30 April 2009

Book Review: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

The World Without Us Imagine, if you will, that every person on earth vanished tomorrow (beamed up and off to an alien zoo, perhaps). That our generation of pollution, our consumption of resources, and all the things we do to try to control our environment, suddenly stopped. What would happen to the world we left behind? How long would it take for the signs of our habitation to disappear? Have we created anything that will be destroyed? And what, if anything, might climb down from the trees to evolve in our footsteps?

A version of this popped up on tv last year (complete with plenty of toppling CGI landmarks) and I was pleased to find that the book travelled over a much wider territory. (In terms of information, if not geography; Australia was barely mentioned.) In fact, for a while I thought it could have been better titled North America Without Us but other parts of the world soon started putting in appearances. So did other times, with the distant past being studied to consider what the rise of humans can reveal about the effects of their absence, and the possibility of another group of apes descending from the trees. A sufficient variety of climates and landscapes - temperate, desert, big city, farmland - are discussed that it’s possible to infer what might become of your own neighbourhood, even if you don’t have the wildlife and the freeze-thaw cycle of New England. These were somewhat like case studies - different places selected as exemplars of certain types of location, such as the cave cities of Cappadocia to show how underground structures have a habit of surviving when left undisturbed. Putting names and photographs to these places, and weaving in personal stories of people connected to them, made the descriptions of possible fates come alive.

While it’s certainly an interesting exercise in scientific speculation, it is - as you might imagine - not exactly the most cheerful of books. The information about the sheer volume of garbage floating around out there (often literally) and the length of time it, and various kinds of pollution, will endure is positively depressing, and enough to make you wonder whether disappearing tomorrow would be soon enough to allow the world’s ecosystem to return to some kind of equilibrium. It also pointed out something of which I had never heard and never thought, but which once mentioned makes sense: A particularly pernicious, because almost impossible to remove, form of pollution is the synthetic beads in exfoliant products. Too small to be caught by filters, they end up as inedible food for tiny marine organisms and work their way up the food chain. I immediately did a sweep, threw out the one such product I had, and resolved to use only organic exfoliants from now on, and I’d like to encourage everyone reading this to do the same. If this book does nothing else, it will get you thinking about how to minimise your own contribution to the piles of junk that might be unearthed by some archaeologist of the distant future.

It would also make a great resource for anyone planning on writing a novel set in a future after the collapse of civilisation. Especially if they want to set it in North America.

Rating: B

Booking Through Thursday: Worse?

Which is worse?

Finding a book you love and then hating everything else you try by that author, or

Reading a completely disappointing book by an author that you love?

I don’t often meet a book I loathe, so I’m not sure how to answer this question. On the one hand, if a favourite author produces a bad book you can write it off as an accident and continue enjoying everything else they’ve written, while you could waste a lot of time reading and hoping for another book as good as that one brilliant one. But on the other ... The more good books you read by an author, and the more firmly established they are as a favourite, the higher your expectations and the greater the disappointment.

According to my reading records, most of the books with which I’ve been seriously less than impressed have been the first I’ve read by that author (and have put me off reading any others). But when I have read a dud by an author I like, I haven’t minded too much because I can still enjoy their other works and, well, anyone can have a bad day. But to love one great book and never have anything else come close ... it would make that one book more precious, but I doubt that would be much of a consolation. (Which is why I am desperately hoping that The Angel’s Game is as wonderful as I want it to be.)

28 April 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

Mr. Lisbon positioned an old paint can underneath a leak, then watched as it filled with the midnight-blue shade of Cecilia's bedroom ceiling (she'd chosen the shade to look like the night sky; the can had been in the closet for years). In the days following, other cans caught streams, on top of the radiator, the mantel, the dining room table, but no roofer showed up, most likely, people believed, because the Lisbons could no longer bear anyone intruding into their house.

From The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, p. 159.

25 April 2009

Book Review: She by H. Rider Haggard

She When the editor inquires as to the identity of two men he sees in Cambridge, he little thinks the ensuing introduction will result, years later, in the arrival of a peculiar manuscript, to be published or otherwise at his discretion. His correspondent is Ludwig Horace Holly, blessed by nature with a marvellous brain, but cursed with looks so hideous as to be a walking advertisement for the “monkey theory.” Early on in life he adapts to the thought of spending his life alone - until a dying friend entrusts Holly with the care of his soon-to-be-orphaned son. Lionel Vincey insists that Holly take sole charge of young Leo’s education, and preserve a locked box to be opened on his twenty-fifth birthday, to make what use he will of the contents. He also tells Holly a tale of a distant Greek ancestor, who, more than two thousand years before, left behind a pregnant wife when he was murdered in Africa - by a white woman who may well still have been there in the days of Queen Elizabeth, and upon whom his forebears had been sworn to vengeance. Holly accepts the request, but thinks little of the tale which accompanies it.

Twenty years later the box is duly opened, and reveals a piece of broken amphora inscribed on the outside with the family legend and on the inside with generations of family names. Faced with the amazing possibility of the fabled queen being - or having been - real, Holly, Leo, and their loyal servant Job head for Africa, following such directions as have been passed down through the centuries. Shipwreck and fever strike the expedition before those who remain are found by the Amahagger, a tribe whose members never smile, have unpleasant methods for dealing with uninvited guests, and follow the orders of She-who-must-be-obeyed. Although she almost never leaves the distant caves she calls home, She knew they were coming - and She has been waiting a very long time for her long-dead lover to return.

I never knew that Rumpole of the Bailey’s description of his wife as She Who Must Be Obeyed was a quotation; you acquire all sorts of trivia while reading. Aside from the reproductions of the box’s written contents in their original ancient languages (thankfully translated) She doesn’t have much of the long-windedness you might expect from a nineteenth-century book. It’s a lot of fun, with everything belonging to an adventure story: danger on all sides, a wild location in the middle of nowhere, secret passages, ancient relics, strange rituals, and a woman as deadly as she is beautiful. Holly is an intelligent and observant narrator, thus compensating for Leo’s being rather ... dull. I thought it just as well that the editor noted as much in his introduction; admitting it prevented the reader being disappointed to discover that the dashing young hero’s most interesting trait was his stunning resemblance to his sixty-something-times-great grandfather.

There were several things I would have loved to know more about, if only that wouldn’t have taken time away from the main story. Who were the people who once lived in the city of Kôr and left such ... er, unusual relics behind them? Had anyone else ever discovered what Ayesha had, deep underground? And what more might she have told Holly if they’d been able to converse more? Over two thousand years had given her an unconventional outlook on life and the universe.But then, it was Holly’s story, and when you’re at fairly constant risk of death or entrapment I don’t suppose history lessons are high on your list of priorities.

I realised in advance that I would have to allow for contemporary attitudes, but the fact that the Amahagger were savages until proven otherwise didn’t sit too easily. (Granted, their treatment of visitors could be barbaric, and the few who did prove otherwise did so splendidly, but still.) And I was startled to see Holly refer to his college servant as a gyp. (What about you - do no-longer-acceptable words or views disturb you when reading older literature?) It’s a shame that in some respects it hasn’t aged too well; but I still recommend it - Ayesha is a character worth meeting.

Rating: B

24 April 2009

Friday Fill-In #121

Friday Fill-Ins

1. Apparently there’s some sort of Murphy’s Law which dictates that when the Blog Improvement Project focuses on comments, I will be afflicted by writer’s block!

2. At this time of year I love a sunny day.

3. 2009 has mostly been a year of good books so far

4. I heard one report on the radio and saw one item in the paper, and that was it. In Australia in 2009, shouldn’t the fact of a teenager facing the possibility of jail (up to 14 years!) simply for inducing her own miscarriage generate a storm of protest? Come on, Queensland, move into the 21st century.

5. For too long I’ve been too reclusive.

6. I am not obsessed with touching up my (leopard-print) nails; I am not!

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I’m looking forward to catching up on sleep, tomorrow my plans include remembering the fallen on Anzac Day and Sunday, I want to catch up on reviews!

23 April 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Symbolic? Or Not?

Question suggested by Barbara H:

My husband is not an avid reader, and he used to get very frustrated in college when teachers would insist discussing symbolism in a literary work when there didn’t seem to him to be any. He felt that writers often just wrote the story for the story’s sake and other people read symbolism into it.

It does seem like modern fiction just “tells the story” without much symbolism. Is symbolism an older literary device, like excessive description, that is not used much any more? Do you think there was as much symbolism as English teachers seemed to think? What are some examples of symbolism from your reading?

I can very much sympathise with Barbara’s husband! I’m of the opinion that I love books in spite of high school English. To my mind, reading is meant to be fun; and I never could see the point in reading a perfectly good book and then picking it to pieces. I couldn’t see how one could be sure that there even was symbolism, much less whether the item under consideration had been intended as a symbol, or had the significance that the teacher said it did. Surely every author didn’t load their stories with hidden meanings? (Though given that my high school’s compulsory reading consisted of equal parts Shakespeare and YA novels, plus To Kill a Mockingbird and a few short stories, I don’t have the widest range of symbol-hunting experience. In fact, I can only recall looking for symbols in one YA book and one speech from King Lear, which may explain why my love of reading emerged intact.)

Looking for symbolism when reading isn’t something I do, which is probably why I rarely see it. (Actually, that would be an interesting challenge - read a few book with an eye for symbols, and see what I can find.) I don’t think mystery novels, of which I read a lot, lend themselves to symbols the way classics or literary fiction do, and I don’t think all authors deliberately put symbols in their works. I’ve been trying to think of anything in last year’s NaNo project that would qualify, and can’t - I guess I’m not by nature a “highbrow” or “literary” writer. Though I did just think of something that could easily be interpreted as symbolic, though I didn’t intend it as such and the character responsible had far more important considerations than the deeper meaning of what she was doing.

Now I’ve made myself sound totally unqualified to answer this question! Symbolism in novels is like hidden messages in the Bible or music played backwards - search hard enough and you’re bound to come up with something. Whether or not you’ll be correct is anyone’s guess.If you like symbolism and think that looking for it enhances your understanding of a book, fine, and I’m sure there are plenty of authors putting symbols into their works. But if you can’t enjoy a book when you’re simply reading for pleasure, what’s the point? The best-thought-out symbolism in the world is nothing if there isn’t a good story to contain it.

As for English teachers - I’m quite sure those classes are capable of killing students’ love of reading, not only by over-analysis but by inappropriate choices of book. Expecting a roomful of 14-year-olds to appreciate Shakespeare makes about as much (or as little) sense as expecting a 17-year-old who spends her lunch hours with Austen, Atwood and Eliot to like studying a book written for teenagers. (Bad memories there!) I don’t blame the teachers entirely, though - they’re largely at the mercy of the Education Department in that state or territory. And Education Departments come up with some real gobbledygook in their curricula!

21 April 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

‘What does he know?’ whispered Lucy as soon as they were alone. ‘Charlotte, how much does Mr Eager know?’

From A Room with a View by E. M. Forster, p. 66.

18 April 2009

Blog Improvement Project: Task 7

Blog Improvement Project This week the Blog Improvement Project is focusing on comments - specifically, how to get more of them. The task is divided into three parts:

Take an inventory of your blog comments.
In the fortnight before tallying, I received 573 visits, and 37 comments on 13 posts - that’s an average (mean) of 2.85 per post and 1 per every 15.48 visits. A lot of room for improvement there!

Pick 3-4 of the techniques from the articles to implement over the next two weeks.
After reading those articles I have to wonder - does anyone really take comments so seriously as to blog at all hours in order to find the commenting peak hour? (Wouldn’t do me any good - there is no peak hour round here!)

Anyway ... my chosen techniques are:

1. Get much better at responding to comments left here. And do so as promptly as my night-owl blogging habits and time zone will allow. The people who comment early on such memes as Teaser Tuesdays and Booking Through Thursday do so while I’m asleep!
2. Leave more comments elsewhere, on a greater number of blogs - a New Year resolution which still needs work.
3. Ask questions. I’ve worked questions into a few reviews, and I like it so much I’m going to keep it!.

Spend the next two weeks trying to make your posts more comment friendly. By Saturday, April 18, write a post about which techniques you used and how well you think they worked.
Over eight days, I received 28 comments on 8 posts, and 397 visits: an average (mean) of 3.5 per post, and one for every 14.18 visits. An improvement! The average number of comments per post, while still low, rose by 22.81%, and the number of visits required to generate a comment fell by 8.4%.

However, these results were affected by the fact of there being several nights over the test period when I didn’t blog at all, due to tiredness or illness (I currently have a miserable cold, which at least provides a good excuse to read all day; only the need to post this and add links to the Saturday Review of Books got me to the computer tonight). Which means - I hope - that if I had actually been as busy commenting as I had intended, the results would have been much better.

16 April 2009

Book Review: The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

The Forgotten Garden In England in 1913 a little girl waits on the deck of a ship, looking forward to her voyage to America. She has been put there by a woman she knows only as the Authoress, who has told her to hide, to wait, and never to tell anybody her name. The Authoress never returns, and the little girl disembarks alone - not in New York, but in Maryborough, Australia.

In Brisbane in 2005, Cassandra’s grandmother dies and leaves her a surprise bequest - a Cornish cottage she had never known existed. Her great-aunts give her something else - the information that Nell was no blood relation of theirs, that no one knew where she had come from. The only clue is a small suitcase containing, among other things, a volume of fairy tales by Eliza Makepeace. Armed with this and Nell’s notes from her own research trip in 1975, Cassandra travels to England to finish the process of unearthing the family tree and the reason why a four-year-old girl was abandoned and sent to the other side of the world. On the edge of what was once the Blackhurst estate she discovers a tumbledown place with a reputation so black no one in Tregenna would buy it, and a garden accessible only by squeezing under the wall. Determining Nell’s true identity is relatively easy, but the train of events leading her to the docks and the Authoress out of history is a complex one that has been buried for nearly one hundred years. In untangling her grandmother’s past, Cassandra will come to terms with her own.

I picked this up at the library on a let’s-see-what-the-fuss-is-about whim (yes, I do occasionally add 600+ page books to my library haul on the spur of the moment) and good thing I did - and not just for the highly enjoyable story. The little girl’s predicament drags you right into the story at the start, and it feels shorter than it is - pages fly when you’re having fun. The frequent jumps in time and place, around once every 10 or 12 pages, were a bit head-spinning at first, but I soon got used to them and liked not knowing where or when the next chapter was going to take me.

And I loved the characters. Nell can seem forbidding, but that abandoned little girl is still there inside, waiting for the answers she never found. Eliza is a character I’d like to step into the book and spend time with - she’d be a lot of fun, with her ability to spin a story out of anything. Three of her stories were worked into the novel, and I wanted more! (I went and borrowed a volume of A. S. Byatt fairy tales from the library yesterday to compensate). I could really relate to Cassandra, who had packed away dreams and settled for something less, and there are several very different but equally loathsome villains.

Some of the mystery was puzzling, and some of the twists were a shock. The rest of the time, though, it was all too easy to hypothesise about what was coming, and part of the big secret I saw a mile off. Then I got frustrated waiting for the characters to catch up - until I realised that they couldn’t, for the simple reason that I knew more than they did. The modern mystery-solvers were short-changed in terms of information - the reader was told more than they were - which struck me as the author not playing fair with the characters. They would have been left with at least one unanswered question, whereas the reader knew all. Also, there were a couple of coincidences which stretched disbelief. But given that I started the book with no expectations whatever, the fact that these things disappointed me shows how much the first part appealed to me and gave me high hopes for the rest. Except for those points, I really enjoyed it; and when I wasn’t reading it I wished I was.

And now a question: What do you do when you’re a would-be novelist and discover multiple similarities between your work-in-progress and an existing book? Would you try to change some of the twenty-odd things they have in common? Add to or emphasise the differences? Or leave it as is and hope that if you are so talented and fortunate as to be published, no one will notice? (Or if they do, that they’ll correctly attribute it to coincidence rather than anything nefarious.) Because that’s the predicament I’m now in. (*Sigh* ... I’d be much more sanguine about this if it was an obscure book published decades ago on the other side of the world, rather than a recent, much-publicised novel from this very city.)

Rating: B+

Library Loot

Library Loot Mental note to self: before visiting the library during school holidays, check to see whether one’s arrival will coincide with story time and nursery rhyme singing. Call me old-fashioned, but I do enjoy a good, quiet browse!

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye
The Meaning of Night
The Virgin Suicides
A Room with a View
Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England
The Great Mortality
The World Without Us

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories - A. S. Byatt
The Meaning of Night - Michael Cox
The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides
A Room With a View - E. M. Forster

Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali
The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England from 1811 - 1901 - Kristine Hughes
The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death - John Kelly
The World Without Us - Alan Weisman

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Alessandra.

Booking Through Thursday: Windfall

Yesterday, April 15th, was Tax Day here in the U.S., which means lots of lucky people will get refunds of over-paid taxes.

Whether you’re one of them or not, what would you spend an unexpected windfall on? Say … $50? How about $500?

(And, this is a reading meme, so by rights the answer should be book-related, but hey, feel free to go wild and splurge on anything you like.)

With $50 (about $70AUD), I’d get some wool for a couple of knitting patterns I’d like to try then check out the sale tables at QBD (local bookstore chain).

But if I had $500 ($700-ish - woohoo!), the first place I’d go would be a shoe store. It’s halfway through autumn here and I’d love a pair of knee-high boots. I tried to buy some last winter, but failed as I have such hard-to-fit feet - slightly wide but so small I don’t always fit into adult sizes. With the remainder I’d do something nice for my mother, buy a new bookcase, hit the bookstore, and make a busker’s day.

Which books would I look for? Some classics, as you can get good, cheap editions for about $6; at least one comprehensive book about Victorian England by way of research for this year’s NaNoWriMo; and after that I have no idea!

14 April 2009

Book Review: Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber

Queen of Fashion Who hasn’t heard of the frivolous French queen Marie Antoinette and her ruinous love of luxury? Queen of Fashion steps behind the reputation and uncovers the true history of the queen’s wardrobe. Far from a mindless indulgence in finery, as Dauphine Marie Antoinette used fashion to claim for herself the status she lost through her failure to bear children (or rather, Louis’s failure to attempt to produce any). Later, as Queen, she started her own revolution, abandoning the silks and jewels of Versailles in favour of the simpler, lighter dresses of the Petit Trianon, in her attempt to escape the stifling protocols of the court and enjoy a life of her own. Unfortunately her fashion statements were never received in quite the way she had intended, and returned to haunt her when they served as fuel for the rebellion brewing among the lower tiers of society. Despite her efforts to camouflage herself in the colours of the revolution, the former fashion leader found herself in rags, and with only one fashion statement left to make: her choice of dress for the guillotine.

I wish I could remember where I read a review of this; it was on my list so I must have done so somewhere. Whichever blogger was responsible for adding it to my list - thank you. I greatly enjoyed it, which proves that you don’t need a love of fashion in order to do so. (Is there anybody reading this who doesn’t find haute couture ridiculous?) I had a basic knowledge of the Revolution - in fact I now recall that I studied it, vaguely, in Year 7 French; I had previously thought my historical education hadn’t involved a single thing beyond Australia (except for being made to read Number the Stars and Richard III). Now I know rather more, about both the Revolution and the absolute monarchy that it overthrew; the politics of the day frames the story of Marie Antoinette’s outfits like gold surrounds jewels. Putting everything in context like this shows how each influenced the other and allows a greater understanding of both.

At first I found Marie Antoinette to be terribly naïve and foolish, ignoring her mother’s advice and instead falling prey to the machinations of her husband’s anti-Austrian aunts. She was only young, but even so surely she should have been able to see that such a flagrant flouting of protocol as refusing to wear the mandatory corset was a recipe for disaster? Later her costume choices became more considered - attempts to emulate the glory of Louis XIV - but I still shook my head over her vast expenditure and insistence on wearing clothes ill-befitting her station, even as I sympathised with her desire for a private life, which was impossible when perpetually on display at Versailles. However, once the Revolution got going and Marie Antoinette was finally able to have a say in something more serious than how she looked I came to admire and respect this woman who worked so hard to preserve the monarchy and protect her family, despite the fact that her love of fashion undermined their one shot at escape.

Her love of fashion may have contributed to her downfall and left her to be remembered as a shallow, frivolous creature, but had she been the retiring ideal of a Bourbon wife she could have been known to most as just a name in the history books, a woman who had the misfortune to be queen at the wrong time. Instead, with hardly anything remaining of her magnificent wardrobe, the popular imagination is left free to deck her out in whatever extravagant finery it can conceive; and I can’t think that Marie Antoinette - at least in her younger days - would entirely disapprove of such a legacy.

Yet much as I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t shake the faint scepticism that hovers whenever I read a work of non-fiction which will try to apply interpretations and meaning to almost everything. As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar - and sometimes a white dress is just a white dress.

Rating: A

Book Review: The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

The Thin Man Christmas in New York is supposed to be a relaxing holiday for ex-detective Nick Charles and his wife Nora. Murder, though, has a habit of interrupting the best-laid plans. Nick’s former client, the rail-thin inventor Clyde Miller Wynant, disappears and his secretary is found shot dead in her home. Everyone from Clyde’s ex-wife Mimi (now married to Christian Jorgensen, who may or may not be crooked) to a visibly upset armed intruder to, via his lawyer, Clyde himself expects that Nick will take on the case. His denials being of no avail, he gives in to the inevitable and begins investigating. He and Nora visit both the high and low ends of town in pursuit of the truth behind the morass of lies which everyone seems to be telling.

I don’t know what I can say about this without giving away something. It may be short, but there are plenty of twists and turns as one statement after another is shown to have been less than honest. And even if Wynant’s claims of innocence are true, there are a number of other people who might have wanted to kill Julia Wolf, frame him, or both. I couldn’t begin to guess what they were all up to, and spent several hours in a state of happy bafflement. By the end I had to admire the ingenuity not only of Nick Charles, but the villain, who had set up a most intricate scheme that might actually have worked.

I greatly enjoy Hammett’s writing style; he has an enviable ability to conjure up people and places with a handful of well-chosen words. He’s a writer I want to read a lot more of, in the hope that it will rub off a little and improve my own writing. Another thing I like is that the female characters aren’t mild-mannered decoration - they plot extortion, send frying-pans flying, and try their own hand at sleuthing. Even the dog, Asta, doesn’t always like to behave; and I’d love to know what, when her day out included being patted by three policemen, she had been getting up to.

Rating: A

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

So they visit their richer cousins, and get into debt when they can, and live but shabbily when they can’t, and find - the women no husbands, and the men no wives - and ride in borrowed carriages, and sit at feasts that are never of their own making, and so go through high life. The rich family sum has been divided by so many figures, and they are the something over that nobody knows what to do with.

From Bleak House by Charles Dickens, p. 358.

11 April 2009

Book Review: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion Science has come a long way, but there’s something on which it has had little effect: the propensity of human beings to believe in the existence of things outside the laws of nature. Like God - that supernatural entity said to have created the universe and all in it. This book lays out an overview of why people keep on believing in the face of a lack of evidence for the existence of anything divine, the reasons why such belief is erroneous and largely pointless, and the harm that faith and those who have it can do.

This was just the bit of atheist relief I needed - observant readers will have noticed that my progress through the Bible has become rather sluggish of late, and I was pleased with this respite. Whether it actually could shake anyone from their faith I couldn’t say, never having possessed any, but being outside the target audience didn’t impede my enjoyment. Or rather, it didn’t affect my interest - it wasn’t always pleasant reading. The details of the activities of America’s Christian extremists were scarier than Dracula, all the more so because of the little voice at the back of my head wondering, How long before that degree of zealotry crosses the Pacific and takes root here? Admittedly we’re not without our nutcases now, but we can’t hold a candle to the popular image of America as being positively saturated with religion. Which sinks the book’s suggestion that the US is so intensely religious because of high numbers of immigrants (who would likely turn to the church in the absence of family) and the lack of a state religion (allowing churches to compete in a free market) - both of which conditions apply here, too.

It’s been ages since I’ve read anything on religion - or the absence thereof - so it was in part a nice refresher course on the common arguments for the existence of God and counterarguments against, and the main arguments for God’s non-existence. Equally fascinating were the chapters considering the possible scientific explanations for the origin of religion, and the brain’s capacity for it. Unfortunately the subject of neurotheology was barely touched; I saw a documentary on that several years ago and had hoped for the chance to read more about it. (Neurotheology: the hypothesis that God is literally all in the mind, the product of electromagnetic radiation affecting the temporal lobes, or in the case of vivid religious visions, of temporal lobe epilepsy. I think my temporal lobes must be about as susceptible as concrete.) If I had time before it’s due back at the library I’d re-read large swathes of it in order to soak up all the bits of information not properly absorbed first time around. Not, however, the segment on meme theory, which largely went over my head. I am determined that one day I will grasp the concept, but it will take a lot more reading for that to happen.

With my science background and innate scepticism, there was little chance of me not loving it, and when I read the following I felt like cheering:

As a scientist, I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds, and not to want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect.
. . . but I still found a few points of contention. Dawkins declares - rightly - that one cannot refer to a 'Christian child’ as children cannot hold informed opinions on religion or any other matter, then fails to suggest at what age one can. (As part of the latest Blog Improvement Project task, I’m adding questions to posts, so I’ll ask you: How old do you think someone has to be to understand what they’re believing and why?) I really don’t know if I’d agree with the notion that a religious upbringing is tantamount to child abuse. (Though I began to see his point the other night. A news report from a flash-flooded town featured a young girl saying she didn’t know what to do so just ran to her bedroom and started praying; I thought how lucky she was that such inaction hadn’t proved fatal.) And the big one: The introduction asks us to imagine a world without religion, and a later chapter argues that even moderate religion can foster extremism and any faith can be a very dangerous thing. But the likelihood of an evolutionary basis for belief shoots that vision of a religionless world in the foot. For how can you possibly eradicate something, the predisposition to which is hardwired into our brains? (Well, most of our brains.) Even if the major religions could be somehow whisked off the face off the earth, people with a tendency to believe would find something to believe in - or an opportunistic science-fiction author would invent something :-)

If you’re interested in religion, science, ethics, or philosophy, you must read this book - preferably with pen and paper handy, to list all the other interesting-sounding books mentioned. Confirmed sceptic or true believer, it will make you ask yourself where you stand, and why you think and believe the way you do. Who knows? It might even change your mind.

Rating: A-

10 April 2009

Book Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

When You Are Engulfed in Flames Oddball neighbours, adopted spiders, parental art collections, overefficient houseguests, bad attempts at poetry and more successful one at fending off noisy birds with album covers - this collection of essays covers all that and more; and it’s capped off with a chronicle of a quit-smoking process in which cigarettes are replaced with the ultimate distraction - trying to learn a language for which he has no talent whatsoever.

Throughout the book I found myself nodding vigorously - at the challenges of being short, Sedaris’s poor foreign language skills and sense of direction (oh, how I can relate!), and the social awkwardness of being a non-drinker. (If he thinks it’s awkward having quit drinking, he should see the reactions when you tell people you never started.) I also broke out in giggles while reading about the various germophobes in his life, the skeleton-shopping expedition and the subsequent bone-shedding, and the catalogue of fashion disasters. Couldn’t fathom his problem with glasses, though - surely if you just choose simple frames you’ll never have to look back and cringe. But then, I would never dream of taking the “if it’s more than six feet away I’ll deal with it when I get there” approach to life, which sounds highly impractical and not at all suited to people-watching.

I enjoyed reading this collection and spent most of the time smiling. Nevertheless I couldn’t help comparing Sedaris to various Courier-Mail columnists, which worked out well in favour of the locals. He’s good at combining humour, satire, and depth, but take those qualities individually and Mike O’Connor, Paul Syvret, and Kathleen Noonan (respectively) beat him, even if they do have the disadvantages of lower word counts and frequent close ties to current events. I doubt any scene from this book will stay with me like the image of Syvret’s memory of nearly torching his bathroom in an attempt to exterminate a huntsman; and I would love to see someone publish a Noonan anthology. Also, I couldn’t grasp (or approve) Sedaris’s apparent serene conviction that spending years of your life experimenting with whatever illegal chemical cocktail comes your way is somehow normal - or at least nothing extraordinary.

It’s good light entertainment, but I suspect it will soon be largely forgotten.

Rating: B-

09 April 2009

Splash! Award

Fantaghiro23 at Coffeespoons has kindly honoured my blogging efforts with a Splash! Award.


The Rules:

1) Put the logo on your blog/post.
2) Nominate up to 9 blogs which allure, amuse, bewitch, impress or inspire you.
3) Be sure to link to your nominees within your post.
4) Let them know that they have been splashed by commenting on their blog.
5) Remember to link to the person from whom your received your Splash award.

Wahoo! The chance to spread a little joy around the blogosphere (mostly in the ‘impress’ category - there are some seriously fabulous bloggers out there).

Raidergirl3 at An Adventure in Reading
Beth at Beth Fish Reads
Dorte at DJs Krimiblog
Tanabata at In Spring it is the Dawn
Suey at It’s All About Books
Marg at Reading Adventures
Stephanie at Stephanie’s Confessions of a Book-a-holic
Kailana at The Written World

How Did You Get Here?

Having seen such posts done, I decided to check out my own search stats. Most of the keyword combinations were entirely sane (generally including the words “book review”). Some, however, were baffling or just plain bizarre:

raising the dead after many weeks
I don’t think I want to know the who and why of this, but I would suggest you proceed with a great deal of caution. Preferably after having disabled your sense of smell. (Or are you thinking along zombie reanimation lines? Because then I really can’t help.)

thing in the bible starting with j
I can think of quite a few people and a couple of places - but not a thing. Maybe there's a j thing I haven't gotten to yet?

the book of genesis and tess of the d’urbervilles
I’ve read both of them? That's the only connection I can see. I’d recommend you read Tess and skip Genesis, if you haven’t already done so.

Nope, not me. As you might have noticed if you’d paid attention to the url. In fact, this address doesn’t even exist!

treasurehunt if d=1 of=80 and g=23...what word is 35 57 3 20 87 20 53 53 5
Er ... pass. No idea. But if you’re involved in a treasure hunt, might I suggest that visiting totally off-topic blogs is not the most efficient way of proceeding?

don wycherley substitute teaching
I'm sure Mr Wycherley is a fine substitute teacher ... But I’ve never heard of him, and except for that fact that I've got “Wycherley” in my sidebar I can’t imagine what your search engine was thinking.

girl sitting down holding basket and a rose 18th century painting
Something by Reynolds? Gainsborough? I write about books, not art!

hephaestion the man in the iron mask
Ancient Greek ... seventeenth-century Frenchman ... yes, I can see how you might get the two confused.

what is the temporal setting of the alchemist
Your guess is as good as mine.

Booking Through Thursday: Numbers Game

Some people read one book at a time. Some people have a number of them on the go at any given time, perhaps a reading in bed book, a breakfast table book, a bathroom book, and so on, which leads me to…

1. Are you currently reading more than one book?
2. If so, how many books are you currently reading?
3. Is this normal for you?
4. Where do you keep your current reads?

1. Of course!
2. Two - The Forgotten Garden and Bleak House (which is going much better than I had expected).
3. Yes. I’ve had my moments of reading four or five books at once, but now I’ve settled into a steady diet of two at a time.
4. The former is on my bedroom floor with the rest of my library books, while the latter is on the couch after having been retrieved from my handbag for evening reading.

07 April 2009

Weekly Geeks: Poetry

Weekly Geeks Two options this week:

Option B: Be a poet!

Write your own poem and share with us!
Write bookish ABC poems - ABCs of favorite authors, favorite books, favorite characters, favorite book blogs, or any combination of the above. Maybe even an ABCs of a bibliophile or book addict. (A is for...B is for...etc.)(For example, ABCs of Dr. Seuss)
Review a book you’ve read recently in haiku. (It doesn’t need to be a poetry book you're reviewing, any book will do.) See Emilyreads for an idea of what I mean.
Read a poetry book and review it.

Since I have no poetry books TBR and recently composed a (prose) ABC - and as my attempts at haiku failed through an excess of words - I went with the poem-writing option. And being devoid of inspiration, I fell back on parody (or should that be ... parroty?).

The Parrot

Once upon a midnight eerie, while I sat there, dull and dreary,
And watched the shafts of lightning which across the heavens tore,
I began to think of napping, when suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“It’s the storm,” I said, “and branches tapping, as they have before,
“Only this, and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bright December
(But dark that night - at least until the power had been restored);
And I wished it was the morrow, for that week I’d thought to borrow
A panacea for all sorrow - ten library books or more.
A dozen books, on top of those I had acquired before -
As if I needed any more!

While I was lost in contemplation of my reading situation,
Soon again I heard a tapping, somewhat louder than before.
Now there was no doubting that I’d have to make an outing,
Find the courage to go scouting, and this mystery explore.
“Get a grip,” I said, “you know you must this mystery explore.
It’s just the wind, and nothing more.”

Ere my nerves could fail I hurried to the hall, and though I worried,
I unlocked and I opened both the wood and wire-screen doors;
And though in each direction I conducted my inspection,
I failed in my detection, and I moved to close the doors -
Then from out the storm an object blew and landed on the floor;
A sodden bird, and nothing more.

I shut the doors behind me and hastened off to find me
A towel to dry the feathers of the creature on the floor,
And as I went I wondered, while the night around me thundered,
What species thus had blundered, and stumbled through my door.
Had ever bookworm read of such a happening before?
Came the answer: “Evermore.”

Luckily I’m not a screamer, or else had every dreamer
In the neighbourhood been roused by eighty decibels or more.
But a moment’s contemplation offered up an explanation:
“It’s just imagination, of that you can be sure.
Ornithology knows nothing of a bird that answers your
Inner thoughts with ‘Evermore.’”

Although my heart was racing, I now felt up to facing
The creature flapping wetly upon the hallway floor.
After towelling it down lightly its plumage, once unsightly,
Began to gleam so brightly that I at once was sure
It was some kind of parrot that had hurtled through my door
A few minutes before.

I took it to the table, where, as soon as it was able,
It nibbled at the paper that I’d read the day before.
“In here you can be tended, until the weather’s mended,
But then our time is ended,” and I pointed to the door.
“A wild bird cannot stay here, like a budgie from the store.”
Quoth the parrot, “Evermore.”

It would have been more fitting had a raven thus come flitting
But what would any raven ever be in Brisbane for?
And I marvelled much to hear the bird enunciate so clear
And decided an idea of what the future held in store.
But admiration notwithstanding, I would have nothing more
To do with “Evermore!”

Thus resolved, I worked to keep myself away from thoughts of sleep
So as not to miss a chance to cast the parrot out of doors.
To that end I drew a Christie (a Hercule Poirot mystery)
From the box of books whose history I’ve related here before.
“I always have more books than I can hope to find time for.”
Quoth the parrot, “Evermore.”

Something in the midnight hour makes imagination flower,
But I addresed myself more sternly than I ever have before:
“There’s a reason why this bird knows only that one word,
Your Poe-like fancies are absurd - you now will think no more
Of the likelihood of meaning in the wretched parrot’s caw
Of ‘Ever - evermore!’”

So I sat and turned the pages for a span that felt like ages,
Ever conscious of the parrot’s gaze, until mid-Chapter Four,
When, unable to inure myself to beady eyes azure,
I stopped trying to endure the thoughts which I could not ignore.
“Since you seem to have an inkling, I would some words from you implore;
The truth, not ‘Evermore!’”

The parrot not refusing, I aligned my thoughts confusing,
And voiced the question which at once had sprung up to the fore:
“Will I possess forever such a pile of books that never
Will I have the chance to ever reach the point where there’s no more?
Shall I always have a season’s reading making up my store?”
Quoth the parrot, “Evermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of wonder! I hope you haven’t made a blunder,
For a lack of books is something which a bookworm must abhor.
I must have confirmation - a brief reiteration
Of this promised situation: A never-ending store
Of fiction and non-fiction that I’ve never read before.”
Quoth the parrot, “Evermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of wonder! Finest gift a night of thunder
Ever will bestow on me, or ever has before!
I can’t begin to comprehend how I’ve acquired such a friend,
But I’m grateful without end! Books for evermore!”
Then at last I came to realise what I should have heard before:
Silence reigned beyond my door.

“That must be our sign of parting, wondrous bird!” I said, upstarting,
“For now the storm is over and it’s high time to restore
You to your rightful situation with the feathered population,
Your friends and your relations,” - here I opened wide the door.
“If only I was certain that I’d see you here some more!”
Quoth the parrot, “Evermore.”

And the parrot, ever resting, now is nesting, now is nesting
In the tangle of the allamanda close beside my door,
And his eyes have all the seeming of a smiling face’s beaming
And the sunlight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my library books within the shadow floating on the floor
Shall be towering - evermore!

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

Heart fluttering like a trapped sparrow within her ribcage, she reached out carefully, closed her fingers around the lever, and -

'I wouldn't do that if I were you.'

From The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, p. 219.

06 April 2009

Book Review: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Victorian Challenge #3

The Woman in Black When his stepchildren start telling ghost stories, Arthur Kipps declares that he has no tale to tell. In fact he does, and a true one at that; but one too terrible for use as fireside entertainment. Unable to escape his newly resurgent memories, he decides to write his story down, in the hope that the act of putting pen to paper will be an exorcism of sorts.

Years before, Arthur worked for a solicitor who sent him out into the country to wind up the affairs of a recently deceased client. Whenever he mentions the name of Mrs Alice Drablow, the residents of Crythin Gifford respond with strange looks and silences; but, he reasons, an eccentric old woman is bound to generate gossip in a backwater like that. Harder to explain is the local lawyer’s panic on hearing that Arthur had seen a woman in black with a wasted face at the funeral. Refusing to be rattled, Arthur sets out for Eel Marsh House, a place surrounded by quicksand and mist and accessible only at low tide across the Nine Lives Causeway. As he progresses through the task of sorting through Mrs Drablow’s vast accumulation of papers he discovers a family tragedy; and worse, he begins to encounter it in supernatural form.

But what is terrifying in mist-shrouded darkness can be brushed away in clear daylight; and Arthur’s got a job to do. So he goes back to Eel Marsh House with the resolve of staying until the work is done. He takes supplies, he takes a dog, and he takes an underappreciation of the malevolence of the woman in black.

I first heard of Susan Hill when the stage production of The Woman in Black came to Brisbane several years ago. The words “classic ghost story” were all it took to get me to the theatre, and I loved every creepy moment of it. Reading the book, I was curious to see what had been altered and impressed by the way it had been done. The book was adapted for the stage using the device of having Arthur consult an actor to get his story adapted for the stage - thereby allowing the whole thing to be done with the minimum of people and props. It also allowed one more brilliant twist perfectly in keeping with the nature of the ghost. It’s just a shame that meant making Arthur a poor writer in need of help, when in fact his account of his experiences showed a fine ability with a pen. Those long, winding sentences beloved of the Victorians are an effective way of creating and atmosphere of eerieness and creeping suspicion.

I had a few moments of physical chills while reading, and I knew what was coming. Had I been left to speculate I’m sure it would have been quite unnerving at times. Arthur’s reaction to the Christmas Eve storytelling and his decision that no one should read his story until after his death make it clear that what he is writing is the perfect truth - exaggerations and lies don’t rattle one so severely after so long, and refusing to give them an audience makes them pointless. Since the events at Eel Marsh House had such an effect upon someone so rational you know they must be the stuff of nightmares.

The early hints of something sinister that Arthur encountered in the town were fairly conventional, but the story took off after the relocation to Eel Marsh. Almost anything would seem scary there, and the setting is as much a character in the book as Arthur or the woman in black. Locked doors, ruins and a graveyard in the grounds, dense fogs that arrive from nowhere, and only a periodic connection to the outside world via a path whose name is evocative of peril make it an ideal location for such a tale. To be vicariously trapped in a haunted house, surrounded by water and quicksand and fog, hearing and seeing things you know aren’t real but can’t escape, is a wonderfully eerie experience (and doubtless would have been even better had this summer produced a blackout and a corresponding opportunity to read by lamplight). The woman in black is spookier than anything more overtly evil would be; her power to terrify comes from the certainty of her ill intent coupled with a total lack of information about the form and direction her malevolence might take. When the truth emerges, it’s possible to see how she ended up the way she did - and why the townspeople won’t talk about her. More of a mystery is Mrs Drablow, who remains little more than a name, although there must have been quite a story in her decades living alone and voluntarily in a house with such a guest.

Rating: B+

04 April 2009

Blog Improvement Project: Link Exchange

Blog Improvement Project Book review link exchanging. I’ve seen it done, and thought, I should think about doing that. It was the most recent Weekly Geeks topic, and I thought, I really should think about doing that. Now it’s the latest task in the Blog Improvement Challenge, and I thought, I should do that!. The trouble has been working out an effective way of doing so. I only have so much time to spend surfing the internet; I’ve got a monthly download limit; and I’ve got an archive of 200-odd reviews. Hence going review-hunting every time I want to post one of my own, much less systematically going through my archive, isn’t going to work.

Instead I’ve settled on a more haphazard but more economical method. During the course of my normal blog reading - especially Semicolon and challenge blogs - I’ll start collecting up URLs of reviews of books that I’ve reviewed or have TBR. When I can manage it, I’ll sift through people’s archives one blog at a time. Every few weeks, depending on how many I get, I’ll go on an editing spree through my archive. Also, I’ve added an invitation to my sidebar which I will repeat here:

If you see a review here of a book you’ve also reviewed, feel free to leave a comment with a link which I can add to my post. If you’ve got a bit of time on your hands, go through my reviews index to see which books we have in common and email me a list of links - and please link back in return.

It might take a bit of time, but eventually I will have good selection of well-linked reviews.

02 April 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Library Week

Suggested by Barbara:

I saw that National Library week is coming up in April, and that led to some questions. How often do you use your public library and how do you use it? Has the coffeehouse/bookstore replaced the library? Did you go to the library as a child? Do you have any particular memories of the library? Do you like sleek, modern, active libraries or the older, darker, quiet, cozy libraries?

I get books from the library about once a month - enough to occupy me for the whole four weeks. (In other words, nowhere near as often as when I was at uni.) All I do there is borrow books; I’m sure I don’t know half the other things they offer, but I’ve never been inclined to find out. While I might only use it for the minimum purpose, nothing will ever replace the library (and I’m not much of a coffee drinker, anyway).

I do recall going to the library when I was young, but there must have been a gap because when I began dropping by the Belconnen library on my way home from school in Year 9 I needed a new card. That marked the beginning of my current book addiction - by the time I was in Year 12 I was going every week. I don’t have any stand-out library memories, just lots of memories of particular books; like my delight at stumbling upon a copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman after encountering an excerpt in a trial AST paper and thinking I’d love to read that. Sometimes I’m surprised by how many books there are for which I can remember the precise moment of discovery.

Brisbane Square My opinion on modern-versus-cosy can be found in this post about Brisbane’s very modern CBD branch (in the yellow box --> ). I’m not really a fan of modern décor at the best of times and I still miss the below-street-level coziness of the old Central City library. I don’t think books belong in pristine modernity; they don’t look happy that way. Their limitless ability to let the mind fly free and encounter myriad wonders clashes horribly with polished blandness. And books demand a place where you can settle in and be comfy, not bright light through cheap plastic venetians and chairs too large for a small person to get out of easily.

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776