Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Classical World

The Classical World: An Epic History From Homer to Hadrian, by Robin Lane Fox

This book has been on my mental wish list for a long time, but the length put me off for a while. Once I decided to run the Greek Classics Challenge, though, I thought I'd better brush up my history and prepare by reading it. And I've finished just in time!

"Epic" is the right word to describe Fox's book, which covers nearly a thousand years of ancient history. That amount of material requires an organizing element, and Fox chose to use the Roman emperor Hadrian as a frame and reference point. Hadrian's reign is the final event of the book, and he was an emperor with "classicizing taste." He traveled over the whole Empire and did much to promote the styles we think of as classical.

We start off with Homer, and the first third or so of the book is all about ancient and classical Greece. Then it's on to Alexander and the Hellenistic Age, and the Roman Republic, which becomes the Roman Empire. The fairly short chapters make it easier to read, I think. There is so much to cover: wars, political intrigue, all the different forms of government, and then there's literature, society, family habits, and everything else. It's all too much to really take in at once, but Fox does a pretty good job at helping the reader to digest everything and get an idea of what was going on.

It's a good book and worth reading, but I hope you have plenty of time to devote to it. Slow down and try to absorb the history; this is a book that can't be rushed.

And with that, it's the end of the year! So I hope you all have a great 2012 ahead of you. Tomorrow we get to start reading the ancient Greeks!


Pershing: Commander of the Great War, by John Perry (The Generals series)

General John J. Pershing is probably the most-forgotten eminent general in American history. Before I read this biography, I knew the name but could not tell you what he did--and yet he was one of the most famous men of the early 20th century, and the first man to be appointed General of the Armies.

Overall, the book is a good short biography, excellent for those of us who want to learn but don't want to tackle one of those 800-page definitive biographies. It's readable, flows well, and is suitable for adults or high-school students interested in history. I thought it was fair to Pershing; it didn't whitewash his flaws or blame him for being a human being.

The book mainly focuses on Pershing's career and family relationships. There's not much about his childhood, but his life at West Point and in the military before World War I is thoroughly explained, and really interesting to read. Pershing served in the West, learning to get along with Native Americans and Mexicans; apparently he was quite good at peacemaking and helping everyone live with each other. This experience served him very well when he was posted to the Philippines and expected to quell the Muslim Moro minority, which was inclined to fight the Americans as much as they had fought the Spanish. Pershing did his best to make friends with the Moros and calm the tensions in the area, and he was very successful. I enjoyed reading about all of that.

The second half of the book is all about World War I. In 1917, the United States joined the Great War, and not a minute too soon as far as the Allies were concerned; they were about to collapse. General Pershing managed to annoy the other generals quite a lot by insisting on keeping his army out of the field until they were trained, and refusing to fill in French or British lines with American soldiers. The generals' anger is understandable, but Pershing was right and it's not an exaggeration to say that his leadership was instrumental in winning the war. Without his organization and competence, I think it's quite likely that Germany would have won. I was glad to learn more about World War I; we never seemed to learn much about it in school, and I don't like reading about it because it was so awful, but we live now in a world shaped by what happened then, and we should study it more.

I would recommend this title to anyone wanting to learn about World War I; unless you're going to get far more in-depth than most people ever manage to do, this should be on your pile of WWI books. It's a good overview of Pershing's life.

I received this book free from Booksneeze in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Theme Thursday

Theme Thursday is a reading meme hosted by Reading Between Pages. I'm not in the habit of doing these, but today I'll give it a try:

Theme Thursdays is a fun weekly event that will be open from one thursday to the next. Anyone can participate in it. The rules are simple:

  • A theme will be posted each week (on Thursdays)
  • Select a conversation/snippet/sentence from the current book you are reading
  • Mention the author and the title of the book along with your post
  • It is important that the theme is conveyed in the sentence (you don’t necessarily need to have the word)
As we are winding one year, we will hopefully cast away everything that is old and look forward for a brighter and more prosperous year. So look for the word OLD or anything that symbolizes it. (worn out, torn, past etc)

Today I'm reading all about something old in The Classical World, a giant history that spans from early Greek times to the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian. It's by Robin Lane Fox. In a chapter on Roman society during the reign of Caesar Augustus, Fox says:

"A reassertion of ancient dignity would appeal to new men who were newly arrived in high places; it persuaded them, Catos and Ciceros at heart, that their new eminence was indeed as sound and traditional as they had expected...He [Augustus] later wrote how he had brought back 'many examples of our ancestors which were disappearing from our age.'"

Augustus spent a lot of time trying to bring back old mores and encourage fertility; after 20 years of civil war, the population needed replenishment.

Reading the Middle Ages

Reading the Middle Ages, by Theodore L. Steinberg

Eva at A Striped Armchair recommended this to me and I thought I'd try to get it read before I start the Medieval Literature Challenge at the new year. I'm glad I did, because this is a really nice useful book. Steinberg has written an introduction to medieval literature that hooks you in and makes you want to read the works he describes.

The first section is a general introduction to the middle ages, and it's quite good, avoiding too many generalizations. After that each chapter focuses on one particular work or genre. There is a good variety here; as expected, there are chapters on Beowulf and Dante and Chaucer, but there are also sections on Jewish literature, The Tale of Genji, and French women writers such as Marie de France and Christine de Pisan. (After reading two books in a row that talk about Christine de Pisan, I've decided that the universe really wants me to read her book. Message received, universe!)

Steinberg's main goal is to help readers realize that although the Middle Ages can feel very strange to us, its literature is still relevant, not that difficult, and most of all enjoyable to read. To that end he keeps it fairly light while explaining historical context and the issues writers were addressing--some of which sound familiar even a thousand years later. As far as I'm concerned he succeeded, because now I would like to read every work he discussed. So this was a great book to fire my enthusiasm for the challenge.

It's not a long book, and would be an excellent introductory volume for a college student preparing to take some medieval literature courses. I wish I'd had it when I was a student! Someday I would like to purchase a copy for my kids to read when they're older (the joy of homeschooling: making your kids read anything you think is cool!).

I do sometimes wonder, though, why so many publishers choose pre-Raphaelite paintings for the covers of books on medieval topics. This one is Edward Burne-Jones' King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, and I'm not that wild about it. The story is a medieval legend, but is not addressed in Steinberg's book.

And for the record, my first pick for the Medieval Challenge is going to be Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. It's all ready to go.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Sometime in the mid-90's, somebody noticed a sentence in a scholarly article on Puritan funeral sermons by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. It read, "Well-behaved women seldom make history." The sentence got onto a t-shirt, and from there became a popular feminist bumper-sticker slogan. Ulrich was bemused by the sudden fame of her sentence, and this book is something of a response to it. She tells the story of the sentence and from there, launches into a discussion of women in history, well-behaved or otherwise.

Ulrich uses 3 particular women as her focus: the medieval French writer Christine de Pisan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Virginia Woolf. But they are just the platform from which we can learn about all sorts of women throughout history. I enjoyed the structure of the book, which meanders all over the place, but always in a way that makes sense. The whole thing was just great. Put this one on your shelf!

Christmas Books

Now I'm late and no one will want to read about Christmas books.

After The Country Child, the other Christmas book I wanted to read this year was Christmas Stories, an Everyman collection of short stories. They're arranged approximately chronologically, starting with Charles Dickens and ending with some modern selections. I particularly enjoyed stories by Trollope, Tolstoy, Willa Cather, and O. Henry (not the Magi one, a cowboy story), and I wasn't so wild about the modern ones.

If you'd like to know about my favorite Christmas books that I always like to read in December, they are both children's books. The Children of Green Knowe is part of the classic-but-forgotten series by L. M. Boston--I think it's really the first one. Tolly goes to visit his great-grandmother at her old manor house of Green Knowe and starts to meet the many inhabitants of the place, but some are ghosts. My husband read this aloud to our kids last year and thought it was completely weird and creepy, but it's really good! If you're an Anglophile and like old stories and legends, this series is necessary for you to read.

My other favorite is The Dark is Rising, which is the second book in Susan Cooper's series of the same name. Will turns 11 on Midwinter Day and is sent on a quest for 6 ancient signs that he must collect over the Christmas season. This is a great series for a kid who enjoys fantasy, and another good selection for anyone who likes old British legend.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas, as we did. The best part was that everyone in my extended family is employed, so that all by itself made it the best Christmas ever.

52 Books Wrapup!

Robin asked us these questions:

Did you reach the goal of 52 books or did you manage to beat your own personal best?

I blogged about over 100 books, so yep. I have no idea how that measures up to the quantity of books read in the past, but I had less time for reading this year so I expect I read less.

What book are you ending the year with?

I'm preparing for my Greek Classics challenge with The Classical World, and for the Medieval Challenge with Reading the Middle Ages (which I am loving, thank you Eva!).

Did you discover a new author or genre? Did you love them or hate them?

This year I discovered H. R. James, Joyce Dennys, and Erin Bow, among others. I guess if I read an author I didn't like, I didn't think of it as a discovery, more like a chore.

Did you challenge yourself to read more non fiction if prefer fiction or more fiction if you prefer non fiction?

No, I just read whatever I wanted. It turns out that I read almost exactly 50% of each--I counted up (for the first time ever) and got 71 fiction titles and 71 non-fiction, but that does not include mystery novels or other fluff I didn't bother to document, and most of that was probably fiction.

Did you read from a list or wing it?

I only read from a list when I have to, and I did with the Feminist Classics Challenge. Otherwise I winged it. I have a very hard time sticking to a list.

How many classics did you read? What did you think of the writing style or author?

I enjoyed reading Pushkin most, and I also really liked Trollope and Thackeray. And Nabokov too! But I don't know exactly how many I read.

Name one book that you thought you'd never read and was pleasantly surprised you like it.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

What are your top ten favorite books?

The Scent of Water

Nine Lives
Plain Kate
The Rational Optimist
Little Princes
The Con
Count Magnus and Other Stories
Who Killed Homer?
One of Our Thursdays Is Missing
Henrietta's War
end-of-year bonus: Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

What are your ten least favorite books?

What the Tortoise Taught Us
Radical Homemakers
Gender Trouble
The Twentieth Wife
The Beauty Myth
Farm City (I liked parts but not other parts)
The Secret History
The Fall of Troy

Did you start any books that you just simply couldn't finish?

The Twentieth Wife--I didn't bother to finish that one. And Gender Trouble. Any others I couldn't finish were forgotten. I often don't finish things if I don't like them, but then they don't get written down either.

What did you think of the mini challenges and did you join in or complete any?

I thought they were a good mix. I did the one about reading in different countries and got about 30.

Did your family join in on the fun?

No, but my older daughter sure does covet a book blog now.

How many books have you added to your wishlist since the beginning of the year?

Way too many, but I don't know a number.

What was your favorite thing about the challenge?

This is the challenge that got me started in book blogging and challenges, so I'm grateful to Robin because I'm having a lot of fun with it! I especially like how many WTM people participate so we can trade titles easily.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Week 52: The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding LinkParty, by Alexander McCall Smith

It's the latest installment of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency! I like these books. They are just nice. There's not much that can be called a mystery; really they're just stories about good people doing the best they can. This is something like #12 and I still like them.

Week 52: The Country Child

The Country Child, by Alison Uttley

I haven't read nearly as much by Alison Uttley as I would like to, but she's not easy to come by these days. She wrote quite a lot, but apparently most of it was picture books. I've had The Country Child for years, and I wanted to read it as a Christmas book, even though really the story goes through a whole year. The Christmas parts are what stuck in my head from my first reading.

Susan Garland lives on an isolated farm high in the hills, and the story simply follows her through a year. There is a lot of very detailed, very beautiful description of the country, the people, and the things in Susan's life. It's really a fictionalized version of Uttley's own childhood at the end of the 19th century. Americans will find it a bit similar to the "Little House" series, but of course with a very different feel.

The other Uttley book I have is probably her best-known, A Traveler in Time, about an adventure back to the life of Mary, Queen of Scots.

This cover is the one I have; it's a very old Peacock edition "for older children." It looks like it hasn't been in print in the US for quite some time, but is in the UK.

Week 52: Laika

Laika, by Nick Abadzis

I didn't like this graphic novel about the most famous Russian space dog ever as much as I hoped to. It's pretty good, and interesting, but I felt like Abadzis tried a little too hard to pull on our heartstrings. And the art wasn't my favorite.

The story starts with Sergei Pavlovich Korolev staggering out of a gulag. He's been recalled to to Moscow to have his case reviewed, but only if he doesn't freeze on the way there. His determination and a little luck keep him alive, and we skip to 1957 as Sputnik is launched. Korolev is the director of the Soviet space program now, but he still has to do whatever Khruschev orders--and what Khruschev orders is another launch within a month's time.

After that there are quite a few flashbacks about the Soviet space program, and Laika is introduced. She gets a fictional backstory. It takes about half the book to settle down to a single timeline and start preparations for Sputnik II (which is Laika's flight). Abadzis puts a lot of emphasis on the caregiver's emotional turmoil and on how special Laika is so as to get the maximum number of tears out of the reader. I thought that was a bit overdone and it would have been more effective just to let the story stand; there's plenty of pathos and emotional difficulty as is.

Here is a photo of the actual Laika:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Week 51: Torn

Torn, by Margaret Peterson Haddix

The is book #4 in Haddix' latest book series, a time-travel adventure with a whole cast of characters. Here, the brother-sister duo of Jonah and Katherine are thrown into 1611, onto Henry Hudson's voyage searching for the Northwest Passage. It's June, everything is frozen, everyone is starving, and time has broken down enough that the kids aren't sure what to do. And Captain Hudson seems kind of on the delusional side, and some of the crew are planning a mutiny...

I've liked this series so far and am looking forward to the rest of the series; there are going to be 7.

Haddix uses a device here that seems to be getting increasingly common. I'm noticing more boy/girl pairs as double protagonists--they may split up and have separate storylines, or stick together and work to solve their problem. I think it's a strategy to try to get more girl heroines in without breaking the common "rule" that boys won't read books about girls.

Week 51: Gaudy Night

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers

Dorothy Sayers is one of my favorites. In fact, the classical homeschooling philosophy I follow is based on a speech she gave, which kind of makes me boggle a bit. I just really enjoy her style, and have read some of her theological books as well as the mysteries. Gaudy Night is my favorite of the Wimsey mysteries--and he hardly appears in it, and there's no murder. Instead, the story focuses on Harriet Vane as she goes back to Oxford for the first time since her trial. She ends up staying in her old college for quite some time as she tries to figure out who is vandalizing things and writing poison pen letters.

Harriet spends a lot of time pondering questions that Sayers had a lot of opinions about--the difficulties (for women) of combining work and marriage, the importance of scholarly integrity, and suchlike. And as she ponders, she comes to realize a few things about herself and Lord Peter...

Week 51: The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch

Until quite recently, no one was really studying the ordinary adult brain. Scientists mainly studied children's development and the decline of mental abilities in the elderly. We made a lot of assumptions about how the adult brain works, and it turns out that many of them are wrong.

Adult brains are much more malleable than researchers had realized. Instead of starting a slow decline in adulthood, middle-aged adults can synthesize knowledge and draw on years of experience. They are calmer and happier, even if a bit slower and more scatter-brained. They can grow new neurons (exercise is especially good for this) and possibly even stave off the effects of Alzheimer's through education and interaction.

So this was a very interesting book with a lot of new science to learn.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

2011 Challenges Wrap-Up

I'm a few days early, but I'm going to wrap things up now.

The Year of Feminist Classics Challenge: I read nearly all the selections, but opted out of God Dies by the Nile, The Second Sex, and the academic anthology (I looked at it!). I'm pretty satisfied with that even though I don't get to tick all the boxes, but the real point is that I got to read a lot of great books and enjoyed them very much.

A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollestonecraft
So Long a Letter
by Mariama Ba
The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
God Dies by the Nile by Nawal Saadawi
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
Ain’t I a Woman? by bell hooks
Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism Anthology

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Victorian Literature Challenge: I originally aimed for the lowest level, but ended up at the highest, with 15 titles:

Idylls of the King, by Tennyson
The Professor, by Charlotte Brontë
Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Under the Greenwood Tree, by Thomas Hardy
The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope
Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Heir of Redclyffe, by Charlotte Yonge
The Frozen Deep, by Wilkie Collins
Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray
Victorian Tales of Mystery and Detection
Short prose selections by Alexander Pushkin
Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Phantastes, by George MacDonald

Take a Chance Challenge 3: This one was fun! And it really did get me reading some books I would not have picked up otherwise.

1: Staff Member’s Choice: Pnin, by Nabokov

2: Loved One’s Choice: The Russian's World AND The Twentieth Wife

3: Blogger’s Choice: Plain Kate, by Erin Bow

4: Critic’s Choice: The Age of Wonder

5: Blurb Book: Seeing Voices, by Oliver Sacks

6: Book Seer Pick: The Pedant and the Shuffly, by John Bellairs

7: What Should I Read Next Pick : Are Women Human? by Dorothy Sayers

8: Which Book Pick: Elegance

9: LibraryThing Pick: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

10: Pick A Method: The Mystic Grail AND On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Finally, The 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge! I read way more than that this year (I tried to have two for every week and nearly succeeded), so this is completed. Don't worry, I'm not going to list them all. I also tried the Read Around the World Mini-Challenge, and if you look at my lovely map on the sidebar you can see that I read in a bunch of states and countries. I think I covered 29-30 countries and 26 states. I found that I am pretty hopeless about the Southern Hemisphere, especially South America and Australia, and also I read an awful lot about the UK. Kind of embarrassing... In the US, it turns out that most non-fiction writers live on the East Coast.

I'm happy with all I've gotten read this year and am looking forward to the new 2012 challenges a lot!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Feminist Classics: Sister Outsider

Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde

This collection of essays, speeches, and other pieces by Audre Lorde was worth reading (and in my view better than the last one on our list!). The pieces that interested me most tended to be the ones that recounted Lorde's personal experiences: an essay about a visit to the USSR, excerpts from an interview, and "Eye to Eye."

I don't know that I have a lot of amazing insight into the book, but it was an excellent addition to this year's list of feminist works. This book also wraps up the list! Stay tuned for a possible continuation of the project.

Mixing It Up Challenge

I know, this is going a bit overboard, but I like this one! It's the Mixing It Up Challenge hosted by Ellie at Musings of a Bookshop Girl.

Here are the rules:

  • Read one book from each of the challenge categories, using the guidelines above. Don't use the same book for more than one category!
  • The challenge will run until December 31st 2012, so you can sign up any time during the year.
  • Create a blog post for the challenge, to keep track of what you've read. Add review links for each completed book so we can see how you're getting on. My post, for example, looks like THIS.
  • The URL you leave in the Mr Linky MUST be a direct link to your challenge post, not to your blog homepage - I don't have time to comb through several months' worth of posts searching for it as the year wears on!
  • Leave a comment on this post with your blog name (so I can match you to your Linky entry) and your chosen level of participation.
  • Bookmark this post so you can come back later! I'll be adding links to update posts over the year, plus you'll have the category guidelines handy if you need them!
  • At the end of the year, everyone who has read along and hit their chosen target will be entered into a bookish giveaway. Prizes to be determined!

And here are the levels:

  • MEASURING JUG: Playing it safe with 1-4 categories
  • CUPCAKE MIX: Livening things up with 5-8 categories
  • MIXING BOWL: Branching out with 9-12 categories
  • TWO-TIER CAKE: Getting ambitious with 13-15 categories
  • ALL THE TRIMMINGS AND A CHERRY ON TOP: Going for gold with the full 16!

I am feeling greedy as usual and will be going for the full 16. Here are the categories:

1. Classics  The Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens
2. Biography And There Was Light, by Jacques Lusseyran
3. Cookery or food A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg
4. History A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century, by Barbara Tuchman
5. Modern Fiction: Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
6. Graphic Novel/Manga Feynman, by Ottaviani and Myrick
7. Crime/Mystery Hopjoy Was Here, by Colin Watson
8. Horror The Haunted Dolls' House and Other Stories, by M. R. James
9. Romance  Midnight in Austenland, by Shannon Hale
10. SF/Fantasy  The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
11. Travel  Lovely is the Lee, by Robert Gibbings
12. Poetry/Drama The Merchant of Venice, by Shakespeare
13. Journalism/Humor Henrietta Sees It Through, by Joyce Dennys
14. Science/Natural History Why Darwin Matters, by Michael Shermer
15. Children's/YA Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor
16. Social sciences/Philosophy  Unnatural History, by Mara Hvistendahl

I'm looking forward to adding this challenge to the pile. The funny thing is, that I'm seeing a lot of book bloggers out there now who have more challenges than this and who read quite a bit more than I if you think I'm bad, just look around a little more!

Finished November 3!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Feminist Classics: Gender Trouble

Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler

This book is famous for its impenetrability, and the reputation is deserved. Butler's prose will leave most people confused and frustrated, and that includes me. I am conceding defeat on this one; I got about halfway through it, and my ILL copy has to go back.

A fairly easy sentence taken at random from page 7 reads, "As a result, gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which "sexed nature" or "a natural sex" is produced and established as "prediscursive," prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts." The liberal use of quotation marks is a consistent feature of the book, since Butler is trying to question the meaning of all the words.

To me it read as a more opaque version of the kind of academic prose that seeks to impress readers through jargon. I'm not sure I buy the necessity of that kind of language. Too often it seems to be either padding, or covering up for a lack of clarity. Butler's claim is that her writing had to be extremely difficult to read in order to say things that ordinary language could not say, and in order to shake up the status quo. I am not sure I buy that either.

I wanted to read and understand the whole book, because it's quite an influential one. We are all living with a few consequences of Butler's ideas, so I want to understand where they came from. And besides, Butler is a professor in my very own academic program! Though I never took a class from her.

So, I lose, but at least I gave it a shot.

The Improvement of the Mind

The Improvement of the Mind, by Isaac Watts

One of the things I really love about having a tablet with e-reader apps is that I can get old and obscure books --for free! --that I can't easily get in real life. Isaac Watts' Improvement of the Mind is one of the first books I downloaded, and it's been a reading project for a while now. My copy is 400 pages long, and quite old--a second edition from 1743, printed in that old-fashioned script where nouns are capitalized and most of the S's look like F's. It's a copy from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, which also made me happy.

Isaac Watts is most famous for his hymns and poetry, but he was also a well-known theologian and logician. His handbook of logic (which I've also downloaded!) was the definitive work on the subject for many years, and Improvement of the Mind was a follow-up work, all about self-education. I originally heard of it in a lecture on self-education for busy moms by my favorite homeschooling theorist, Susan Wise Bauer. She quotes Watts' encouragement for those of us who feel unqualified to tackle difficult works: "acquaint yourself with your own ignorance, and ... impress your mind with a deep and painful sense of the low and imperfect degrees of your present knowledge..." His point is that everyone is ignorant, so don't worry and dive in.

It's got quite a lot of good stuff to think about, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. His style is nice and clear, and I found it quite easy to read. Here are some of my favorite bits that struck me as entirely relevant to the modern reader:

On our natural mental defences against losing an argument:
When Truth with bright Evidence is ready to break in upon a Disputant, and to overcome his Objections and Mistakes, how swift and ready is the Mind to engage Wit and Fancy, Craft and Subtilty, to cloud and perplex and puzzle the Truth, if possible? How eager is he to throw in some impertinent Question to divert from the main Subject? How swift to take hold of some occasional Word, thereby to lead the Discourse off from the Point in Hand? So much afraid is human Nature of parting with its Errors, and being overcome by Truth."

On the advantages and disadvantages of debate:
But there are some very grievous inconveniences that may sometimes overbalance all these advantages. For many young students, by a constant habit of disputing, grow impudent and audacious, proud and disdainful, talkative and impertinent, and render themselves intolerable by an obstinate humour of maintaining whatever they have asserted, as well as by a spirit of contradiction, opposing almost every thing that they hear. The disputation itself often awakens the passions of ambition, emulation, and anger; it carries away the mind from that calm and sedate temper which is so necessary to contemplate truth.

And this is such a good description of my own distractibility that I should probably print this out and stick it on my mirror as a reminder to focus:
In the pursuit of every valuable subject of knowledge, keep the end always in your eye, and be not diverted from it by every pretty trifle you meet with in the way. Some persons have such a wandering genius, that they are ready to pursue every incidental theme or occasional idea, till they have lost sight of their original subject.

So I found it very worthwhile reading.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Week 50: Evil Genes

Why are some people so manipulative and rotten? What could be the causes of sociopathy, narcissism, or borderline personality syndrome? Inspired by her manipulative older sister (who really did steal her mother's boyfriend!), Oakley looks into the complex and poorly-understood reasons behind Machiavellianism.

The chapters alternate between describing cases of the "successfully sinister" from Mao to Skilling and heavy-duty neuroscience. Some of it is fascinating, and some is awful, and some is depressing. Oakley points out historical events influenced by Machiavellians; chaotic circumstances tend to allow them to rise to leadership positions.

For me, one of the major lessons in this book was this: "...emote control allows our best traits--love, caring, loyalty, and trust--to be used as manipulative levers....the successfully sinister have no compunction about using our best intentions to further their own purposes--and themselves. By believing a heartbreaking speech about how important it is for us to be treated "fairly," or a tale of how we've been victimized, or a plea to put our hearts and minds toward helping others, we may be doing our tiny part to stoke the fires and empower a Machiavellian. It is bitter balm indeed to learn how easily Machiavellians can use our own neurological quirks to fool us into actively working against the very ideals we hold most dear." (p.192)

Week 50: Wildwood

Wildwood, by Colin Meloy

One day, Prue takes her baby brother Mac to the park to play, and is horrified when a murder of crows suddenly appears to grab Mac and fly away with the Impassable Wilderness. Prue and her tag-along friend Curtis set out for the Wilderness to save her brother, but first they find a country in a state of war, an evil madwoman queen, and a lot of talking animals.

The story is set in a fictionalized (and either way in the future or alternate-universe) version of Portland's Forrest Park, and the geography is just the same. I had some fun studying a map of the real Portland and noting that the bridges and so on are put directly into the book. But in the story, the park is the Impassable Wilderness to outsiders and a small collection of countries inside.

The two friends lose each other right away, and each has an adventure to tell. Curtis' story spends half its time feeling too much like Edmund's in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but otherwise it's a pretty good read. The protagonists are twelve, and strong readers between 10 and 12 would enjoy this, especially if they are already fans of long adventure/fantasy novels. It's perfectly good for teens as well (though they might not want their friends watching).

Although the book is long enough to be a trilogy all by itself (it's nearly 600 pages), it's called Book I. The author, Colin Meloy, is a first-time author, but you might recognize his wife Carson Ellis' illustrations. Really they seem to have created the whole thing together, and the protagonists are somewhat modelled on them.

I thought it was a good read, pretty well-done, but not in the top tier of fantasy adventures.

Week 50: On the Wasteland

On the Wasteland, by Ruth M. Arthur

This is an old children's book that is now almost forgotten, but I thought it was very good. It's too bad no one hears about it any more. My local library has one of the few library copies left in the US, so when I heard about it, I could get it easily.

Betony is an orphan girl living in a group home in Suffolk. Although she has no family, she knows that her mother was from Suffolk and feels a strong attachment to the local land. And when she spends time on a piece of waste land that was a harbor 1000 years ago, she is taken back to a time when Vikings and Saxons were neighbors and enemies.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

OK, One More Challenge...

...but I was already going to do this anyway! The Where Are You Reading Challenge is simple; you just put all your books on a Google map, exactly as I did this year. Only now I can look at other readers' maps too!

You can see my 2011 map on my sidebar. It shows that I have shamefully neglected Australia and South America this year, that I have a bad case of Anglophilia, and that American writers live disproportionately on the East Coast--most of my general non-fiction books seem to have ended up there.

Here's the link to my completely empty 2012 map. I'll start adding to it in January. Whee!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Week 49: The Death Cure

The Death Cure, by James Dashner

It's the final book in the Maze Runner trilogy! In this volume you'll see a lot more of the world and find out the whys and wherefores of the story. Plenty of dystopian post-apocalyptic fun for everyone! I enjoyed this trilogy and look forward to seeing more from Dashner.

Week 49: Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Cinderella Ate My Daughter, by Peggy Orenstein

Who could resist a title like that? Although I have read enough "advertising and modern culture are oppressing our children" books to fill a wheelbarrow, I had to read this one too. Orenstein focuses on the pink and glittery girly-girl culture that has risen up since about 2000--I actually didn't realize it was so recent, since my own daughter was born in that year. I've never really seen a toy store without swathes of pink glitter everywhere.

Did you know that Disney Princess merchandise only dates from 10 or so years ago? I didn't. Apparently Disney's merchandising department wasn't doing too well until someone noticed that little girls were all wearing homemade princess outfits. And why let people sew their own when you could sell them one with a character on it? Five seconds later you could buy absolutely anything with a Disney princess on it.

The analysis was mostly fine, if not terribly surprising. She covers the rise of Disney princess mania, toddler beauty contests (happily with more depth than usual), and media for older girls such as Hannah Montana and online culture. I read the book quickly and with great interest. I was kind of irritated by Orenstein's thoughts about American Girl dolls, though. She complains about the high prices and plethora of expensive accessories and clothes, even as the books try to push an anti-materialistic message. I can understand her annoyance at the price tag (that's why I've never bought the furniture and sew all the clothes myself), but in just the previous chapter, she praises the high quality of Shirley Temple dolls, noting that during the Depression they cost four times as much as other dolls--just as American Girl dolls do today.

The section on neurodevelopment in children and why little kids get obsessed with defining things as 'boy' or 'girl' around age 4 was quite interesting. I think I learned most there. One side-effect of that chapter has been to get me thinking a little bit about those folks who pop up every few years with a baby whose gender they refuse to reveal. I always thought this was a harmless--if slightly silly--experiment, but knowing a little more about how children come to define themselves, I'm now wondering if it isn't a pretty bad idea.

If you have a daughter, especially a small one, this is a reasonable book.

Week 49: Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick

I was so excited when I saw this in the bookstore! I loved The Invention of Hugo Cabret and this story is similarly structured, with over half the book taken up with illustrations. But this story is also quite different. It concerns two children living 50 years and several states away from each other. One story is told in images, the other in words, but they intersect often and finally merge together.

I really enjoyed the stories and the art, and I'm so glad that Selznick decided to do another one. It must take a tremendous amount of work and time to create so many detailed illustrations.

My older daughter also loved Wonderstruck and I'm hoping to get my younger one to read it too. (She's picky and doesn't like to read anything she doesn't already know she enjoys.) Put this one on your list for sure!