenty of books that promise to tell me how to write well. I even own that perennial classic by William Zinsser. But I have never read a book that offered to teach me how to not write bad.
There is a difference, isn't there, between writing well and not writing bad? Learning how to write well suggests I might be able to rival Strunk and White just by following their rules. Not writing bad says I can feel confident I won't embarrass myself in public. I don't really care to write like Strunk and White but I do care about not looking the fool. Yagoda guesses that he has graded somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 pieces of student work in the last twenty years. In How to Not Write Bad he proposes to use his experience to provide us with the fifty most common mistakes he has seen and ways we can avoid them. Simple.
Even simpler is Yagoda's short answer on how to not write bad: read. Good writers are nearly always good readers who read widely. One can absorb a lot about writing just by reading it. It is also a good idea to read your own work out loud; it won't fix everything but it will save you from a clunker or two.
No one is going to buy a whole book just to be told to read more and following his short answer Yagoda is kind enough to include the long answer. Those fifty or so pesky and all too common mistakes people make take up the bulk of the book. Starting small with numbers, capitalization and italics, we move swiftly to punctuation then up the food chain to words and grammar. You are probably familiar with many of them, I know I was. Commas and comma splices, semicolons and colons, em dashes and parentheses, their mysteries all laid bare in a short and painless way. Of course there are dangling modifiers to puzzle over and verb tenses to to untangle and prepositions to end sentences with. Yagoda also provides frequent reminders of why we should love our print dictionaries and not trust spell-check.
The final portion of the book focuses on things that aren't necessarily mistakes but are definitely unforgivably sloppy. Here we have discussions about cliches, qualifiers and intensifiers, long and Latinate versus short and Anglo-Saxon, and ambiguity. The section on ambiguity is a hoot. Examples include headlines from respected newspapers, "British Left Waffles on Falklands" and "Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge" and the classic Groucho line, "Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas."
Yagoda focuses on the nuts and bolts mainly at the word and sentence level. There is brief discussion on tone and paragraphs that is just enough to be suggestive but not enough to be big picture useful. Throughout the book he encourages us to be mindful writers: stop the multi-tasking, pay attention, figure out what you want to say and then make every word in the sentence serve a purpose. Good advice I too often ignore.
How to Not Write Bad is useful and even fun reading. Yagoda's light and humorous approach goes much farther than dour finger shaking that makes you feel stupid and ashamed. The book is good for students, bloggers, and anyone who wants to work on not writing bad. This is one I definitely will be keeping at hand on my reference shelf.(less)
He increased his pace, and as the car devoured the street and leapt forth on the high road through the open country, he was only conscious that he was Toad once more, Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night. He chanted as he flew, and the car responded with sonorous drone; the miles were eaten up under him as he sped he knew not whither, fulfilling his instincts, living his hour, reckless of what might come to him.
I loved that ride. It was the best kid's ride at Disneyland and was so good that adults could even enjoy it. But I didn't know who Toad was or why he had a wild ride. Until now.
I did not read Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame when I was a kid. We had a picture book called Frog and Toad are Friends but it turns out that Toad has nothing to do with Mr. Toad.
If I had read Wind in the Willows as a child I am sure I would have loved it. I can see why it is so beloved, but reading it for the first time as an adult meant I noticed too many odd things. The animals change sizes from animal size to human size. The animals speak English and talk to people. Toad has hair. And how could anyone mistake a Toad dressed up as a washerwoman for a real human woman? All the animals are also male which is kind of weird. And I found the book a bit disjointed with Toad's story being interrupted by other stories featuring Ratty and Mole.
I did quite enjoy Ratty and Mole's friendship. I also really liked the story of Ratty being tempted to run off to try his paws at sea. He's perfectly happy with his life on the riverside but temporarily is charmed by a passing Sea Rat into to thinking the migrant life is the one to have. The grass is greener syndrome. Who among us is immune to it?
There was also a laugh out loud moment with Toad crashing a car:
Toad found himself flying through the air with the strong upward rush and delicate curve of a swallow. He liked the motion, and was just beginning to wonder whether it would go on until he developed wings and turned into a Toad-bird, when he landed on his back with a thump, in the soft, rich grass of a meadow.
Mole and Ratty and Badger and Toad taking back Toad Hall from the Weasels and Stouts was pretty good too.
Wind in the Willows was a pleasant read and I would definitely consider giving it to a child. Not having nostalgia for it though I can't say it comes anywhere close to entering my personal pantheon of treasured children's books. I do, however, want to go to Disneyland now and take a whirl on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. (less)
Written in 1932, the dissertation examines Woolf's work up to and including The Waves. Gruber's thesis in a nutshell:
Virginia Woolf is determined to write as a woman. Through the eyes of her sex, she seeks to penetrate life and describe it. Her will to explore her femininity is bitterly opposed by the critics, who guard the traditions of men, who dictate to her or denounce her feminine reactions to art and life.
The way Gruber sees things Woolf had a choice to write to please the critics and their arbitrary standards, to write in the male novelist tradition, or to create something altogether new and different.
Gruber traces the evolution of Woolf's style through her novels. While it is a decidedly feminist analysis, it is interesting to note that her idea of femininity squares up with the prevailing notions of the time. She therefore says much about "feminine sensitivity" and discusses Woolf's "feminine impressionism."
Gruber makes a really interesting analysis of Orlando as Woolf struggling between a sort of Scilla and Charybdis of critics and male influence in order to find her way into her own style. These days it seems Orlando is talked about mostly as a biography and love letter to Vita Sackville-West. Gruber makes no comment of this and I suspect that at the time, she probably didn't know the two women had been lovers. Her analysis does prove, however, that there is a lot more going on in the book then we generally account for.
Woolf's use of painting and music are traced out through her work. Gruber also notes, "It is the mark of Virginia Woolf’s organic concept of life, that she concludes an endlessness in conflicts."
As long as there is night and day, light and darkness, there will be antithetic stylists, inimical poets and negating critics. The conclusion that there is no absolute truth in either fact or fancy, structural or rhythmic form, enables her to employ both styles without self-consciousness or doubt.
The Waves, Gruber concludes, shows Woolf as having at last achieved the style she had been working towards.
There is much of interest in this dissertation that I haven't even mentioned. I think much of what Gruber wrote still holds up today. As I was reading, I had to pause in wonder now and then since Gruber wrote it when she was only twenty. Oh, and she wrote it in a year while also taking a full load of classes. She also uses no secondary sources because no one had really done any critical analysis of Woolf at the time. Gruber's range of knowledge about Woolf's work and literature in general left me impressed and envious. How did she know all that without the aid of Google or other critical sources? It's enough to make one feel both lazy and stupid.
I don't think The Will to Create as a Woman would be of interest to everyone, but if Woolf is one of your favorite authors this is a book that will definitely appeal. And here is an interesting non-related tidbit I gleaned from the acknowledgements: author Dava Sobel is Gruber's niece.(less)
When I began reading an e-galley of this book thought I was reading an introduction by J.C. Hallman to a collection of selected letters. About a quart...moreWhen I began reading an e-galley of this book thought I was reading an introduction by J.C. Hallman to a collection of selected letters. About a quarter of the way in I started thinking, wow, this has got to be the world's longest introduction. Just shy of a third of the way in with no sign that this very good and thorough introduction was going to end, I did a bit more investigating. Surprise! It is not a book of selected letters at all but a book about the letters. It took me a bit to shift my expectations and how I was reading before I was off and running with the book I actually had and not the book I thought I had.
William and Henry were great letter writers in general and they wrote regularly to each other. I get the feeling that there are a lot, hundreds, of letters just between the two of them. While they wrote about art and their travels and their reading and what they were working on, nothing, generally was off limits. On an early trip around Europe Henry suffered from a bad case of constipation and dutifully kept William informed of the details of his situation right down to when his bowels finally let go. I am sure William was just as relieved as Henry.
The brothers were, apparently, also great gossips, especially Henry. He would sometimes complain when William didn't include enough gossip in his letters. While William would write about his wife and children, it doesn't seem like Henry ever wrote about his sexual orientation and I wonder if William knew or even suspected?
Of course, the focus of the book is on the influence William and Henry had on each other's work. Henry had a great respect for William's work in psychology. It is William from whom "stream of consciousness" originates. Henry took it up and worked with it and strove always to give the impression on paper of how the mind works. The closer he could get to that, the more realistic he believed his writing to be.
And while William appreciated what Henry was trying to do and read all of his work, he was mostly baffled by it and often chided Henry. As forward thinking as William was in psychology, when it came to literature, what he really wanted was a good, old-fashioned story he could escape into so he could unwind from his day. Of course, Henry just couldn't give him what he wanted. William sometimes wondered why Henry couldn't write like he, William, did, forgetting of course that he was writing for a scholarly audience and Henry was writing fiction. William once tried his hand at fiction writing and produced a very bad short story.
As with any siblings there was sometimes jealously. Henry's career got off to an early start and William was a bit nonplussed. William didn't publish his first book until he was forty-eight but after that, his reputation grew and he no longer had anything to be jealous of Henry about.
It is clear that despite their differences, William and Henry loved each other very much. They also inspired and challenged each other. As they grew older and their personal aesthetics became more diverged, Henry was always able to be generous with his praise for William's work. But big brother William, thinking he was helping Henry, offered up criticism. After reading The Golden Bowl William wrote,
But why won’t you, just to please Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style?
I mean . . . to try to produce some uncanny form of thing, in fiction, that will gratify you, as Brother—but let me say, dear William, that I shall greatly be humiliated if you do like it, & thereby lump it, in your affection, with things, of the current age, that I have heard you express admiration for & that I would sooner descend to a dishonoured grave than have written.
William would complain to Henry for what he saw as Henry's "growing tendency toward 'over-refinement' or 'curliness' of style." Henry would reply that the popular style William advocated was tasteless and that he would rather starve than write that way.
As a book examining the letters between William and Henry and what light they shed on their relationship both filially, artistically and intellectually, it's pretty good. It made me want to read the letters even more so I could get more continuity and a better sense of their correspondence styles. It is also rather fun learning of their love for gossip and that even these two "greats" would bicker as siblings do. The thing about letters, as Henry found out when he read the letters of his idol, Balzac, is they humanize the minds we encounter in the books, bringing them down from the lofty heights and show the person, warts and all. Henry was utterly disappointed to learn how crass and vulgar Balzac could be as a person but I found it most delightful to meet the very human James brothers.(less)
In the print versus digital divide Book Was There by Andrew Piper is the voice of reason. He is interested in examining the relationship between books...moreIn the print versus digital divide Book Was There by Andrew Piper is the voice of reason. He is interested in examining the relationship between books and screens, in identifying the fundamental differences as well as their similarities. Piper asks us
to remember the diversity that surrounds reading and the manifold, and sometimes strange, tools upon which is has historically been based. The question is not one of 'versus,' of two single antagonists squaring off in a ring; rather, the question is far more ecological in nature. How will these two very different species and their many varieties coexist within the greater ecosystem known as reading?
Through seven chapters Piper examines various aspects of reading books in print and on a screen. He looks at the physical nature of the book and how we respond to it. And he discuses how digital books are trickier because we don't ever see the book. We only see the device and the words appear on a screen. Where the book opens and invites us in, the screen keeps us out.
Another chapter examines the act of looking. When we read a book we see the words on the page but we are looking beyond the words and through the book. Screens, on the other hand, encourage us to look on as voyeurs. Instead of being a window we look through, a screen often becomes a "metalabyrinth of mutual regard." Still another chapter is about the page and what the page of a book does and how it affects the way we read in contrast to a "page" on a screen.
There is also a chapter on making notes and annotations and here Piper provides the best explanation about why handwriting is important that I have ever come across. Writing and reading are intimately connected. When we write with our hands we are also learning to draw and when we learn to draw we are also learning to "think more complexly with words." Research finds that children who learn how to draw before they write tend to produce more complex words and sentences. Drawing helps pull together all sorts of information in the brain, it is a way to think and analyze. Drawing and writing together add a whole new way of being able to think. Not to mention that the physical act of writing something by hand, say copying a passage from a book, helps us internalize and remember what we have written better than if we had just typed it.
Piper also has a chapter on sharing, one on reading and our relationship to the spaces we read in, and one on the connection between reading and mathematics.
There are lots of interesting ideas in Book Was There, some I agreed with and some I did not. Sometimes I found myself wondering what the point was Piper was trying to make and other times I wanted to shout, "yes! that's exactly right!" I am tempted to go through each chapter and mark out his arguments for you so we can "talk" about them all but then we would be here forever and some of the arguments are too detailed and complex to do justice to here.
Piper clearly loves books but he also finds the digital has much to offer. He isn't entirely sure that some of our digital text encounters can really be called reading any longer but he believes we should not be bothered by that. He thinks we should put down our books now and then and do some digital exploring. But he also warns against computers becoming the new book. We need both, he says, because they each foster different ways of thinking and seeing the world and the more ways we have to think, communicate and explore, the better. That's something I think most of us can agree with.(less)
I’ve read Jane Austen’s Persuasion twice before while at college for two different classes. I liked it both times, placing it as my favorite Austen bu...moreI’ve read Jane Austen’s Persuasion twice before while at college for two different classes. I liked it both times, placing it as my favorite Austen but for Pride and Prejudice. Now at last, mumble mumble years on, I have read the book for pleasure. It still holds second place for me in the Austen canon, but my esteem for it has increased and I can imagine that maybe one day it might vault into first place. But we shall see.
Our heroine is Anne Elliot, age 27, a woman of fine mind and manners who has lost her bloom and is without marriage prospects. As a girl of nineteen she fell in love with the equally young Frederick Wentworh. They got engaged, much to the proud Elliot family’s disdain (Anne’s father is a Baronet). Anne’s friend Lady Russell, who became like a mother to her after her own died, persuaded Anne to break the engagement since Wentworth was without fortune and had uncertain prospects before him. Anne was offered marriage by Charles Musgrove, a congenial man of some fortune, but he did not measure up to Wentworth and she turned him down. He then married Anne’s younger sister. All this is backstory that gets filled in as we go along.
At the time the novel opens, Anne’s father, Sir Walter, finds himself is financial difficulties. He has mortgaged everything he has to support his vanity and pride. He has been encouraged in this by his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who is a chip off the old block. She is older than Anne but still handsome and hasn’t married because no suitors have been good enough. And now she is so utterly vain and silly that she’ll be hard-pressed to marry anyone. This does not bother her though because since her mother’s death, and as her father’s favorite, she has been mistress of Kellynch Hall, the family manor.
To save money and get themselves out of financial difficulties, they are persuaded to move to Bath and rent Kellynch Hall. The Napoleonic Wars are just over and there are many wealthy and gentlemanly officers returning. Kellynch is rented to Admiral and Mrs. Croft. It turns out that now Captain and wealthy Frederick Wentworh is Mrs. Croft’s brother.
The rest of the book is about whether or not Captain Wentworth and Anne will rekindle their former love and finally get married. Of course it is not a straight arrow. There are many diversions and dangers along the way. But this being Jane Austen, you can count on a happy ending. Nonetheless, the last 50 or so pages kept me on the edge of my seat in spite of knowing full well how it was all going to turn out.
What I like so much about this book is that it is so mature, not only in the sense that is was her last novel, but also in regards to the characters. There is still plenty of sparkle and wit, but it is more measured, and if anything, Austen's humor is even more sly and subtle. I had a good laugh at one point after the Crofts had taken over Kellynch and Anne, who was still in the neighborhood because she was staying with her younger sister, is told by Admiral Croft that they have made hardly any changes to the house except for removing all the mirrors but one from Sir Walter's dressing room!
There are also echoes of other Austen characters. Anne is Fanny-like in some ways in that she is the one neglected and overlooked and thought little of by her family, the one most put upon, but also the one with the best character, manners, and morals. Anne also seems to me the best combination of Elinor's sense and Marianne's sensibility.
Persuasion is a delightful book and if you haven't read it yet, do find a way to get it into your reading pile. It is Austen at her best and oh so bittersweet since it was her last novel.(less)
I had to think about this book for a few days before writing about it. It's not a book that's easy to explain because it is full of details and big id...moreI had to think about this book for a few days before writing about it. It's not a book that's easy to explain because it is full of details and big ideas and wonderful Terry Prachett humor. But you want to know a little of what it is about so here goes.
On the day to become known as Step Day, kids the world over flipped the switch east or west on their Steppers, a box with basic wiring, a three-way switch and a potato for a battery, and disappeared. They reappeared instantly in the same place but on a different Earth. The Stepper instructions that appeared on the internet were the beginning of something huge. It turns out that our earth, Datum Earth, is not the only one. Alongside it stretching to either side of us, are an unknown number of other earths, all the possible earths that could have been if something had gone very differently. It's like at every important juncture in time a new earth was created and progressed forward on its own from that point on. For instance, meteor hits earth, wipes out the dinosaurs but another earth also happens and it was not hit by a meteor. On our earth things continue evolving after dino-death, on the other earth, dinosaurs keep living and evolving.
Step Day is the day everyone learns about the other earths. The Long Earth explores not only what those other earths might be like but also what happens on Datum Earth when people realize they can leave. About a fifth of the population are natural steppers, people who can step without the box. Another fifth cannot step at all unless they are carried by someone who can step.
The focus of the story is Joshua, a natural stepper and a special person because of the circumstances surrounding his birth. But Joshua doesn't realize how different he is until he is recruited by Lobsang, a reincarnated Tibetan monk who is living in a soda vending machine, to travel with him and explore the farthest reaches of the Long Earth. We learn that we are probably the only humans, though there are plenty of humanoid creatures some of whom are natural steppers. Have they visited Datum Earth before? Are they the source of myths about trolls and elves and other creatures?
We also meet many pioneers, people from Datum Earth who have taken off to start a new life elsewhere. In fact, the Datum is emptying out at a good pace causing economies to collapse. Those who cannot step are angry and bitter, especially members of families that have been left behind. The anger of the non-steppers builds to such a fury that they perpetrate a terrorist act on the city of Madison, Wisconsin.
There are observations about reality and space and time, and of course, plenty of thoughts about what it is to be human, thoughts like these:
'Look at the trolls. Yes, the trolls are friendly and helpful, and I would not wish any harm to come to them. They are happy, and I could envy that. But they don't build, they do not make, they take the world for what it is. Humans start with the world as how it is and try to make it different. And that's what makes them interesting.'
People can take things with them when they step, everything but iron can cross over which makes for some challenges when venturing out to start a new settlement. Also, of course, there is no electricity, no plumbing, no roads, houses, stores, nothing but what people can bring with them. As you can imagine certain skills become highly valuable, skills like blacksmithing and farming and building.
I could go on, but I will stop there. I very much enjoyed the book. I had no idea that there was going to be more than one until I finished it and I am glad about that because the ending kind of leaves things hanging. Discworld fans need to know that this book is nothing like those books. But it is good and while it is co-authored, Pratchett is very detectable in the story. I have not read anything by the co-author, Stephen Baxter, but I would really like to now. (less)
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson is one of the best literary memoirs I've read in a long time. Winterson's matter-of-fact...moreWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson is one of the best literary memoirs I've read in a long time. Winterson's matter-of-fact voice and honesty are hard-hitting. Yet, oddly, there is also a sense of distance, a feeling of disconnect as if Winterson is not writing about her horrific childhood but about the childhood of someone else named Jeanette Winterson with whom she is intimately familiar.
Given up for adoption at the age of six-months by a mother who wanted to her to have a better life than she felt she could give her as a single parent, she enters the Winterson household. She is already a disappointment and wrong because Mrs. Winterson had planned on adopting a boy, was going to have a boy, Paul, but it did not work out and she found herself with Jeanette instead.
Mrs. Winterson, as Jeanette calls her mother, was a strict Pentecostal Christian who regularly locked Jeanette out of the house, even as a small girl, to teach her a lesson. Mrs. Winterson was unhappy, hated life, and was merely waiting for the apocalypse. She did not believe in having any other book in the house except the Bible. Jeanette snuck to the library to read and when she was old enough to get a job she would buy paperback books and hide them under her mattress. Until one day her mother noticed that Jeanette's bed was getting higher and discovered her paperback stash which she promptly took out to the yard and burned. Jeanette asked her once why they couldn't have books in the house. Her mother replied, " 'The trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late.' " And indeed, books were very dangerous:
Yes, the stories are dangerous, she was right. A book is a magic carpet that flies you off elsewhere. A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?
Winterson writes a lot about books and what they did for her, how they gave her an education, helped her figure out life, who she was, that there was a bigger world than Mrs. Winterson let her know about and that she, Jeanette, was connected to it.
When Mrs. Winterson learned Jeanette had a crush on a girl at school, she had the church perform an exorcism on Jeanette to cast out the demon. At sixteen, Jeanette was kicked out of the house once and for all because she admitted to her mother that she liked girls and wasn't going to change. Jeanette was rescued by her English teacher who was also instrumental in inspiring her and helping her get into Oxford.
There is a theme that runs through Why Be Happy. It is about storytelling and how stories shape who we are, can connect us to others and save us. Also throughout the book Winterson comments on her writing and the things in her life that have influenced how and what she writes:
My mother had to sever some part of herself to let me go. I have felt the wound ever since. Mrs. Winterson was such a mix of truth and fraud. She invented many bad mothers for me; fallen women, drug addicts, drinkers, men-chasers. The other mother had a lot to carry but I carried it for her, wanting to defend her and feeling ashamed of her all at the same time.
The hardest part was not knowing.
I have always been interested in stories of disguise and mistaken identity, of naming and knowing, How are you recognised? How do you recognize yourself?
In a moment of reading serendipity, I read an essay by E.L. Doctorow in the May 24th New York Review of Books (I am really behind in reading these but it was fortuitous) in which Doctorow remarks about Faulkner:
But it is possible that the way writers live can find its equivalent in their sense of composition, as if the technical daring of Faulkner's greatest work has behind it the overreaching desire to hold together in one place the multifarious energies of real, unstorried life.
Winterson's childhood affects what and how she writes, how could it not? And stories, the ones she tells here about herself and the ones she tells in her books, are attempts to hold everything together.
Winterson is not a cuddly sort of person. There is a hardness and prickliness to her that says keep away. Nonetheless, after reading her memoir, I wanted to give her a big hug for her strength and courage to endure and survive all that she did. She still struggles, but it seems she is gradually healing. (less)
I’d better give an appropriate name to this new situation in which I find myself. There’s a need, too, for a special name in order to distinguish between this present world and the former world in which the police carried old-fashioned revolvers. Even cats and dogs need names. A newly changed world must need one, too. 1Q84—that’s what I’ll call this new world, Aomame decided. Q is for “question mark.” A world that bears a question. Aomame nodded to herself as she walked along. Like it or not, I’m here now, in the year 1Q84. The 1984 that I knew no longer exists. It’s 1Q84 now.
One afternoon during lunch at work when I was reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami someone asked me what the book was about. "Uh," I said and thought a moment. "Uh," I said again, and then lamely, "it's kinda hard to say what it's about, but it's really good." My articulateness is astounding, is it not?
Now that I am done with the book and can see it as a whole, I can say that it is about a lot of things. Things like the nature of reality and love and time and fate and free will and and memory and stories. It is so very much about stories.
About three-quarters of the book is in alternating chapters between Tengo, a 30-year-old math teacher at a cram school who also wants to be a writer, and Aomame (her name means green pea in Japanese), a 30-year-old fitness instructor who also turns out to be an assassin of sorts. The last quarter of the book includes one additional narrator, Ushikawa, a private investigator. The structure is marvelous because it moves along two (and eventually three) separate but connected story lines. This also keeps up a certain tension and suspense nearly to the end of the book - not until the middle of the last chapter did I have any idea how it was all going to turn out.
So Tengo. Cram school teacher of math and wanna be novelist. He is a reader on a "new writers" prize and comes across a story called "Air Chrysalis" that has a certain something special even though it isn't written all that well. He talks with Komatsu, an editor at the publishing house sponsoring the prize, who has also read the story. Komatsu comes up with the idea that Tengo should rewrite the story and Komatsu will sneak the rewritten manuscript into the selection for the judges. Komatsu, Tengo, and Fuka-Eri, the seventeen-year-old girl who wrote "Air Chrysalis," will all be rich when the story wins and is published as a book.
Aomame. Fitness instructor and very good at her job. She secretly works as an assassin for the Dowager, one of her wealthy fitness clients. The Dowager runs a safe house for battered women. She started the safe house after her daughter committed suicide to escape the abuses of her husband. Aomame learned of a single spot on the back of the neck that, when stabbed with a very fine needle, will cause instant death that looks like a heart attack. She learned about this special and very hard to locate spot in order to avenge the death of her best friend who committed suicide in order to escape the abuse of her husband. The Dowager and Aomame make a great team. The Dowager uses her resources to set up situations in which Aomame can use her special skill on certain men whose abuses have been particularly egregious.
The publication of "Air Chrysalis" creates a problem for the religious cult, Sakigake, because the events in the novella are more or less true. It is a fantastic story about the Little People that no one is really going to believe, however, that is beside the point. Aomame is enlisted by the Dowager to kill "Leader," the head of the cult because it turns out he has sex with prepubescent girls. Ushikawa, that third narrative voice, is hired by Sakigake to find Aomame.
This is the broadest and most pared down sense of the story I can give you and it leaves out lots like the alternate world/time shift in which there are two moons in the sky, what the book has to do with 1984, who the Little People are, who Fuka-Eri is and the childhood connection between Tengo and Aomame. Can you see why I couldn't explain when asked what the book is about?
But as I mentioned earlier, the book is really about stories because isn't that what our lives are composed of? Stories. History is a story, our past, present and future is a story. The whole world is one big story. Do we have control over the story? What happens if someone else writes us into their story and we get pulled in? Do we lose complete control or can we still affect the story? So many thought-provoking questions get raised directly and indirectly. Some of the questions are answered, some of them are not.
Along with the story, I also enjoyed the writing. The translation is very well done. Murakami can be very funny and it often comes in throwaway lines and moments. He also makes frequent literary allusions not just to Orwell's 1984 Aomame has to go into hiding after killing Leader and she is given Proust to read in order to have something to do, a sly comment on memory and storytelling in itself. There is also frequent reference to Chekhov and his comment about a gun appearing in the first act means it has to go off by the last. Does the gun go off? I'm not saying.
1Q84 is very long and is not a fast read but it is well worth the time and attention. Plus, if you are playing Murakami Bingo you're guaranteed to win.
I am not alone. We are connected through this, by experiencing the same story simultaneously. And if that story is mine as well as Tengo’s, then I should be able to write the story line too. I should be able to comment on what’s there, maybe even rewrite part of it. I have to be able to. Most of all, I should be able to decide how it’s going to turn out. Right?
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany takes place in Cairo in the 1990s during the first Gulf War when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the U.S. attacked Ir...moreThe Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany takes place in Cairo in the 1990s during the first Gulf War when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the U.S. attacked Iraq in return. But the war is not the focus of the book, it is pretty much background. The center of the book is the various stories of some of the people who live and work in the Yacoubian Building.
I wanted to the like the book but I just haven't been able to. I read a few reviews in the book papers to try and figure out if I missed something. They mention how funny parts of the book are but I didn't find anything funny. I found the book to be rather sad and depressing. The book portrays a society that gets along on corruption and bribes, where nearly everyone is using everyone else to get whatever they can to make a better life for themselves or gain power and influence.
There is Taha, a young man who has done well in school and scored high marks on all the entrance exams for the police force, he just has to pass the entrance interview. But at the interview he quickly learns that unless he has money to pay bribes, he is not going to get a job as a police officer. Disillusioned, he gets recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood and ends his life a martyr for the cause.
There is Busayna, a young woman engaged to Taha. Her father dies and the family has no money. She has to work in order to help feed her mother and siblings. But she gets fired from every job after only a few days because when the boss makes sexual advances she refuses to play along. A friend eventually tells her that if she wants to keep a job she has to go along and explains to her what to do, how to give the boss what he wants while still remaining a virgin and making a little extra on top of her regular salary. She quickly becomes bitter and resentful and says cruel things to Taha who tells her she needs to put her trust in God who will provide for her.
There is a large cast of characters I won't go through them all but you get the idea from Taha and Busayna what the book is like. What I had a really hard time with, and why I didn't like the book, is the way women are portrayed and treated as well as the way Hatim, a gay man is portrayed.
The women are all pretty much prostitutes in one way or another or they are older and angry. None of them want an education or look for any way out of their situation other than being attached to a man. Their position mainly is to provide sex on demand. Early in the book women are described as loving sex "enormously" but
They do not love it simply as a way of quenching lust but because sex, and their husbands' greed for it, makes them feel that despite all the misery they suffer they are still women, beautiful and desired by their menfolk….Do these brief hours of pleasure not furnish her with proof that her wretched life is somehow, despite everything, blessed with success?
Being desirable makes everything ok. And Busayna, she gets a happy ending in the book because she gets to marry the old man for whom she is a "secretary."
Poor Souad is not so lucky. A widow, she leaves her child in the care of others in order to marry Azzam, a wealthy heroin dealer and politician. She is Azzam's second wife and a secret, even though more than one wife is legal. Souad's only purpose is to provide Azzam with sex whenever he wants it, keep quiet, and don't get pregnant. In return, Azzam pays for her son to attend school. But Souad gets pregnant and when Azzam finds out he demands she have an abortion. When she refuses he has her drugged and forcibly aborted.
Then there is Hatim, a successful journalist who is gay. But homosexuality is unacceptable in Egyptian society and picking up anybody is always risky. Eventually Hatim finds Abdu who is married with children. Abdu is probably not himself gay, but because Hatim pays for his family's upkeep and buys Abdu presents and a small business, Abdu does whatever Hatim wants. The relationship ends, however, when Abdu's small son becomes sick and dies. The reviews I read called the Yacoubian Building a groundbreaking book for portraying a homosexual character as being just like anyone else. And this is true and good. However, I could not help but notice that Hatim is the only one who gets a childhood backstory. And in this backstory he is molested over a number of years by Idris, the manservant who essentially raises him because Hatim's parents are wealthy workaholics. While it is never said outright that Hatim is gay because of Idris, I have heard too much anti-gay rhetoric to be able to overlook the implications of Idris having sex with Hatim, who very quickly enjoys Idris's attentions even though he suspects it is wrong.
I tried really hard while reading the book to take into consideration cultural differences but when it came down to the way women were treated and what their roles were assumed to be and to what Hatim's backstory seems to imply, I couldn't let it slide. I don't require vocal feminists in my cross-cultural reading, but I cannot accept women being portrayed as good only for sex. Nor can I accept the implication that a character is gay because he was molested as a child.
Taha's story was the most interesting and well-done part of the book but it was not enough. Even without the objections mentioned above, I found the dialogue to often be stilted and the tone flat. Whether this is Aswany or the translation, I don't know, but it was at times distracting. A book not having a plot is generally not a problem for me, but somehow this book's lack of plot made it feel more like a mash of stories with nothing holding them together other than a a setting.
The book was not a success with me. That happens sometimes. (less)
I've been having lots of fun browsing through A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor. The book chooses 100 objects from the British M...moreI've been having lots of fun browsing through A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor. The book chooses 100 objects from the British Museum to tell a story about the world. The date of the objects begin about 2 million years ago with a stone chopping tool (though this is the second object featured in the book). It is astonishing to think that we have things that humans made that long ago. Trying to imagine what life 2 million years ago must have been like is hard to do and filled with guesses. In fact, much of history is frequently a big guess. This was driven home by the section on the Sculpture of Husastec Goddess dated 900 - 1521 AD.
We don't know much about the Huastecs. They lived on Mexico's northern Gulf coast. Around 1400 this prosperous community was wiped out by the Aztecs. There is no trace of Huastec writing, only Aztec accounts of them that has been transmitted in Spanish after the Spanish conquered the Aztecs. So when looking at this beautiful statue of a woman, nearly life-size and very stylized, information about the people who made her comes filtered through two other languages and two other cultures. Not everything the Spanish said about the Aztecs was true so we can surmise that not everything the Aztecs said about the Huastecs is true. There is even some disagreement over whether the woman is a goddess or a sculpture of a woman from the wealthy classes.
The whole book is a feast. It had me thinking about the nature of history and the stories we tell about ourselves. It had me wondering what about our history and these objects might we be overlooking because we see them with our own biases. And it had me wondering what will survive of us 500, 1000, a million years from now? We are so much better at documenting than we used to be, but even so, not everything can be noted or saved. Choices must be made and whose stories are told and whose are deemed not worth preserving says much about who we are and what we value.
The last few objects in the book belong to our modern era and include a credit card and a solar-powered lamp. Utilitarian both, as well as saying much about our culture, but when compared to ancient shards of pottery or the carving of swimming reindeer (11,000 BC), these modern items are so very ugly.
Which is something else of note; our modern items are often lacking in beauty. I am under no illusions that 1,000 years ago everyone carried water in gorgeous clay pots or wove baskets using artistic patterns. I am sure most items were plain and simple. But even plain and simple have a beauty to them that so much of our mass-produced world lacks. It is rather sad to think about. And maybe that is why do-it-yourself and arts and crafts have been rising in popularity over the last decade or so. Handmade and imperfect has so much more meaning and beauty than the perfect but mass-produced.
But I digress. A History of the World in 100 Objects is a wonderful book. And, even better, the original BBC series broadcast is available for free download as podcasts. So if you don't want to wait in line at the library you can listen to them on your MP3 player and then look at the photos of the object online. Pretty awesome.(less)
I've read a couple of books by Rosy Thornton now and liked them so when I had the chance to read her newest, Ninepins, I couldn't refuse. She didn't l...moreI've read a couple of books by Rosy Thornton now and liked them so when I had the chance to read her newest, Ninepins, I couldn't refuse. She didn't let me down.
Set in the fens of Cambridgeshire at an old house known as Ninepins, Laura has been renting out the pumphouse (an old drainage station) to college students. The house falls empty and this time Laura is persuaded to rent it to a 17-year-old girl named Willow. Willow has had a troubled past, but Laura is assured by her social worker, Vince, that everything will be fine. Laura's twelve-year-old daughter, Beth, hits it off with Willow and Laura is immediately worried about Willow's influence. But it isn't Willow Laura has to worry about. Beth is at a new school and has fallen in with some girls of dubious motives. But the more Laura tries to be Momma Bear and protect Beth, the more Beth struggles and rebels. At one point Willow slyly notes,
Laura acted as if fresh vegetables and proper home-cooked meals could solve every problem, could make things whole again when they were broken. But they couldn't. Nothing could.
As the story progresses we learn more about Willow's childhood and her own mother, Marianne, who is in a mental hospital.
Marianne and Willow present a neat contrast to Laura and Beth. Both single mothers with only daughters, they did and are doing the best they can. But Marianne's untreated mental illness made Willow's childhood especially hard. To Laura, Marianne is motherhood gone all wrong. Willow is envious of Beth and thinks she has nothing to complain about while Beth thinks Willow is the ultimate in cool. The story presents the contrasts without judging. Not once is Marianne condemned for being a bad mother. Instead, we are asked to be sympathetic and understanding, to realize we have blinders and biases and fears that get in the way of being able to see and understand the needs and motives of other people.
Ninepins is a non-sappy and realistic book about mothers and daughters. There is a love interest for Laura but this is low-key and beyond the point of the story. It does, however, get addressed as potentially changing the dynamic of Laura and Beth's relationship should it progress to something serious.
What I enjoy most about Thornton's writing is that the characters could be real people. Her stories are also every day sorts of stories that ponder the messiness of families and relationships. The tone of Ninepins is gentle but the story manages to be compelling. And while Willow might be right about a home-cooked meal not being able to fix things that are broken, she does find out that compassion and love go a long way towards making things whole again.(less)