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"Wear the old coat and buy the new book."
— Austin Phelps
Thursday, April 30, 2015
The importance of knowing one's letters
Title: Fly by night
By: Frances Hardinge
Twelve-year-old Mosca Mye lives in a land superficially similar to, but also fantastically divergent from, England in the early 1700s. Parliament has reached an uneasy compromise with the many factions of resurgent Royalists (each supporting a different would-be-monarch) after deposing and beheading the previous King. Monotheist fanaticism has had its brief but bloody Reign of Terror, and the ascendant bourgeoisie of the Guilds now hold supreme power--but are locked in deadly rivalries with one another. The Watermen control all traffic on the rivers. The Locksmiths take control of city states one by one, Mafia-style. The Stationers burn all printed material that does not bear their Seal of approval...
Mosca, born on the holy day of Goodman Palpitattle ("He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns"), is the daughter of an ex-Stationer. And she knows how to read. Unfortunately, the appetite for linguistic adventure, once whetted, is difficult to satiate. With limited options for learning new vocabulary in her little village, she falls in with a verbose con artist by the name of Eponymous Clent. Along with Mosca's only friend, a violence-prone goose named Saracen, the duo proceed to blunder and smooth-talk their way through the highest political intrigues and conspiracies, leaving a trail of destruction and deceit behind them.
With chapter titles such as A is for Arson, B is for Blackmail, and C is for Contraband (and H is for High Treason), Hardinge reminds children of the importance of knowing one's letters, and the importance of literacy to civil society. This book is subversive, and unapologetically so. It would never be approved by the Stationers Guild. "Words were dangerous when loosed. They were more powerful than cannon and more unpredictable than storms. They could turn men's heads inside out and warp their destinies. They could pick up kingdoms and shake them until they rattled. And this was a good thing, a wonderful thing..."
Monday, March 30, 2015
Putting two and two together
Title: How not to be wrong: the power of mathematical thinking
By: Jordan Ellenberg
While the subtitle of this book is "the power of mathematical thinking," the “how not to be wrong” part is how to frame the question so that you use the correct mathematical formula to determine the answer—as well as how to maintain a healthy skepticism as to what that answer means.
The author illustrates his points with examples that even non-math geeks can understand. His references range from music ("The Housemartins – the greatest Marxist pop band ever to pick up guitars"), literature (David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon among others), politics, Star Trek, and more.
If you want to exercise your brain by actually attempting to solve the math, it will keep you busy and give you quite a workout. Even without doing the math, the book will enlarge your way of thinking and help you to look at problems from a different perspective. Plus, it is very entertaining.
My husband asked why I was reading this book when I’m already always right; and the author does credit his wife in the acknowledgments with "help[ing him] understand, even more than mathematics has, how to be right." With that, and with such chapter titles as How much is that in dead American?, Dead fish don’t read minds, and Are you there God? It’s me, Bayesian Inference, how can you resist?
Thursday, March 19, 2015
More questions than answers
Title: Vivian Apple at the end of the world
By: Katie Coyle
The Church of America has been warning of the rapture for a long time, all the while taking over the country. Vivian Apple doesn’t believe in the church, even though her parents are believers. On the morning after the rapture was supposed to take place, Vivian comes home to find her parents gone and two holes in the roof. Vivian is confused: she doesn’t believe that the rapture is real, but then why are her parents gone? Not long afterward, Vivian’s grandparents arrive suddenly and take her with them to New York. But in New York, Vivian finds more questions than answers. She soon decides that she must go back home. After returning and uncovering clues as to where her parents might be, she and her best friend Harp, who was also left behind, decide that they need help. They find Peter, a boy who is willing to help but who may not be telling them all he knows about the church. The three of them set off on a road trip to find the truth. Along the way, Vivian and her friends get support from unexpected places—and possibly learn more of the truth than they ever bargained for.
Vivian Apple at the End of the World tells the story of a girl who begins to question everything she believed in and learns why people make decisions that can change their lives forever.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Scintillating, ironic, multi-hued
Title: Euphoria : a novel
By: Lily King
Irascible Fen, hyper-intelligent Nell, and shy Bankson are fictionalized versions of anthropologists Reo Fortune, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson. The story derives from a documented and dramatic period in their real life along the Sepik River in New Guinea in the early 1930s, with a fictional interpretation and ending. I marvel at how Lily King brought me right into the middle of the story, with no heavy-handed exposition. Just as an anthropologist enters a village with no idea of the likes and dislikes, power struggles and romances among the inhabitants, the reader is enticed into being observant and learning as the book goes along.
At the beginning of the book, Nell travels back to Port Moresby by boat, in flight from a troubling 5 months with the (fictional) Mumbanyo people. "She tried not to think about the villages they were passing, the raised houses and the fire pits and the children hunting for snakes in the thatch with spears. All the people she was missing, the tribes she would never know and words she would never hear, the worry that they might right now be passing the one people she was meant to study, a people whose genius she would unlock, and who would unlock hers, a people who had a way of life that made sense to her."
Threading third person narrative with first person reminiscences from Bankson and excerpts from Nell’s journals, King writes imaginatively, allowing us detailed insight into their characters. Fen is the least known of the three, and the least likeable, which makes me curious to learn more about Reo Fortune. On my second reading, I was just as fascinated by this scintillating, ironic, and multi-hued novel—a sign of true accomplishment by the author. It is not for nothing that this book was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of the 10 best books of 2014.
Monday, February 2, 2015
Title: Gretel and the Dark
By: Eliza Granville
The title promises darkness, and if there's one lesson Eliza Granville has learned from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, it's to always keep a promise. "If you won't forsake me, I won't forsake you."
Krysta's childhood nurse, Greet, had a story for every occasion. While gutting fish one day, she tells Krysta, "Once upon a time, on a farm near Sachsenhausen, lived a man who let his children watch as he slaughtered a pig. Later that day, when the children went off to play, the eldest child took a shiny knife and slit his little brother's throat."
Krysta's father, a physician, interrupts:"Such tales spring from sick imaginations." Josef Breuer, Sigmund Freud's mentor, might well agree. Breuer is a major character in the novel's other storyline, which is set some four decades earlier than Krysta's childhood. Unfortunately for the two doctors, even sicker imaginations have shaped everyday reality, and "such tales" may be one of the few weapons left with which to resist. The symptoms of the diseased human imagination are already quite obvious in Breuer's Vienna of 1899, and even doctors possess no immunity.
"One day a stranger dressed in red and white and black came to Hamelin." As the children of Central Europe "disappear through a magic door in the side of a mountain," a boy and a girl are left behind. Like Hansel and Gretel, the two children desperately seek a way to shove the witch into the oven before they end up there themselves.
As Greet once said, "Stories are fast travelers, always moving on. Oh, yes, stories change with the wind and the tide and the moon. Half the time they're only plaited mist anyway, so they disappear altogether when daylight shines on them." And the other half of the time, there is no daylight, and the stories are all too real.
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