Monday, September 29, 2014

Ready for the readalong?

I hope you have your copy of the Morte D'Arthur and are ready to start reading!   We start on October 1st.

I'd tell you to start your engines, but this is a medieval setting, so...have your squires saddle your horses?

Saturday, September 27, 2014


Landline, by Rainbow Rowell

I was not at all sure that I wanted to read this book when I heard about the premise.  But I picked it up to see, and I really liked it a lot.  So--

Georgie and Neal are your average tired and overworked parents in their late 30s.  Georgie has spent years writing for bad sit-coms in hopes of someday scoring the opportunity to write her own show (with her long-time writing partner, Seth), while Neal has taken care of the kids and put up with living in LA.  They're about to leave for a Christmas trip to Neal's home when the opportunity hits--the chance to write a show.  This week.  Georgie can't go.

Georgie and Neal love each other, but their marriage may have crumbled anyway while Georgie was busy working.  In despair, she starts sleeping at her mom's house and tries calling Neal on her old phone, using his mom's landline.  Neal answers, but it's the Neal of nearly 20 years ago.  As they talk every night, Georgie starts to wonder what she is supposed to do with this bizarre time-sliding telephone.  Fix her marriage before it starts?  Convince Neal that he will be better off without her?  What?

What I liked about this story is that Georgie and Neal are so ordinary.  They are good people who love each other, but relentless life pressures and their own personal weaknesses have eroded their relationship away until it's nearly gone, which is a thing that happens to a lot of us.  What I loved is that they both want it back.  That might not be enough, though.  It is a real question whether they can find each other again.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Just Babies

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, by Paul Bloom

I pick these books up from the "New Books" shelf to read over lunch, and then I wind up taking them home.  Paul Bloom likes to study babies and small children to find out when and how they develop moral sense.  What a very interesting thing to do! 

Babies, as we might expect, develop moral sense over time, but it's quite amazing how early they start.  Bloom describes experiments where they measure how long babies look at things (because babies will look longer at things they either prefer or do not expect) and how very slightly older children--young toddlers--will act in certain scenarios.  All this is really interesting to read about.

It's a bit less interesting when he wanders off the topic of babies to talk about various sets of moral values and where they might come from.  I liked the experiments with tiny children best.  But overall it's a pretty fun read, not too dense.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Heirs of the Body

Heirs of the Body, by Carola Dunn

A new mystery in an old format, Carola Dunn's series is not one I've run into before.  Her heroine is Daisy Dalrymple, a mother of nearly 40 and wife to a Scotland Yard detective.  It's the late 1920s and this is a good old-fashioned country house mystery.

Daisy's cousin is a peer with no heir, and finding an heir is an urgent necessity.  The candidates are scattered across the world and have little documentation to prove their claims.  Daisy's job is to figure out who is the real heir--and, suddenly, who is perpetrating attacks on the candidates!

It's a fun mystery.  And the cover is very cute.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Thing Around Your Neck

The Thing Around Your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I've been looking forward to this book for some time.  It's a collection of short stories, and I am not really much of a short story person, but I should try more.  Anyway I enjoyed these very much and zipped right through the book as though I was eating a package of Pringles. 

The stories are all different--written from every point of view and often in slightly different styles--but they are all about life for Nigerians.  Most are set in Nigeria, but a fair number take place in the US and involve adapting to a strange country.  All are intensely personal stories--perhaps about domestic life or a new marriage, or one person's experience during terrifying large events such as riots or the Biafran war.  The final story is called "The Headstrong Historian," but only gets to the historian at the end, after we live the life of the historian's grandmother.

I loved these stories, and this only confirms
what I already knew--that Adichie is a really excellent writer.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


You know I'll pick the pulp cover!
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Can you believe I've never read Frankenstein?  It's only been on my bookshelf for 20 years.  It was on the syllabus for a class I took, I diligently pre-bought all the books, and then it was removed for time when the class actually started.  I see that this book cost me $2.60 and had been owned by some guy named Jason at the University of Tennessee, so how it got to me at Berkeley is a bit of a mystery.  Who would bother transporting it?  Did they really truck piles of used Penguins and Oxfords around the country for impoverished lit majors?

Well, we all know the story.  Dr. Victor Frankenstein becomes fascinated with the origins of life and is finally able to create it himself!  He fashions a creature from bits and bobs, animates it, and is horrified by what he's done.  Repudiating his own creation, he leaves the poor creature to fend for itself, with terrible consequences.  Finally, the creature heads off to the Arctic, never to be seen by man again...

What I didn't realize before I read the novel for myself was what a doof Victor Frankenstein is.  Sure, he's a mad scientist, but who expected him to be such a dummy?  He creates this creature and is so horrified that he runs away immediately, and then spends months hoping that the creature will just disappear into the void and never bother him again.  When he does meet it again, he's shocked and offended that he's expected to do something about the situation he has created.

The creature, who has educated himself, wants to be a good person but is embittered by the treatment he inevitably receives from everyone who sees him.  He quite reasonably asks for a companion, a girl, so that they can go off and live on their own.  Frankenstein naturally doesn't want to, but promises to deliver, then changes his mind by reasoning that they might have children.  (This seems like a fairly simple thing to prevent, actually, if you're the one stitching the body together.  Just make sure she doesn't have the equipment.)  Anyway, the creature promises a very specific revenge, but Frankenstein assumes it will take one form and--incredibly dopily--is surprised when the obvious happens.

Aside from Frankenstein's constant self-delusions, it's a great read, full of interesting themes to think about.  Shelley was living right in the middle of an amazing time in science, and she was able to hear more about what was going on than many women would.  The questions of what constitutes life, how far can we or should we go in discovering new knowledge, and what the dangers of all this might be were current issues, constantly discussed in her circle, and she turned them into the novel that launched a thousand questions and a million science fiction movies.

Monday, September 22, 2014


Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, by Assia Djebar  (from the French L'amour, la fantasia)

In 1830, the French invaded Algeria, turning it into a colony.  Algerians have thus had a tricky dual heritage of Arabic culture and imposed French government and language, and Assia Djebar intertwines pieces of history with stories of the lives of women living within it.  This is a complex book that would keep a college literature class busy for weeks, so I can hardly do it justice here, but here are some themes:

A 'fantasia,' to Arabs, is indeed what I might call a cavalcade: a procession of riders on horseback, showing off their skills at a gallop, and incidentally firing rifles and yelling.  In the Romance languages, it means a free-form musical composition that wanders around.  Both of these meanings are put into use, and sections of the book are named after sections of a musical composition as Djebar demonstrates her skills as a storyteller.

Language, and cultural barriers to language, are extremely important to Djebar.  Even as she mourns the subjugation of her hereditary Arabic and fights to reclaim it, she resentfully loves the beauties of the subjugating French tongue that she studied in and its promise of liberation from the veil and seclusion:
For my part, even where I am composing the most commonplace of sentences, my writing is immediately caught in the snare of the old war between two peoples.  So I swing like a pendulum from images of war (war of conquest or of liberation, but always in the past) to the expression of a contradictory, ambiguous love. (p. 216)
Most particularly, she is concerned with the stories and conditions of women's lives, especially in regards to their languages or inability to communicate in words.  And all of it ties up with love, physical love, and marriage (thus the French title):

When I am growing up--shortly before my native land throws off the colonial yoke--while the man still has the right to four legitimate wives, we girls, big and little, have at our command four languages to express desire before all that is left for us is sights and moans.  French for secret missives; Arabic for our stifled aspirations toward God-the-Father, the God of the religions of the Book; Lybico-Berber which takes us back to the pagan idols--mother-gods--of pre-Islamic Mecca.  The fourth language, for all females, young or old, cloistered or half-emancipated, remains that of the body: the body which male neighbours' and cousins' eyes require to be deaf and blind, since they cannot completely incarcerate it; the body which, in trances, dances or vociferations, in fits of hope or despair, rebels, and unable to read or write, seeks some unknown shore as destination for its message of love. (p. 180)
That kind of sums it up, really.  The book consists of chapters that wander through history and different lives.  Sometimes we see a battle or a terrible slaughter; other times it's a personal story of a girl's youth.  Women living out in the mountains with soldiers fighting the French occupation, running houses that serve as safe waystations, growing up in the 1950s or going to a French school, living secluded behind walls or in Paris before a wedding...all sorts of Algerian lives in different times, nearly always in the first person.  Some few may be Djebar's own stories, but it's hard to know.  It's a fascinating book that would repay close study.

Fantasia is supposed to be the first of a quartet; the second is A Sister to Scheherazade, which I would also very much like to read.  I get the impression that all four books are rather different.


Oh my goodness, dear readers (if you are still there!), I have 8 books to review and so much to talk about, and yet I have not been here at all.  Life got really interesting over the past couple of weeks, especially with the prep for Banned Books Week.  I spent many hours collecting news stories for our displays, with the result that we have one featuring no less than SIX cases in K-12 schools just from the last 4 months, since the last school year ended.  (I did the information gathering, and my counterpart did the art/assembly.)

 Another display concentrates on free speech issues at college campuses, which goes right with BBW and brings the issues right into their reality.  I am very proud of this one, which covers all sorts of interesting cases from the last year.  I really had to pick and choose quite a bit.

I also had a serious car breakdown, at just the same time that I had to attend a school board meeting.  I'm on the parent board and I'm very committed to the meetings...but it's a 90 minute drive, and no one else from my city was going.  My mom was very nice and lent me her car.  I left at 4pm and got home at midnight.

So things have been a little more exciting than I would really like.  And it's almost time for the Morte D'Arthur Readalong!  I hope you're ready!

Perhaps we have a slightly inflated sense of our influence.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Newsy Post

I have various things to talk about, some upcoming events and whatnot...

I hope everybody is gearing up for Banned Books Week, which is coming up fast in the fourth week of this month: 21-27 September.  At least, that's how it feels to me!  For the past few years I've been kind of in charge of BBW at work, and now I've been voted official Queen of Banned Books Week.  So I'll be preparing like mad for the next little while.  I guess I don't usually talk about it here a whole lot, since I do it so much at work, but I did post the mug shot I took last year.

Guess what??  Lory at Emerald City Book Review is hosting a special Diana Wynne Jones event!  During Witch Week, there will be a readalong of Witch Week and discuss a new DWJ book daily. 

Here's the schedule:

Preview: October 30 - Master post with link-up and giveaway
Day 1, October 31 - Fire and Hemlock
Day 2, November 1 - Power of Three
Day 3, November 2 - Howl's Moving Castle
Day 4, November 3 - The Spellcoats
Day 5, November 4 - Deep Secret
Day 6, November 5 - Witch Week (Readalong)
Day 7, November 6 - Honorable mentions and wrap-up

I always love a good DWJ event and I think it's a fantastic idea to have it during Witch Week. :)  Can't wait!  I hope you'll join up too!

In other news, I've been reading Romantic fiction for the Classics Club September theme and incidentally for RIP IX.  I've finished Frankenstein and will post on that pretty soon. I'm also well into Melmoth the Wanderer, which is quite interesting and (bonus) Eugene Onegin's favorite book!  So far we have all the classic ingredients of a good Gothic tale: crumbling ancestral halls, an old sheaf of papers found in a drawer, nearly indecipherable, a survivor of a shipwreck with a fascinating tale to tell, and scary bad monks.  As a matter of fact, the monks have kind of taken over.  I'm about a third of the way through, and the shipwreck survivor is telling his tale of oppression at the hands of Spanish monks--and so far he's been talking for about half of the third I've read.  I'm wondering if he will ever escape, or if the book will ever get back to Melmoth.

And I'm reading War and Peace, a tale of Russia and the Napoleonic wars.  I think it's interesting that Tolstoy refused to call it a novel; he seems to have considered it to be something else, and indeed it is not  structured like most novels.  It does, however, remind me of some other giant books I've read, like In the First Circle or A Suitable Boy, where the author wants to give the reader an image of a whole society at a particular moment in time, so there are many, many characters in different walks of life.  War and Peace is not, so far, as all-encompassing as that, but it's kind of similar in feel.  My 1300-page paperback is so unwieldy that it's not easy to read as often as I usually would; this is one case where having it divided into two or three volumes would really help a lot, and would probably be worth the extra price.

Monday, September 1, 2014

God's Philosophers

Most awesome cover.
God's Philosophers, by James Hannam

I found this book through a really long, really great review: The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews God's Philosophers.  I really encourage you to go read that article--you can even skip mine if you do--because it's far better and more entertaining than I am.

God's Philosophers sets out to destroy the common myth that Christianity clamped a lid of oppression and censorship on Europe, ushering in the Dark Ages during which no one thought or invented anything until the Renaissance came along and rescued us by inventing science.   (Guess who invented this idea first?) 

Hannam therefore leads us through a series of short biographies of medieval thinkers: people who delved into mathematics, engineering, natural philosophy (what we would now call science, only it wasn't then), and even a bit of medicine--because they believed strongly that God was a rational being who created a rational universe that could and should be understood through study and--yes!--experimentation.  I can almost promise that you've never heard of most of them, yet they were doing some pretty impressive stuff, and for the most part they were doing it with the approval of the Church.

Medieval scholars made great progress in logic and mathematics most especially the marriage of mathematics and physics, but we don't hear much about them.  This is partly because Renaissance scholars really did render much of previous work obsolete, and partly because Renaissance people purposely got rid of a lot of medieval scholarship.  Most of us were taught in school that the Renaissance was partly due to the discovery of ancient Greek texts, which sparked an interest in learning.  This is true enough, but it also sparked a contempt for anything more recent than Aristotle.  Medieval scholars knew something about Aristotle and built on that foundation, finding out that Aristotle was not always right; Renaissance scholars trashed all that work, cleaning out their libraries and getting rid of most of it.  Happily, the printing press had already been invented and medieval scholarly works had been widely printed, so they couldn't be lost completely.

It seems to me that the Renaissance scholars did something we see often in history; they trashed their immediate forebears and convinced future generations of their own superiority, simply by saying loudly and often that those old guys were stupid and stodgy and ignorant, with no redeeming values at all.  The Tudors did it to the previous rulers of England, the Edwardians did it to the Victorians (who did it to the Georgians), and the Baby Boomers did it to their parents's generation (so to speak.  Not blaming you, Mom.)

Now, medicine was the trickiest area to progress in, because so much of the human body's functions take place on a level unseeable by the human eye.  Medieval Christians were the first people to do dissection on human bodies, because nearly all other societies put very strong taboos on messing with dead bodies.  Galen had to do his anatomy studies on animals and extrapolate from there, and it was known that he got a lot wrong.  Hannam thinks that studies of the human body probably started with autopsies to determine cause of death.  But even so, what they could discover about the body didn't lead much of anywhere because they couldn't find out enough to really fix anything much.  It's great to know that blood circulates, but attempted transfusions were impossible until we figured out blood types.

There is a whole lot about astronomy, of course.  We get detailed summations of the studies of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo among others, and exactly what the scholars of the time thought about them.  Copernicus was a controversy, but apparently much of the objection was not so much theological as practical.  Many scholars thought heliocentric ideas theologically fine, but scientifically absurd.  The math didn't really work, and it took Kepler and his ellipses to solve the objection.  Kepler was an extremely religiously strict man, and studied the Bible carefully on this point.  He came to the conclusion that circular orbits were a Greek ideal; the Bible only required a reasonable universe and was OK with ellipses.

Hannam concludes, "...the most significant contribution of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages was to make modern science even conceivable.  They made science safe in a Christian context, showed how it could be useful and constructed a worldview where it made sense."

I really enjoyed this book of history and science, and I certainly learned a lot.  If you're fond of the Middle Ages, as I am, and kind of resent it when people talk about those times as an era completely dominated by oppression and superstition, this would be a great choice.