112 Following


"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, by Sam Kean

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: And Other True Stories of Trauma, Madness, Affliction, and Recovery That Reveal the Surprising History of the Human Brain - Sam Kean

When I went to Town Hall last month to hear a lecture on scientifically important case studies of brain damage, I had no idea that the speaker would be the author of The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist's Thumb, two of my recent favorite pop-science books.  It was a pleasant surprise not only to hear Sam Kean speak, but to get ahold of his latest book, The Dueling Neurosurgeons ("The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery").


I was expecting this to follow in the footsteps of Oliver Sacks, albeit from a lay writer's perspective and featuring Kean's entertaining, conversational style.  And I really wasn't wrong, but I still left the book feeling vaguely disappointed.  It took me awhile to figure out why.


There is this trend in modern non-fiction to strain out all the boring parts like context and details in favor of wacky or funny stories.  Certainly, there is plenty in science and history that is wacky and funny, and for subjects I don't know much about and/or am not too terribly interested in, this kind of book is an entertaining way to glean some new information.  For instance, I find chemistry pretty dry, so The Disappearing Spoon was perfect for me.  I am interested in genetics, but am hardly an expert, so The Violinist's Thumb sat fine with me, though I wished it had been meatier.  


But I'm very interested in neuroscience and have been reading about it in some detail for many years.  So the superficial focus of The Dueling Neurosurgeons grated on me a bit.  It's not that none of the information was new to me - many of the case studies were unfamiliar, and others I'd known about but not in any detail - but for subjects I actually care about, I'd prefer a book be scientific first and wacky/funny second.  In other words, I'd like an informative framework that gives me a deep understanding of the subject, with the fun stuff sprinkled in.  I don't like a framework of weird stories, with some theory thrown in to back them up.  If Kean couldn't find a weird story to illustrate a point, the point didn't get made.  And that kind of shit annoys me.


Still, who doesn't like a weird story?  Like the girl who lost her amygdala and so became incapable of feeling fear - it was interesting to read about how she reacted to things that would terrify an average person.  Or the horrifying story of kuru - colonialism, cannibalism, pedophilia, horrific brain damage, and lethal laughing fits - all wrapped up into one appalling whole.


So this book scratches that itch I sometimes get for "beach-read nonfiction".  I truly did enjoy it, but it was like licking off the frosting and leaving the cake untouched.  Frosting is wonderful, you know, but it's so much better with some tasty cake to give it structure.


(2014 #27)

Lazy Sunday with Junie & duMaurier
Lazy Sunday with Junie & duMaurier

Review: The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden - Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett

There are some beloved things from childhood that don't translate at all into an adult state of mind.  And there are some things that do translate, but lose something essential in the process.  For me, The Secret Garden is one of the latter.


Prior to this year, I was about ten the last time I read this book.  Starting it this time, I remembered less about the plot than the general feeling of magic that had imbued the entire story when I read it as a child.  There was a lot I simply hadn't understood very well - cholera, moors, hunchbacks, and the Raj were all muzzy concepts to my younger self, and the phonetic transliteration of many characters' Yorkshire dialects might as well have been Greek.  But that sense of awe and mystery when Mary first finds her way into the Secret Garden - that I would never forget.


I think the very fact that I now understand the story better - that I can place it in its historical context, and picture a real moor, and hear a Yorkshire accent in my head when reading Martha and Dickon's lines - has ruined a bit of that childish sense of wonder.  The book used to be an inscrutable marvel, exotic and strange and perfect.  Now, though I still love it, it's a book about some neglected kids who rejuvenate a garden.


And sure, there's more to it than that.  The garden is, of course, a symbol for the healing process that turns crippled Colin into a running, laughing boy and sallow, sullen Mary into a caring friend.  But Burnett also meant the story to be taken at least somewhat literally - she was a Christian Scientist who believed that nature and prayer, not medicine, would cure all physical and mental ailments.  And it's just that kind of uncomfortable factoid that can contaminate a story for an adult like me.  It's best to just not know anything about the politics or religion of authors whose work I enjoy.


But thankfully, not all of the old magic has dribbled away.  To this day, whenever I come across an old skeleton key, or an ivy-covered brick wall, or an untended plot of land, I feel a bit of that old thrill.  And it's not The Secret Garden I just read at thirty.  It's The Secret Garden I read at ten.


(2014 #26)

Reading progress update: I've read 185 out of 299 pages.

A Stranger in Olondria - Sofia Samatar

Well, this has taken a turn for the weird, and has become a slog to get through.  Whenever I pick it up, I find my eyes glazing over at the opaque language and frustrating lack of plot. How's about less poetry and more something interesting happening??


Also, it's definitely fantasy, not science fiction.  More's the pity.

Reading progress update: I've read 53 out of 299 pages.

A Stranger in Olondria - Sofia Samatar

I am liking this a lot so far, though there isn't yet anything particularly special about it.  It's just got nice writing, nice characterization, nice worldbuilding.  And it harkens back to the type of light, well-crafted, sociological, female-authored science fiction* of the 80's and 90's that I've really missed.  SF doesn't need to be flashy or meta or self-consciously literary all the time - sometimes it's nice to just read a good story.



*... Although now I'm arguing with myself over whether Olondria is SF or fantasy.  It definitely takes place in a world that isn't ours, but there hasn't been any magic yet.  So I think I'll go with the theory that we're on another planet.

Review: A Door Into Ocean, by Joan Slonczewski

A Door Into Ocean - Joan Slonczewski

I feel like I've been reading this book over and over lately. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, when it was called Dreamfall. Or earlier this year, under the title Woman on the Edge of Time. A couple of years ago, when it was The Word for World is Forest. All feature these futuristic or alien, usually matriarchal societies, who love nature and new age spirituality, where conflicts are solved through sharing instead of violence, and war is unheard of where empathy reigns. Then vicious capitalist humans show up wanting their resources, and hunt the hippies to near extinction, destroying their way of life and their childlike innocence in the process. But at least one human defects and goes native, standing up to the.... *snooooooooore*

Oh, sorry about that, I bored myself to sleep there for a sec. It's just, I've seen this show before.

And I'm really not a fan of this plotline, especially the way it tends to transpire in feminist science fiction. It's not just trite and overused, it's all tied up in that lame, gender-essentialist "if women ran the world, there'd be no war!" stuff. Look, I don't know if men are naturally more greedy and violent than women or not, but I have been educated and have worked in female-dominated environments, and the idea that they are tranquil dominions governed by nurturing and harmonious conflict resolution is ludicrous.

Still, a lot of good writers have used this trope, so I keep finding myself reading the same story, again and again, no matter how much it annoys me.

Slonczewski's version is about as predictable and formulaic as they come. There's an intergalactic empire (called the Patriarchy - no subtlety here!) which rules many planets and wants to take control of Shora, a landless ocean world populated by a race of parthenogenetic female humanoids called Sharers. The Patriarchy wants control of Shora's resources and the Sharers' superior gene-shaping technology, but it quickly becomes clear that belligerence will get them nowhere against a planetful of Gandhis. Blah blah blah, you can guess where this is heading.

But apart from the paint-by-number plotline, I liked pretty much everything else about the book. The worldbuilding is fantastic, Dune-like in its depth and scope. Slonczewski has a doctorate in biology, and it shows in all the fascinating details she includes about Shora's flora and fauna. The characters, too, are complex and interesting - at least, the Sharers and their human allies are. (Their human enemies are all disappointingly one-dimensional, caring only about conquest while completely lacking empathy, intuition, or any other "feminine" instinct.)

And the book's feminist themes, while familiar and not exactly my cup of ideological tea, did at times feel fresh and thought-provoking. So even though, in the end, the book's message boiled down to "war - what is it good for? absolutely nothin", it made that point in a way that had me really asking myself, "War - what is it good for?" as though that thought had never yet occurred to me.

That takes talent, for a writer, and Slonczewski's got it. I just wish she had used her powers for good - say, a storyline I haven't already read 7,000 times - and shucked the idea that a society ruled by women would be some kind of collaborative paradise.


(December 15, 2011)

Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter M. Miller Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s only novel. He was an Air Force engineer who was involved in the WWII bombing of an Italian monastery. Later, he converted to Catholicism, wrote this book, and eventually committed suicide.

Given the context of Miller's life, it's difficult to believe he could have written any other story. Canticle is a millennium-spanning, quietly epic novel that addresses mankind's constant cycle of self-destruction, barbarism, renaissance, and more self-destruction. It takes place in a Catholic monastery in what was once Utah, several centuries after the world was demolished by nuclear war. There, the monks worship one Saint Leibowitz, a somewhat mythical figure from "the time of the Flame Deluge" who attempted to salvage humanity's collected knowledge during the postwar book-burning backlash. The novel is divided into three sections separated by centuries and so different from each other that they're almost separate books in their own right.

The first, "Fiat Homo", takes place in the dark age that still exists several centuries after the war; the continent is populated with warring nomad tribes and feudal city-states, and the monks busy themselves copying and preserving their library for future generations, firmly believing that someday mankind will once again desire and benefit from the old knowledge.

In "Fiat Lux", that belief comes to fruition; the world is abuzz with a new renaissance of culture and science. A prominent scholar visits the abbey and is astonished at the wealth of scientific knowledge housed there. But outside the monastery, a war is waged between burgeoning empires, with the church caught in the middle.

Finally, in "Fiat Voluntas Tua", mankind has reached technological maturity, once again able to create rockets, robots, and nuclear bombs (the book was written in 1959, and these three artifacts seem to be the hallmarks of The Future in spec-fic of that era). America is once again an empire; so is Asia, and miscommunication and overreaction between the two don't bode well for the future of humanity.

Overall, the book is meditative, dark, and epic, but also at times very funny. There are major themes of faith vs. politics (and similarly, church vs. state), humanity's persistent short-sightedness, and the meaning of suffering. In these elements, the story is saturated with Miller's Catholic viewpoint. But there are also some very bleak, unCatholic threads to the story. Essentially, it's about a group of monks who work for a millennium to salvage, restore, protect, and share the collected knowledge of mankind, only to have the world use that knowledge to yet again destroy itself. The monastery itself acts as Eden's tree of knowledge. Not to mention the irony of this particular group of monks worshipping a Jewish man who likely converted only because he saw the monastery's potential as a bastion of learning in the midst of a world bent on ignorance.

This book isn't for everyone; it's slow-moving, somewhat dated, heavily religious, and contains a great deal of untranslated Latin. But it is deservedly one of the classics of Cold War-era apocalyptic fiction: dark, pessimistic, thought-provoking, and sadly believable.


February 3, 2008

Reading progress update: I've read 203 out of 338 pages.

The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life - Alex Bellos



Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel - Karen Joy Fowler

Fern and Rosemary are sisters.  They live together in a big house in the country.


This is the simplest of the many beginnings to Rosemary Cooke's story in the extraordinary, the exquisite, the thoroughly wrecking We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.  The best book I've read all year.



I'm somewhat conflicted in talking about this book at all, because I want everyone to read it, and I also want everyone to go in completely cold.  Don't even read the back cover, folks!


But at the same time, I have about a million things I want to say about it, so. Let's pretend you've already read it.  Or that you don't mind being... not really spoiled, but conceptually informed.








We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is, as I said above, Rosemary's story.  It's mostly about her Midwestern childhood in the 1970's and her California college days in the mid-90's, but she's telling it to us from the vantage point of 2012 or so.  Her life has been fairly average - parents, brother and sister, high school and college and so forth - except for one thing.  One singular family tragedy that happened when she was only 5 years old, half-remembered and never discussed, that sent shock waves through the lives of everyone she loves and shattered all of them irrevocably.  This novel is her attempt to pick up the pieces, put them back together into something recognizable and reasonably whole.  Or if that's impossible, to at least understand what happened and come to peace with it.


There are moments when history and memory seem like a mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened.  The mist lifts and suddenly there we are, my good parents and their good children, their grateful children who phone for no reason but to talk, say their good-nights with a kiss, and look forward to home on the holidays.  I see how, in a family like mine, love doesn't have to be earned and it can't be lost.  Just for a moment, I see us that way; I see us all.  Restored and repaired.  Reunited.  Refulgent.


(Oh crap, I'm not going to get through writing this review without dissolving into a mess all over again.  For weeks after finishing this the first time, I couldn't even think about the ending without crying -- and then I read the book again and it cut me even deeper.  Augh.)



When Rosemary was five years old, she was sent away for a week to stay with her grandparents.  When her father picked her up, he took her home to an unfamiliar house on the other side of town.  She found her mother shut up in her bedroom, a nervous breakdown that would last for months.  She found her older brother Lowell, transformed into a sullen ball of rage. And her sister Fern... well, Fern was gone.


What happened to her?  Well, there's another thing about the Cookes that deviates a bit from the ordinary.


I tell you Fern is a chimp and, already, you aren't thinking of her as my sister.  You're thinking instead that we loved her as if she were some kind of pet... Fern was not the family dog.  She was Lowell's little sister, his shadow, his faithful sidekick.  Our parents had promised to love her like a daughter... She was my twin, my fun-house mirror, my whirlwind other half.


Rosemary's father was a psychology professor at the local university, and raising Fern and Rosemary together as twins was both an experiment and a permanent family situation.  That was the plan anyway.


Years later, Rosemary can't remember what happened leading up to Fern's disappearance.  She knows that it is somehow her fault (before Lowell also disappeared, he blamed her specifically).  She knows that it broke her mother's heart and destroyed her father's career.  But the family never talks about it, and on some level, Rosemary is terrified of the answer.  It all remains buried until she gets to college, where she meets someone who rips all those wounds open again.  Someone who reminds her, as no one else ever has, of her long-lost sister.




Raising chimps like humans really did seem like a good idea to some researchers in the mid-20th century.  There was Viki, who learned to speak English (all of four words):



There was Lucy, who learned 140 ASL signs and enjoyed drinking gin straight up:



There was Washoe, who developed a comparatively vast ASL vocabulary and went on to teach it to her son:



Though these experiments were all successful to some degree, and very informative, none of them had what you would call a "happy ending".  I'd suggest that you not look up Lucy's fate, unless you want to have your whole week ruined.  And though things turned out relatively decent for Washoe, who eventually went to live in a sanctuary in Eastern Washington with four other chimps (where I met her back in 2003), there was something so deeply sad about that place.


So Fern's story is not unprecedented.  And what's so tragic about these experiments is that chimps are both so like us and at the same time so completely not.  Treating a chimp as if she were human is both kind and cruel, and once such a relationship is forged there's no way to painlessly disentangle that knotted duality.




Rosemary has felt caught between these two worlds her whole life.  When she was eventually sent to a regular school after Fern was gone, the other kids called her "monkey girl".  She's never learned to be fully comfortable with other humans, and there is no longer anywhere she can be her true self.  For the rest of her life, Rosemary feels bisected.  Bleeding.


I've read that no loss compares to the loss of a twin, that survivors describe themselves as feeling less like singles and more like the crippled remainder of something once whole.  Even when the loss occurs in utero, some survivors respond with a lifelong sense of their own incompleteness.  Identical twins suffer the most, followed by fraternals.  Extend that scale awhile and eventually you'll get to Fern and me.


And Fern recognizes this, too.  When the girls were little, one of the experiments their father and the grad students would run with Fern was "Same/NotSame".  She was given a red and a blue poker chip and was supposed to choose one upon evaluating two objects - red if the objects were the "same", and blue for "not same"



[Lowell] asked me, "Do you remember that game Fern used to play with the red and blue poker chips?  Same/NotSame?"


Of course I did.


"She was always giving you the red chip.  No one else.  Just you.  Remember that?"...


I know what our father had thought it meant.  Nothing useful.  Once, she'd given me a raisin for every raisin she'd eaten, and now she had two poker chips and was giving me one.  Two interesting behaviors – that was far as Dad could go.


Here is what I'd thought it meant.  I'd thought Fern was apologizing.  When you feel bad, I feel bad, is what I got from that red chip.  We're the same, you and I.


My sister, Fern.  In the whole wide world, my only red poker chip.





This book is my red poker chip.


Because while Rosemary's childhood is obviously very unique, anyone who went through something traumatic when they were young, something that changed everything forever, any kind of personal Rubicon, will see themselves in this book.  The way Fowler writes...


Let me just repeat that I'd once gone, in a matter of days, from a childhood where I was never alone to this prolonged, silent only-ness.


...this is a language I speak.  These are places I have been.  Every now and then I read a book that so perfectly encapsulates everything I believe to be true, everything I have distilled from my own experiences, everything I would scream to the world if only I knew what to say, that it's almost frightening.  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the latest iteration of that book.



This plan of moving halfway across the country and never talking to anyone ever again was working like a dream.


I have been there.


I wasn't happy, exactly, but I was remembering how happiness felt.


And there.


I can't prove that I'm different from you, but that's my best explanation.




I had missed her desperately in every one of those places, every one of those moments, and not even known it.






The first time through, this book was about coming to terms with family trauma.


The second time through, just a few weeks later, it was a passionate argument for animal rights.  And the more I think about it, the more I see that these are really two sides of the same coin; our family relationships are just a microcosm – or should be, anyway – of our relationship with all of our fellow creatures.  For the Cookes, there is no difference at all.


It is not true that we are identical to other animals.  There are many ways in which Fern and Rosemary show themselves to have widely disparate abilities and even fundamentally different natures.  But what matters is the ways in which we are the same.  Humans are not some separate class from other animals, and each trait that we think makes us unique turns out to show up, in some form, in other species as well.  We need to learn to see the rest of our animal kin when we look in the mirror.  We need to start recognizing them as Same rather than NotSame.


Lowell:  We need a sort of reverse mirror test.  Some way to identify those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else.  Bonus points for how far out the chain you can go.  Double bonus points for those who get all the way to insects.




If I were to read this book a third time, I expect it would reflect some other primary theme – identity, loss, memory, guilt – but these are all folded into each other, too.


It was one of those subjects to which everything that slithers across your brain seems relevant.  I find this to be true of most topics.


Me too, Rosemary.


Me too.


(2014 #25)

Review: The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Years of Rice and Salt - Kim Stanley Robinson

Now there is nothing left to do

But scribble in the dusk and watch with the beloved

Peach blossoms float downstream.

Looking back at all the long years

All that happened this way and that

I think I liked most the rice and the salt.


The Years of Rice and Salt is a thick, dense alternate history spanning continents and centuries.  Its vast cast of characters includes, as the blurb puts it, "soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars".  Through their eyes we see the forces that shape their world, which develops in strange and yet intriguingly familiar ways through the centuries.


That description to me sounds like a roadmap to Boredsville, and though I'd heard good things about this one, part of me was expecting a plodding, dry tome focused more on history's big machine and prominent personalities than on any relatable human drama.  Normally I'd avoid that sort of thing like the plague -- which, incidentally, is where the book diverges from our reality:



Here, instead of killing a third of Europe's population, the Black Death kills 99%.  White people are more or less nonexistent, Christianity is a footnote, and China and the Muslim nations have become the dominant powers shaping world history.


In ten sections, the book takes us from the Middle Ages to the 21st Century, and from China and India to the European wastelands and the New World.  It is not only emphatically unboring, it's one of the most ambitious and stunning novels I've read in a long time.


The book is structured around its Hindu/Buddhist conceit, following the same set of characters through several incarnations as they struggle to evolve and pursue nirvana.  Though their races and genders (and occasionally species) morph through time, they fill similar roles in every avatar.  The character whose name starts with K is disaffected, angry, an iconoclast - often tortured or martyred for hir idealism, whether as a mutinous slave, a radical feminist, or a hotheaded scientist.  K's foil is B, hir friend or partner (but rarely lover) who is the more hopeful, pragmatic and effective of the pair - it is B who is usually the POV character.  Then there is I, who is usually a scholar or a mystic, and romantic partner to either B or K.  And S, who is a dick, always antagonizing the other characters (which they get pretty pissed about in the bardo between incarnations, when they remember who they have been in other lives: "And you!" [K] roared. "What is your EXCUSE!  Why are you always so bad? Consistency is no excuse, your CHARACTER is NO EXCUSE!")


In this way, the book avoids one of my main frustrations with sprawling epics like this - the lack of developed characters with an arc to get really invested in.  Though the setting changes, here we're essentially following the same handful of people throughout history.  And they do develop as themselves, but they also stand in for all of us.  Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, the story of humanity is the story of generation after generation striving to avoid the mistakes of the past and achieve the closest thing to perfection it is within our power to attain.  And none of us ever gets there, but every new generation picks up the baton and gives it a shot anyway.



B: Come on, you can't deny it.  We keep coming back.  We keep going out again.  Everybody does.  That's dharma.  We keep trying.  We keep making progress... Here we are.  Here to be sent back again, sent back together, our little jati.  I don't know what I would do without all of you.  I think the solitude would kill me.


K: You're killed anyway.


B: Yes, but it's less lonely this way. And we're making a difference. No, we are! Look at what has happened! You can't deny it!


K: Things were done. It's not very much.


B: Of course. You said it yourself, we have thousands of lifetimes of work to do. But it's working.


K: Don't generalize. It could all slip away.


B: Of course. But back we go, to try again. Each generation makes its fight. A few more turns of the wheel. Come on-- back with a will. Back into the fray!




And so, through genocides and world wars, injustice and devastation, these characters reveal their world to us as they endeavor, in small ways, to improve it.  They make scientific discoveries, write influential books, build egalitarian societies, thwart wrongs large and small.  Each section is told in a different style, which brings to mind Cloud Atlas (something several people pointed out to me when I described the book, though the two actually strike me as very different -- Cloud Atlas is about the repetition of themes across time, the connectedness of everything; Rice and Salt is about the impact of history on human lives and vice versa, and the will to evolve).  Strangely, it also reminded me of Neal Stephenson's Anathem, another unexpectedly engrossing, satisfying philosophical SF tome - alternate universe rather than alternate history, though really, there's not much difference between the two.  I felt the same way reading both books -- that thrill of having discovered something precious and perfect.


There's plenty in here to satisfy different interests: a vast and well-developed alternate history, an intriguing cast of characters, a crash-course in some tenets of Eastern spirituality, a meditation on the human condition, an array of metafictional highwire tricks, and ten ripping good stories.


Highly recommended.


(2014 #24)

Reading progress update: I've read 66 out of 338 pages.

The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life - Alex Bellos




The Babylonians used a "sexagesimal" place value system, meaning that they counted in sixties instead of tens... it may be because sixty is the lowest number divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, which would have made some arithmetical tasks easier...


The Babylonians divided the circle into 360 degrees... it has been argued that 360 was chosen because six equilateral triangles fit snugly within a circle, and that each of these angles was divided into 60 as demanded by sexagesimal fractions...


In the second century BCE the Greeks appropriated Babylonian fractions, which have been in use ever since.  The degree was traditionally divided into sixty smaller units, each a pars minuta prima, or first minute part, which were then divided into sixty smaller units, each a pars minuta secunda, or second minute part.  From the translation of these Latin phrases we get the words minute and second, our units of time, which are the most prominent modern relics of the ancient practice of counting in groups of sixty.




Also, the term "sine" in trigonometry basically refers to boobz.  The original word in Sanskrit (trig having been more or less invented in ancient India) meant "string-half", which referred to a bisected chord in a circle (the measurement of which, when considered as one leg of a right triangle with the circle's center and a radius of one unit, is equal to the sine ratio for the central angle).


ANYWAY, when the Sanskrit word for this concept was transliterated into Arabic, it sounded like the word for "bosom", so that's what everyone called it.  And thence into Latin, where it was translated to "sinus", which was the part of a woman's toga covering her, um, assets.


Sine = boobs.  And you thought math was boring.

Juniper wants attention
Juniper wants attention

"Oh, so you want to read instead of petting me?  I have some claws with opinions on that matter."

Reading progress update: I've read 3 out of 338 pages.

The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life - Alex Bellos

Already loving this!


"Shakespeare is also responsible for the modern meaning of "odd."  Originally, the word had only a numerical sense.  It was used in phrases such as "odd man out," the unpaired member of a group of three.  But in Love's Labour's Lost, the farcical Spaniard Don Adriano de Armado is described as "too picked, too spruce, too affected, too odd, as it were."  Having one left over when divided by two has meant peculiar ever since."

Reading progress update: I've read 189 out of 224 pages.

Lapham’s Quarterly: Comedy - Lewis H. Lapham



You are the bread and the knife,

The crystal goblet and the wine...

                   –Jacques Crickillon


You are the bread and the knife,

the crystal goblet and the wine.

You are the dew on the morning grass

and the burning wheel of the sun.

You are the white apron of the baker,

and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.


However, you are not the wind in the orchard,

the plums on the counter,

or the house of cards.

And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.

There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.


It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,

maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,

but you are not even close

to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.


And a quick look in the mirror will show

that you are neither the boots in the corner

nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.


It might interest you to know,

speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,

that I am the sound of rain on the roof.


I also happen to be the shooting star,

the evening paper blowing down the alley

and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.


I am also the moon in the trees

and the blind woman's teacup.

But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.

You are still the bread and the knife.

You will always be the bread and the knife,

not to mention the crystal goblet and–somehow–the wine.



Billy Collins

Review: Wicked Plants (The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities), by Amy Stewart

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities - Amy Stewart

I don't have much to say about this one, other than that it doesn't really work as an audiobook.  The physical book is very twee, and might be enjoyable for its illustrations and quaint design:



But to listen to, it's pretty tedious.  The narrator rattles off scientific names, dimensions, locations, and a host of other sterile stats for every single plant featured - data that might be useful in a sidebar, but which doesn't need to be recited in toto into my brain.


And the chapters themselves, the meat of the book, were sadly not much more interesting.  I think I was expecting this to read less like an encyclopedia and more like something by Sam Kean, or Bill Bryson, or even Cracked.com ("100 Terrifying Plants You Never Knew Might Kill You!")  But it's just so dry.  Even the titular "weed that killed Lincoln's mother" was incredibly anticlimactic.  Mrs. L was poisoned by a weed she ate, and then died.  Gee... how THRILLING.


So I don't know.  Flipping through a hard copy of the book might be enjoyable - there were some interesting factoids and stories here and there.  But to hear it all read out, sequentially and unabridged, was fairly excruciating.


(2014 #23)

Outro: The Beginning Place, by Ursula K. LeGuin

The Beginning Place - Ursula K. Le Guin

Wow, this was truly awful. What the hell, Ursula?