Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Matchbox that ate a Forty-Ton Truck - Marcus Chown

Originally linked off of BoingBoing, I think this is the best physics book for non-physicists that I've ever read. Chown takes a really nice approach - picking something in the everyday world that you've probably noticed, and maybe wondered about, maybe not, and then linking it to some aspect of physics which we don't have any intuition about. For example, he points out that if you look out the window you can see your own faint reflection in the glass, as well as what's outside the window - because quantum effects are random, and some photons are randomly being reflected by the glass while others pass through. If the world were totally deterministic, then they would all either get reflected, or pass through, but it isn't - it's quantum, and the quantum world is dominated by probabilities.

It isn't all quantum physics. He throws in a lot of information about elementary particles, strong and weak nuclear force, the big bang, and finishes off with aliens. His style of constantly relating unfamiliar things back to the familiar really makes this book easy to read, and not get totally lost in like many popular physics books. Additionally the fact that each chapter stands alone means there's less chance of getting stuck on a concept and having to give up. It is written at a level that anyone with a high school physics education could read it (I think), but there were only a couple times where I felt irritated by unnecessary levels of detail. If you've got a degree in astronomy or particle physics, this would probably be boring, but I really felt like I learned something. There wasn't a lot that I hadn't seen before, but it was put together in a way that was interesting, and helped me make a lot of new connections.

So, if you like popular physics books, I think you'll love this one. If you're scared of popular physics books, you'll probably still really enjoy it. Chown manages to simplify some really difficult concepts without oversimplifying, and communicate them in a really engaging way. I definitely want to acquire a copy of this book if only to lend it around to everyone.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fool's Run - Patricia McKillip

I love Patricia McKillip and I've read most of her fantasy novels, but this is the first SF novel of her's that I've encountered. I wasn't actually aware she had written any SF, and while it is certainly SF rather than fantasy, it has a lot more in common with her fantasy novels than with most other SF. Which is to say that her very unique voice plays just as well with space opera as with fairies. Not that this is space opera. I could totally see this same story, or a variant on it, working quite nicely in a fantasy setting, but there are so many elements to it that benefit from being set in a far-future society.

It is a story, set mostly on earth, or in near-earth orbit, of a band called Nova who get contracted to play a gig on "The Underworld", a prison colony orbiting the earth, which is going to be their ticket to fame and fortune. The Magician is the leader of the band, very interested in old-fashioned music, and slightly psychic. The Queen of Hearts is their 'cuber', cubes being a fancy new sort of drum incorporating some interesting visual effects, who is very obviously an enigma, and who subs in for their regular cuber at the last minute. The mystery of her past is unveiled as they reach the Underworld, and she is linked with the prisoner, Terra Viridian, who killed 1500 people 7 years ago for absolutely no reason.

There's a lot of psychic occurrences which give this the feel of a fantasy set in space. People acting on hunches, events converging, odd coincidences which may or may not be coincidental. But there are bits here and there that really benefit from the future tech. The instruments played by the band members are fabulous, as are the visual effects they use on stage. I don't know any other author who could possibly get you to imagine the sound and light show. The access system for the Underworld is quite futuristic and adds a lot. Radio communications is also really vital to the plot - being able to have people in physical different locations but communicating with each other in a semi-public fashion isn't something you can manage easily in a fantasy setting. So this isn't just a fantasy novel set in space, it really uses the technology, but it still manages to feel more like fantasy than SF.

A lovely story, like all of McKillip's other books it actually lets me see the world she's describing and in this particular case, hear it too.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Thomas the Rhymer - Ellen Kushner

Reviewed by Jo Walton over on This is a retelling of the fairy tale of True Thomas, and it is just beautiful. It is set in the past - Scotland in the 1300s - and the story is told in four voices. First we have Gavin, an old farmer, telling us about Thomas, the brash young harper who has wandered into Gavin's heart and home on his travels. Then Thomas continues the story as he is taken into Fairyland and lives there for 7 years as the consort of the Queen of Fairyland. Then Meg, Gavin's wife, takes up the tale when Thomas returns from Fairyland and tries to learn how to live life as a man again. Finally we have Elspeth, in love with Thomas before he vanished, and coming to love him again on his return - although this isn't easy as they have both been changed by the passage of time and the events of life, telling the tale of his life as a man unable to lie - and with the ability to see into the future.

The story is beautiful, and the style in which it is told is just wonderful. I love that it doesn't end with Thomas returning from Fairyland, and that the world has not stood still while he was away. People have changed, and Thomas has changed, and adjusting to these changes is not easy for anyone. Elspeth certainly didn't sit around waiting for Thomas to come home. Gavin has a great deal of trouble accepting that Thomas has been in Fairyland and isn't simply making up a new story. The personalities of the four main characters are wonderful, and having them each narrate different portions of the story is wonderful. You get to know each of them, but without the discontinuity of changing narrators every chapter as most stories would do. Thomas's adventures in Fairyland are also fascinating, but not quite as compelling as the rest of the story, however the song he writes while he is there is fabulous.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Primate's Memoir - Robert Sapolsky

This book is a lot of things all at once. It is the story of the time Robert Sapolsky spent in Africa studying a troupe of baboons (several months a year, over many many years), the story of how he grows up as a person and as a scientist, and it is the story of how a scientist can get so absorbed in a particular problem that they really can't see it from the outside anymore.

Yet another recommendation from Jo Walton's blog. In fact, I don't think I could possibly write a better summary of it than she has. Especially what she has to say about the way he writes about animals and people.

I especially enjoyed learning what it is like to do this sort of research, where you spend months in the field, in very different conditions than your normal life, and then head back home to the lab again. Towards the end of the book many of the local baboons are getting sick, and there's a real mystery that Sapolsky has to solve - how are they getting sick and what needs to be done to stop it. He solves the mystery - figures out exactly where the illness is coming from. It isn't curable, but it is definitely preventable - except that in order to prevent it from spreading involves some local politics. There are some folks involved in totally illegal dealings who are making a lot of money, and incidentally making the baboons very sick. He is quite ready to point a finger at everything that's going on, to him the baboons are every bit as important as any individual human being, and yet when he goes to folks higher up, they are very reluctant to do anything about the situation. I was so involved in the story that I was every bit as incensed as he was that these scams were allowed to continue and endanger innocent lives...and then eventually things are explained fully. The ramifications of getting certain people into trouble on the whole park system and all the efforts at conservation that were going on. Simply heading to the authorities and solving this particular problem might help these specific baboons right now, but in the long run would probably hurt them, and would definitely hurt the overall conservation efforts, the park system, access to these areas for scientists. As a scientist you get really stuck in your little corner, working on your particular problem, and it is really easy to stop looking at the rest of the world. If you let yourself become too distracted you won't make any progress on your own work, but every so often you do have to take that step back and realize that there's a much bigger picture, that everyone has to deal with politics at some level, and that no matter how important what you're working on is, other things are important too. Some of them so important that you've just been taking them for granted.

This is a brilliant story. Sapolsky writes beautifully and the prose just flows. But at the same time as entertaining, he also manages to teach you a lot - about baboons, about being a scientist, about life in Africa, and about respect for people in general. This is a book I'd love to own, just to pass it around to everyone I know.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Matter of Magic - Patricia C. Wrede

No idea where I read the review for this anymore, but the combination of a Regency setting, magic, and a young female heroine disguised as a boy on the streets of London sounded totally charming. And it was.

Kim is a street thief when she gets hired to search the wagon of Mairelon the Magician. He turns out to be an actual magician, rather than just a street performer, and convinces Kim that she should be working for him. She is incredibly drawn to Mairelon, at first to the lifestyle he is offering (meals! a safe place to sleep! warm clothes!) but then to Mairelon himself. The story feels very much like the Georgette Heyer Regency Romance novels I read a while back, but with lots of fun street slang to figure out.

One thing I especially liked about this was the relationship between Kim & Mairelon. There's obviously lots of suspicion initially, she's breaking into his caravan, he's offering her something that seems way too good to be true, but they both obviously really like each other, and enjoy one another's company. There aren't a whole lot of stupid miscommunications, and when confronted with things, they are open and honest. As usual, I just love reading a book where I'm not constantly wanting to smack one character or another upside the head.

Final note, the cover art is totally gorgeous. I'd love to have this as a full-sized poster. Or possibly I just want the dress she's wearing.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend

Cory Doctorow wrote about this series on BoingBoing, and the concept intrigued me. Adrian Mole is aging at the same rate as Cory...and just a bit older than myself. Cory's been reading them since they first came out, and I suspect this book in particular probably appeals to a 13 year old boy far more than it does to me, but I'm still inclined to keep reading even though I didn't find this story quite as compelling as Cory evidently did.

Townsend's gift is to make you choke with laughter and tears at once, to create a nebbishy antihero who is both terrible and lovable, and to torture him mercilessly for our benefit and edification.

This is the sort of comment that I read and think "Yes, this sounds fabulous" and then I start reading and realize that in fact, I don't really like anti-heros, and it bothers me when they are tortured unnecessarily, especially when they are the ones doing the stupid things and not realizing it. But I think that the reason I don't enjoy it might be the same reason that I had trouble enjoying Seinfeld - I hadn't realized that Seinfeld was supposed to be satire (they're charicatures, not characters), and this is supposed to be humor, not torture. We're encouraged to laugh at Adrian when he's being stupid, and to enjoy watching him do the occasional non-stupid thing. I do have a lot of difficulty watching people do stupid things, I find it incredibly irritating, and yet there's a really loveable side to Adrian which mostly you just get to see through other people's reactions to him.

The story is written as his private diary, and he really comes off as insufferable at first. He's a teenage boy and definitely sees himself as the center of the universe, as well as way more intelligent than anyone else out there. He sure doesn't cut his parents any slack initially, but then as the story goes on, you realize that they definitely don't deserve it. He's laughably oblivious to the things going on in their lives, as children should be, but then he's forced to deal with the fact that neither of his parents actually have their lives together yet. His descriptions of his mother's interactions with the next-door-neighbor, Mr. Lucas, as the Lucases are going through their divorce, are totally hilarious because you can see exactly where this whole thing is headed, even though Adrian can't. His parents separation and his mother's descent into total self-indulgence is quite funny, mostly because of everyone else's reactions to it. Even though her behaviour is absolutely atrocious, it very clearly doesn't scar Adrian the way you might imagine if you were reading this story from any viewpoint other than his personal diary.

Adrian joins a club which is supposed to help the elderly for some very selfish reasons of his own, and yet once he gets used to Bert, his assigned person, it becomes clear that Adrian is actually an incredibly caring and unselfish person. He can be very self-aggrandizing when he wants to, and when he thinks it is going to get him attention or praise, but put him in a situation where someone is in need and he is able to help - and he just jumps right in and helps. For me, this was the turning point, once I saw how much Bert obviously liked Adrian, it became clear that Adrian wasn't just a stupid little kid who deserved my scorn...he just liked to think of himself that way.

And then there's Adrian's girlfriend, Pandora. She starts out dating his best friend Nigel (even though Nigel knows that Adrian likes her!), and then some other guy, but finally winds up with Adrian, and actually stays with Adrian for much longer than you might expect, especially considering that he got her deodorant as a Christmas present. The phone bills the two of them manage to rack up are quite hilarious.

On the whole, definitely not the sort of book I usually read, I did enjoy it (once I managed to start liking Adrian rather than just being irritated by him), and I think I might have a slightly easier time with it as Adrian gets older.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

I've been a big fan of Neil Gaiman ever since Matt lent me the Sandman series back in undergrad. I don't remember when I started reading his journal regularly, but I've been reading it for many years now, and it is just awesome because I get to find out when all his new stuff is coming out. And that can be tricky, because he doesn't just stick to one genre or age category. Mostly I love everything I've read - a few of his short stories I haven't quite puzzled out yet, and some of his earlier stuff is a bit too dark for me, but I always enjoy it.

Anansi Boys is one of my favorites. It has scary bits, but there are lots of lighthearted and fun bits to balance those out. There's a lot of depth, and much to think about, but you don't need a serious background in comparative mythology to puzzle out who all the characters are, there is more than enough background material included in the book for everything to make sense. I suspect that a deeper understanding of African mythology would make the book even more interesting, but it isn't necessary.

Fat Charlie Nancy is living a totally unremarkable, and rather boring life. He has a boring little flat in London, a boring little fiancee who only started dating him because her mother disliked him so intently, and and extraordinarily boring little job. Fat Charlie is enjoying his boring little life, and fantasizing about how wonderful things will be once he and Rosie actually get married, right up until the day his irascible and thoroughly embarrassing father manages to die in the most embarrassing way imaginable (at least to Charlie), and is revealed to have been not just any old man, but in fact Anansi, the trickster god of African & Caribbean mythology. Also, Charlie discovers that he has a brother, Spider. Spider is the exact opposite of Charlie. Spider has no fear of social situations, and commonly has a string of women dangling off of him. He doesn't have a job, but he does have lots of money, and he appears to have inherited all of their father's magic. Spider waltzes right into Charlie's life, moves into his spare room, steals his fiancee, ruins his job, and lands him in jail. Charlie attempts to retaliate, bungles things horribly (with the help of some little old ladies who really were trying to help), and they both wind up on the run for their lives from some supernatural beings who are well and truly pissed off with Anansi. And don't mind taking this out on his sons. Charlie and Spider team up and eventually manage to overcome the supernatural threat to themselves, and then sort out the rest of the situation. In the process Charlie learns a lot about himself and all the things he has been repressing because of who his father was. It is a fabulous and hilarious adventure as well as a wonderful story about the power of stories.

Ultimately though, I think this is a coming of age story. But not a teenage story, it is the coming of age of people who already thought they had found their place in the world - except that it was the place they had wound up as a result of their parents, their community, and their own fears. It is about bursting free of artificial confines and becoming the person you actually want to be, deep down, doing the things that make you feel most alive, even if they scare you sometimes. It's about not letting yourself be defined by the bad things that have happened to you, and letting yourself love people, even if you don't always like them.

The story is wonderful. Lots of action, lots of insanity, wonderful little bits of magic. A lime. Fabulous characters. This is one that I will read over and over again, like going to visit an old friend.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


This past weekend involved almost no reading at all, but this seems like as good a place as any to write about it.

The whole Stanisz lab took off to Killarney for 4 days. It was a bit of a gong-show, we had several people who had never been canoe camping before, and a seriously staggered start (group 1 set out Friday morning, group 2 Friday afternoon, and group 3 Saturday morning - having waited for the last person to fly in from Cuba on Friday night), and one group needing to be back in Toronto fairly early on Monday. Also, we were going in September, when the weather can be pretty iffy. So we needed a really flexible plan: 2 nights on Balsam Lake, followed by 1 night on Bell Lake which was right next to the put-in.

We spent the first 2 nights on Balsam lake - about 7km of paddling, and only 30m of portage. It threatened to rain in the morning, but wound up being absolutely beautiful by the time we finally got into our canoes. Nicole was supposed to come along, but wound up being too sick, so Sky & Firas shared a canoe, and I soloed mine. In retrospect, switching to an 18 ft canoe would have made more sense, but I really liked the prospect of having my very own canoe - and there was the whole argument I was having with Sky about how fast one can actually solo a canoe - he was convinced it would be about 30% of the speed of a 2-man canoe, and I was convinced it was significantly higher. I did really well on Bell & Three Mile Lakes, going at least 50% of the guys speed (although every time I glanced up at them, Sky was giving Firas paddling lessons and they were just drifting along...and I was starting to get a wee bit demoralized), then the little portage, and I set off happily, figuring we were almost there and feeling very proud of myself for having managed so well...and then the wind picked up. Everything was going ok for about 10 minutes, I angled myself so that I was still mostly moving in the right direction, but I was having to paddle really hard, on my off side, and I was already a bit worn out. Eventually I had to swap sides, which meant that the direction the wind now forced me to go in was not at all the right direction (and in fact, looked to the guys in the other boat like I was headed straight back to the portage!). I probably could have gotten there eventually, basically tacking back and forth across the lake, but I would have totally worn myself out, so they came back and attached a tow rope. Definitely a frustrating end to the adventure!

We had been hoping to get the two sites on a tiny island up at the very end of Balsam lake, but the first group had headed up there only to find them already occupied, so we wound up camping on another island, located in the middle of a cranberry bog. Probably not the best site in the summer, but it was late enough that there were no bugs at all. Turned out there was a muskrat super-highway going right past our camp, which was pretty cool.

Everyone was remarkably uninterested in dinner, but the homemade halal sausages and "sh'mores" later on around the campfire were a huge hit. Saturday morning started out with scattered showers, but then got down to several hours worth of serious rain. Luckily we'd brought the world's most enormous tarp which, while it looked pretty silly, did an absolutely awesome job of keeping us out of the wind and rain. Firas retreated to his tent to study and sleep, Kim tested the waterproofing on her gear in order to continue fishing, and the rest of us lounged under the tarp and chatted with the resident loon who was really curious about these strange people who didn't seem to like the rain very much - he was only about 10 ft offshore, and swam back and forth staring at us for at least an hour. Eventually the rain was coming down hard enough that a giant puddle started to encroach on our shelter, so Kim gave up on fishing and started digging a drainage ditch.

Eventually the rain let up, just as the final group arrived at Bell Lake and put in. I spent the afternoon napping and reading (sitting there watching the rain fall had been pretty exhausting) and we waited for the others to show up. Conveniently they rounded the point just as people started asking about dinner (which was arriving with group 3). After dinner we drank mulled wine and roasted sausages on the campfire until we thought we were going to burst.

Sunday morning we mostly got up early. Rafal, Lucy & Eve were headed off to hike up to the top of Silver Peak, and do a complete loop (involving several long portages) to get back to Bell Lake. The rest of us were headed back the way we'd come for a much more relaxing day. Which turned out to be a really good thing as Greg's migraine hadn't gone away overnight. We set out just after lunch, had a nice relaxing paddle, and then Sky & I left folks napping in their canoes while we headed off to scout out campsites. We found the most amazing site - space for two separate groups of tents, nice private thunder-box, gorgeous campfire site with some nice dry wood already waiting for us, bear-hang, and clothesline. We got camp all set up, had a quick swim, then Sky, Colleen & I headed out in one canoe to meet up with the three hikers. I'd been hoping to at least hike along the portage trail, but we managed to time things so closely that we arrived only minutes before they walked out of the woods. In another remarkable feat of timing, Adrienne & Kim had dinner almost ready as we got back to the camp - we hadn't been sure the fuel on the campstove would hold out, and they used up the very last of it just as Raf arrived with more.

Then we sat around a campfire until way way too late stuffing ourselves on sausages and roasted marshmallows. The fact that we had 2lbs of sausages and 2 full packages of marshmallows left over was a little astonishing. The 4 loaves of bread that didn't get eaten were a bit less astonishing given the amount of stuffing ourselves with sausages that was going on in the evenings.

Monday morning was bright and sunny. Greg was finally feeling up to enjoying himself and we lounged around on the rocks eating breakfast and drinking tea and hot chocolate. It was so warm that by the time we set out I was down to only a t-shirt. The sun was bright, hardly a cloud in the sky, and no wind at all. Soloing my canoe back to the put-in was no problem at all - I felt on top of the world. I love being all on my own in a canoe, with the whole lake spreading out in front of me. It's been a really long time since I've felt completely healthy and like I could actually rely on my body. It's such a wonderful feeling. Of course I pushed it just a bit too hard (really should have gotten Sky to drive all the way home) and wound up collapsing into bed at 7pm and sleeping 12 hours straight! Next camping trip I definitely have to bring my little inflatable pillow. Stuffing a pillowcase with my winter fleece just didn't cut it. My ears are just way too fragile.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Possession - A.S. Byatt

I read "The Children's Book" by Byatt not too long ago, drawn in by the cover art, and totally enthralled by it. I was also a little confused by it, as literary fiction is way outside the realm of what I ordinarily read, and so I went looking for other people's opinions on the internet, and was directed by many random strangers to go read Possession. And so I did. Because I always do what the internet tells me to do. Ahem.

Then I stumbled across a cheap copy in a used book store, and the rest is history. In a lovely coincidence, Emily over at Evening All Afternoon was also reading it at the same time, and just happened to post a review on the very same day that I finished reading Possession. Which was just awesome, since I had totally missed many literary allusions, and parallels with other poets.

Possession is a couple love stories, all wrapped up in a mystery. It is set in the 1980s, where two academics, one studying Christabel LaMotte and the other studying Randolph Henry Ash, start investigating a possible correspondence between these two authors, and in the process uncover a mystery. It is gorgeously written with lots of fictional excerpts from the various authors and their critics. Initially I was rather baffled by the logic of studying the personal lives of long dead authors, but by the end of this story I understood how it would help to interpret their writings, and why this would be desirable. Everything written, has been written for a particular audience, and so understanding the audience helps to understand what has been written. But also, understanding what is written can help you to learn more about the audience. It can really wind up looking like morbid curiosity, but interesting things do come out of it.

The story is lovely, but one of the most fascinating things for me was seeing the process of research in a field that is not my own. And seeing the effect which the internet has had on research. In the story, the characters have to write each other letters. Answering machines don't exist, personal cell phones, email -- the characters wind up having to write each other letters, and leave messages which don't necessarily get delivered. People have to travel in order to look at new manuscripts - they can't just be scanned and emailed. And then you get to contrast this with the period these scholars are studying - where there wasn't even a telephone - communications were either letters, or face to face.

The whole book was beautiful. I just loved the bits of poetry interspersed. I have a lot of trouble reading poetry, so it was rough going at times, but totally worth it, especially since I would then get to read various characters discussing the poetry, and see how fuller understanding of the poets lives led to new views of the poem. Totally fascinating and a lot of fun. I suspect that reading poetry takes more effort than I usually go to while reading, but now I see that that effort might be really worthwhile.

My favorite part was the ending. Byatt (based on my reading of two books) is just fabulous at writing endings. There is a definite villain in the story...he isn't really all that bad, but he certainly seems like a villain to the other characters. In the final scene he is doing something villainous that is going to actually provide the solution to the mystery, and the rest of the characters rationalize letting him go through with it -- they figure that unless he's caught in the act he can't possibly get punished, which is probably true -- but they are all also deeply involved and desperately wanting a resolution to the mystery as well. Byatt manages to set things up so that in the end they actually have to rescue the villain, and then they all resolve the mystery together. It felt deeply satisfying to me that the ending involved all the characters working together rather than competing with each other. Without the villain, the rest of them may not ever have solved the mystery, at best they would have had to wait years for official permission, but he was willing to do something highly unethical, and they all benefited as a result. Yet it was clear that he would be punished for unearthing the evidence. It was a really interesting moral situation. The resolution to the mystery was, itself, deeply satisfying, which just makes the whole book even better.

I suspect this is going to be a fun book to re-read. Now that I know what happens, I'm looking forward to seeing if I can pick up on some of the hints that get dropped earlier on. But I think I will go dig up some more of her stories first.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Golden Gate - Vikram Seth

Another re-read by Jo Walton over on A Suitable Boy is one of my favorite stories, I've read it at least a dozen times, and yet I resisted reading The Golden Gate simply because I thought it was a book of poetry. What I had failed to realize was that it is also a novel. In verse. Every single last bit of it.

It's a surprisingly good story, given how short it is, and that it is entirely in verse. I think having it be in verse let it be shorter than it would have been if it were in prose. There's more flavour to verse. There were a few bits of it that felt gratuitous to me...some things happened which I felt the story would have been better without. Then I re-read Jo's post and noticed this comment:

Then someone pointed out to me that the subject is love -- every possible kind of love. From romantic, to father/son, to friends-- all the way down to the love a guy had for his pet iguana!

Seth covered it all. All in sonnets.

Plus: the blurb was a sonnet. The author bio was a sonnet.

Which suddenly made everything much clearer. It let me understand why Seth had written the story he did...especially the parts that felt too rough. Possibly it is time for me to go re-read Hunchback of Notre Dame...I was so angry with Hugo when I finished that.

Who Fears Death - Nnedi Okorafor

Learned about this from John Scalzi's Big Idea's series. The bit that got me was this:
This is a vision of a part of “Africa” from the inside that could not simply be explained or documented in a textbook, biography, or traditional African novel.
And also the title. Which is the main character's name - Onyesonwu. And also the cover art is awesome. And the author's name starts with a double N! What I hadn't really appreciated before starting to read, is that this is either fantasy or science fiction. Or maybe alternative reality? I was expecting more of a fantastical reality approach rather than straight up magic, and this knocked me right off balance...and in more ways than that. The main character is wonderful, but she is hard to empathize with (for me at any rate) because she is so intense and so emotional - but this didn't detract from the story in any way - she is hard for everyone in the story to empathize with.

The structure of the story is the absolutely typical "main character predicted by prophecy must go on a quest to save the world", and yet it feels totally fresh. The setting helps - post-apocalyptic Africa rather than Medieval Europe. Heroine rather than Hero. The style of magic is like nothing I've seen before. But there's more to it than this, and I think it is mostly Onyesonwu's personality and interactions with the other characters that makes this book resonate.

It also happens to contain my absolute favorite style of love story which so many books seem to resist. So far I've only see it here, in C.J.Cherryh's Foreigner, and in the first Outlander novel - where two people fall in love and have a relationship that is strong, supportive, friendly, and free of gratuitous conflict. I'm a total sucker for this particular element...probably because it is something I have in my own life.

I'm adding Nnedi Okorafor to the list of authors whose books I'm stalking.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Most-read authors

An intriguing meme I stumbled across over at Evening All Afternoon - a list of the authors whose books you have read more than 5 of. Now, some of these are authors that I loved as a kid and continue to re-read for comfort (especially when I'm sick), some only made the list because they're part of long running series that I should have stopped reading before getting to 5 books.

Douglas Adams
Richard Adams
Louisa May Alcott
Lloyd Alexander
Piers Anthony
Isaac Asimov
Jane Austen
Maeve Binchy
Enid Blyton
David Brin
Steven Brust
Orson Scott Card
Agatha Christie
Susan Cooper
Douglas Coupland
Alexandre Dumas
Raymond Feist
Richard Feynman
Neil Gaiman
Robert A. Heinlein
Monica Hughes
Robin Hobb
Robert Jordan
Guy Gavriel Kay
Katharine Kerr
Astrid Lindgren
Jane Lindskold
Charles deLint
George R. R. Martin
Julian May
Anne McCaffrey
Patricia McKillip
Robin McKinley
Sarah Monette
Terry Pratchett
Melanie Rawn
Matt Ridley
Spider Robinson
John Scalzi
William Shakespeare
Dan Simmons
Neal Stephenson
Noel Streatfeild
Charles Stross
J.R.R. Tolkein
Cynthia Voight
Jo Walton
Connie Willis
Jane Yolen

It's an interesting list. Some of them are a bit embarrassing, but most of the names on that list are authors who I am stalking and whose books I will buy the moment they come out (in paperback, because I'm broke, but still). It does highlight the way I read - once I fall in love with an author I generally get my hands on as many of the books they've written as possible.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Marisha Pessl

Initially Special Topics reads like a coming of age novel, or maybe teen angst. The main character, Blue Van Meer, is writing about her experiences in her last year of high school as a sort of "Epic"which you can imagine any dramatically inclined teenager could do, especially one who has obviously been through some life-changing experiences which seem to have left one of her former friends in rehab. But she is a teenager, so you make the obvious assumption that no matter what it is that she has been through, it isn't going to be nearly as dramatic as all that. She's been really protected by her academic father. They move frequently so she hasn't had many opportunities to make close friends the way most kids do.

For her final year of high school, they land in what seems like a nice little town, renting a much nicer house than they usually do. Blue is obviously extremely intelligent, but doesn't really seem to know how to interact with kids her own age. She reminds me a lot of myself in high school (which I suspect is pretty common), knowing that kids are usually mean, knowing that she is an outsider, but craving that feeling of belonging. The scenes where she is pretending to be much more drunk than she actually is, while secretly dumping her drinks in the garden. Not in order to fit in, but because appearing drunk lets you get away with sitting on the edge, observing things. It excuses the comments that arise from an odd sense of humor and a different perspective on the world because you've spent so much time in a book.

The strangest part of the first half of the story is the friendship between the odd little group of misfit teenagers and their teacher, Hannah Schneider, a wonderfully charismatic woman who has forced Blue to become part of their little clique, and continues to force the other to accept Blue even though they obviously don't get along particularly well. You know from the very beginning that the death of Hannah Schneider is going to be fairly central to the story, but somehow it is very easy to forget that is where the story is going. And even once Hannah dies, it seems like her death isn't even the biggest problem, it is the fact that the entire clique blames Blue for Hannah's death, and ostracizes her. Blue throws herself into investigating Hannah's apparent suicide, largely it feels as an attempt to exonerate herself, but also because there are enough clues left behind that don't really add up to suicide.

Up until this point, the story has been relatively normal - teen angst, left hand turn into murder mystery. And it isn't really all that much of a turn, since you've know from page 1 that it is coming. Then the book takes a turn for the extremely strange, which...took the book from something I had really enjoyed reading and turned it into something absolutely amazing. Even reading it a second time was fascinating. And the way Blue reacts to the whole, absolute unreal situation that has developed...seems so real. This story is actually an epic, as she claims at the very beginning, not merely a teenager overdramatizing something just slightly out of the ordinary.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Foreigner - C.J.Cherryh

This is a huge series - 11 books and counting. I discovered it, the way I've discovered so many of the really awesome books I've been reading recently, via Jo Walton's blog.

The series is organized into trilogies which makes it easy to read and feel like you have a good stopping point. Getting started is a little tricky - there are two short 'Prelude' style stories which give some necessary background, but aren't really indicated as being only background. So you start reading, start getting really interested in this situation happening on a ship lost in space...and then you're years and years into the future as the descendants of those people have just landed on a habitable planet...and the story has just gotten going, they've just encountered the alien species, when you're suddenly thrust 200 years into the future into what seems to be an assassination attempt on a human who is living and working with the aliens. By this point you've become quite wary of getting emotionally involved in any of the characters, which is a shame because you've just met the main character of not only this book, but of the entire series to date.

It is a fun story. The aliens (Atevi) are very humanoid, but emotionally are nothing at all like humans - their language has no word for friend, and their entire society revolves around assassination being a reasonable alternative to conflict resolution. They do have emotions, but their emotional reactions are quite tricky for humans to logic their way through. Bren Cameron is the paidhi - the interpreter - the only human who is allowed to interact with the Atevi so as not to accidentally provoke another war, and the mediator of a technology turnover. Humans lost the last war and to prevent getting wiped completely off the planet, they have agreed to turn over all their tech to the aliens (who had worked their way up to railroads when humans arrived), at a pace that will not totally destabilize Atevi society.

The first time through this story is quite hard to follow. Bren doesn't understand what is going on or why until the very end of the book. Re-reading it, the story makes sense. There is a very good reason for what is happening. Bren has already spent many years living among Atevi, but this book is where he really starts to think like an Atevi. He doesn't have their emotional reactions, so he has to logic his way through what is going on - there are often pages and pages of him trying to figure out why people are doing the things they're doing - but it is quite fascinating and feels very genuine.

I've been totally enthralled by this series for most of the past month (which is why I haven't written much of anything at all), but I'm finally at the point of waiting for the last couple books to arrive from the library, so I've managed to stop reading for long enough to start thinking a little about what it is that I've been reading.

Friday, May 28, 2010

I am not a serial killer - Dan Wells

Dan Wells wrote a piece about this for the "Big Ideas" series on Whatever, and the concept intrigued me. John Cleaver is a sociopath, but Wells manages to make you empathize with him. His level of self-awareness makes him really interesting, he knows that if he just goes along with his impulses that he could really easily become a serial killer, and yet he has decided that it would be a bad thing to do, and so he has come up with all these rules to follow in order to avoid it. It is a far more mature approach to the world than most people ever manage, and yet he still comes across as a very believable (if weird) teenage kid.

John Cleaver on his own would be fascinating, but the story itself is also great. Wells manages to set up a situation where John is the only person who can actually cope with the problem at hand (or at least, he thinks he is, and I didn't disagree with him) and while the supernatural aspects of the story might not appeal to everyone, I quite enjoyed them. Apparently this is the first in a series, and I'm definitely looking forward to more!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Obviously the title is intriguing, and I had seen several rave reviews of it, but it was finally Nancy at the cottage urging me to read it that pushed it over the edge and onto my reading list. Even then, it arrived home from the library just as I was leaving on a trip, and by the time I finally picked it up, there were only a few days before it was due back. Luckily it is a nice quick read and I had an afternoon handy.

I love the style - it is written as a series of letters mostly to and from Juliet. It is set just after the second world war in London and Guernsey - and island in the English Chanel that was occupied by the Germans during the war. It is sweet and charming, and mostly about how people cope with catastrophe, and how they go about recovering afterwards. The story was great, but my favorite bit was the epistolary style. I really enjoyed getting to see the story from the point of view of what people decided to write to one another. You miss out on great big chunks of the action, but you get a really interesting perspective on what's actually happening.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Life in a Fishbowl - Murray Newman

"Confessions of an Aquarium Director" - this is the autobiography of the first director of the Vancouver Aquarium. I picked it up a few years ago, and it has been sitting on my shelf, just waiting for the time to be right. Since I've been too moody and distracted to really enjoy fiction lately, I picked it up figuring that it wouldn't go mucking about with my emotions.

It is a fascinating book. The Vancouver Aquarium was opened back in 1955, and boy have times ever changed since then. First off, back then all the folks in charge were men. Women are volunteers, and the occasional scientist. Newman actually points this out several times, and is obviously quite happy about the fact that 40 years later the ratio of men to women is evening out.

I had never really thought much about aquariums and the animals in them before. Housing fish and marine mammals has a few things in common with keeping animals in cages at zoos, but there are some very unique challenges. For one thing, you need a really large tank full of water, with transparent sides. For another thing, the water has to be really really clean, at just the right temperature, and just the right degree of salinity. Initially the aquarium had built a really long intake pipe into Vancouver Harbour, but in the spring when low tide coincided with the middle of the day, the water coming in was too warm for some of the fish and they died. I really hadn't appreciated just how temperature sensitive some fish are! I mean, obviously tropical fish are going to need warm water, but any fish that are native to the coast of B.C. are going to need cooler water. And fish who live really deep down are going to need even colder water than that.

I didn't appreciate how little was known about whales and octopi and other large marine animals prior to the 1950s. The first killer whale ever captured live wound up getting stored in a dry dock while the aquarium tried to figure out what on earth to do with him. He had been caught by some local fishermen, harpooned through the fin, but was surprisingly docile. He survived long enough that they were able imagine keeping killer whales in the aquarium, but unfortunately the conditions he was kept in didn't let him survive long enough for them to build a proper habitat. But they were ready by the time the next killer whales showed up.

Back when the aquarium opened, the main way of acquiring specimens was to go out and capture them, or pay hunters and fishermen to capture them for you. Nowadays public opinion has turned against capturing wild creatures and displaying them in zoos. But prior to zoos and aquariums displaying such creatures, the only people who encountered them were hunters in the wild - and it is difficult to empathize with a creature whom you need to kill in order to survive. Orcas are incredibly dangerous, and eat the same fish that we like - fishermen used to have machine guns mounted to their boats in order to kill any they came across. Keeping animals as pets seems to be the best way of appreciating that they have a place in the world as well, and that we don't need to take that away from them. It is pretty incredible when you think about it.

Another fascinating story he tells is about the Exxon Valdez disaster, and the recovery of oiled seals. A few years prior some other folks had experimented with deliberately oiling seals (with vegetable oil) to discover how best it might be removed from their coats. This was a highly controversial experiment at the time, as it was potentially fatal for the seal, but this experience allowed them to save the few seals they were able to save following the disaster.

I really loved his stories about traveling all over the world, collecting rare fish, learning about habitats in order to build displays, and enjoying the beauty of the world. Newman's love of nature and desire to teach everyone about it - preferably by bringing bits of it to them rather than forcing everyone to trap through it and disturb the inhabitants - is just amazing. His stories of fundraising are quite hilarious - and the sheer amount of cash required to accomplish what he did is incredible.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Predictably Irrational - Dan Ariely

I was really impressed by Dan Ariely's TED talk a while back, and when I realized there was a book it seemed like a good idea to get my hands on it and read it. Obviously there is more information in a 300 page book than you can possibly cram into a 10 minute talk, although I thought the talk did a very good job of introducing his topic and making his point - which is that we aren't quite as rational as we think we are.

I love that he leads off with his own personal story and how that got him involved in the work he does. Understanding people's motivations makes me happy. Understanding why people do the things they do also makes me happy, and this book helps you understand why people do things. For example, people will make very different decisions when they are aroused than when they are not aroused (he got people to fill out a questionnaire while masturbating). One of the most fascinating results was about how we value things we own much more highly than things we don't own. He visited a university where tickets to the football games were given out by lottery to everyone who waited in line (for up to 3 days!), and found that people who had won tickets were willing to sell them for ~$2000, but people who hadn't won tickets were only willing to pay ~$200 for them. Folks with the tickets felt like they already owned the "experience" of going to the game, while folks who didn't have tickets were thinking in terms of what they would be giving up in order to purchase a ticket.

Another point he made was how we value "Free" much too highly - and often ignore the opportunity cost of things that are free. He set up a table with chocolates, one per customer, either a Hershey's kiss for 1c or a Lindt truffle for 15c. More people chose Lindt. Then he dropped both prices by 1c, and discovered that people almost universally chose the free Hershey's kiss - even though it meant they could no longer buy the truffle for 14c. (He arranged it so that it was part of a larger purchase, so the customer already had money out and the added frustration of digging in your pocket for change vs just taking the free chocolate was removed).

I found his results very interesting and illuminating, but I was also really interested by how he conducted his experiments. Because he doesn't just launch into the final version - he explains how they designed the original experiment and then had to work to avoid the potentially confounding problems associated with that original design. Like I said at the beginning, I love knowing why people do the things they do, and I really love being walked through the entire thought process. Especially when it is as interesting and as well written as this.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Happiness Project - Gretchen Rubin

I've been reading Gretchen Rubin's blog for years now, and this is the book that came of it. Unlike the many books that result from blogs, I think this one was the other way around. Rubin spent a year trying out different bits of folk wisdom in an attempt to make herself happier. Not because she was unhappy - but because she thought that she could make herself quite a bit happier without dramatically changing her life - and she was right.

Strangely enough, given that I spent at least a year reading her blog, and that I would happily recommend this book to anyone and everyone, I don't actually like Rubin's writing all that much, and I don't think that many of the specific things that she tried in order to make herself happier would make me happier. While her writing is just fine, and actually very easy to read, her voice reminds me just a little too much of my mother. And she is quite repetitive, which is a very good general strategy when you're trying to get a point across...but makes me completely crazy. Also...with the lists. Just like my mother.

But all these are points she actually makes herself - not everyone's happiness project is necessarily the same, but that personal anecdotes are both interesting and potentially useful. And while I don't find any of her specific examples to be at all personally inspiring, the general concepts are great. Figuring out how you can have more energy - by getting more sleep or more exercise. Doing things that you enjoy, with people that you like - she started a kids-lit book club, and while I also love kids books I am just not able to start a book club. I'm really good at participating, but I'm a bad leader - it would take me so much energy to organize something like that, that I just wouldn't be able to get anything out of it. And yet, this is an example of something she points out in her book - recognize that things which other people find fun, aren't necessarily things that you enjoy.

I've been frustrated for years by people who say "You can just decide to be happy!" and then glare at me for not being as happy as they would like me to be. I don't agree with that - sometimes I can't just decide to be happy. But Gretchen makes the wonderful point that you can decide to be happier - by putting in the effort. And sometimes by just pretending to be happy (honestly it is shocking what a difference just pretending to be in a good mood can make when dealing with a little kid who just wants you to play hide and seek with them one last time before they submit to being put to bed - grumble at them and it will be another 30 minutes of frustration for both of you, but put on a cheerful face, play along for just a minute...and presto - cooperation).

Anyway, it is a wonderful book, and I think the world is a better place for its having been written.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Material World - Peter Menzel & Faith D'Aluisio

Material World is a beautiful book - Peter Mezel and Faith D'Aluisio, along with many other photographers and translators, went around the world convincing statistically average families in 36 different countries to empty all their possessions out of their houses, arrange them artistically on the street out front, and have their pictures taken. The results are stunning and quite beautiful. Included with each photo is an inventory - which was really useful because the pictures are so full of things that it is very easy to miss what you are looking at. Having a list really helped to realize what it was I was actually seeing.

They really did go all over the world, to rich countries and very poor countries, cultures that looked very familiar to me, and cultures that were radically different. They also asked what people's most prized possessions were, and what things they most wanted to acquire. Reading it and looking at everyone's stuff, I couldn't help but imagine what my stuff would look like all in a pile. It was a bit of a shock honestly, because compared with a lot of people I know, we don't actually have all that much stuff (as long as you overlook the books), but until I saw these photos I hadn't really included "washer and dryer" in the list of things that are "mine", mostly because they are things that came with our condo, and that I would leave behind if we were to sell it. One family had even arranged their photo so that their toilet was in the picture! It was a prized possession! Many of them included sheep or goats. Large plastic tubs used mainly for washing clothes. Carpets. (Does wall-to-wall carpeting count as a possession? It probably should). It really made me appreciate how fantastically wealthy we are here, and how easy it is to take for granted.

Something else I tended to do when looking at the pictures was to count the people, and then count the beds (you have to be careful and check in the end notes for the list of things which were not taken out of the houses - often at least one bed was attached to a wall). In Canada most children have their own bedrooms. In a lot of these pictures, the kids didn't even have their own beds! Many of these families were living together in a single room. Often meals get cooked over an open fire.

The story which struck me the most was the Bosnian family. Parents, daughter, son-in-law, and grand-daughter were all living together in a one bedroom apartment. In the photo were several UN soldiers with guns. Their apartment had bullet holes in the walls. The daughter and her husband used to live in a suburb, but had moved back with her parents when the fighting started. The mattresses in the photo weren't used for sleeping on, but as protection from stray bullets. These people used to lead lives very much like my own, but were now living like refuges. They had recently replaced their gas stove with a wood-burning stove (in a 3rd floor apartment!) because gas was no longer available.

Women in the Material World is its own separate book, but is separate interviews with many of the women from the Material World book. It is a much more detailed look at their lives and hopes. It really emphasized just how lucky I am. Many of these women spend their time washing clothes by hand, often in water they have carried home from the well. Sometimes in a nearby river or drainage ditch - which didn't look nearly clean enough to be washing anything in. Most of them didn't have access to supermarkets fully stocked with convenience food - often they had to harvest the grain themselves. All of them had dreams of better and brighter futures for their daughters - most of the children were in school and working hard, but in some of the poorer families the daughters were at home helping because they were needed - and the money to send them to school just wasn't available.

There isn't a single country with total equality between men and women. We're getting closer here, and there is lots of evidence of just how far we have come in these stories. Most of these women lead better lives than their mothers did, with more freedom, fewer children, more choices. It helps me understand how amazingly lucky I am, to be where I am, with the choices I have. To still be in school at age 34, with a husband who does almost all of the work around the house. Until I got to university and was in a class with almost no women, did I realize that most women don't pursue mathematics. And it is a testament to the people who brought me up that I didn't consider it a problem in the slightest. I'm now starting to see that things are often harder for women, and that things may be harder for me in the future...but I have so many wonderful female role models.

There is a huge difference between knowing that most of the world doesn't live the way we do, and actually seeing it. These photos brought these families to life. They are all supposedly "statistically average" families - I guess they have the average number of children, and an average income, but the focus of the stories and the interviews was on these people as individuals rather than asking them to describe what their countries are like. I'm not sure that the "average" person actually exists. Seeing these little glimpses of the lives of people all over the world, seeing their personalities shining through, was really wonderful.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Spindle's End - Robin McKinley

Another re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty story. I love fairy tales re-told, I find it deeply satisfying when the author manages to explain some of the crazy things which happen in a way that makes sense. There's also something lovely about already being familiar with the overall shape of a story without knowing any of the details yet.

Robin McKinley also doesn't gloss over the difficulties. Katriona winds up with baby Rosie in her charge following the evil fairy's curse, needing to spirit her away so that she will be safe. Katriona is a long way from home, Rosie is very young, obviously Rosie will need milk to drink and Katriona can't provide it - but Katriona is a fairy, and happens to be unusually good at speaking with animals, and the animals happen to feel very protective of their princess, so Rosie winds up with a different animal nurse every day. This could easily wind up seeming very contrived, but this ability to speak with animals (which Katriona has accidentally gifted Rosie with), winds up being very central to the story, and the way in which they communicate is very different than people.

My favorite thing about Spindle's End is the way it talks about raising children. Possibly because I'm in the middle of dealing with a difficult 3-year-old, the tales of trials and tribulations that Katriona and Aunt endure while raising Rosie (and their whole village looks on bemused) feels very familiar. Rosie is a difficult, but not outrageously difficult child. Just on the harder end of normal. When Katriona's baby is born, Rosie is shocked that he seems to take up all the available time and energy of all the adults in the house - Katriona's response is "of course he does, he's a baby" which isn't the way children are usually depicted in fairy tales.

My next favorite thing is "baby magic". There is very little plot reason at all for this, it is just part of the way the world works. Children around the age of 3 go through a few months of wild and uncontrolled magic that isn't entirely harmless, and needs to be dispelled. The solution is to send them to stay with the local fairy (generally a single woman as fairy's don't often marry) for a month or so until the baby magic passes. As the mother of a 3-year-old, I can say that being obligated to send your child to stay elsewhere for a month or so because you are unable to deal with their behaviour seems like the most wonderful thing imaginable. My parenting book about this particular age is called "Your 3-year-old: Friend or Enemy?" and suggests that often during this stage, your best bet is to ship your child out to daycare or hire a babysitter, and spend as little time with them as possible. Of course in our day and age of over-involved parenting the thought of having the little darlings out of our sight for even a moment is supposed to be anathema... So Katriona and Aunt often have a bevy of "baby-magic boarders" around making their lives more difficult, which entertained me immensely.

I'm not entirely happy about the ending. Once Rosie's 21st birthday is approaching, and the evil fairy Pernicia starts actually getting involved in the story, I had a lot more trouble making sense of things. I think it boils down to the fact that I love Robin McKinley's world-building, and the little details of every-day life. I'm not as crazy about her descriptions, especially of magical castles and things that are not-quite-real. I had to work really hard to understand what was going on at various points towards the end of the story. I didn't get a picture in my head the way I did with "The Children's Book", and often had to re-read parts to make sense of what was going on. But the ending itself was quite satisfying. Especially the way in which Pernicia is finally defeated. The Rosie/Peony situation at the very end felt a bit contrived...but made the ending much much nicer. There's just a little bit of me that keeps thinking "should they really be allowed to do that?", but when everyone winds up much does seem entirely right.

I'm really looking forward to reading this one to Elli once she's old enough to appreciate it. Sleeping Beauty is one of her absolute favorite Disney fairy tales, and this story has quite a few elements in common - as well as having a very strong princess character who does most of the rescuing herself.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dairy Queen - Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Catherine Gilbert Murdock is Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) 's sister. This book was mentioned in Committed (I can't remember if it was in the acknowledgements section or actually part of the book - but Elizabeth Gilbert suggested checking out her sister's writing and since I am very fond of young adult novels it seemed like a wonderful suggestion).

Dairy Queen is the story of D.J. figuring out who she is and what she wants from life - which boils down to not wanting to be a cow. Probably a wise decision. Her family is very non-communicative which has resulted in two brothers who have moved away and are no longer on speaking terms with the rest of the family - the reasons behind this are cloaked in mystery - a father who was a farmer until an injury and subsequent refusal to get an operation has left him in charge of the kitchen, a mother working 2 jobs to try and make ends meet, and teen-age D.J. doing all the work on the farm with the assistance of her younger brother (when he can be spared from baseball practice and games and driving his father to physical therapy) who has completely stopped communicating with anyone - and now with the rather reluctant assistance of Brian Nelson, stuck-up rich kid who has been sent to help by his football coach in the hopes that he will learn how to actually work at something. Brian points out that when you don't talk, there's a lot of stuff that winds up not getting said.

D.J. decides that the time has come to change her life, and in typical Schwenk family fashion proceeds to do this without actually discussing it with anyone for as long as she can get away with it. The book turns out to be her English writing assignment - sort of a "What I did on my summer vacation" essay - which is a style that I think works very well for this sort of story. You get to see inside the main character's head, but from her own point of view rather than an omniscient narrator. It is a lovely story. The ending is very satisfying without wrapping up all the loose ends so tightly that they can't possibly ever come unraveled again. D.J. has made a lot of progress over the course of the summer, but it is clear that while she is on the right track, things aren't going to actually be easy. On the other hand, if she continues on the way she is going, she stands a really good chance at actual happiness.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt

This book caught my eye in a bookstore one day. The cover was intriguing, the title sounded interesting, and the blurb made me want to read it. Impressively the dragonfly pin on the cover actually does appear in the book - too often cover art is either generic or wrong - this one is perfect.

Set near the beginning of the 20th century, this is a coming-of-age story about a large group of people - not all of them children - living through times of great change. Women are starting to be accepted as people in their own rights, but they must still struggle for it. The structure of society is beginning to shift, and yet change isn't always going to be a good thing. Some of the people who embrace the changes most enthusiastically wind up destroyed by it, and yet refusing to interact with the world is also not the right choice.

The most fascinating thing for me was the uniqueness of all the characters. They were all individuals, and it was obvious that they all saw themselves as the main character in their own narratives, which I found quite unusual. Fantasy novels too often have only one character with different names, and conflict between characters is generated by a lack of communication - but if you could only force people to sit down and actually talk to one another everything would be ok. That is not at all the case here. Many of these people have such conflicting world-views that attempting to communicate is almost futile. This is the best portrayal I have ever see of the difference between someone's mental image of a person, and the reality of that person. Olive (mother of a very large family) has a favorite child - Tom - who she writes stories for and about, and who she feels very close to. But as Tom grows up, he diverges from her mental image of him, and her refusal to acknowledge that he is a person in his own right, not just some aspect of herself, winds up destroying both of them. Her daughter Dorothy, on the other hand, has never been her mother's favorite, has always had a strong sense of herself, and copes quite well even though her path is not easy.

The thing which struck me most is that Olive's family, with its seven children, gorgeous house in the country, mother with an income, parents still obviously in love with one another, totally falls apart in the end. Olive's brother-in-law Basil on the other hand is very straight-laced. Their children are best seen and not heard. It is inconceivable that his son Charles/Karl actually tell his parents about what is going on in his life - and yet in the end, they seem to be doing much better - even adapting to the changing world in a way that seemed unlikely in the beginning. I'm looking for a lesson here - probably something along the lines of the early adopters of cultural revolution wind up being most damaged by it, while those who sit back and let other people take the risks but allow themselves to be flexible when change is forced on them cope much better in the long run.

The final thing which struck me is the ending with World War 1. Initially when the boys go off to war you can't imagine anything more horrible than that they might get killed. But very rapidly you see that dying isn't the worst thing that can happen. And neither is coming home again. It depends very much on the individual, their own experiences, and the home they return to.

I absolutely loved this book. It was even better on re-reading as I had attention to focus on the gorgeous picture Byatt is painting with her words (there are just too many characters to keep track of to possibly focus on the setting the first time around). This is one I think I would like to own, and I suspect I'm going to get my mother a copy for her birthday.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Committed - Elizabeth Gilbert

I read "Eat, Pray, Love" back when it was the thing to do, and totally loved it. There was no question in my mind, when I saw that she had a new book out, but that I was going to read it, and I'm really glad I did.

Committed is a story of how, having totally failed at marriage once, it is possible to decide to try it again. I know this isn't going to resonate with everyone, but it sure resonated with me. So much of the emotional turmoil she describes is exactly what I went through. The feeling that getting married is somehow going to ruin a totally reasonable relationship, that it is going to turn you and your partner into strangers. That things will inevitably go wrong and then you're going to get dragged through the morass of divorce once again.

I learned a lot about marriage that I didn't know. Turns out that divorce used to be quite a common practice back before the Christian Church got involved in solemnizing marriages. Marriage is society's way of acknowledging that you are now a partnership, that you are taking joint responsibility for children and property. It lets you relax and know that the other person isn't going to just walk out the door on a whim. But I think that the possibility of divorce should always be there. Honestly, promising to love and be faithful to one person for the rest of your life just doesn't make any sense. People change. Situations change. Often divorce is better for everyone involved. Acknowledging this from the beginning - either formally with pre-nuptual agreements, or just informally as something that might happen but will be dealt with gracefully - goes a long way towards removing the incredible pile of guilt that often accompanies divorce.

I wish I'd had this book back when I was deciding to get married again. It would have made things easier. On the other hand, it is very reassuring that we both came to very similar conclusions and seem to have wound up in similar second relationships is both interesting and reassuring. The different cultural perspectives on marriage were totally fascinating. Having your whole community come together to do whatever it can to try and save your marriage is pretty crazy. It seems like such a fantastic idea, and yet I wouldn't want it to happen to me. And Elizabeth explained why: when women can earn enough money to support themselves, and when they can decide whether or not to have babies, they can hold out for better things in a partnership.

My favorite bit was when she interviewed a young man in a small town about their marriage customs. Everyone they know is invited, and people will often bring friends as well. This couple had over 700 people at their wedding. Each guest gave money in a small labelled envelope, and the new bride very carefully wrote down the precise sum given by each guest. This part was very important because when someone else gets married, the couple is expected to give back exactly the amount originally give them, plus interest! This means that every new couple essentially gets a loan from the community to help get them started. And the community has a vested interest in making sure the couple survives so that they can return the favor down the road.

I absolutely loved Committed, but I'm quite curious to know how other people react to it, specifically people who haven't been divorced.

It Sucked and then I cried - Heather B. Armstrong

I've been reading for years now. I think I first started reading it regularly when I found out I was pregnant. At the time she was writing about life with a small child and I was totally entranced by the story, the photography, and her voice. She just doesn't seem to have the boundaries that most people do, which got her fired way back when she first started writing this blog, but it means that what you get to see here is a little more genuine than what you get everywhere else.

She just recently published this book about the first year of Leta's life, and her own struggle with depression, including checking into a hospital to deal with it post-partum. This is the book I wish I had read when Elli was just a few weeks old and I felt like I was drowning. She is so open and honest about exactly how hard it can be to cope with a tiny and demanding little person, while simultaneously showing you how amazing it can be. But mostly it is that she is so funny than you just can't help but laugh out loud. Most people can't pull of the juxtaposition of seriousness and hilarity, but she manages almost every day on her blog. The book is a lot more than just reading through what she has written online. You get a really coherent narrative, and a lot of the details that just had to get left out as she was coping with a new baby, serious depression, and severals days in the hospital. You do miss out on all the gorgeous photos from the blog. There are a few colour plates included in the centre of the book, but she and her husband are both amazing photographers, and the pictures that appear daily on her website are totally stunning.

This isn't a how-to parenting manual by any means. But it is a very open and honest account of the downward spiral into post-partum depression, and the struggle to recover from that, told in a wonderfully entertaining voice that is a real pleasure to read. I know this sounds like something that shouldn't work at all, but that's only because no one else writes quite the way Dooce does.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Georgette Heyer

Once again I have Jo Walton to blame for introducing me to Georgette Heyer. Heyer has written an awful lot of books, so Jo saying that "A Civil Contract" was her favorite gave me a starting point.

So far I have read Civil Contract and Cotillion. Both of them are absolutely "comfort reading". I love them in exactly the same way that I love Jane Austen and Maeve Binchy. They are stories about normal people, living normal (for the times) lives, and generally doing their best to be happy (this mostly involves falling in love, but I'm ok with that). I'm coming to realize that I like stories about happy people...they make me happy, and I think that's a good thing. Maybe not as deep and enlightening as it could be, but when it comes to comfort reading, I will go with happy.

The thing I've enjoyed most about both of these books is that they aren't the traditional 'Harlequin' romance. You know the one where the main characters fall in love at first sight on page 1, have a whirlwind romance, and then something truly stupid happens (usually just a misunderstanding) which splits them apart, and then they finally get back together in the last few pages? I get irritated by those. The people in those stories spend all their time being overwrought and despairing. The sort of romance that Robert Jordan writes, where you just want to put everyone in a room together and force them to explain exactly what is going on and then they can all be happy instead of miserable.

Heyer is doing something completely different here. Both of these stories involve two people, forced together by circumstance, developing their personalities and figuring out who they are and what they like to do, and at the same time falling in love (rather than lust) with one another as they come to recognize the real worth of the other person and realizing that being married to this person is going to make them really happy. (Again with the happy...I really do like happy and so often stories are written about unhappy people because stories must be interesting, and it is easier to write an interesting story about unhappy people).

The difficulty with these stories is that they are set in the 1800s in London. The dialogue is filled with anachronistic slang which takes a bit of work to decipher. I still haven't worked out exactly what she means by "Greeks" and "Corinthians"...and what precisely does it mean to describe a gentleman as a "leg". Also there are a huge number of characters, and their precise social positions and relationships to one another are very important to the story. Then you throw in the fact that they can be referred to by first name, last name, or title depending on who is talking to (or about) them...and you wind up with the same problem I have when reading Chekov (first name, last name, patronymic - all used interchangeably - and requiring a slightly better understanding of Russian than I possess). Ok, at least here I don't have quite the same language gap as with Chekov - but it is still almost to the point that I'd like some translation. Or maybe just an introduction with a bit of explanation for some of the terms.

But problems of slang aside, I devoured both these books and plan to find more of them.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Leviathan - Scott Westerfeld

I would have inhaled this in a single sitting if I could have. Unfortunately there was a small girl who needed my attention and I had to put the book down.

I was a bit nervous when I picked this up, as it is quite thick, but it is actually a very quick read. The story flows nicely, and part of the bulk is due to think paper and gorgeous illustrations. Westerfeld commissioned the artwork himself which gave him much more control than authors usually have with this sort of thing. The illustrations really add to the story, it is an alternate history where you have 'Clankers' (who make really big, clanky, steampunk machines) and 'Darwinists' (who have taken genetic engineering in some really crazy directions) and both are far more understandable with the illustrations than they would be otherwise.

The other thing I loved about this was the two main characters. They are both children who are forced into adult situations. This is done very believably, and I think most kids would be able to empathize with them. The setting is quite interesting on its own, but the book is action-packed and easy to read (which is possibly why I like YA so much).

I've enjoyed all the books by Scott Westerfeld that I've read, but I think this is my favorite so far. I'm definitely looking forward to the sequel!

Camp Concentration - Thomas M. Disch

Once again, I read this because of a review by Jo Walton. She did a fantastic job of writing about the book without spoiling it, so you should go read that first.
I'm a bit conflicted about this book because while I liked the story, I didn't enjoy reading it. Although having finished it I am extremely tempted to re-read it as I suspect I might really enjoy it the second time around. One of the things you really need to do, in order to truly enjoy a book, is to trust the author. This story is about some normal folks becoming really super-intelligent, and as Jo says, this is hard to do. It is also something that I don't really trust most authors to do, although in retrospect I think Disch did a fine job of it.
The biggest problem was that I really disliked the main character. The entire book is his journal, and is being read as he writes it. Very similar to Agyar, but with a totally different feel - in this case the writer is a professional poet, writing in the journal is required of him, and he isn't the main character of the story in the same way that Jack is the main character in Agyar - he is meant to be writing about the other people in the prison, the actual subjects of the experiment. There are often responses inserted by the people reading the journal, and in many cases he writes things deliberately to provoke a response. There is a large chunk of text in the middle of the book where resorts to writing gibberish, and I found that incredibly annoying. Once I got past the gibberish (and realized that it wasn't going to be like that for the entire book) I understood the point of it (the folks reading his journal had been even more irritated by it than I had been), I wanted to go back and see what sort of structure I could find in it...but was too irritated to do so.
I think my lack of enjoyment of this is largely due to the fact that I react very emotionally towards books, especially the first time, and this book is very black. Dystopias sort of have to be. But I really missed the point with this story. There's the really obvious 'twist' which comes as a big surprise to the narrator, but not really a surprise to the reader, but there is quite a lot more going on. Many of the characters (prisoners, experimental subjects) are actually super-intelligent and are busy hiding this fact from the folks in charge. And because the text you are reading is being written for consumption by the folks in charge, you get fooled right along with them. Which is really quite ingenious. Now I just need to get over my revulsion towards the setting and re-read it, because I suspect I will really enjoy it the second time around.

Editing to add: I just re-read it, and while it didn't make me nearly as grumpy reading it the second time around, I still didn't really enjoy it. While the story is clever, I still don't like any of the characters, and there is a grittyness to SF written in the 60s which depresses me. I've noticed this mostly in short stories, but many authors writing back then seemed to be assuming that the future was very bleak. That overpopulation was going to be a huge problem, nuclear war was inevitable, and that the Russians were the ultimate evil. Maybe it is really a problem of projecting forward and imagining yourself in this very strange world of the future. You would probably hate it if you were suddenly transplanted 100 years into the future (or the past), but as Sky pointed out to me years ago, most people manage to be quite happy, no matter what their circumstances. Humans are incredibly resilient. Maybe someday we'll manage to kill ourselves off, but in the meantime we seem to manage to enjoy ourselves. I think happiness is what's missing from this story. Granted, the characters are all stuck in prison (whether prisoners or guards, they're still stuck), but there are some genuinely uplifting moments, and some wonderful descriptions of food...and yet none of the characters ever seem happy.