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Monday, April 30, 2007

Mistakes Were Made


Tavris, Carol, and Elliot Aronson.
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. I thought I knew all about self-justification, but no, my understanding didn't begin to account for the 90% of that iceberg, submerged and out of sight.

The introduction is titled Knaves, fools, Villains, and Hypocrites: How Do They Live with Themselves? The answer is-- the same way we do. They justify their actions.

When we make a mistake or do something foolish or hurtful, we experience cognitive dissonance. Since we think of ourselves as basically good people, when our behavior threatens our self-concept, we are almost compelled to justify our actions in order to reduce the dissonance. For most of us, our transgressions are relatively small, but what about those who have proceeded to much larger and more serious errors? How did they get there, if they really are decent people? Tavris and Aronson state it very simply: one step at a time. One lie can lead to another, and bigger, lie. One act of dishonesty can lead to another. If we justify the first, it is easier to justify the second. The individuals in the Milgram study began with small shocks and proceeded upwards. From ten volts to 450 volts. This study has always fascinated me, but Tavris and Aronson conclude that not only do we move toward bad/corrupt/cruel/foolish behavior one step at a time, but we also tend to blame our victims...they deserved it, they were stupid, they were stubborn. Because those individuals who were administering the "shocks" were decent people, they had to justify their willingness to "inflict" pain.

This is a fascinating book, and the authors take the reader through example after example, study after study. Why would a prosecuting attorney refuse to change his opinion after DNA proved that the accused was not guilty? Why can't psychologists, doctors, police, politicians, husbands, wives, teachers, students, bosses, employees... admit they made mistakes? What procedures and strategies are at work? The authors reveal the process, revealing how easy it is to compound and magnify our errors because we are so busy justifying our decisions.

From marital disagreements to war crimes, almost without exception individuals try to justify their behavior to ease cognitive dissonance. The latter part of the book concentrates on acknowledging mistakes rather than excusing them, being aware of the process and consequences of self-justification, keeping an open mind, and not "jumping to convictions."

There is way too much in this little book for me to cover, but I recommend it to anyone who enjoys psychological and sociological studies. Sometimes floored, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, sometimes amused, but always interested, I can only hope that I will be able to apply some of what I learned in my own life. This book was an Advanced Reader Copy, and my thanks, again, to Anna Suknov for sending it.

Nonfiction. Social psychology. 2007. 236 pages.

An Assortment of Goodies

Have you ever wanted a literary umbrella?


Well Luminary Graphics can provide you with one of several different
versions! Or great bookmarks, or bookbags, mugs, playing cards, or journals.

I love the Magritte bookmark!











Here is a review of new YA fantasy novel that sounds interesting. It is the final volume in the series, but the review gives background on all of them. Also, here at January Magazine there is a link to the Guardian article Defining the Decades and in the post Margaret Atwood and the Defining Books of Our Era, you can scroll down to see the complete list.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

On Choosing Books

Want to read an entertaining book review? Hop on over to Naked Without Books and scroll down to her review on Outsider.

Chris asked how I choose my books, and I gave a partial answer in the comment section of my last post:

I have several long lists of titles, subjects, and authors (gathered from all kinds of sources including blogs!) that I work from, I also choose a great many from the new book shelves at the library and browse through the stacks as well.

In the case of the Honor Harrington books, I found Off Armageddon Reef on the new book shelves at the library and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to read others by Weber. One book often leads to another--by the same author, on the same topic, or on something mentioned in the book.

It is an interesting question, however, and one we've all discussed at different times. I'm also intriqued by titles. I remember one book from quite a few years ago that I chose for the title alone: Malice Domestic which comes from a speech by Macbeth:

Duncan is in his grave.
After life's fitful fever he sleeps well.
Treason has done his worst; nor steel nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further.

I remember absolutely nothing about that little mystery except the title. Any title that originates from a line of poetry or has some allusive text (that I recognize) will cause me to pull it out for further examination. Certain words attract me for some reason; titles with the words snow, or winter, or bones in them make me pause. Beautiful phrases catch my attention.

Covers. A beautiful cover will draw my interest. A cover that doesn't appeal to me will cause me to ignore the book, often to my own detriment.

Not one of these methods is a reliable indicator of how much I'll like the book, but each method has a definite way of catching my interest. If another blogger mentions it and it sounds interesting, it goes on the LIST. If I read about it in the paper or on LitMinds or KR or Arts & Letters Daily; if I hear it reviewed on NPR; if a friend mentions it...

I know Chris (Stuff as Dreams Are Made On) has a penchant for science fiction and fantasy, but his blog title is a Shakespearean reference. So...how do you choose your books, Chris, within your favorite genres and in general?

And how do you choose your books? If you decide to answer on your blog, would you please leave me a link in the comment section so I can read it, too?

2 for 1: On Basilisk Station & The Honor of the Queen

Weber, David. On Basilisk Station. The first book in the Honor Harrington series proved to be a lot of fun. Based on the Horatio Hornblower series, a daring young woman is given command of a space ship that has been refitted with experimental weapons that she knows will not be practical. When the experiment ultimately fails, she and her crew are sent to one of the most unpopular posts available, Basilisk Station. Faced with an almost impossible task, Honor puts everything she has into making the situation work.

What to call the specific sub-genre? Another reviewer called it a cross between "space opera and military science fiction." That works well for me. A highly entertaining read, if you like this sort of thing. I enjoyed it enough to read the second in the series.

fiction. Science Fiction. 1993. 419 pages.

The Honor of the Queen. Two years have passed, since Honor's success at Basilisk Station. Another assignment (with much more prestige), and lots more space battles and high adventure. An interesting feature in this one is a religion that decided to eschew technology, and an even more fundamentalist off-shoot of that. This intertwined religious/Luddite theme is developed in Weber's new series that begins with Off Armageddon Reef.

The characters in these novels are somewhat stereotypical, but the emphasis is on the fast-paced action. Honor is really, really good-- strong, confident, smart, fair, innovative, decisive: A paragon of the space commander. It is good fun and highly entertaining to see the Heroic Woman take charge and kick ass.

fiction. Science Fiction. 1993. 422 pages.

Friday, April 27, 2007

I Feel Like a Celebrity!

Oh, wow, my interview on Litminds is up! I'm really honored to have been interviewed and to share the company of bloggers like Sam Houston at BookChase and Stefanie at So Many Books! Litminds is a great place to visit to find out what is going on in the world of books, authors, and book bloggers. A great community - drop by and register!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Blogging Scavenger Hunt ?

Oh, dear, I've succumbed. I signed up for the Blogging Scavenger Hunt. If I keep up fine, if not fine; it should be fun anyway. Cheya, noticed your name there, too!

I've finished On Basilisk Station and The Honor of the Queen by David Weber and need to review them. Still working on Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) and have started rereading All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. From the excitement of science fiction/space opera through the nonfiction of social psychologists explaining how and why we rationalize our mistakes and justify our actions, to the heartwarming stories of a Yorkshire vet during the late 1930's.

Had a lot of fun with the first two novels about Honor Harrington and her exciting space adventures, am learning some interesting stuff in Mistakes Were Made, and am chuckling over the experiences of James Herriot and Sigfried and Tristan Farnon (Sigfried and Tristan's father was a Wagner buff). All Creatures Great and Small is just as funny and charming as it was the first time I read it all those years ago.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Neglected Books

Book Plate by Paul Korky


In a comment, Bybee over at Naked Without Books mentioned The Neglected Book Page, and I decided to check it out. On Florence King's list, I've only read Jubilee Trail by Gwen Bristow and Katherine by Anya Seton (years and years ago), but I noticed Maggie-Now by Betty Smith. One of my favorite books as an adolescent was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Smith, so Maggie-Now will go on my list. I haven't read any of those listed on Terry Teachout's list, but boy, all of them sound interesting. I want to read all of them, especially Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution and Bruce Marshall's Father Malachy's Miracle.

Also on the King/Teachout site, I found A Reader's Delight by Noel Perrin. "There is, as Noel Perrin writes in the prologue to A Reader’s Delight, “a large category of books just short of classic status that are known only to a handful of lucky readers. Almost anyone who reads a lot is apt to have come across at least one such book–something not in the canon, not
famous, probably not even in print–but all the same sheer delight to read. Many lifelong readers have a whole collection of such books…. This volume describes my own collection …”

"A Reader’s Delight collects 38 articles Perrin wrote over the course of several years as an occasional columnist for the Washington Post. Only two rules applied in selecting the books covered: “No book less than about fifteen years old was eligible;” and “no book that more than two or three of my colleagues had read got considered.”


On Perrin's long list, there was only one book I recognized, A Fine and Private Place by Peter Beagle- a book I've intended to read for several years (title from a line in Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," one of my favorite poems).

Thanks, Bybee, for pointing me toward such an interesting site!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Working my way through Carl's Challenge

Once Upon a Time Challenge
(* are the ones I really enjoyed)

*Mimus
*Off Armageddon Reef
*The Book of Lost Things
The Silent Tower
The Book with No Words
Evil Genius
The Amulet of Samarkand
*Spirit Gate
Summers at Castle Auburn
Coraline

These are the ones I've completed.

I don't know if The Road counts...it seems less science fiction than science future. I didn't review Coraline because I think I'm the only person who has read it that wasn't all that taken with it.

I'm reading another David Weber, On Basilisk Station (the first in the Honor Harrington series, and by the way, hate the cover) and enjoying it. Almost finished. Also reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) : Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, a nonfiction ARC book that I am enjoying...although cringing at some of the absurd political examples with which we are all familiar. It answers the question, "What in the world was he/she thinking?" when we read another news article about political/celebrity foolishness. Although I've wondered why we don't do a better job of understanding other cultures when involved in diplomacy, the book reveals some of the difficulties.

Strangely, David Weber seems to have twigged on to the authors theories as many of his characters acknowledge their own attempts at self-justification.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Tid-bits

Don Quioxote and The Narrative Self A very interesting article - about the influence of story-telling in our lives.

booksprice.com asked me to post a comment about their site and even offered a free copy of Water for Elephants, although they said the offer was not contingent on my comment. I ran a few books through to see comparative prices, and Amazon was in the running for all of the books I checked. It might be very useful in searching for out of print books and receiving comparative prices in one place. I checked on Jubilee Trail, a book my mother received from a book club in the 1950's and was surprised that it was not out of print. Best price - Amazon - $6.50. Ordered it... because remembering how much I loved that book made me want a copy.

Mimus

Thal, Lilli. Mimus. This YA novel opens with a young prince and his friends taking part in some typical escapades in the kingdom of Moldavia. Then word arrives that Prince Florin is to join his father who has been involved with peace negotiations with Vinland and will be escorted there by Moldavian soldiers. Florin is thrilled to be a part of this historic event--the whole idea is exciting. On the trip to Vinland, however, the young prince sees the devastation caused by years of war and his romantic visions receive their first jolt.

Worse is to come. King Philip, Florin's father, has been betrayed and imprisoned with his surviving retainers in the dungeons of King Theodo of Vinland. Florin is forced into apprenticeship with Theodo's jester, Mimus. The prince is stripped physically and emotionally as he moves from the exalted position of prince, to the one of the lowest positions in this medieval society. His head is shaved, he is fed gruel once a day, and he is forced to behave like a Fool. His one attempt at escape brought a terrible punishment on his father, so Florin can not even hope to make another attempt.

Survival comes at a great cost and requires great courage, but Florin does survive. And learn-- about revenge, friendship, the humanity even of enemies, the inhumanity that can result from too much power, the effects of war, and more. There are some harsh realities in this YA novel, but there is great compassion as well.

Although I've barely mentioned Mimus, his character is vital, complex and fascinating. There is no novel without him, but you need to meet him for yourself.

This is an excellent YA novel that doesn't skimp on development and doesn't condescend to its readers. I found it on the YA shelves at the library and had never heard of it before, but after 3 disappointing YA fantasy novels, I really wanted one that I could like.

I just found this study guide for teachers which looks excellent.

Fiction. YA/fantasy. 2003. Eng. trans. 2005. 394 pages.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Road


McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. In a post apocalyptic world, a father and son struggle for survival. McCarthy provides a frightening look at a world gone grey, sterile, and deadly. Survival becomes the by-word. Throughout the horrors of this new world, the father's gentle care of his son touches the core of existence. It reminds me of the existentialist view in many ways... If man's own existence defines him, then this father, in his love for his son, is creating a positive existence in the midst of circumstances that are echoes of hell. He is "one of the good guys." A moving book. Do read it; it doesn't take long.

Fiction. Futuristic. 2006. 241 pages.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Off Armageddon Reef


Weber, David. Off Armageddon Reef. The story begins in 2378 with the first assault of the Gbaba, an alien species intent on wiping out the entire human race. There is no communication, no negotiation, just a ruthless attempt at extermination. By 2421, mankind has realized that there will be a final battle and that they will lose, but they have one final card up their sleeves. Operation Ark is man's last effort to preserve their species.

Operation Ark is a colonizing expedition sent deep into space with the intention of building a new civilization that avoids technology that might attract the Gbaba. The planet selected is called Safehold, and the majority of those who make the trip have been re-programmed to forget all of the technological advances they knew before this last desperate attempt. Invention and innovation are frowned on, and the Church of God Awaiting keeps a strict eye on any possible infractions.

Charis is a rich, powerful, and innovative country on planet Safehold, and the Church interferes in a number of ways to keep the country under control. As the Church begins its campaign to curtail Charis' power, a PICA (Personality-Integrated Cybernetic Avatar or android) who has been sleeping for centuries, awakes and determines to aid King Haarald and his son Cayleb in defying the corrupt machinations of the Church. Although the mind and memory of the PICA belonged to a young woman who perished in the final battle against the Gbaba, Nimue Alban realizes that a woman would have no influence in the society that has developed on Safehold, and through the technology that has been lost to the Safeholdians, the PICA re-invents itself as a man, taking the name Merlin.

I have to say I enjoyed every minute of this massive saga. There are a passel of characters to keep track of and that is a bit confusing because of the names: Zhansyn, Ahdymsyn, etc. However, after a few pages, it becomes clear that they are simply unusual spellings of common names--Johnson, Adamson, etc. I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment!

Fiction. Science Fiction. 2007. 592 pages.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Shel Silverstein links...

In honor of National Poetry Month, do visit this site and listen to Shel Silverstein read some of his poems, with animation, no less. I loved Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me, Too - (click on Where the Sidewalk Ends) deee-lite-fulllll!! My gosh, I read enough of these to my daughters that I should have them all memorized. There's even a new book available, Runny Babbit; I especially liked Runny and Sea Poup. Of course, The Giving Tree always gave me a bit of trouble, but what a wonderful little book. Here's The Official Site for Kids...with all kinds of activities.

Finally got the last two mysteries reviewed, and I'm almost through with Off Armageddon Reef , a real saga. I'm also busy browsing through a new quilting book, looking for inspiration and good tips.

The Lizard's Bite


Hewson, David. The Lizard's Bite. Set in Venice, Nic Costa, Gianni Peroni, exiled detectives from Rome, and their boss Leo Falcone are asked to "confirm the findings" of Venetian police when two members of a glass-making family are found dead after a foundry fire. Corruption and secrets help make the case more difficult and the ending has a definite twist. Not a bad mystery.

Fiction. Mystery. 2006. 417 pages.

The Orchid Shroud

Wan, Michelle. The Orchid Shroud. Mara Dunn is renovating a French mansion in Dordogne when the workmen discover the partially mummified body of an infant in one of the walls. The baby in the wall has been a strangely popular plot device in mysteries. Julian Wood is a landscaper who is in search of a wild orchid that may no longer exist; his interest is heightened by the fact that the infant is wrapped in a shawl with a beautifully embroidered image of the very orchid he's been seeking. The story has these two main branches, the identity of the baby and his murderer and the discovery of a wild orchid that may or may not still exit. The story shifts between the present and 1870. Then the author inserts a new twist to the mystery--that seems a bit too fantastic. On a scale of 1-5, I'd probably give it a 2.

Fiction. Mystery. 2006. 336 pages.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Miscellaneous Musings

There has been a lot to deal with around here lately, and I've gotten off my blogging stride. Catching up on emails and comments and blog-reading is difficult.

Good things:

  • Laddie is recovering nicely from the fall he took last week.
  • I received the poetry chapbook by Frank Bidart - Thanks so much, Stefanie!
  • I've gotten two more ARC books in the mail that I hope to get around to soon.
  • Amelia and Chris have returned from their cruise ( they had a wonderful time) and now I can get my copy of The Habit of Being back and give Amelia her copy, which arrived the day they left.
  • I've mailed a copy of Anne of Windy Poplars to my Aunt Mary who will enjoy it and have ordered her a copy of James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small. She's 88 and frail in body, but never in mind.
  • Nice weather has returned.
  • The roses bushes are all in bloom.
  • I got a little work done on a baby quilt that has been sitting way too long.
  • Have finished two mysteries that I need to review and am reading Off Armageddon Reef by David Webber and enjoying it tremendously.
  • Got a brand new vacuum cleaner, a Dyson, that will make a mundane chore semi-entertaining for a while. Love that clear cannister and the fact that there are no bags.
  • Have my yearly checkup out of the way and, as always, am grateful that Dr. B. is such a nice person. Liking and trusting your doctor is a very good thing.

There have been some sad things in the past week, as well; my Aunt Janice died, and although not entirely unexpected, it is hard to see that generation slowly passing away.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Book of Lost Things


Connolly, John. The Book of Lost Things. This book fits best into the fairy tale genre and is a book that might have pleased Jung. David is twelve when his mother dies, and he has spent a lot of time performing various rituals, hoping to prevent her death: putting first his left foot on the floor when he gets out of bed, then his right; counting to twenty when he brushes his teeth, touching faucets and door handles a certain number of times, trying to keep numbers even.

It is through his mother that David has formed his attachment to books; the love of reading was one of their shared bonds, and "Before she became ill, David's mother would often tell him that stories were alive."

The language at the beginning of the novel, as David first fears, then grieves his mother's loss, is particularly beautiful:

"Stories were different, though: they came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. They lay dormant, hoping for the chance to emerge. Once someone started to read the, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination, and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read, David's mother would whisper. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life."

And this is a book where the stories do come alive, if turned on their heads. The stories, altered from their original forms, are part of a journey, a quest that must be undertaken for David's survival. There is much more at stake than a material treasure; this is a hero's journey in which David acquires knowledge that will benefit both himself and others.

Of course, one thing I was glad to see was that unlike Nathaniel and Cadell (from The Amulet of Samarkand and Evil Genius), David is likable in spite of his difficulties and does receive help from mentors and parental figures along the way. His original goal is worthy, if unrealistic, and when he recognizes what the true point of his journey is, he embraces it.

Fiction. Fairy tale/fantasy. 2006. 339 pages.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Silent Tower

Hambly, Barbara. The Silent Tower. The first in a series, TST was published in 1986. I don't think I'll be pursuing the series. The mixture of modern computers (even those of the 1980's) in one world and the medieval/industrial (another anomaly) in another world, just didn't quite work for me. Joanna, a computer programmer, is kidnapped from the modern world and carried into a world of wizards, a mad king, a mad prince, a mad mage.

Although I wouldn't mind finding out what happened to Antryg, Joanna, and Caris, I doubt that I ever will...

Fiction. Fantasy. 1986. 369 pages.

"in such lovely language"

This poem by D. H. Lawrence is for Danielle, who is undertaking a study of Shakespeare.

When I Read Shakespeare

When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder
that such trivial people should muse and thunder
in such lovely language.

Lear, the old buffer, you wonder his daughters
didn't treat him rougher,

the old chough, the old chuffer!

And Hamlet, how boring, how boring to live with,
so mean and self-conscious, blowing and snoring
his wonderful speeches, full of other folks' whoring!

And Macbeth and his Lady, who should have been choring,
such suburban ambition, so messily goring
old Duncan with daggers!

How boring, how small Shakespeare's people are!
Yet the language so lovely! like the dyes from gas-tar.

D. H. Lawrence


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What's Goin' On...in the South and Elsewhere

Maggie has a new challenge-- The Southern Reading Challenge 2007 and she has several interesting posts in connection to the challenge, including one called Dueling Southern Authors.
I'm still pondering the question of which Southern author is the Southernest, but man, I do love that bottle tree, Maggie!

Cheya at A Reader's Journal has reminded me that I haven't read any of Anne Perry's WWI novels (I've read most of her Victorian novels; I especially like the William Monk and Hester Latterly series). WWI novels have always interested me, so I'm going to have to find time to catch up with Anne Perry's new historical/mystery series.

If I were going to be in New York on May 2, I wouldn't miss this for the world -- Charles Vess will be giving a lecture on the art of the fantastic!

Booking for Family

I ordered a copy of The Habit of Being for my daughter Amelia, and a book on graphology for my SIL ~ and both came in yesterday. However, since Amelia was leaving on a cruise before her copy arrived, she borrowed my copy (all highlighted and tagged) and will have to trade back when she returns home.

Robin had mentioned her interest in handwriting (as an Adaptive P.E. teacher, she's interested in so many things that our physical movements reveal), so I ordered her a copy of Handwriting Analysis: Putting It to Work for You by Andrea McNichol. A number of years ago, one of my friends was talking about a friend of her mother's who worked for various insurance companies doing handwriting analysis. After some research, I bought McNichol's book and really enjoyed it. McNichol has consulted for the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, Scotland Yard, the U.S. Department of Defense, and Fortune 500 companies -- very interesting stuff. I couldn't find my copy which is boxed up somewhere, so I ordered Robin her own copy. Now, I wish I could find mine!

Still need to review The Silent Tower by Barbara Hambly. Have begun The Book of Lost Things.

National Poetry Month w/amended instructions :)

In honor of National Poetry Month:

The first one to give the title and author of the poem parodied below will receive a copy of either Candide or Eragon. Each book has been read once; excellent condition. :)

If you are interested, leave a comment below (but don't include the answer) and then go to my profile page and send me an email with the title and author of the original poem. If there are several correct answers, I'll do a drawing next Tuesday and announce the winner.

Here is the parody:

TODAY WE HAVE BAKING OF TARTS
by
E.V. Milner

Today we have Baking of Tarts. Yesterday
We had Simple Salads. And a fortnight tomorrow
We shall have How to Garnish Cod cutlets. But today
Today we have Baking of Tarts. The viewers
Ogle their screens in a flurry of breathless excitement,
For today we have Baking of Tarts.

This is the plastic mixing bowl. And this
Is the rolling-pin and the board, whose use you will see
In a moment. And this is the transparent oven
Which in your case you have not got. The speaker
Warms to her theme with ardent, unflagging exuberance,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the strawberry jam which is neatly extracted
With a gentle thrust of the spoon. And please do not let me
See anyone licking his fingers. It is perfectly easy
If you have any jam in your pot. The viewers
Are silent and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them licking their fingers.

And this you can see is the lard. The purpose of this
Is to prevent the pastry from sticking. We can smear it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Greasing the tin. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The viewers are fumbling for biscuits and spilling their coffee:
They call it ruining the carpet.

They call it ruining the carpet. It is perfectly easy
If your mind is attempting to cope with the cookery expert
While your hands are engaged in juggling with saucers and plates
And trying meanwhile to secure a reasonable share
Of the cheese straws, which in our case we have not got:
For today we have Baking of Tarts.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Amulet of Samarkand


Stroud, Jonathan. The Amulet of Samarkand. The Bartimaeus Trilogy: Book One. Nathaniel has been "sold" to a minor magician as an apprentice in modern-day London. His master, Arthur Underwood has no sympathy for the boy's situation and has undertaken Nathaniel's training only because it is required. Mrs. Underwood does provide care and concern for the child, but doesn't appear to seriously question her husband's treatment of the boy.

As the result of a humiliating experience with the magician Simon Lovelace (and I assume the name is pronounced "love-less" as is the name of the poet Richard Lovelace), Nathaniel takes his training to a new level, pursuing knowledge on his own and far beyond the ability of his master, Underwood. Nathaniel is angry and seeking revenge. When he reaches the point of being able to summon his own demon, a reluctant and indigant Bartimaeus arrives on the scene.

Once again, I find myself pondering the changes in YA fantasy. Like Evil Genius, this book has an orphan boy raised by adoptive/foster parents who have little emotional involvement with their charge. Although Mrs. Underwood, Nathaniel's main caretaker, is kind-- his magician master is self-involved and callous in his relationship with the boy. Unlike most previous YA books with which I'm familiar, these orphans have no support system...they are really on their own without ever having had a loving family or friends to help them establish sympathy, empathy, or ideas of right and wrong. Orphans are common in fiction, but generally they have had kindness in their lives at some point in the past or have a friend or mentor in the present to help guide them.

While there is plenty of magic and an amusing approach to the wise-cracking Bartimaeus, what we have is an angry adolescent with no real connections to anyone else. Like Cadell in Evil Genius, Nathaniel has been isolated from others and has no friends. Even his relationship with Mrs. Underwood lacks real parental love and protection, although it does see him through some difficulties. His connection to one of his teachers is promising, but Ms Lutyens is fired after defending Nathaniel from Simon Lovelace's humiliating attack on the boy.

Bartimaeus is a reluctant servant, a djinn who must obey the person who calls him; he is an unwilling companion. He is much more developed than Nathaniel, who is a bit of a cardboard character, but the possibility of the two joining forces voluntarily in the second book in the trilogy is there. In The Amulet of Samarkand, however, Bartimaeus serves Nathaniel only to avoid being bound in a tin for centuries.

Like Evil Genius, the plot is full of action, but the characters have not had the opportunity to observe or form a moral base and have been prevented from forming close relationships. The power of the Harry Potter books stems from the sidekicks, the friendships, and the presence of powerful parental figures. Neither The Amulet of Samarkand nor Evil Genius provide these with any depth, leaving angry adolescent boys too much of an opportunity (especially with the power of genius or magic) to become angry postal workers. They don't; they are pulled back from the edge; but the pulling back doesn't seem to have enough explanation, which to me would be the most interesting concept. And the pulling back occurs only after some terrible consequences of their own anger and desire for revenge.

Will the next two books in the trilogy develop Nathaniel's character? Will Nathaniel and Bartimaeus become more than master and servant? I'd like to know. Can't you just tell how charming Bartimaeus is by the cover?

Fiction. YA Fantasy. 2003. 462 pages.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

a digressive post

After thinking about the Booking Through Thursday questions in the last post, I found this article.

Dr. Stephen Prothero has been "conducting informal tests of the religious knowledge of undergraduates and what he finds is disturbing. Students have told him that it was Moses that was blinded on the road to Damascus and that Paul led the Israelites on their exodus out of Egypt. He notes that more scientific polls have found that only one out of three US citizens is able to name all four Gospels and that one out of ten think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Small wonder, he writes, that noted pollster George Gallup has concluded that the United States is 'a nation of Biblical illiterates'." (emphasis mine)

"On the principal that it is better to light a small candle than to curse the darkness Prothero’s book offers a set of proposed remedies based on his hope that 'the Fall into religious ignorance is reversible.' Among those remedies the most controversial is his call for the teaching of the Bible in American public school classrooms, not simply as literature but also a study of the Bible’s impact on history. As the professor notes, teaching about religion as opposed to preaching about it, is not prohibited by the First Amendment’s ban on an 'establishment of religion.'"

At the risk of offending some, I have to say that I agree. The Bible's impact on literature and history is worth examination.

And what of Joseph Campell in the examination of world religions? In The Power of Myth, Campbell and Bill Moyer's exchange views about the importance of myth in civilization and in individual lives.

Belden C. Lane's The Power of Myth: Lessons from Joseph Campbell begins: "Theology and myth are stepsisters of truth. The one probes with questions, the other spins out tales on gossamer threads. But both serve a common mystery."

Also from Belden: "Simply put, theology gets caught up too often in explaining the meaning of life instead of seeking an experience of being alive."

Oops, I'm wandering again... One subject leading to another. I think what I'm saying is that theology and myth have importance in our lives -- and learning more about religious works can be useful in ways we aren't even aware of. Western literature draws heavily on the the Bible and without understanding the allusions and symbols, much of the impact of the literature is lost. A general knowledge of myth and world religions adds to our appreciation of what we read.

Booking Through Thursday

I skipped Booking Through Thursday last week because I've already shown my reading chair inside and because my outside spot is such a thorough mess with all of the stuff that accumulates in that area during this time of year, I'm too embarrassed to share. I intended to get it cleaned up so I could take a picture, but it remains in sorry shape.

This week, though...

Booking Through Thursday

1. Just out of curiosity, as we enter into Passover and Easter season . . . have you ever read the Bible? Just the odd chapter or Psalm? The whole thing? (Or, almost the whole thing? It's some heavy reading, of course, and those "begats" get kind of tedious.)

Not in its entirety, although I tried several times when I was young. I've read quite a bit, though of both the Old and New Testaments.

2. If so, was it from religious motivation or from a literary perspective? Stuck with nothing else to read in a hotel room the Gideon's have visited? Any combination?

I was motivated by both religious and literary reasons.

3. If not, why not? Against your religious principles? Too boring? Just not interested? Something you're planning on taking care of when you get marooned on a desert island?

To turn the question around and respond to why I have read - I think religion is interesting for its own sake...and not just the Christian religion. As I've grown older, I have found it appalling how little even people who attend church every Sunday know about their own religion. On Jay Leno one night, he asked questions about the Bible that I'd think anyone would know, but the responses were hard to believe. Surely, they edited out the people who knew who Cain and Abel were, an approximation of when Jesus lived, had heard of Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. ?

The Bible has had such a huge impact on literature. How can you understand some of the greatest literature of the Western world without a basic knowledge of the Bible? The language is beautiful...well, The King James Version, anyway.

4. And while we're on the subject . . . what about the other great religious works out there? Are they more to your liking?

I'm not sure what is intended by the question. I've read bits of the Koran, the Torah, the Upanishads, but excerpted in other works; I've read about Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, etc. I've read Dante's Inferno, Paradise Lost, Gilgamesh, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins and lots of other religious authors, poets, and literature. And I own quite a number of Joseph Campbell's books and frequently refer to them.

The upshot is that I have very little in depth knowledge about other religious works; a wide smattering of information. This week's Booking Through Thursday has really made me think.

Summers at Castle Auburn


Shinn, Sharon. Summers at Castle Auburn. Coriel is the illegitimate daughter of a royal lord. Her Uncle Jaxon makes sure that she spends her summers at the castle with her half- sister learning all that might be required of court behavior, but Corie is an independent spirit and the restraint of the castle is difficult for her. Nevertheless, she loves her sister Elisandra deeply, has a crush on Prince Bryan, and finds her summers a mixture of joy and rebellion.

She spends the winter months as apprentice to her grandmother, learning healing and the ways of a village wise woman. What she learns stands her in good stead for her summers at Auburn.

I enjoyed the book, but several things seemed rushed and not completely answered. It was more of a fantasy romance, light and enjoyable. A fun read, but not of the same quality as The Shape-Changer's Wife. The theme of both novels appears to be that is wrong to try to change the nature of a being (human or otherwise) by force. To do so is a form of enslavement that may or may not involve the obvious bonds of slavery.

Fiction. Fantasy. 2001. 342 pages.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Winner!

I am one of the lucky winners of a poetry chapbook by Frank Bidart over at So Many Books. As I love poetry, winning a "new-to-me poet" is certainly something to celebrate. Thanks, Stefanie!

I've finished Summers at Castle Auburn and will review it soon. This is my second book by Shinn, the first was the Shape-Changer's Wife, which I loved and reviewed here. They are actually quite different in style, as the Shape-Changer's Wife is more like a fairy tale and is quite short, while Summers has more of the feel of a romance.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Mistress of the Art of Death

Franklin, Ariana. Mistress of the Art of Death. The novel takes place in 1171, when Adelia, a female doctor from Salerno is sent with Simon of Naples to Cambridge in hopes of discovering who has murdered three children. Adelia is accompanied by Mansur, an Arab who functions as her bodyguard. All three are outcasts of a sort: Simon is himself a Jew; Adelia is an Italian, the foster daughter of a Jew, and a woman doctor (a coroner, actually) from the only place that allows women to become doctors, Salerno, Italy; and Mansur is an Arab eunuch, castrated by monks to preserve his singing voice--they are truly foreigners and outcasts.

While Chaucer is never mentioned, the pilgrimage, Thomas a'Becket, and the Nun's Tale all have their place in this thriller.

The Jews have been blamed for the murders of the children, and the incensed villagers have already murdered two Jews and are threatening the rest, who have been taken into the castle for protection. The atmosphere is volatile, and Henry II wants the situation resolved without having to expel all of the Jews from England, as they are a large source of his income.

The characters are the kind that reach you; not only the main characters, but many of the minor characters hold great charm. In spite of the murder of the children, Franklin's humor inserts itself into the lives of the villagers and the investigators.

Although Henry II is best remembered in connection with the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, I've always retained an admiration for his creation of a system of common law that standardized some punishments and allowed for a jury process that helped create a more uniform legal structure with some sense of equity. He also instituted land reforms and protected tenants against their landlords. All of this was to his benefit, of course, but our legal system has its roots in Henry's common law. William Churchill considered Henry II to be England's greatest king.

Henry II plays only a small role in the novel, but his influence on events is huge, as he is the one who sent to the King of Sicily a request for the three investigators.

The author admits to some anachronisms that she felt helped the story, but I have to admit that nothing bothered me to the point of being distracted.

I'd love to see Adelia, Rowley, Prior Geoffrey, Gyltha, and Ulf again, and hope that Franklin will consider letting them join forces in solving future crimes.

Fiction. Mystery/ historical. 2007. 381 pages.

Three Down...

in the Once Upon a Time Challenge:

Spirit Gate - Kate Elliott
The Book Without Words - Avi
Evil Genius - Catherine Jinks

This is my Garden Girl which I started last fall and finished last month. She seems appropriate for Once Upon a Time and fantasy/fairy tale posts.

Currently reading:

Sharon Shinn's Summers at Castle Auburn is going quickly, and I'm enjoying it. Coriel spends the summers with her half-sister (who is betrothed to the future king) at Castle Auburn, and winters with her grandmother studying to be a wise woman and healer. Lots of castle intrigue and very fast reading.

I'm also reading Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin, about a female doctor sent to Cambridge, England to help solve the deaths of 3 children. The deaths have been blamed on the Jews and the year is 1171, during the reign of Henry II and shortly after the Thomas a'Beckett fiasco.

Almost finished with both of these. Then, I think maybe Coraline. Still have quite a few in this stack to get to.

Evil Genius

Jinks, Catherine. Evil Genius. Cadell Piggott, a seven-year-old whose IQ is off the charts, is taken to a psychologist rather than arrested for hacking into complex computer systems. Thaddeus Roth becomes his mentor as his adoptive parents have little time or emotion to spare for Cadell. The beginning is quite promising.

Dr. Roth informs Cadell that his real father is actually Dr. Phineas Darkkon, a criminal mastermind, and helps Cadell keep in regular contact with his incarcerated father, who guides the young genius with misinformation.

With Dr. Roth's "help," Cadell's education is accelerated, and he graduates from high school at thirteen...after having caused all kinds of chaos by interfering with rail and traffic systems in Sydney. Oh, and emotional devastation to his senior class.

After graduation, Cadell enters The Axis Institute where he studies World Domination. Having established (through deception) a relationship with "Kay-lee," young Cadell seeks a genuine friendship over the internet which serves as a minor support system. On arriving at the Axis Institute, he is in great need of this support.

Most of the book was quite slow and because most of the characters are not likable, I didn't care what happened to them, although I found the casual attitude toward the destruction of human beings disturbing. There were opportunities for friendship (and therefore, character development that would have lent sympathy to the narrative), but they were shunted to the side.

While I found the book long, cold, and unsatisfying, I'd love to have someone else's opinion because there are some things I'd like to discuss concerning the book; I'd also like to see how my opinion coincides or differs from that of another reader.

Actually, I just googled other reviews, here is one that completely disagrees with me. The only other reviews I found were publicity reviews.

Fiction. 2007. 486 pages.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Reading, Gardening, Reading, Gardening

A very interesting article about biographies in the Boston Globe.

I'm well into Evil Genius, a YA novel, and after another good beginning, it has slowed down. The Axis Institute of Evil may be a bit much for me. Difficult to care for any of the characters.

Also started Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn. Looking like it is one of the lighter fantasies at the moment.

Still working on The Habit of Being and enjoying it. My admiration for O'Connor grows with each letter. Her terrible illness is seldom mentioned and even then, dismissively, as one might comment on a headache or allergies. No, I make a bigger deal of those than Flannery does of her difficulties.

Yesterday was a full-out garden day, with all 3 books stacked on the table on the patio for my frequent breaks.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Celebs and Generators

The Kenyon Review posted a link to this article over at Girl Friday's. A cool $4 million advance? Just what are they thinking?

On a lighter note:

Want to generate a review? Try this Plebey Review Generator: HAHA!!! you cant end it there!!!!!! ur da best!!! you should rite a sequal!!! BWAHAHAH!!AHA!!!! --ME!!!!


Or the Plot Twist Generator: The scene changes, and a busty detective arrives and reveals a secret about your protagonist's mother.


You can find generators of all kinds over at Serendipity. Need a French name, a Japanese name, a Medieval name? A character? A magician? A place name? A fantasy place name? A dragon name? A fantasy gown? Manon has a generator for you.