Books & More...
"A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return. "
from Imaginary homelands by Salman Rushdie
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
By: Martin Cruz Smith
Enjoy a romantic, suspenseful tale of the underground. Visit a coal mine one mile deep under Victorian England from your own comfortable armchair. Read about free-living pit girls and hardy miners in the company town of Wigan. Be amazed by the clever methods of the American mining engineer assigned to investigate the disappearance of the local curate, engaged to the mine owner's daughter. Shiver at the description of the dangers of coal mining, from gas leaks to collapses, runaway coal cars to explosions. Well-written, educational and very entertaining!
Sunday, December 1, 2013
In the name of science and self-glory
Title: The Brother Gardeners: botany, empire, and the birth of an obsession
By: Andrea Wulf
The 18th century was an inquisitive and busy time in the world’s history. Darwin was discovering how we evolve, and an egomaniacal Linneaus was making sense of the botanical world with his classification system as well as enraging his fellow botanists and his Holiness the Pope. Explorers like Captain Cook were exploring the new world in the name of science and self-glory.
In America and England (long before the American Revolution), two men became friends across the ocean. American farmer John Bartram and English amateur botanist/gardener Peter Collinson started a relationship of many decades, exchanging seeds and gardening information as well as personal stories of their lives. English gardens, which previously had been planted in the manner of the formal Italianate gardens of straight lines, topiary hedges and tall clipped Italian cypresses, became lushly floral, colorful living spaces, with winding asymmetrical paths.
The second half of the book focuses on the botanical mania of Joseph Banks and his voyage with Captain Cook (ostensibly to witness the transit of Venus, but in fact secretly to explore the mysterious Terra Australis Incognita). Other colorful historical characters make their appearance in snippets of stories: Captain Bligh with his life-saving breadfruit trees; and Daniel Solander, pupil of Linneaus but, unlike his mentor, universally adored and revered. We witness the evolving of Banks from a brash, manipulative young man to an esteemed statesman whose contributions to the British empire were considerable.
18th century pictures pepper the pages of Wulf’s book, and she supplies a glossary, bibliography, and notes for the scientist. Her storytelling is compelling and lively. It inspires one to think about, if not investigate, the provenance of our own gardens. Exploring the Australian gardens at UCSC’s Arboretum would be particularly interesting after reading Brother Gardeners.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
Title: Raven Girl
By: Audrey Niffenegger
Raven Girl is an illustrated fairy tale for adults. Somehow, a postman and a raven have a child together. When the egg hatches, their daughter has the body of a human but can only speak in Raven. Her main goal in life is one day to be able to fly, but she goes through childhood with no possibility of doing so. And then, one day, it becomes possible...
Raven Girl is a very quick read. The dark-hued artwork helps the reader absorb the atmosphere of surreal dream-logic mixed with undertones of alienation and humor (such as the human-formed Raven Girl distrusting cats because her mother, who is a bird, taught her to).
I'm still skeptical about technology's role in Raven Girl: it fulfills the same narrative functions as magic, but still feels like an external element that cannot be resolved within the framework of a fairy tale. Then again, perhaps a feeling of haunted unease is what Niffenegger considers an appropriate reaction to the modern world. Her eerie but beautiful illustrations certainly would suggest so.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
In the room with Louis
Title: Oh Play That Thing
By: Roddy Doyle
A beautiful performance by actor Christian Conn, who creates the gorgeous Irish voices, varied New York accents, and a believable rendition of Louis Armstrong. Conn gives every word its worth, adding meaningful richness to the often spare dialogue. Oh Play That Thing is the second title in The Last Roundup trilogy that began with A Star Called Henry. I recommend that you do what I didn’t, read the first title before listening to Oh Play That Thing, as there are character references and flashbacks that you will want to understand. I was sucked into the story anyway by the language, the depiction of American culture in the 1920’s, and Conn’s performance. I was appalled and intrigued by the Henry’s experiences on the run from Irish hitmen ("I walked until my ears felt very far from home"). He’s full of himself, "stretching the day to new limits, forcing new seconds into every minute," a foolhardy but gutsy risk-taker whom one can’t help applauding even as one deplores his behavior.
It’s a wonderful fiction to hear for the first time. And the second time? I felt like I was in the room with Henry and Louis, that’s how entrancing the reading is.
While listening to this book, you might also listen to some Louis Armstrong performances from that period. The Okeh, Columbia & RCA Victor recordings, 1925-1933 includes a number of songs mentioned in the book. And try to visualize the naughty dance scene (track 36 in the MP3 audiobook) to Gershwin’s “Sweet and Low Down,” also recorded in 1925 by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra.
Monday, November 25, 2013
Title: The Snow Child
By: Eowyn Ivey
The Snow Child is the first novel by Alaskan Eowyn Ivey. Set in Alaska in the 1920s, it is a retelling of a Russian folktale. In the traditional tale, a childless couple makes a little girl out of snow, and she comes to life. In Ivey’s novel, hardworking homesteaders Mabel and Jack make a snowgirl; but does she really come to life? Or is Faina, the girl they come to love, just a half-wild neighbor child? Ivey leaves this question open to the end of the novel. Realists can enjoy Ivey’s vivid description of the Alaskan landscape and wildlife and the hardships of homesteading in that lonely setting. Fans of magical realism will enjoy the ambiguity of the story. Is Faina real, or just a figment of Mabel’s imagination? And if she is real, where did she come from? Readers will have to make up their own minds. Having thoroughly enjoyed this first effort from Eowyn Ivey, I hope she will follow it up with something just as magical.