Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Word of the Year

Another 4pm-in-the-afternoon blog entry; I'm not sure these really count as they are invariably short.

At any rate, Merriam-Webster Online is inviting those of us who lurk on the Web to vote on the Word of the Year 2007. Interesting list, although I'm not sure why some of those words are there. I mean, occasionally one does yell out "w00t!" while sitting in front of the computer monitor, but I'm not sure that a word spelled with double-zeros in the middle contributes to the language much. Words like charlatan and Pecksniffian have been around for a long time, and I can't say that 2007 deserves them more than any other year I've suffered through. But there is a word that's applicable to us book-blogging types and one, I'm sure, that has been sadly under-utilized. Sardoodledom. Now there's a word! It specifically applies to drama and is used to suggest a mechanical plot and bad characterization in the work. That's the one I'm voting for.

So that next bad DVD you fling at the wall in disgust after losing 90 minutes of your life? Just blog about it and use the word "sardoodledom". The rest of us will know what you mean.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Tall, Decaf, No-Foam Latte, Please

It's a picture of Santa at Starbucks. Better yet, a librarian took the picture so you can trust its veracity...

Saturday, December 08, 2007

After Jack Armstrong Got Out Of The Snake Pit

Where to begin? My husband tells a story about an old radio serial where a hero had been written into so tight a corner at the end of one episode, that the writers resorted to opening the next episode with “After Jack Armstrong Got Out of the Snakepit...”, so they wouldn't have to explain how the hero had escaped all the difficulties. Suffice it to say that my absence has been due to a need to climb out of the snake pit. But during that period, while largely idle and unproductive to all appearances, I did read some and watch some good material.

For example:

Slings and Arrows (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slings_and_Arrows) – The Canadians have been holding out on us! This is a wonderful television series about a theater troupe of professionals who do a sequence of Shakespearian plays (Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear). Each season corresponds to a single production. Our priest at church recommended the series to us and Patrick and I fell in love with it. Love factors in, the performing arts collide with the business of theater, and the various characters rotate through various stages of life. The first season started a bit on the slow side, but gathered momentum. Patrick and I watched the second season in a single weekend, just because we couldn't bear to wait to find out what happened. The acting is amazing. If you are looking for a good Christmas gift for someone this year who is involved with the arts, I do recommend this set of DVDs.

Silent in the Grave – JenClair had written about this one some while back and I'd had it sitting on the shelf but didn't get around to reading it until literally this past week. It might have done with some good editing to tighten up the pacing but all in all, it was fun with some fun twists. I thought her male lead was a little too brooding and dramatic, but should you need something both interesting and frothy during the holiday season, I'd recommend this one. The author, Deanna Raybourn, has a new one out at the moment as well featuring the same set of characters, called Silent in the Sanctuary and a third one in the works, Silent in the Moor.

The Dead Secret – Wilkie Collins. Yes, he writes pure, somewhat implausible Victorian melodrama. But he's so good in some ways. He can take a page or more to describe a single incident of catching sight of a servant in a doorway and have that image arrest you and tell you more about that character than most modern writers would think necessary or interesting. Yet it works. You care about that woman and her role in the household at that moment of the mistress' death.

In Praise of Slowness – Carl Honore. This one was disappointing. I expected more depth to the research backing up his points, but he relied too much on the anecdotal without adding practical advice for executing a more balanced life style. I much preferred a book by Margaret Guenther entitled At Home in the World: A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us. She bases her thinking on the Rule of St Benedict and understands how the pressures of modern life sometimes can preclude what seem like fairly basic common-sense behaviors. No guilt but understanding and encouragement for making the attempt to bring oneself back into balance.

Finally, just this afternoon I read this story about depression, Martha Stewart and making Christmas cookies. http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=445158. It's charming.

By the way, if you're experiencing winter at the moment in terms of chilled air, snow flakes, etc., you might want to consider a great baked potato with toppings for lunch - cheese, salt and pepper, bacon bits. Warms you right up! Oh, and I had meant to tell you that I got a great little laptop during November.

May I say, how much I missed all of you?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Why I Haven't Blogged in Two Weeks

As Pogo says, "We have met the enemy and he is us." I noted that Lisa over at BlueStalking Reader has been writing this weekend about the pace of her life and the frenzy of energy required to keep up with daily affairs. Now Lisa is doing an amazing amount -- working, grad school, etc. -- but I will admit that I experience the same difficulty of maintaining a balance between all the different sectors of my life.

The past month has featured business travel, the usual number of ordinary work-days, two book discussion groups, and the first vacation I think I have taken in about two years. (There was a reason I titled the previous entry "Brain Dead But..."). I got to visit one of my sons during that period and had two separate visits with friends. Essentially, I didn't need mental stimulation; I needed sleep and gentle diversion. My computer time consisted of dutifully checking my work email twice (in case of crises) but I didn't even have the energy to blog as my husband noted with surprise. But the brain felt a whole lot better after the rest. All of this to suggest that I may go out of my way to pick up the book that Lisa has been reading and quoting on her blog -- In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging The Cult of Speed by Carl Honore.

Tomorrow will feature a book review, maybe two. But I'm not going to push it. More business travel looms. The thought did occur that maybe we need a recession in this country just to slow everyone down. But there really ought to be a better way...

Friday, October 26, 2007

Brain Dead, But This Made Me Laugh

My friend, Cindy, brought this to my attention; she's attending one of the conferences I should be attending this weekend. She used Twitter (see box on right) to let me know what was going on.

Friday, October 19, 2007

To Husband and Sons

You need to read this. I'm neither weird nor obsessive. And, as a general rule, I don't buy four per year.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Nifty Thing From New York Public

The New York Public Library has now made it possible for bloggers to embed images from their Digital Gallery into blogs, websites, etc. As I have done with this commercial poster advertising a book...

One of the most fascinating st... Digital ID: 1543071. New York Public Library

Kind of nifty, isn't it?

What I've Been Reading (Lots of Short Stuff)

For reasons unfathomable to man, I have recently read the following:

The Elephant's Child by Rudyard Kipling. I am chagrined to note that I got it confused with the Golden Book about the Saggy, Baggy Elephant. That's what middle-age does to you. After all, how does one forget about 'satiable curtiosities...

The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins. Deeply satisfying Victorian melodrama. Based upon a play which Collins co-produced with Charles Dickens, the story was something of a response to the dreadful rumors of cannibalism in the wake of the disastrous Franklin expedition to the North Pole in 1845. I was reading the Hesperus Press edition (worth every penny).

Also by Wilkie Collins, Miss Jeromette and The Clergyman. A somewhat gothic short story.

And if you're in that kind of Victorian mood, check out Good Lady Ducayne. I can't tell you anything about it lest I give away the ending. But really rather fun...

More later. I'm in and out a lot this month, traveling for work.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness [Review]

An entry in the RIP II Challenge

Heart of Darkness

Author: Joseph Conrad

Copyright: Initially serialized in 1899 and published as a book in 1902; this text is in public domain. I read the Everyman's Library edition (1993, Knopf, New York).

Genre: Fiction

Length: 110 pages

Summary: A party of five men at their leisure on a yawl within sight of London listen to one man, Marlowe, tell of his experience in working for a Belgian enterprise in Africa as a steamship captain. He recalls his journey into the jungle to take supplies up the Congo river to a station agent, Mr. Kurtz. We hear Marlowe describe the intimidating nature of the jungle environment, the Company employees who fritter away time and resources, the ill-treatment of black laborers, and the strange personality cult that has arisen around Mr. Kurtz as he wields monarchical powers in the depths of the jungle. Kurtz, by the time Marlowe finds him, is deathly ill and those who surround him present odd perspectives of his role and influence in the jungle setting. After an illness, Marlowe subsequently returns to England, himself a changed man who may or may not be able to articulate the substance of his experience.

There is a good deal of the hallucination and nightmare in Marlowe's story. Conrad has Marlowe provide us with a fragmented set of events and expects us to add in those details left outside the printed page while inviting the reader to come to his/her own conclusions as to the point.

Extract: "They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks--these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at. For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long. Something would turn up to scare it away. Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long eight-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the eight-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech--and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives--he called them enemies!--hidden out of sight somewhere."

Also Relevant: This is for many a controversial book. In 1977, Chinua Achebe wrote an essay, challenging the continued praise heaped on Heart of Darkness and stressing its inherent racism on the basis of Conrad's inability to see African society as being of equal stature with that of European society. Certainly, Heart of Darkness spells out the incomprehensibility that Africa represents for Marlowe (and by extension, Conrad); he is unable to understand the language, finds navigating the physical environment both intimidating mystifying, and ultimately is unable to account for the behaviors of any humans in this setting. The baffled conclusion to Marlowe's tale to his fellows expresses that lack of comprehension; he does not know how to go forward in civilized life now that he has returned to London. He cannot reconcile man's interior purpose with civilized man's history, having seen Kurtz in Africa. He speaks of having wrestled with a man's soul while being unable to express the essence of the man to those who pursue Kurtz even after death.

I sat and scribbled in my moleskine for several pages, trying to frame what I thought of this book. The themes are rather numerous for working through the author's point. One can focus on colonialism, light vs. darkness, constant movement inward (we know nothing of how Marlowe makes his way back to London) and at least another dozen concepts found in the text. Thinking about it from another standpoint, the Fowler and TipTree short stories discussed here owed a good deal to Heart of Darkness. I realized it only once I'd really finished the book. But everything and everyone is "The Other" in Conrad's world. I think Conrad's point was that there is a mystery to our existence that we may never fathom (the real heart of darkness). We can look inward for as long as we wish and we may never find an answer to that mystery; if too obsessed by the inquiry, we may even drive ourselves mad.

I need more time to think about this one.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Prestige: Book and Movie [Review]

[ For both the RIP Challenge II and the Books into Movies Challenge ]

The Prestige by Christopher Priest (Tor Books (2006), Mass Market Paperback, 368 pages)

The Prestige: The Screenplay by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan (
Faber & Faber (2006), Paperback, 112 pages)

This is another two-for-one style review, just as I did earlier this month with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Mary Reilly.

My husband and youngest son brought the movie to my attention and subsequently the book as well. The book, originally published in 1995, had won the World Fantasy Award and the movie, which came out in 2006, was nominated for an Oscar in two of the lesser technical categories. Both my husband and my son found the movie to be intriguing -- to the point of watching the film multiple times. The book, according to my husband, was rather "creepier" than the movie and he recommended it. One day this past summer, while folding laundry or some equally mundane task, I got caught up in watching the movie version of The Prestige on cable. The movie got my attention because I couldn't fathom quite where it was going, given the plot twists, and I became deeply engaged in working out the puzzle. Subsequently, as my husband had thought it was rather interesting, I thought I'd read the original novel for the RIP Challenge this year. (After all, creepy is one of the necessary criteria.)

You would think that, having watched the movie, reading the book would be somewhat anti-climactic. After all, the reader/viewer knows the secret of how the stage magicians pull it all off. But that is not actually the case in this instance; the original author and the film screenwriters tell the same story with some slight differences and each version is wrought so carefully that the story-telling in each produces a satisfying experience.

The introduction to the screenplay describes the difficulty of transmuting the novel into a movie. Specifically, Jonathan Nolan writes, "The first step of adapting a brilliant book is heresy -- you have to throw it all out, then watch as piece by piece, it creeps its way back in, with a smile, as if to say, 'I told you so'. The biggest challenge was the structure." Priest's novel is structured in five sections (4 individual perspectives and a final dual view of events). It has a modern day setting and a setting in the late Victorian period. We hear the voices of two men, Rupert Angier and Albert Borden, and the voices of two of their descendants. Nolan, in modifying the story for the screen, drops out the modern element. All of the focus is on the two men in the 19th century, vying with one another for the premier position in their field. In the film, the triggering event for the artists' feud which builds into obsession is different from that of the text, but the screenwriter hasn't the luxury of the slower build-up employed in the book. Both handle the growing conflict plausibly and with interest.

Class is a significant element in the story of these two men, one the son of a carpenter and the other the son of a titled lord. Film conveys the class aspect rather more subtlety (costume, set design, etc.) than the book. Angier and Borden adopt different avenues of approach in choosing how they will succeed; one chooses an elaborate creation of illusion and the other calls upon science to manufacture the surprising end of his act. (The scientific element is how the figure of Nikolai Tesla enters into the story.). The surprise, the pay-off, in both book and film is how the clues are laid before the reader. If you are clever in following the clues, can you see where this story will ultimately end? It's rare (in my experience) to feel a need to watch a movie twice as well as read the book twice in order to closely track how the craft in telling the story is managed so that the resolution is not immediately obvious.

The themes here are duality (just as in Jekyll and Hyde) and the trade-offs associated with an upward struggle (just as in Mary Reilly). Are those who appear to be dead truly dead? Or will they return to the stage, whole and unexpected? Disguise is as much a part of the illusionist's craft as diversion. The touch of the gothic makes film and book just bit darker; one isn't necessarily scared as with The Woman in Black, but there is that level of discomfort, that quality of what my husband called "creepiness". Intellectual creepiness of the sort that makes you think -- when all you thought you were getting was either a popcorn flick or a fast read.

They are wonderfully crafted and enjoyable. If you have time to read, go for the novel; if you have only two hours of leisure, pick up the DVD. If you are stuck in the house over a gloomy, rainy weekend, do both.

Friday, October 05, 2007

This Made Me Smile All Over Again.

I'd linked to a shorter clip of this back in May, but this is the full version of the song, I think. The Weavers sang it originally. Apparently, the original creator of this pair is French; in some of the other videos, the hippo and the dog are speaking that language.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Fun and Frolic over Edgar Allan Poe

Just a quick link. Sarah Weinman on Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind captures several links about the mild kerfuffle over whether Edgar Allan Poe should be claimed by Baltimore or by Philly. Frankly, our Phillies lost yesterday which makes fans here grumpy so I rather think you all should just hand Edgar over to us quiet and peaceable-like.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde and Mary Reilly [2 Reviews]

[ Two brief reviews as part of the Readers in Peril II Challenge ]

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson (Vintage (1991), Paperback, 112 pages)
Mary Reilly - Valerie Martin (
New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1990. 263 p.)

This entry will have to serve as two reviews as I have read both Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly as part of the RIP reading challenge. The two are closely related in that Martin's is a sequel to Stevenson's. Stevenson's story of a man who brings evil from within himself to physical being only to discover that he cannot control the evil personified is answered by Martin's tale of a virtuous servant girl in Jekyll's household. Stevenson's novella was written in 1886 and Martin's novel was published in 1990, a hundred years apart and the attitudes in each reflective of the different attitudes of their authors. Stevenson is examining the duality of good and evil in a man living in a relatively repressive society and Martin is examining a certain self-absorption in the Victorian power structure from the perspective of a servant holding no power at all.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is so well known that it is rather difficult to find the sense of horror that so titillated Stevenson's readers. We spend no time in the head of Dr. Jekyll until the very end of the story. Instead we hear the story from Mr. Utterson, a respectable elderly lawyer with an understanding of human nature who worries about the activities of his client and good friend, fearing that Jekyll is being black-mailed into allowing the wicked Mr. Hyde to work with him. We learn that Hyde has no conscience, beating a young girl with a cane for merely careening into him by mistake. Only the efforts of passers-by force him into providing some financial recompense to the poor child's parents. We watch Jekyll lose control over Hyde's presence before the close of the novella, with the moral being that pride has brought the good doctor to his downfall. The few minor female characters are never given names; neither are Hyde's victims given identities by Stevenson. The only victim allowed that dignity is a murdered member of parliament who is socially Jekyll's equal. There's little dialogue in the story with only slightly more description included. While I recognize that the story was one of the first of its kind, I didn't find it a very compelling read. It only became compelling to me when I contrasted its message with that of Mary Reilly.

In Mary Reilly, the author uses sparse descriptions to allow our imaginations to set Mary in the filth of London in 1886. She is a housemaid and much time is spent on her knees scrubbing floors and cleaning out chimneys. She has however basic literacy, having been educated in one of the schools for the poor, established with Jekyll's money. Jekyll noting scars on Mary's arms and neck asks for some of her history and we learn that Mary has been abused by an alcoholic father. The narrative frame of the novel is Mary's writing out her story for Jekyll and in subsequent diary entries, what she observes of Jekyll's behavior and its impact on her and the rest of his household.

Martin makes clear that Mary accepts struggle as part of the human condition. Stevenson had stated clearly that Jekyll sees no reason why it should be so difficult to be good and his chemistry experiments arise from his wish to make it simple. If one could let go of one's evil side then one could easily and more readily be good. Mary Reilly recognizes that there is a certain lack of practical realism in Henry Jekyll's approach to the world. Struggle is simply part and parcel of organic life, as symbolized by Mary's on-going attempts to create a garden in the over-grown yard between Jekyll's home and his laboratory, digging out ugly useless bushes and pulling weeds. Jekyll has no idea of whether the school he helped to found is really a useful educational institution; Mary leads us to understand that it was barely tolerable. Jekyll avoids any responsibility for the consequences of Hyde's actions, sending Mary out on errands intended to hush complaints by those who suffer from the evil character.

Reading the two different stories was an interesting exercise as I went between the two books at different points, trying to gauge Martin's written response against Stevenson's nightmare tale. I liked the twentieth century version more than the nineteenth century classic, but that is hardly surprising. Stevenson's original work doesn't give one much with which to identify while reading. Martin's work is above the usual pedestrian sequels to famous classics, written and published for fans who may want to relive the experience of the original. Potential readers should be warned that Mary Reilly isn't a fast paced suspense story. It's almost a feminist meditation instead. But as I say, it was rather stimulating to read the two back to back. You can try it for yourself; Mary Reilly is still in print and available from Amazon and Stevenson's book is widely available, both in print and on the Web.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Merle's Door by Ted Kerasote [Review]

Title: Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog

Author: Ted Kerasote

Copyright: 2007 (Harcourt, Inc., Orlando, FL)

Length: 398 pages (including notes and index)

Genre: Non-fiction; Dogs, Human-Animal Relations

Summary: Kerasote was a 40-something bachelor with minimal obligations when he picks Merle up during a canoe trip with some buddies. Merle's Door is the story of how two creatures -- man and dog -- learn to adapt to one another's presence and play to one another's strengths. It isn't a story of how a man trained a dog or how having a particular dog changed a man's life. This is a loving story of two unique individuals, forming an emotional bond through mutual understanding. Kerasote conveys his sense of what Merle's thoughts were with a certain amount of anthropomorphizing but always with the awareness that a dog is a biological entity with an independent understanding of the world and his role in that world. It's critical in describing this book accurately to say that it is simply not a conventional pet story. Kerasote has far too much respect for Merle for him to diminish Merle's standing by using that term. They are two biological creatures sharing a space and while Kerasote may be the "alpha", he's not the "master".

Kerasote tells us Merle's story from their initial meeting until the day Merle dies. I don't intend that as a spoiler but, as someone who has always loved dogs, I cannot in good conscience avoid warning prospective readers that the book's ending is sad even as it closes with a celebration of a happy dog's life. Perhaps it is because Kerasote manages to convey so well how we interact with dogs, with ruffling of the fur around their necks or by scratching behind an ear or under a jowl, making their eyes close in delight. He conveys the language of dogs as they interact with us in return, using head butts, snorts and grins. There is plenty of solid scientific, veterinary, and naturalist information contained in the book as Kerasote expands his own knowledge of what Merle needs to thrive whether in a city or town or out in the forests of Wyoming. If you believe that there is little to be condemned as harshly as a bad dog owner, then you should will most likely love Merle's Door.

Extract: The author's web site provides an excerpt. But I'll include this bit as an additional idea of who the book's about:

Part of Merle's equanimity, I thought, might have been attributed to the fact that I'm a relatively calm person, and he was therefore reflecting my demeanor, just as so many domestic dogs reflect the personalities of their human companion. Part might also have been created by his having spent his puppyhood among Navajos, a dignified and reserved people. And part of his composure was most likely influenced by his hound genes, whic h he seemed to have inherited along with his Lab blood. A friend had shown me some photos of Redbone Coonhounds, and some of them could have been Merle's brother and sisters, aside from their pendulous ears.

There are pictures here, if you (like me) are curious as to just what breed he might be, but the text is the best picture of Merle.

Also Relevant: I did love this book; it reminded me of owning dogs and loving them. I hadn't expected to love it when I received it from Anna. I even admit to rolling my eyes when the initial description of it arrived in an email. But it is such a solid work, so lacking in the saccharine qualities that I usually associate with animal books. Kerasote has written a lovely and intelligent book in honor of his companion. I recommend this book heartily; read it, think about it and come away with a different idea of what amazing creatures dogs are and can be in relationships with humans.

P.S. I should have noted for those who are cat-lovers that there is a cat in this book as well, but as you might be aware, cats are reserved creatures and less likely to cooperate fully with a biographer. But Grey Cat is in the book.

Monday, September 24, 2007

From the Can-You-Possibly-Be-Serious File

It's possible that Americans have finally gone 'round the bend on snack foods (or maybe it's just our legislators), because the New York Times is featuring a story on the Cupcake Problem. When parents have to lobby to ensure the periodic appearance of cupcakes in the classroom...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

[Review] Faith in the Halls of Power by D. Michael Lindsay

Title: Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite

Author: D. Michael Lindsay

Copyright: 2007; Oxford University Press USA; ISBN 0195326660

Length: 352 pages (including approximately 100 pages of notes, bibliography and index)

Genre: Non-fiction; religious studies, sociology

Summary: This author spoke with more than 300 leaders in politics, business, academia, media and entertainment between 2003 and 2006. All were self-identified evangelicals, a category Lindsay defines as "someone who believes (1) the Bible is the supreme authority for religious belief and practice, (2) that he or she has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and (3) that one should take a transforming activist approach to faith." His intent was to study the historical events and social forces that have facilitated the movement of evangelicals into prominent mainstream positions and roles during the past forty or fifty years. He focuses on four broad sectors reflective of modern life in America - politics, higher education, entertainment and business. How did evangelical influences come to wield any kind of power in this democracy, given the small percentage of adherents relative to that of the greater population of more casual believers?

Lindsay's essential answer is that evangelicals have chosen to actively apply themselves (through both their labor and their not inconsiderable resources) to the job of ensuring that their understanding of Christian behavior and values seed the future direction of American culture and government. In his view, the various groups have accomplished a tremendous amount in politics and education but have had far less impact on the media and entertainment industries. In the corporate environment, he notes that influential business executives seem to put more emphasis on leveraging their faith at levels that don't necessarily include local churches or parishes tending instead to focus on the parachurch. [Note: I had to look this word up; it refers to bodies that operate outside of and across denominational churches to accomplish specific goals. I gather the word tends to be used chiefly in evangelical circles.]

One of the great strengths of Lindsay's documentation is that he makes it clear that evangelicals are far from being a monolithic group. Whether talking about specific individuals or evangelical organizations, he makes clear that they are diverse and sometimes accomplish their goals by aligning with clearly different belief sectors, such as the Roman Catholic Church, when necessary to achieve an end. Such alliances don't always last, for obvious reasons, but the evangelicals have built social relationships and networks that foster the desired end result.

One might think that this would be a seriously dry book (not to say downright dull), but Dr. Lindsay,
a member of the faculty at Rice University, is actually quite readable despite the contrary view of the critic at The Economist. While I wouldn't go so far as to use the word "exciting" as the publisher's marketing blurbs do, I found the book to be an engrossing read. He maintains a relatively objective view, more carefully balanced than you find in most discussions of religious behavior. He's not dismissive of evangelical beliefs and behaviors, but he does note as necessary where some parties have tried and fallen short. Faith in the Halls of Power confirmed what I largely suspected from personal encounters with evangelical Christians, but deepened my knowledge on the actual thought processes and intentions of the evangelical movement. If you are curious about or have an interest in understanding this aspect of American society, you will find this book a useful one.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

That Wretched TBR Pile

My pile at present looks like this:

  1. Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the Elite - D. Michael Lindsay (Oxford University Press, USA (2007). Absolutely engrossing documentation of a three-year research project!
  2. The Ice House - Minette Walters. St. Martin's Paperbacks (1993). Must finish this re-read as I'm talking about it at the library on Thursday.
  3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert L. Stevenson. Vintage (1991). For the RIP challenge. I've finished it, just haven't written the review.
  4. Merle's Door: Lessons from a Free-Thinking Dog - Ted Kerasote. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., (2007). Loving this one. I'm a sucker for a good dog; I never seem to meet the criteria of cats although I am usually willing to feed them as necessary.
  5. Jane Austen in Hollywood - Linda Troost. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, (2001)
  6. The Country of Pointed Firs - Sarah Orne Jewett. As contained in Library of America, New York (1994). For the Outmoded Authors Challenge.
  7. Tipperary - Frank Delaney. Started it and then got distracted. Must do a review for LT!
So I am being constructive; I'm just not zipping along as quickly as I would like.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill [Review]

As part of the Readers Imbibing Peril Challenge (RIP II)

Title: The Woman in Black
Author: Susan Hill (author's official web site)
Copyright: 1983 (initial publication in the UK); first US edition 1986; David R. Godine, Publisher, Jaffrey, NH, ISBN 1-56792-189-2
Length: 138 pages
Genre: Fiction/Ghost Story

Summary: Arthur Kipps is a man touched by tragedy as we learn following his storming away in a temper from Victorian festivities, complete with ghost stories, on a snowy Christmas Eve. He is fully aware that stories of ghosts may be told in frivolous fashion, but that ghosts themselves -- real ghosts -- rarely manifest in such a mood. Ashamed of his bad behavior and wishing to explain himself and make it up to his wife, he begins to write the story of his own horrific experience following the death of Mrs. Drablow in the remote village of Crythin Gifford. A young attorney, he travels up North to represent his firm at her funeral and clear up outstanding legal affairs. The reader follows Kipps casually but is soon caught up in a fearful exploration of human despair and its consequence.

There are clear references to the works of her literary predecessors in this genre -- Montague Rhodes James classic short story, Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad is alluded to, as is Wilkie Collins' The Woman In White. What's particularly enjoyable is that these are only allusions; the story itself stands in its own right. Hill simply adds to the literary tradition of Wharton, James, and Collins.

The Woman in Black is a short and evocative tale, full of isolation and atmosphere. If not carefully controlled, one's reading experience may result in keeping wakeful company with Kipps in a dark silent house with many hours yet to go before dawn relieves the tension.

Extract: "I stopped as Mr. Jerome grabbed my wrist and held it in an agonisingly tight grip, and looking at his face, was certain that he was about to faint or collapse with some kind of seizure. I began looking wildly about me, in the deserted lane, wondering whatever I might do, where I could go, or call out, for help. The undertakers had left. Behind me were only a school of little children and a mortally sick young woman under great emotional and physical strain, beside me was a man in a state of near collapse. The only person I could conceivably reach was the clergyman somewhere in the recesses of his church, and if I were to go for him, I would have to leave Mr. Jerome alone."

Another sample from another paragraph just a page later: "It only took a few minutes at that pace to arrive back in the square, where the market was in full cry and we were at once plunged into the hubbub of vehicles, the shouting of voices, of auctioneers and stallholders and buyers, and all the bleating and braying, the honking and crowing and cackling and whinnying of dozens of farm animals. At the sight and sound of it all, I noticed that Mr. Jerome was looking better and when we reached the porch of the Gifford Arms, he seemed almost lively in a burst of relief."

Also Relevant: I am somewhat amazed that this Susan Hill's work has eluded my notice until now. I had never heard of her, until Elaine of Random Jottings posted about this book last year. Now, I see that I've been missing out on a wonderful writer. The real strength of The Woman in Black is Susan Hill's writing. After all, in this cynical age, what is it that can persuade us of the presence of a melancholy or malevolent ghost? We don't really believe in ghosts in any sensible, scientific way; but the words of Susan Hill are composed so as to draw up the fears of our primitive forebearers, the fears of childhood, that ultimate human fear of being alone and vulnerable to larger forces. Just as Elaine had warned me, the book is scary. It is artfully crafted and absolutely capable of raising the hair on the back of your neck.

For those of you with an interest in theatre and dramatic adaptations, the book was made into both a television production as well as adapted for the stage; it's been playing in the West End since 1989. (That is just shy of 20 years running, which is none too shabby.) I note however that there is a disclaimer on Hill's web site as to the legitimacy of used DVDs and video tapes of the television production that may be listed on ebay and Amazon.

The good news is that Susan Hill is relatively prolific. I believe that the first in the Simon Serrailler detective novels has become available here in the states. There are numerous works to be explored. The Woman in Black is quite as good as any of Edith Wharton's ghost stories.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America [Review]

Title: Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America

Author: Gail Pool

Copyright: 2007 (University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London; ISBN 978-0-82621727-1)

Length: 170 pages (including notes, bibliography, and index)

Genre: Non Fiction

Summary: Book reviews are, of course, a subject of dispute across many sectors of the reading and publishing communities; Pool accurately points out that even defining the nature of a book review is fairly slippery. Professionals clash with amateurs; readers clash with critics. Essentially, however, the author notes that book reviewing centers specifically around new books, recent publications. A review should have two major elements, an accurate description of what the book's text encompasses and an evaluation or assessment of how well the book succeeds. Assuming that the book review is intended for formal publication, there is a deadline to be met. The reviewer is hampered by the need to make a relatively quick assessment without necessarily having time to properly digest the book. The review may not be literary criticism, but it should be able to serve as a guide for potential readers, guiding them away from mediocrity while spotlighting the good and hopefully the excellent. In Pool's eyes, the review should be "an essay, however brief, an argument, bolstered by insights and observations" (see page 11 of the hardcover).

Of course the gap between theory and the practical is always greater than we like to admit. Gail Pool spends the bulk of her time in this slim volume, explaining the real drivers of and constraints on reviews and reviewing in the real-world publishing business and how that impacts on the the process. She covers the reviewing process without glossing over the ugly bits -- reviews where it is clear the reviewer did not, in fact, read the book in question or instances where the review criticizes the author, not for having written a bad book, but for having written a book that did not meet a reviewer's preferences. She even notes the ever-present hyperbole and cliched phrasing of book reviews ("luminous prose", "towering achievement", etc.). But neither is she a fan of the Amazon.com reviews and she makes no apologies for her disdain. Pool recognizes that writing a good book review requires time to read the book, time to consider the material and careful crafting of the final written assessment. (Pool is a professional reviewer which of course colors her argument but I don't think she's entirely self-serving in her thinking.)

Pool has ideas for improving book reviewing as a professional activity - more considered selection of what is to be reviewed, better pay for the activity and training for those who think they might want to pursue reviewing as a vocation. She recommends a greater dependence upon paid, regular columnists. She suggests that publication editors and reviewers should take more time to discuss why a particular book should be reviewed and how much space the review should be granted. Finally, she suggests that clear editorial policies regarding ethics and practice would be of service to those who review books and the readership they serve.

Also Relevant: I think every one who blogs about books would be well-served by reading this one book. This is an honest account of modern publishing operations. I understand that most casual readers don't care much about the business practices that fuel publishing. But publishing is a business, as inconvenient a truth as most readers and librarians find that to be. There are financial constraints, time constraints, and frequently constraints on the number of human beings involved in the physical process. That offends us (as consumers) because we're paying good money for the product and we feel justified in our expectations of what we should get from the transaction -- careful copy-editing, good editorial selection, etc.

None of Pool's recommendations for improving the quality of book reviews are faulty, but they are costly. Implementation of those corrective measures would add to the cost of books and magazines because her recommendations would slow down production and would involve more people (and, in American business, that means bearing the costs for employee health care). I consequently doubt the likelihood of her recommendations being implemented in our current business economy. But I loved that she wrote this book. The craft of publishing needs to improve and Pool's book points that up.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

On the Road, Hence a Quote

Reading is a pleasure of the mind, which means that it is a little like a sport; your eagerness and knowledge and quickness count for something. The fun of reading is not that something is told you, but that you stretch your mind. Your own imagination works along with the author's or even goes beyond his. Your experience, compared with his, yields the same or different conclusions, and your ideas develop as you understand him. -- Bennett Cerf

As quoted in The Reader's Quotation Book: A Literary Companion.
Edited by Steven Gilbar, Introduction by Doris Grumbach
1990, Pushcart Press, New York

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Pricing Models for Hardcover and Softcover

I don't know how familiar many of you are with the wonderful Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, but Sarah recently linked to a most interesting discussion over at LitKicks on the topic, "Does Literary Fiction Suffer From Dysfunctional Pricing?". As one might expect, the answer to that question largely depends upon who it is you are speaking with, but the conversation is a relevant one in an age that equates print with obsolescence. Note that one of the first respondents, a publisher, points out that *sales to libraries* are a primary target market for recouping costs on a book. The contributed responses are enlightening and worthwhile reading.

Just to underscore its interest and value, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind focuses on the mystery genre and the business of publishing in that genre. Sarah Weinman covers a lot of ground and her blog is a useful resource.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Short Stories, Speculative Fiction and Women's Rights

Some weeks past (July 29th) to be exact, SFP over on Pages Turned referenced an award-winning short story, What I Didn't See, written by Karen Joy Fowler. It had won a Nebula Award in 2003 (given out by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, hereinafter known as SFWA) and SFP was curious as to why a short story having to do with a hunting expedition in Africa in search of gorillas could qualify for a science fiction award. The story makes absolutely no reference to anything that might be called science fiction by any common definition of that genre. (Note: Members of SFWA have established the rules and vote for recipients of the Nebula; registered participants of the Worldcon vote on who deserves the Hugo awards.) In the comments, I made a suggestion that the rationale might have been that SFWA considers speculative fiction to be an eligible form of science fiction on the basis that speculative fiction captures certain realities of political and social structures by allowing them to be viewed through an unconventional lens. Science fiction isn't just about rockets and planetary investigations ; the genre uses a variety of devices to question human behavior by spotlighting and questioning our assumptions of what it means to be human.

Fortunately, a rather more perspicacious commenter noted that the correct reference point for creating a context around Fowler's story was James Tiptree, Jr.'s novelette, The Women Men Don't See. Tiptree's story has to do with a man wrestling with the challenge of a woman exercising choice in consciously rejecting his concept of woman and her place in the world, while Fowler's story (in my opinion) has to do with recognizing biological imperatives buried deep within and the impact of those imperatives on behavior and social structures. Thirty years after Tiptree's commentary on the inequity of power between men and women, Fowler joins the long conversation with her story, indirectly pointing out a cause for the imbalance as well as various other social structures where the imbalance has replicated itself (such as slavery). Taken together, the two stories do not paint a happy picture, but one accurately reflective of the turbulence in gender roles over the past thirty-five years.

SFWA, by my observation, is pretty much your average advocacy group. They are protective of their members' interests insofar as they can see them, but they are imperfect. For example, see this and Cory Doctorow's subsequent reaction (which includes the response from current SFWA president, Michael Capobianco, as well as sensible and occasionally confused feedback from the peanut gallery. Read the comments.). But in this instance, awarding Fowler a Nebula clearly indicates that the writers themselves understood the nature of her achievement.

They're both good stories. Go read them. Personally, I preferred Fowler's but I'm open to hearing the views of others.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Murder on the Ballarat Train [Review]

Title: Murder on the Ballarat Train

Author: Kerry Greenwood (official web site)

Copyright: 1991 (First U.S. Edition, 2006; Poisoned Pen Press, Scottsdale, AZ; ISBN 1-59058-241-1)

Genre: Mystery

Length: 151 pages

Summary: In the very first paragraph of the opening chapter, Phryne Fisher wakens in her berth on the train to Ballarat to find that someone has released chloroform into the First Class car. By the bottom of the first page, she's pulled her revolver out of her handbag and shot out the compartment window, thereby saving herself and her maid (this is 1928 or thereabouts) from certain death. She then proceeds to save the rest of the passengers in the car. By the close of the first chapter, she's even provided the police with their first clue as to the perpetrator's appearance. Good heavens, you ask, what happens in Chapter Two?

In this third in Kerry Greenwood's well established series, Phryne takes responsibility for two young women who have been harmed in the course of the train incident. One of the two has lost her mother as well as being burned by the inhalation of the gas. The second seems to have no memory of her name or destination. Phryne must determine how these cases are related, if they are, and commit those responsible to the care of the Australian constabulary for punishment. The only thing that equals Phryne's passion for sleek young men is her commitment to solving crime.


The breakfast room (which Phryne was sure would double as the dining room) was a large room with bay windows, now looking out onto miserable cows and battered scrub. Every leaf was hung with dew, as the early fog condensed and it was grey and chill, a suitable morning for the aftermath of a murder. However the chafing dishes were set out next to a tall coffee-pot and all the makings for tea, and a scent of toast and bacon was in the air. The room was decorated in pink and black, jazz colors, and tall cases of gum leaves lent the air an outback scent. It was modern and stylish without being so outre that it would be out of fashion in a year.

Or you can visit the official web site and watch the butler teach a young man how to mix cocktails. The afternoon tea isn't nearly as enticing...

Also Relevant: Phryne Fisher is amazing. She's well-dressed, intelligent, wealthy, a private investigator and bored with the ordinary. She's entirely self-sufficient, pithy in her expressions, and (apparently) trained in the martial arts. She fits in well with rowdy young men, yet young women trust her implicitly. She's James Bond in a cloche hat.

This is pure escapism. Greenwood's pacing doesn't allow you time to catch your breath. If she had, you'd immediately question many of the turns in the case. But fascinated by Phryne, the reader hasn't time to wonder at the ready confidences witnesses entrust to the detective. There is little psychological depth to the mystery nor is this a Golden Age puzzle mystery. Clues and suspects go whizzing past and one doesn't really mind because, after all, there's Phryne in the midst of it all. I suspect that the appeal of this series for most readers is Phryne's confidence in taking charge and making sure things work out the way she wants. As her own maid notes, "Like a play, this is, not like real life."

This is a very fast read in that it is only 150 pages in length. The entire series was described by one review site as "Not Quite Cozy" and this is entirely correct. While there's an adorable kitten present during the action, there is also, in fact, blatant sex. All light froth, I confess I may read another one or two of Phryne's adventures if I require distraction. There's a certain wit present that makes the foamy nature of the narrative a real pleasure.

Additional Links:

2003 Interview with Kerry Greenwood.
Another interview that covers some of the other works by Greenwood, including some young adult fiction, fantasy and science fiction.
An interview on her Australian publisher's site
2005 Write up of three other titles in the series

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Could You Pass The Links, Please?

I'd call it a Carnival of the Publishers, but really this posting is just me sharing some cool and interesting links I have found through my daily RSS feeds:

For example, you should REALLY read this essay on Jim Huang's blog -- it will tell you alot about the modern world of publishing from the point of view of the bookseller. Solid stuff.

Here's the viewpoint of a published author.

There's talk associated with this entry on judging books by their covers. There's somewhat less commentary on this Huffington Post item regarding the brand quality as implied by the name of a publishing house.

There's a great discussion going on over at Reading is My Superpower regarding genre fiction, specifically speculative fiction. (See today's follow-up and be sure to follow all of the links in the entries.) At some point, Annie and I will need to sit down and talk about The Sparrow, one of the most harrowing pieces of speculative fiction I have ever read. She blogged about that title here. We might also get Quotidian Grace involved as she blogged about both that book and its sequel here. Some sub-genres however, specifically the Gor novels, make us feel a little uncomfortable, as the Grumpy Old Bookman covers here. Note those sales figures.

Pat Schroeder of AAP was quoted as length in this USA Today article but do bear in mind that AAP is a lobbying group and it is part of Schroeder's job to get quoted by the major news outlets. (Sam offered his assessment of her remarks. Tim of LibraryThing offered his input as well.) Most of the holes in the referenced survey or if you prefer the questions that one really wanted to ask about the survey are pointed out here by a sensible librarian. (I really am in a mood about the publishing industry this evening.)

Elaine over at Random Jottings was talking about comics (er, graphic novels) over here and about Agatha Christie's Miss Marple over here. Does she know about the graphic novels featuring M'seur Poirot covered over here? Agatha Christie's literary estate has been very busy keeping her name in the public eye....

Has anyone already linked to Critical Compendium? I first found it over at RickLibrarian. He's a smart man. He did a really interesting entry on the ALA Notable Books Lists.

And if you think that Google Book Search is the answer to anybody's prayer, you might want to read Paul DuGuid's article in First Monday entitled "Inheritance and Loss: A Brief Survey of Google Books". It got some serious feedback. And then some.

Did you even want to start on copyright issues?

As an industry, publishers feel that they are living under that Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." So yes, while I checked out for a while this month, it wasn't that I was completely cut off from the big wide world. This is, after all, where I work.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Reading Challenges

I'll go back and fill in links a little later, but these are my titles for the fall's crop of reading challenges. I want you to know I've been thinking about this to such an extent that I had a bad dream last night in which I mistakenly operated on the idea that there were only 29 days in August rather than 31 and I missed participation in *any* of these just because I hadn't posted anything in time. I kid you not.

First up, the Readers In Peril II challenge sponsored by Carl. I'll take the first peril, thank you, Carl!

Woman in Black - Susan Hill
Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
The Prestige - Christopher Priest
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert Lewis Stevenson

Alternatives: (Thank heaven for Library Thing and tags!)

Mary Reilly - Valerie Martin
The Quincunx - Charles Palliser
Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad (I think it qualifies as dark and scary)

Then I think I've assembled a rather interesting mix of straightforward and difficult material for the Outmoded Authors Challenge organized by Imani:

The Country of Pointed Firs - Sarah Orne Jewett
The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton
The Man of Property - John Galsworthy (first volume in a series of novels that would be collected into The Forsyte Saga)
Bowens Court - Elizabeth Bowen
The Fireside Poets - Sampling of works by Longfellow, Whittier, Bryant and Wendell Holmes, Sr.
The Well of Loneliness - Radclyffe Hall


Something by May Sarton (vague, but I have read some of her work already and I need to think about what I've not read).

Finally, in a fit of something, I thought I'd see how far I get with Callista's Books to Movies challenge, because I am thinking about the challenge of translating print content into other formats a lot at work.

The Prestige - Christopher Priest
Evil Under the Sun - Agatha Christie
Journey to the Center of the Earth - Jules Verne

Granted, it's undoubtedly more ambitious than I can possibly manage in realistic terms, even with air travel to California factored into the mix. But the challenges are listed in the order of priority that I'll most likely give to them.

A Beautiful Blue Death [Review]

Title: A Beautiful Blue Death

Author: Charles Finch

Copyright: 2007; published by St. Martin's Minotaur, New York (ISBN 9780312359775; cover image from Amazon.com)

Genre: Mystery/historical

Length: 320

Summary: Charles Lenox is a wealthy Victorian gentleman in his early forties; he has a preference for tea at his own hearth and seeks only to find decent boots that will keep his feet dry in the snows of London. He would really rather like an opportunity to travel, but something always seems to prevent his departure, usually a crime of some ilk. He's just cleared up the matter of the Marlborough forgery for the Yard but now, his neighbor, Lady Jane Gray, is seriously distressed regarding the death of an upstairs maid who was once in her employ. Prue Smith is dead; might Charles find out exactly how and why? Despite the inclement damp, he sets forth immediately.

The reader accompanies Lenox into various clubs of Victorian gentlemen and darker hang-outs of others, all in pursuit of the murderer. Is it Barnard, the financier? Is it either of Barnard's two depressing nephews, Claude and/or Eustance? Soames, an old friend, is a potential suspect as are the unknown Potts and Duff , all of whom are guests in Barnard's home at the time of the murder. Knives and poisons are elements of the mystery as well. Can Lenox work out the solution before some ham-handed inspector from Scotland Yard destroys the vital clue?

The working out of the murderer's identity in A Beautiful Blue Death is complex but almost of secondary importance to the book. This is to be expected of a debut novel in a new series; the focus is on establishing the particular personality of the sleuth as he goes about the business of solving the crime. As the book progresses, we see Charles emerge from the natural self-absorption of a confirmed bachelor to realize the importance of his relationships with those who are closest to him -- his brother, his neighbor, and his butler.

Characterization is good with slight touches of humor surfacing now and again. I particularly liked one moment when a grim housekeeper objected to the laying of a dead body on her kitchen table. The detective takes little notice of her umbrage but offers the assisting footman a job with a raise of 10 pounds if the man continues to be of service in arranging the body for an immediate medical examination. The extract I have chosen also gives a slight sense of the humorous tone.


If at twenty he had been single-minded and occasionally obsessive, at forty he had mellowed and now preferred to sit in front of a warm fire, reading the newspaper with a cup of tea in his hand. He had always loved his friends and his family dearly but took more pleasure in them now. He had always loved his work but allowed himself to be diverted from it more often now. It had simply happened that he had never married, and now he was a thorough bachelor, comfortable company but set in his ways and a good deal more snug at home than in the first ambition of his youth. Lenox hadn’t changed, in his own estimation; and yet of course he had, as all men do.

The tea tray sat on a small side table by his chair, next to a stack of books, several of which had fallen to the floor, where he had left them the night before. The servants had learned by now to leave his library as he left it, except for an occasional dusting. He poured a healthy cup of tea, took a large scoop of sugar and a splash of milk, and then turned his attention to the plate of toast. Graham had thoughtfully added a small cake, which was a rare treat. But then, it had been a trying day.

Also relevant: There is, in my opinion, a slight awkwardness on the part of the author in his selected narrative pov. You get some sense of what's going on in Charles's head, but never to a level of intimacy. It may well be in keeping with the formality of the Victorian period in which the story is set, but there were occasions when attention given to the precise external movements of a character seemed more important to the author than revealing the character's internal thoughts. I don't know that this was a particular flaw in the writing, but it was an aspect that kept me as a reader at more of a distance than modern writers usually maintain.

I liked Charles Lenox as a character. He's a trifle self-satisfied, but he's not pompous and he has the grace to feel sheepish following a mistake. I liked the degree of historical detail - adequate but not overwhelming. This is a good beginning and I'd certainly recommend it as a nice relaxing read. This could build nicely as a series.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Books Stacking Up Through August and into September

Just to keep life interesting, here's the list of the books that got added to my collection on LibraryThing this month:

  1. Out of the Deep I Cry - Julia Spencer-Fleming
  2. The Prestige - Christopher Priest
  3. The Prestige: The Screen Play - Jonathan Nolan
  4. The Woman in Black - Susan Hill
  5. A Beautiful Blue Death - Charles Finch
  6. Jane Austen in Hollywood, Second Edition - Linda Troost
  7. Evil Under the Sun - Agatha Christie
  8. Lost in Austen - Emma Campbell Webster
That constitutes two months worth of reading; given that I haven't finished some other stuff in my queue, one might say I'm well-equipped to face new reading challenges.

Walker's Ocean of Air [Review]

Title: An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere

Author: Gabrielle Walker (author's website)

Copyright: 2007; published by Harcourt, Inc. (ISBN: 978-015-101124-7)

Length: 272 (incl. Acknowledgments, Suggestions for Further Reading, Endnotes and Index)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Science

Summary: Writing about science is not an easy task. One must be specific and careful to state exactly the significance of a particular experiment, (which can turn any paragraph into dry dust) but one also seeks to communicate that instant of marvel and discovery experienced after exploring some question that no one has answered satisfactorily to date. An Ocean of Air is actually a marvelously successful attempt at presenting science, specifically what we know and how we learned the nature of the atmosphere that makes it possible for us to live on this earth.

The book opens with a prologue that recounts the amazing story of Joe Kittinger in August of 1960, a story I had never heard before either in science class in school or by reading volumes of science fiction. Walker writes: Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr. of the US Air Force is the man who fell to Earth and lived. Nobody has ever managed to emulate his feat. His passage home from the edge of space, from thin air to thick, illustrates something extraordinary about our planet. Space is almost close enough to touch. Only twenty miles above our heads is an appalling hostile environment that would freeze us, and burn us and boil us away. And yet our enfolding layers of air protect us so completely that we don't even realize the dangers. This is the message from Kittinger's flight, and from every one of the pioneers who have sought to understand our atmosphere. We don't just live in the air. We live because of it.

Kittinger's calculated risk was only one of a series of experiments carried out over several centuries as human beings attempted to understand the ocean of air that surrounds us and supports our existence. Walker follows both amateur and professional investigators in their efforts to figure out the mysteries of air. Her entire book is a story of how science was and is done under diverse, frequently adverse, conditions. She follows idiosyncratic professors in Edinburgh in 1754, Irish physicians in London's Royal Institution in the nineteenth century, and British and Americans in Antarctica in the 1950's and 1980's. The stories are almost fantastical, even though the author touches on the familiar. We know of Galileo's excommunication by the Church for daring to suggest that the earth moved about the sun, but who knows on a common basis that Galileo spent his later years in prison investigating the weight of air. We hear of the Frenchman, Antoine Lavoisier, who further explored the nature of breathing and the rural West Virginia genius, William Ferrell, who first recognized the existence of jet streams. (Walker writes of Christopher Columbus taking advantage of easterly trade winds in navigating the Atlantic, but Columbus had no idea why the air moved the way it did. The explanation was developed by Ferrell.)

The most remarkable aspect of this book is that one never feels as if the author is talking down to the reader. Walker writes so exuberantly about the people who are taking these risks in the name of knowledge, that you are swept into the action and absorb painlessly the basics of the scientific concepts that they master.

Extract: Midgely announced his invention at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Atlanta in April 1930. He demonstrated the safety of his new gas with irrepressible showmanship. In front of a rapt crowd of chemists, he took in a deep breath of Freon and then slowly exhaled it over a lit candle. The candle went out.

Midgley's new chemical was an immediate hit. Together with its family of related chemicals (known collectively as CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons, so named because they contain chlorine, fluorine and carbon), it quickly became American's refrigeration of choice. Because it was so safe, Midgley's company agreed to sell it to all of their competitors, and soon it was universal in refrigerators across the land.

Also Relevant: It is the exuberant tone of the text that makes this book a tremendous read! JenClair wrote in some detail recently about this book and I think her experience was the same as mine. The author doesn't talk down to you, but writes most articulately about how gentleman-scholars managed to conduct experiments when glass was a precious commodity and how Susan Solomon, a modern scientist whose project in Antarctica was threatened by damage caused by forces of blizzards and winds to mirrors poised on a rooftop, actually went out in -40 degree winds to pull the mirrors back into safety. JenClair noted in her review some of the people who captured her attention in the book as did the Times critic, here. The Times critic sneered a bit at the tone Walker adopts in her story-telling, making a snarky reference to scientific-lite, but I think he was wrong in his disdain. Our scientific awareness is not generally the product of safely-enclosed institutional laboratories; it is formed by the thinking and daring of some amazing people and there are dramatic events in our history that might have been changed had those involved had just a tidbit of factual information. Walker wants us to know about the inquiring minds who have brought us so far and whose feats we should recognize outside of the average textbook. Science *should* be told with an eye to the dramatic; how better to appreciate how far we've actually come and how the knowledge was gained.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Update on Life

Family matters (immediate and extended) and a busy schedule have kept me from blogging for the past ten days. I hope I'll get something in this next week.

To be fair, some of it has just been distraction and lack of initiative. I'd like to excuse myself by suggesting that none of it is my fault. But that would REALLY not be true. Sigh.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Sin in the Second City [Review]

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, and Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul

Author: Karen Abbott (biographical information; her MySpace page; a very recent interview.)

Copyright: 2007, Random House, New York, ISBN 978-1-4000-6530-1

Length: 356 pages (including bibliography, notes and sources, and index)

Genre: Non-fiction, social history

Summary: Sin in the Second City specifically discusses the rise and fall of the Everleigh Club in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. The Everleigh Club was one of the extravagant attractions of Chicago between 1900 when the high-toned brothel opened and 1912, when a crusade against vice and white slavery forced Chicago's power brokers to close it down. Woven into the story of Minna and Ada Everleigh, the sisters responsible for both the tone and the services of the Club, is the story of the reformers who seek to eradicate vice and the corrupt politicians who patronize the Club, accepting bribes in exchange for protection while publicly outraged by its presence. Abbott thoroughly documents this happy triangle. The sisters ran a clean, professional cathouse. The reformers sang hymns in front of the brothels themselves, weeping over the the young girls who fallen into these dens of sin and degradation . And the politicians took advantage of both sides.

The author clearly sympathizes with the Everleigh sisters' shrewd business sense while raising an eye-brow at the male-dominated society that alternately condoned then condemned the sexual exploitation. She enjoys the over-the-top events at the club, such as a royal patron who, while visiting Chicago on a formal state visit, visited the house of ill-repute at midnight and sipped champagne from a harlot's slipper. She notes the likelihood of whether Marshall Field, Jr. died by a gun going off while he cleaned it in the privacy of his bedroom or died in the parlour of the Everleigh Club. Decadence, wickedness and hypocrisy make for interesting bedfellows.

Abbott's writing style is snappy. The (real) people whose lives the author follows are vividly described. She captures the human foibles that infuse this particular history while unobtrusively suggesting that there are modern parallels.

Extract: The book's official web site has an excerpt available here.

Also Relevant: According to the interview I referenced above, Abbott researched her material for three years in preparing to write about the sisters and the effort shows. As she herself notes, there are times when the factual aspects of her story are more bizarre than any fiction could make plausible. Clearly the reforms that the ministers were so eager to bring about were necessary; tales of white slavery were not entirely urban myths. But the courtesans of the Everleigh House were better cared for than any other women in the profession at that time and in that locale. But as is so frequently the case, reformist zeal was more focused on bringing about the downfall of the high-profile madams rather than those less-visible panderers completely lacking in decency.

Abbott balances fairly well between recognition of the intelligence of these two women setting out to professionalize the world's oldest career and recognition of the undeniable abuse of young women who were drawn unwittingly into prostitution by promises of gaiety in the big city of Chicago. She never lapses into the arch offensiveness of the Wall Street Journal review whose author closed out his review of Sin in the Second City this way: ...in much larger part it was killed by the change in social temper that came with the sexual revolution. Once nice girls began giving sex away, less-nice girls who charged for it were out of work. Nice girls, though this may not have been what they had in mind, thus contributed more to social reform than all the professional reformers and other visiting firemen in Chicago and elsewhere in the world.

Yeah. Right. What's that old saying? Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.

Never mind. Abbott does a good job in Sin in the Second City and the book succeeds at being both informative as well as readable.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Musings on Tell No Man

In my book collection on LibraryThing, you can find a title, Tell No Man, by Adela Rogers St. Johns. There aren’t many on LT who own the book, only four of us, and there are no reviews of it posted to the site. It was a best seller in 1966, the year in which it was originally published. I read it as an impressionable adolescent, but dipping into it some forty years later, it still is a well-told story.

Tell No Man centers on a young couple, Hank and Melanie Gavin, with another young couple, Colin and Sybil Rowe, providing a parallel sub-plot. Hank and Colin are service-buddies from their time in the Korean War. Hank, now a wealthy young stockbroker, married to Melanie, and living in Chicago, has a conversion experience following the suicide of a friend. He decides to go to seminary and ultimately follow a new career path in Christian ministry. The primary theme of the book is how one goes about the practice of Christian belief amidst the materialism of the ‘sixties culture. Melanie, his fashionable young wife, is wedded in the truest sense to Hank but has issues with his sudden change of direction, particularly as she herself has no faith in anything beyond her own fundamental competence. As I dipped into it again, I realized that this was one of the books that sent me off to read other books, such as C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce which is used as a plot device. Tell No Man is a fictional exploration of faith, but suffers from an ending which, even at age twelve, I was able to recognize as being unsatisfactory. I suspect, but have no proof, that the character of Hank was always intended to remind the reader of the Presbyterian chaplain of the Senate, Peter Marshall.

However, one of the most memorable incidents in the text is a discussion that Hank has with one of the characters when he tells of an experiment he tries with regard to reading the Bible. In the interest of approaching the Bible as a story rather than as sacred text, Hank goes searching for one that he can read the same way as he would an ordinary book, ie. no two-column formats, no footnotes or scriptural references down the middle or at the foot of the page. It's a problem for him to find one that matches his need. I remember being quite struck by that idea when I read the book initially because it was something I was aware of but hadn't quite articulated to myself. Most printed Bibles aren’t designed for purposes of extended reading. They are primarily designed from the perspective of the publisher who must keep an eye on production costs, particularly with regard to paper while balancing off any negative flack for changing the presentation of the sacred text. (You know that Bibles traditionally are printed on special tissue-thin paper so that the final printed volume isn’t the size of the thickest Harry Potter. Special ink, as well, to avoid bleed-through on the page. Very expensive process.)

All of this came up in my head during church this past Sunday. I was reading that confirmands were responsible for either having read through the complete text of the Gospel of Luke or watching it on a DVD before instruction started this week. I wondered briefly whether the students would just sit down and read it through rapidly in a traditional New Testament they might own or if, like Hank Gavin, they wished they might be able to sit down and read the Gospel in a more ordinary format. For all I know, the DVD is the new equivalent to Hank's expensive, readable Bible.

You may recall a few years ago the attempt by a publisher to package the Bible in a new format, specifically known as the Pocket Canons. I was all gung-ho until I read they'd had the temerity to abridge the Book of Psalms.

At any rate, have you ever given any thought to how the physical design and layout of a book contributes to the way in which you actually process the content?