Search This Blog

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Mighty Queens of Freeville

Dickinson, Amy. The Mighty Queens of Freeville.

I want to live in Freeville and have Amy as a friend! I really didn't know what to expect of this ARC, but feel lucky to have received it. It is probably not a book I'd have chosen on my own, and I would have missed a wonderful opportunity. The book will be released on Feb. 3, don't miss this one.

Amy Dickinson is the "new" Ann Landers; she writes the syndicated advice column, "Ask Amy."

The book is full of wry humor, and I was hooked after the introduction when she says of her (almost entirely female) family:

We seem to be less than successful on many superficial levels. We don't have money. We aren't upwardly mobile. We aren't naturally thin or beautiful. We don't have advanced degrees, long-term career goals, or plans for retirement.
The book opens with Dickinson looking back on her divorce and the difficulty she had in accepting the end of her marriage. "Granted, the day my husband showed up at our marriage counseling session wheeling a suitcase, having just come in from a trip to Europe with his girlfriend," she says, "was a clue that our marriage was in trouble."

Her family, however, is the core of who she is and provides her with a sense of place and history. She is always cognizant of their impact on her life; her mother, sisters, aunts, and cousins, Amy and Emily--The Mighty Queens of Freeville.

With retrospective insight, Dickinson relates the events involved in the divorce: being left with an infant daughter, learning to deal with her husband's betrayal, and security provided by the family support and nurturing she received. She examines the past with more than insight, however, because enough time has past for her to tell the story of her divorce and recovery with a perfect pitch of humor attached to the old grief.

She and her daughter Emily prosper. As a single parent, Dickinson learns many things about being a mother and the importance of having a place like Freeville as a base of emotional cheer leading. She learns from her mother, her aunts, her sisters, and from experience.

The numerous little vignettes of mother and daughter making their way in the world are touching and hilarious. One of my favorite chapters is "Making Peanut Jesus: Finding God in the Community of Faith and Casseroles."

As a Sunday School teacher in Washington, D. C., Dickinson worked hard at crafts. When, after creating a creche including Mary and Joseph (made of toilet paper rolls) and Baby Jesus (a swaddled peanut), she must deal with the second-grader who ate the Baby Jesus, she finds herself struggling for words. Responding to questions like, "Does the Virgin Mary have nipples?" teaches Dickinson the skill of quick recovery.

Counteracting the wealthy Episcopalian church in D.C. is the Freeville United Method Church--the church of faith and casseroles. The women in her family are all musical, and "It was the sound of my family's gene pool choir that first brought me into the mysterious community of faith and casseroles...."

Pumpkin the cat, holidays and summers in Freeville, the move to Chicago, Emily's leaving for college are all part of Amy Dickinson's journey from divorce to the present.

The book is charming, funny, and a joy to read! Dickinson's voice is a pleasure from beginning to end.

Nonfiction. Biography/Memoir. 2009. 225 pages.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Frozen in Time

Beattie, Owen, and John Geiger. Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition.

My interlibrary loans came in earlier this week, so I finally got my hands on Frozen in Time.

The first portion of the book tells the story (in a concise manner) of the Franklin Expedition and its disappearance, giving a brief account of some of the rescue missions and what those missions discovered. After reading Resolute which had so much information and so many names that it would be almost impossible to take it all in, I enjoyed having the information in such a concise form. (This by no means is a reflection on Resolute, just that this book gave a succinct version of the history before moving on to the contemporary portion).

The second portion of the book examines anthropologist Owen Beattie's trips to the arctic (1981-1985) to solve the mystery of how and why so many died in such horrific circumstances.

In 1984, the first of 3 well-preserved bodies was exhumed, and the labor that went into digging up that first grave, buried deep in the permafrost; the time involved in thawing it sufficiently; and the autopsy itself has a strange and disorienting effect on the reader. The first body recovered was that of John Torrington, and it was so astonishingly well-preserved, that the easy distance that can be maintained with skeletal material is simply impossible.

The following summer, the bodies of John Hartnell and William Braine were exhumed and autopsied, as painstakingly as that of John Torrington had been. The results of the autopsies and forensic investigation supported Beattie's theory of lead poisoning from poorly sealed canned foods having contributed to the deaths of the officers and crews of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.

Lead poisoning would also have interfered with the thinking process and could have been responsible for the wrong decisions at crucial moments. The expedition failed for a variety of reasons including scurvy and starvation, but the bodies and minds of the men were being weakened by lead poisoning from the moment they set sail.

The photographs of the frozen bodies are eerie and disturbing, yet compelling. The men had been dead 140 years when they were exhumed, but seeing them in the "flesh" brings the human possibility for tragedy poignantly to the surface.

Margaret Atwood included a chapter about Frozen in Time in her book, Writing with Intent.

**Interesting details that relate to Dan Simmon's novel The Terror:

  • In M'Clintock's 1859 attempt to discover something that would help solve the mystery, he found a notebook belonging to Harry Peglar. Two different handwritings were in the notebook, but only one important (and coherent) passage referred to their situation: "Oh Death whare is they sting, the grave at Comfort Cove for who has any doubt how...the dyer sad..." The message took time to decipher because most of the words were written backwards. Simmons made use of this in his novel, creating an engrossing storyline for the two men who wrote in the actual notebook.
  • A photograph of Dr. Harry D.S. Goodsir, one of my favorite characters in the novel; I had seen pictures and photographs of Sir John Franklin, Captain Francis Crozier, and Lt. Fitzjames before. However, since young Dr. Goodsir played an important role in Simmon's novel, I was pleased to find his photograph.
  • The Beattie expedition discovered that John Torrington's body had been autopsied before burial, another fact that Simmon's included in his novel.
Nonfiction. History/Anthropology. 1987. 168 pages.

Two More Down

Finished Frozen in Time and The Mighty Queens of Freeville. Both were good, but I loved The Mighty Queens. Hope to have both reviews completed today.

I'm still reading several yoga books. Initially, I was going to read them one at a time, but I found myself putting one down and picking up another for comparison. It is interesting to see the different way the books present information.

Recent acquisitions (ARC's and library books) that have joined the stacks:

Becoming Enlightened - the Dalai Lama - An ARC from Atria Books, I look forward to this one because it gives information about Buddhism, meditation, and anecdotes from the Dalai Lama's life and experiences. It will fit in well with my yoga study.

Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism - Barbara Weisberg - A digression from my reading itinerary on the Franklin Expedition. Both this one and Frozen in Time are on interlibrary loan and arrived the other day.

Gauntlet - Richard Aaron - An ARC from Glen House Press, it is described as a techno-thriller and a novel of international intrigue. Looks suspenseful.

The Creative Habit - Twyla Tharp (in progress) - Choreographer Twyla Tharp has lots of interesting accounts of creative people in different professions, examples from her own life, and a practical philosophy of hard work and the importance of habit. I love that she quotes from her own wide reading of some of the literary greats.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Seance

Harwood, John. The Seance.

A suspenseful and atmospheric Gothic "ghost" story complete with visitations, moldy old mansions, dark woods, secret passages, seances, and a monk.

This ARC arrived just as I finished Blink, and I couldn't resist picking it up and beginning it, even though I had several other books in "the stacks." I thoroughly enjoyed it; a perfect antidote to nonfiction.

The story is presented by three different narrators (reliable?). Constance Langton's narrative opens and closes the story. After Constance inherits Wraxford Hall, the story moves back in time and the other two narrators relate past events.

I had a few questions that bothered me, mostly after I'd finished the book, but nothing interfered with the Gothic pleasure experienced during the reading. It was great fun, and I was not ready for it to be over.

Truthfully, I was a bit surprised because I didn't care much for Harwood's The Ghost Writer, although it was certainly well received elsewhere. The Seance makes me eager for the next John Harwood.

Also reviewed at A Girl Walks Into a Book Store

Fiction. Gothic/Supernatural. 2008. 328 pages.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Gladwell relates both anecdotal information and research experiments concerning the way our brains make snap judgments. I really enjoyed reading about some of the things that are involved in our intuitive decisions...those decisions that we can't really explain.

It was also interesting to have a great many examples of ways that our decisions are influenced. Many of these influences are not obvious to us on the surface, but our minds are busy processing the information-- and not always correctly.

One interesting area was "mind reading," which is really the ability to read the facial expressions of others. Some people do this exceptionally well, other people have much less skill. One of the characteristics of autism is the inability to read expressions, and there is an experiment with an autistic man that shows how confusing and frustrating the lack of the ability would be.

While the ability to make snap decisions is frequently important--and too much information is often detrimental-- there are plenty of situations that require more time. Gladwell discusses this side of the coin as well and warns that we can be "primed" to make a decision by any number of factors of which we are not consciously aware. In other words, our decisions can be manipulated by any number of factors.

The book was entertaining and made me think a little more about the process of making decisions. It isn't very long and doesn't go into a lot of depth about how to improve your decision making process. Practice and experience seem to be key.

I want to read Gladwell's Outliers next.

Nonfiction. Popular psychology. 2005. 254 pages

The Immortal Prince

Fallon, Jennifer. The Immortal Prince.

The first in the Tide Lord Quartet, this fantasy novel has an interesting premise concerning the Tide Lords, whose magic waxes and wanes in cycles. At low Tide, they have almost no power, but since they are immortal, they simply wait for the Tide to turn. Unfortunately, the Tide Lords have much in common with the Greek gods-- they are arrogant, petty, jealous, frequently bored, and have a tendency to destroy countries and people when they are in power.

It is still low Tide when the book opens, and Arkady Desean, Duchess of Lebec, has been asked to interrogate a prisoner who survived being hanged. He claims to be a Tide Lord, but Arkady and the Duke believe him to be a spy. Kyle Lekesh is, however, not only a Tide Lord, but Cayal, the Immortal Prince.

Duke Stellan, Arkady, and Declan Hawkes, the King's Spymaster, all have secrets that add interesting twists to the narrative; their relationships are complicated by all of these secrets. Cayal, the Immortal Prince, is less complicated, he has simply grown tired of immortality and wants to die.

The story moves back and forth in time as Cayal tells Arkady about how he became a Tide Lord; his story does not completely correspond with the myths of the present day population. Cayal corrects misconceptions and explains events from his viewpoint in his attempts to convince Arkady that he is not insane.

I enjoyed this novel, but the Crasii disturbed me. Created by the Tide Lords, the Crasii are human/animal hybrids bred to be completely subservient to their Tide Lord masters.

Fiction. Fantasy. 2007. 512 pages.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Great Mortality

Kelly, John. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time.

I mentioned some of my problems with this book in an earlier post. Kelly wanders around and circles back a great deal, and he has a tendency to create his own scenarios that are strictly imaginative.

An early example of this occurs when Kelly creates a story to go with a headstone from 1339 that commemorates the death of a husband and wife, Kutluk and Magnu-Kelta. Kelly takes the brief inscription on the headstone and extrapolates:

On that first day he felt lightheaded and nauseous, symptoms so unobtrusive Magnu-Kelka did not even realize her husband was ill until dinner, when Kutluk suddenly vomited into his meal. On the second day of his illness, Kutluk awoke with a terrible pain in his groin; overnight, a hard, apple-sized lump had formed between his navel and his penis. That afternoon when Magnu Kelka probed the tumor with a finger, the pain was so terrible....

You get the idea. It goes on for two extremely detailed paragraphs of conjecture about the awful deaths the two experienced. The importance of Kutluk and Magnu-Kelka whose headstone inspired this conjecture is real. They were among the first victims of the particularly virulent form of the plague that circled the known world during the mid 1300's. I just found Kelly's eagerness to "novelize" annoying.

An especially interesting portion of the book, however, was the evidence of the strange and unusual environmental and ecological changes and events that frequently preceded outbreaks of the plague. Earthquakes, unprecedented rains, drought, tropical cyclones, and other climactic changes can influence rodent populations and locations. These events can also cause famine among human populations, weakening their resistance to disease.

Also interesting were the routes of the Genoese plague ships that visited harbor after harbor spreading the plague. Such an efficient way to spread the disease by sea, although the plague was soon moving overland as well.

My favorite aspect of the book, however, was the inclusion of so many first-hand accounts. Records from the cities overwhelmed by the plague, both personal and those of public record, are fascinating, distressing, and touching.

The Great Mortality has a great deal of information about the plague, fascinating depictions of medieval society, shocking estimates concerning the number of deaths in various areas, records of frantic efforts by governments and individuals to prevent and contain the disease, and accounts of the murderous pogroms against the Jews.

While I can wish that the book had been presented in a more straight-forward manner, it was educational and engrossing.

*Another detail that I found interesting is that when the plague arrived in Poland in 1349, King Casimir offered asylum to Jews fleeing from persecution and genocide. He was influenced by his Jewish mistress, Esther. Interesting Biblical connection of two brave Jewish women influencing kings.

Other reviews: Of Books & Bicycles

Nonfiction. History. 2005. 303 pages + notes.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Reading Trails...

Finished The Great Mortality last night and will review soon. I did enjoy it, in spite of frequent annoyances with the author. :)

I would have finished Marley & Me, too, but as Marley became old and ill, I became sadder and sadder and had to put it aside with only a few pages left.

Started Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. Loved The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and expect much of this one.

I received an email the other day inviting me to join Reading Trails. After checking it out and discovering that the site provides a way to keep track of certain "reading itineraries," I happily joined and created a couple of trails. Added two more today. Check them out here. Love this idea!

In a recent comment on one of my itinerary posts, Dark Orpheus had recommended creating a flow chart for reading, and I liked the idea. Now Reading Trails provides exactly that without additional effort on my part.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Galileo's Daughter

Sobel, Dava. Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love.

Although her letters give such a human touch to the great man's life, this not really the story of Galileo's daughter. It is a book mainly about Galileo and some of the most important discoveries and events in his life. What makes it different from most biographies of Galileo, however, is that the book also reveals the close relationship between Galileo and his oldest daughter. It is especially interesting because the relationship was, for twenty years, conducted mostly through letters.

Worried that his illegitimate daughters were unmarriageable, Galileo placed Virginia and her younger sister in the convent of the Poor Clares when Virginia was thirteen. She took the name Suor Marie Celeste (to honor her father's interest in the heavens) and she remained sequestered there for the next twenty years, the entire rest of her life. Her life was so circumscribed by poverty and labor that it is amazing that she seemed to blossom quietly in spite of her situation.

The book opens with a letter from Marie Celeste to Galileo, but quickly moves into the story of Galileo-- his birth, education, relationship with the mother of his children, his theories and experiments. All of this information is presented in an interesting manner, so while I longed for more information about Marie Celeste, I was kept well occupied with Galileo himself.

In the first of Galileo's problems with the Inquisition (over Copernicus' theory of a sun centered universe), Galileo is exonerated. However, any individuals supporting the Copernican theory (and there were many others besides Galileo who found the sun centered universe more logical than a universe with the earth at the center) were warned that to treat it as anything other than a theory would be considered "heretical."

Galileo's first contretemps with the Inquisition occurs about the time that Virginia is old enough to take her vows and becomes Suor Marie Celeste. It is also about this time that the letters play a larger part in the book. Here is a portion of one of her letters to her father:

I am returning the rest of your shirts that we have sewn, and the leather apron, too, mended as best I could....Now I am tending to the work on the linens, so that I hope you will be able to send me the trim for borders at the ends, and I reminde you, Sire, that the trimmings needs to be wide, because the linens themselves are rather short.

Her letters are often in this domestic vein, but they are also in response to Galileo's letters and to the events in his life. The love and affection is obvious on both sides even though we don't have the benefits of Galileo's letters. Marie Celeste occasionally petitions her father for help (often for the convent or for other nuns), and in the follow-up letters thanks him for generosity.

The plague returns in 1630, and Sobel includes a good bit of interesting information about the deaths and various preventive measures undertaken. The Poor Clares, already confined to their convent, found themselves even further cut off, but it did not prevent Marie Celeste from sending medicines she prepared herself for her father and heart-felt prayers for his safety.

During this outbreak of the plague, Galileo once again finds himself in trouble with the Inquisition and the Pope, himself. At 68, old and ill, Galileo's latest book angers the pontiff and results in his being called to Rome. This time, Galileo does not fare so well. Throughout the trial, and his resulting frustrations and depressions, Marie Celeste offers support and prayers. All of her energy is expended on convent labor and worry for her father.

The final chapters are touching, and the reader grieves for both Galileo and Marie Celeste, but these chapters are also moving in the love and loyalty Galileo inspired in his daughter and among his friends and colleagues. Especially admirable are the efforts of Vicenzio Viviani, who at sixteen became his assistant, writing letters for the almost blind Galileo, reading aloud the replies, and aiding him in every way. Viviani continued his devotion after Galileo's death and is responsible for the tomb and its occupants.

A rewarding read!

Nonfiction. Biography. 1999. 368 pages.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In Progress

I've finished Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel and need to review it, but I'm afraid that since I have about 20 pages marked with page pointers, it will be difficult to boil this one down. Especially since there are so many interesting details and the narrative so engrossing!

Currently reading The Great Mortality by John Kelly, Marley and Me by John Grogan and Hatha Yoga Illustrated (I put this aside when I returned to Chakra Yoga, but have picked it up again). How's that for contrast?

I'm having internal discussions with John Kelly about beginning, middle, and end as a matter of order. It is a proven technique, and it usually works; although there are exceptions, the exceptions are usually in fiction. :)

The Great Mortalit
y is about the plague of the late 1340's and contains some excellent information, but the author's style drives me nuts. He skips around, repeats information and phrases, and includes his own scenarios in rawther florid language.

I'm a little more than half way through, and there is enough that is worthwhile to keep me reading and enjoying making snarky asides to the author. The essential information isn't new, and I'm familiar with much of the factual stuff, but the primary sources, those first-hand accounts, are new to me and are particularly fascinating.

Have not heard from the library about the books I ordered through interlibrary loan. I do have enough books to keep me busy, but I'm eager to get those two books.

Interesting article (via Dorothy Of Books & Bicycles):
From Books, New President Found Voice

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Vigorous Mind by Ingrid E. Cummings

Cummings, Ingrid E. The Vigorous Mind: Cross-Train Your Brain to Break Through Mental, Emotional, and Professional Boundaries.

I accepted the opportunity to read this book when it was offered by Lisa for the TLC Book Tour. The chance to "break through boundaries" sounded great, and I knew I wanted a vigorous mind. Especially after looking back over my last year's reading--an overabundance of fiction (much of it poor fiction) and a dearth of good nonfiction.

When The Vigorous Mind really came through and provided motivation to improve the quality of my reading (and much more), I was delighted! Yes, I know that I've hinted about it on several posts; I simply couldn't resist. It has been difficult to wait until my appointed date to review the book, and I've been busy applying the philosophy to my own life and reading.

Cummings begins by saying that our society has come to value the specialist over the generalist; she protests this dichotomy throughout the book. She advocates cross-training the brain, developing diverse interests, "curiosities, and enthusiasms," and maintains that individuals who have done so are best able to fight the blahs and even career burnout.

I find it hard to debate that outlook. Cummings, moreover, wants to show us how to become more well-rounded. She encourages looking beyond career and finding activities "that have no apparent connection to your professional specialty." New experiences encourage neuroplasticity, changes in the brain, and these changes can bring surprising advantages to your approach to your profession.

Who wouldn't want to engage in activities that not only broaden their horizons and make them more satisfied human beings, but might also aid them in their career paths?

So how do you accomplish such a thing, a vigorous mind, a Renaissance Mind? Cummings has two techniques that will help us reach our goals:

  • "Triumph in Twenty" - devoting 20 or fewer minutes a day to your activity of choice, several times a week (knitting, photography, learning to play an instrument, tennis, palm reading, growing orchids, etc.)
  • Kaizen - "consistent, incremental baby steps" - cutting goals down to size and consistently moving toward them one step at a time.
With the third chapter, things began to snowball. The book is immensely readable, full of inspiring anecdotes concerning not just the Renaissance Men of the past, but our contemporaries, an odd assortment including businessmen, employees, scientists, comedians, academics, and actors. Among the group: Richard Feynman (yes, this is why I read Surely, You're Joking Mr. Feynman), Ben Stein, Steve Martin, John Malkovich....

I've taken the author's advice and have composed a curriculum for myself and several beginning courses that I'm in the midst of undertaking. Specific to my interests and subject to change if I so decide. I'm having a ball doing it. I've composed a lift-list of things I'd like to learn or learn about, have made additions to my fitness activities, and have made some personal commitments to myself.

My first and foremost goal at the moment is to increase my reading of nonfiction and to read outside my comfort zone. I'm supplementing books with new magazine subscriptions to The Smithsonian and Mental Floss, among others, and I'm watching documentaries from Netflix on a variety of subjects.

Book Overview:

Part One (chapters 1-3) gives some of the reasons that Cummings came to write the book.

Part Two (chapters 4-10) gives the seven imperatives, "global attributes," you might want to cultivate. They include curiosity, individuality, selectivity, empathy, stretch, spirituality, and courage. (I particularly enjoyed these chapters.)
Part Three (chapters 11-13) examines choice and provides insight into way we actually live our lives.

The Vigorous Mind - Ingrid E. Cummings
I'm almost embarrassed by how much I'm enjoying myself! I do need to be aware of what Cummings calls The Law of Unintended Consequences. This weekend I kept talking about the books I'm reading, and not even my family can endure that indefinitely.

Nonfiction. 2009. 316 pages.

The Polysyllabic Spree

Hornby, Nick. The Polysyllabic Spree.

Oh, yes, I know that you former readers have extolled the virtues of this little volume and that I'm late to join the throng. It is true, however, that Hornby's (notice that I am now spelling his name correctly) monthly columns in The Believer are marvelously funny and educational.

Here are some of the details from the columns that I particularly enjoyed:
  • Hornby takes on "spare" writing. Very funny! Speaking of writer's writers whose writing is spare to the point of the minimum number of words required for a novel, Hornby says if you can reduce it to 70,000 words, why not 2o,ooo, and why stop there? Why write at all, he asks? Then he says that big fat airport books sell! And to quote him: "(And, conversely, the writer's writers, the pruners and the winnowers, tend to have to live off critical approval rather than royalty checks.)" I'm so with him on this!
  • 13,000 characters! He then informs us that Dickens created 13,000 characters! My gosh, I don't know a fraction of that many people. Except, perhaps, through literature. How odd to realize I know so many more fictional people than real ones.
  • Love his comments about "The Believers" and his having been summoned before a committee of "twelve rather eerie young men and women (six of each, naturally) all dressed in white robes and smiling maniacally" to be scolded for a snarky comment in his column. All tongue-in-cheek, but the references to The Believer staff always made me chuckle.
Short, funny, and a joy! Highly recommended.

Nonfiction. Literary Criticism? :) 2004. 140 pages.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Oops, Sorry! and Ta Da!

First, I need to take spelling lessons. Nicholas Hornby (without the additional "s") will hopefully forgive me. I may eventually go back and correct all of my previous misspellings of his name, but not today.

Here is what I made last night: My own almost perfect reading pillow. At home, I have a special pillow that I keep in my lap as I read, but I wanted more. Last night, made a new cover and stuck the old pillow inside!
The green roll in the above pocket is margin tape, for those annotations in library books. The Page Points are wonderful ways to find excerpts, quotes, etc. that you like and might want to find later. Both are from Levenger's.

Discovered the Page Points a couple of years ago when Iliana posted about good gifts for readers. I gifted myself!
There are a few things I'd do differently, but nevertheless, I love my new reading pillow! It will hold my pages open when I eat and will keep necessary items near by.

Now, I must get ready, pack a few things, and head down to the country. Which books shall accompany me?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Friday Fun

Interesting that as I'm reading Galileo's Daughter (which is really about Galileo) and having read in the last day or so the chapter about Galileo's discovery and drawings of sun spots, this correction needs to be made. Galileo was not the first to do so; British astronomer Thomas Harriot made a moon map that predated Galileo's by a few months. Article here. Harriot never published his drawings, however.

Also reading Know It All: The Little Book of Essential Knowledge (an ARC sent by Anna some time back, which I just recently rediscovered) and have been reading about sun spots, planets, stars, comets to accompany Galileo's theories. The first chapter is Exploring the Universe, which I've just finished. So much stuff that I can parrot, but not understand. The book covers just the basics (much of the stuff we had in school), and much is still over my head.

The next chapter, however, The Story of the Earth, will make more sense to me...I hope! Then on to the rest of the 9 chapters which include invention & discovery, exploration, religion, art, etc.

AND... because I needed something light and more in tune with my normal interests--Nick Hornsby's Polysyllabic Spree. Yes, I know, everyone else has read it and loved it! It has been on my list forever, but now it is mine, and I love it! Joining the throng of fans who have so enthusiastically recommended this book, I stand humbled by my delay.

Someone recently posted a review of Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Hornsby, but I can't find my note to give credit to the blog. The review was, of course, positive. Another one to look forward to reading!

Then yesterday's mail brought a wonderful surprise! A blogging friend sent me her copy of Amagansett. It was totally unexpected, and I am totally grateful because for some reason my library didn't have this one either. Of all the books I had on my list, I was able to find only three. It must have been checked out, as were several of the others. Anyway, my thanks to Debby for sharing the goods and providing that ultimate mail experience!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Surely, You're Joking Mr. Feynman!

Feynman, Richard P., and Ralph Leighton. Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character).

Richard P. Feynman was a genius: a theoretical physicist, a Nobel Prize winner, a member of the Manhattan Project, a safe-cracker, the founder of quantum mechanics, a practical joker, a womanizer, a multi-talented man who painted and played the drums and studied Mayan hieroglyphics. He had an insatiable appetite for learning and a compulsive curiosity.

The book is a series of anecdotes told to his friend Ralph Leighton, recorded, and later transcribed to create this book. The stories range from Feynman's childhood, MIT and Princeton education, his work at Los Alamos during the war, through his teaching career. None of it is ordinary. Feynman was a genius with characteristics of a ten-year-old boy: brains, audacity, a bit bawdy, full of practical jokes, and frequently, no doubt, annoying.

As much as the man loved physics, physics remains in the background in all of these little vignettes. What comes to the fore is his curiosity, his humor, his love of learning and teaching, and his refusal to "play the game." Or rather, the games he played were by his own rules.

One of my favorites is "Judging Books by Their Covers" which tells about his experience serving on the State Curriculum Commission to choose new math and science text books for the state of California. Having been involved in this procedure (a committee of teachers) during my teaching career, I knew whereof he spoke when he told about having hundreds of pounds of text books delivered to his door. As he describes the experience of being the only one to read the books, the influx of calls from the publishers, the problems with the Board of Education regarding don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Another one titled "Alfred Nobel's Other Mistake" covers his reluctant acceptance of the Nobel prize and the changes it made to his life. Irreverent!

How one man could have been involved in so many adventures boggles the mind.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Nonfiction. Memoir/biographical. 1985. 346 pages.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mind the Gap

Golden, Christoper, and Tim Lebbon. Mind the Gap: A Novel of the Hidden Cities.

I liked the title and knew that Christoper Golden had been a co-author with Mike Mignola on Baltimore,: Or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire. (And yes, I do wonder whose idea it was to include the commas in the title.) Anyway, Baltimore was weird, but original and interesting.

Mind the Gap began fast and furious, but lost steam and characters along the way.

Jazz Town escapes into the vast system of abandoned tunnels in the London Underground after discovering her mother's murder. The "uncles" are busy searching for Jazz, as she finds a kind of sanctuary when she joins a Fagin-like group of thieves under the city. Oh, Harry wasn't really like Fagin, but the idea was certainly there.

Ghosts, magicians, magic are part of the mixture. Although there were places where I would become interested again, each was followed by an incident that seemed just plain silly. I'm willing "to suspend disbelief" but the author(s) need to help! The conclusion? Well...what conclusion?

Fiction. Fantasy? 2008. 368 pages.

Nonfiction Galore

I finished Surely, You're Joking Mr. Feynman and enjoyed it. Will review soon.

Went to the library with a list of about 10 books--some were checked out, some just weren't on the shelves, one was reported lost. Came away with three from my list:

Marley & Me
- John Grogan (haven't seen the movie yet; have you read it or seen the movie?)

The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time - John Kelly (recommended by Dorothy of Books & Bicycles)

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love - Dava Sobel (via Stefanie of So Many Books)

Ordered Frozen in Time and Talking to the Dead through interlibrary loan.

Also received Starfinder sent by the author, John Marco (thanks, John!). It is a YA fantasy novel with a lovely cover, due out in May. I'm a great fan of fantasy and look forward to this one.

These join the stacks which are already quite tall, but somehow, I just keep finding great titles that I'm eager to read.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Bloom, Amy. Away.

I'm afraid I will be a lone voice of dissent on this novel. At first, I thought I would like it very much, but gradually, I realized that Lillian didn't come off the page for me.

This is the story of Lillian Leyb, a young immigrant who has escaped from Russia after a pogrom in which her parents and husband are brutally murdered. Lillian slipped her young daughter out of the window and told her to hide, but when Lillian looks for her, Sophie seems to have vanished.

The novel begins in New York where Lillian seeks work and becomes involved with a father and son who have a powerful place in the Yiddish theater. When her cousin comes to America and tells her that her daughter is alive, Lillian decides she must get to Siberia where she only half believes Sophie may be.

It is a kind of picaresque novel that follows Lillian from Russia to New York, across the continent to Seattle, and up into Alaska, heading to the Bering Strait which would take Lillian to Siberia.

She meets some curious characters and most of these meetings involve sexual encounters. Bloom carries the stories of most of these characters to a conclusion which is an interesting concept. She tells what happens to them after Lillian leaves. I hesitate to call these characters incidental, because truthfully, they came "alive" in a deeper sense than Lillian.

I never became terribly attached to Lillian, who deliberately or not, maintains her distance. My copy had rather large print and was short, so it made for a quick read.

Fiction. Historical fiction. 2007. 235 pages.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Arctic Itinerary

The arctic/antarctic/explorer interest that began with Dan Simmons' novel The Terror is expanding once again.

A commenter asked about the mysterious Fox sisters mentioned in The Terror . The Fox sisters were American spiritualists/psychics in the 19th century, and Margaret married Elisha Kane, an arctic explorer involved in the search for the Franklin Expedition.

Another book that I've added to my wish list is Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity. The title alone makes my greedy little fingers itch. Exploration, a medium, an explorer, and curiosity--all intriguing. Connections to both arctic exploration and to the strange cultural phenomenon that captured the Victorian imagination.

There is some information about Elisha Kane in Resolute, the book I recently finished, but only in relation to his interests as an explorer; there is no mention of his marriage to Margaret Fox. Dan Simmons, however, included the pair in his novel in a unique way.

And as with all reading itineraries, I sense a digression with the medium aspect. One novel can certainly lead you down a long and twisting road, and I love stories of the early charlatans in the clairvoyant profession. I've also added this title to the wish list: Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism.

This digression leads away from exploration, but could lead back to literature with William Butler Yeats and Arthur Conan Doyle and their connections to the early spiritualist movement! What fun!

Thursday, January 08, 2009


Sandler, Martin W. Resolute: The Epic Search for the Northwest Passage and John Franklin, and the Discovery of the Queen's Ghost Ship.

Sandler is the author of more than 50 books and has received two Pulitzer nominations. This book covers a broad range of the history of arctic exploration and relates the importance of the failed Franklin expedition in the eventual discovery of the Northwest Passage.

It is the story of a strange breed of men who were willing to risk their lives repeatedly for the glory of discovery and national pride. As Sandler puts it, "It is an epic tale--an adventure, a mystery, and detective story all rolled into one, played out against the harshest backdrop in the world" (xvii). The book contains many stories of courage and determination, of foolhardiness and despair, and of a singular obsession.

John Barrow, the Father of Arctic Exploration, became the British Admiralty's Second Secretary in 1804, and for more than 40 years, he championed the search for the Northwest Passage and the Open Polar Sea, sending out one expedition after another. Unfortunately, there was no Open Polar Sea, and even the Northwest Passage, when finally discovered, offered no guarantees of passage and no possibility of commercial gain.

Covering the early expeditions led by John Ross, Edward Parry, David Buchan, Frederick Beechey, and others, Sandler leads us gradually to the Franklin Expedition in 1845. Sir John Franklin captained The Erebus and Francis Crozier captained The Terror, huge ships that had been specially refitted for their arctic mission with many dramatic improvements for the time, but were, nevertheless, too deep of draft for the arctic.

The ships were provisioned for a minimum of three years, and for as many as five years if they encountered conditions that froze them in the ice for as long as the second Ross expedition (which survived four arctic winters). Barrow had done everything he could to ensure Franklin's success.

Except... listen to the whalers and other non-navy explorers or even to John Ross, who warned against the huge ships and large crews.

The Erebus and The Terror sailed from England with great fanfare in 1845. They vanished into the arctic ice.

In 1848, with no word having been received, the Admiralty became more and more concerned (and so did Lady Jane Franklin, whose efforts were indefatigable in petitioning for rescue mission after rescue mission).

These missions to discover the fate of the Franklin Expedition met with a number of strange fates including the loss of ships and men, court martial, deception, and possibly, murder.

John Rae, who discovered through his Inuit connections, the probability of the demise of the entire crew and the possibility of cannibalism delivered the news to an audience unwilling to believe. That Englishmen might resort to eating their fellows horrified Victorian England, and Rae's reputation suffered terrible injury. Later discoveries, however, have confirmed that cannibalism did occur.

In truth, we will never no exactly what happened, because the only written document to survive (an earlier document left in a cairn, with a later addendum by Crozier and Fitzjames) is brief and records only that Franklin died in 1847 and that a total of 9 officers and 15 seamen of the 128 man expedition had been lost. No other journals, logs, or documents have survived.

There were so many people, so many expeditions, so many tragedies, that it was difficult to keep it all straight, but the account of arctic exploration-- from Ross's first expedition in 1818 through all of the rescue missions and searches for artifacts and documents-- makes fascinating reading. I simply can't begin to list all of the participants or all of the circumstances, assumption, and theories.

The final search -- for documents, not survivors-- was in 1880. Well, not exactly the last -- in 1984 and 1992 modern expeditions searched for information and in 2006, the Nova documentary was filmed.

Although the ship Resolute is a small part of the story (and a pretty amazing tale in its own right), I think Sandler used it in the title partly because Barrow and the explorers themselves were so resolute in pursuit of the Northwest Passage.

Nonfiction. History. 2006. 249 pages + 35 pages of appendices, notes, bibliography

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Keeping Up With the Self-Challenge

Finished Resolute this afternoon and really enjoyed getting even more information about the Franklin Expedition.

Today my copy of Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman arrived. Feynman is one of the Renaissance men Ingrid Cummings wrote about in The Vigorous Mind; he sounded so charming that I wanted to know more. Here is what Science Digest had to say about Surely You're Joking: "Buzzing with energy, anecdote and life. It almost makes you want to become a physicist."

So far I've enjoyed my Renaissance Mind "curriculum" adopted as a result of reading The Vigorous Mind (which I still have to wait to review because of the book tour concept):

In the nonfiction category: I've finished one book on yoga (and have two others in progress) and Resolute. I'm certainly spending more than the recommended 20 minutes several times a week; but this is reading, and I read every day and certainly for longer than 20 minute sessions.

Documentaries: The Samurai Sword (excellent, and Fee really enjoyed finding out all that goes into the ancient method of creating the swords--pretty awesome process) and The Bronte Sisters (not so good; short and just not that interesting - hard to believe, given the subjects).

(cross post from Bayou Quilts)

Went to see The Reader Tuesday night (after our Sunday cancellation). Fee and I met Amelia at the cafe upstairs, and Holly joined us later. So nice to have a meal and a glass of wine and then go downstairs to see the movie.

The film was really well done. I'm not giving the plot away to any of you who may not have read the book, but it is a story that will make you think. There are several moral dilemmas, and the movie covers them beautifully. Neither the book nor the film tries to manipulate your emotions (which is good, because the moral questions should engage your intellect, and it would have been so easy to have made this an emotional miasma).

Amelia and I read the book about 10 years ago, and neither of us remembered the part about the daughter. It was a lot of books ago, and I could easily have just not registered that as important; but neither of us were sure if it was an addition or if we'd simply forgotten. It has no effect on the story, so it is simply a matter of curiosity.

Kate Winslet was excellent as Hannah and David Kross did a wonderful job as the young Michael. Ralph Fiennes is also good, but his role as the adult Michael was somewhat smaller.

Chakra Yoga

Finger, Alan. Chakra Yoga: Balancing Energy for Physical, Spiritual, and Mental Well-Being.

A few days ago, I thought I would leave this one with a superficial reading because it was presenting so much information, so many Sanskrit words, so many lists, so many definitions.

For example:

~the five kleshas: avidya, asmita, raga, dvesa, abhinivesa (and definitions)
~the five prana vayus: apana, vyana, samana, prana, udana (and definitions)
~a very few (thank you!) of the 72,000 nadis
~the seven main chakaras : Muladhara, Svadhishthana, Manipura, Anahata, Vishudda, Anja, and Sahasrara--and the location, background color, mantra, yantra, element,
domain, gland, sense, organ of action, organ of knowledge, and vayu of each one
~applications, asanas that benefit each area, and more

Was I feeling a bit overwhelmed? Oh, yes. However, before making a final decision, I tried the meditation CD included with the book (it is a library book and the CD is still there!) I liked it so much, I decided to go back, take my time, decide what I thought most important, and take notes only on those things.

Understanding and remembering all of the rest will have to be a gradual process; it isn't something that has to be learned well on the first exposure and some of it may never be anything that really concerns me. My attitude toward the book changed entirely.

As I went back through, it was much easier on a second reading, to determine what would be useful for me at my level of knowledge.

I like that the book associates the asanas with certain physical benefits and, of course, chakras.

Another nice feature: at the end of the book, in addition to a full daily practice sequence, there are several 10 minute focus practices, for days you don't have much time; each short practice has a specific purpose and includes only poses that benefit that purpose.

And I really like the meditation CD!

Nonfiction. Yoga. 2005. 138 pages.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Tuesday Titles

I've been finding so many excellent nonfiction titles that I'm having to give myself a little speech about glutton and book lust!

Here are some that I've written down lately:

The Girl from Foreign - recommended by Lotus
Galileo's Daughter & Death by Black Hole - on Stefanie's list
Faust in Copenhagen & The Ancient Tea Horse Road & Fatal Passage- Melanie's blog
The Last Stand of Fox Company - over at Colleen's

There is also a long list of fiction. My reach so far "exceeds my grasp"!

The Music of the Spheres

Here is a challenge that I probably won't join officially, but that really interests me: The International Year of Astronomy Reading Challenge 2009. Books about astronomy have great titles! Via So Many Books ..

Remember Mimi from the Drew Carey Show? She has been reincarnated as Mrs. P and she has a magic library! is a fun, new children's entertainment site that celebrates reading and books.

The site features TV star Kathy Kinney as Mrs. P, an adventurous redhead who brings Story Time to life with her video library of classic children's stories -- all of which offer special read-along options. Mrs. P's Magic Library has animated games and is a meeting spot for an assortment of quirky, comic characters. has no ads, and admission is absolutely free -- with no subscription fees.

Visitors to Mrs. P's Library will need a high-speed connection to enjoy all of its features. Her Library is open 24 hours a day, welcomes everyone and has one simple message: reading is cool.

Sounds like parents might want to check the site out.