3.24.2015


A bit late on the Top Ten Tuesday, and a bit behind generally with blogging: busy times at work aaaaaand I just am getting over one of those vicious stomach bugs that prostrates you for 24 hours plus.

I am feeling better but am still on the “cautiously nibbling dry white toast to see if it will stay down” phase of my recovery. Therefore, though I am well enough to blog a bit, I am home from work today because I did not want to risk my toast and ginger ale coming up all over my patients!

Anyway, what better way to coddle myself into recovery than to pick my Top 10 Childhood Books I Love to Revist?

THERE IS NO BETTER WAY.

I slightly redefined this in my mind by deleting the “would” in the heading provided by The Broke and the Bookish.

These are not books I theoretically would love to revisit one day. These are books that I have revisited; books that I do revisit. The proof is in their covers and spines and battered pages. I restricted myself to books that I acquired before high school, and books the same physical copies of which I have dragged from home to dorm to apartment to apartment to home over the course of a good twenty years.

I will give you a photo tour.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Yes, Fellowship is bound entirely in duct tape. DON'T JUDGE OKAY.  These just sneak in under the cutoff; I started with these around eighth grade. Yep. Lord of the Rings. It's all been said before. I loved and love and will always love these books.




The Deryni Chronicles, by Katherine Kurtz

These have aged less well as literature than the others, but these are in fact the original library books that I checked out repeatedly as a child. The library deaccessioned them and I got them. These are precious artifacts of my reading youth! 


The Curse of the Blue Figurine, by John Bellairs

I read a fair amount of John Bellairs in my misspent youth, but this is the one that has stayed with me. Nerdy, bespectacled, bookworm, Catholic school-child, altar-server protagonist? Say no more! This may not have aged well as literature either (better than my beloved Deryni books — sorry, Katherine Kurtz!), but the Edward Gorey covers are timeless. 


A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton Porter

It might be time to give this one another go. There's also a TV adaptation I've never seen, but would like to. Elnora Comstock is often a bit too good to be true as a protagonist, but I love the way she goes about life. 


A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle 

As an adult, I am more fond of L'Engle's memoirs than I am her fantasy, but A Wrinkle in Time was my all-time favorite from about second grade until about eighth grade, when, if I recall correctly, Lord of the Rings finally displaced it. I liked all of the books about the Murray family but Wrinkle was by far my most loved. 


The Earthsea Cycle, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Somehow my set is missing The Tombs of Atuan, which was my favorite of the four growing up (LeGuin put out a fifth many years later, which I also own). Perhaps I loved Atuan to pieces? I do not know. These are actually much better coming to them as an adult. There's all sorts of theological insight here that I did not get as a child. 


The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper

If you love YA fantasy, especially YA fantasy set not in a past, mysterious world, but the here-and-now, and especially if you love contemporary YA fantasy with a wide and interesting cast of characters: you should have already read these books. If you haven't, I weep for you. Go read them now. 


James Herriot

Herriot wrote, I believe, four collections of short stories: All Things Wise and Wonderful; All Creatures Great and Small; All Things Bright and Beautiful; The Lord God Made Them All. I only seem to own two, but I know I went through these over and over. We had them on audiocassette with Christopher Timothy narrating and I would play them at night as I fell asleep, night after night after night. My grandfather was a small-time farmer and watching the BBC adaptations of these on TV together was one of the few things we could enjoy together (I loved my grandfather, but he was a gruff New England farmer out of Ethan Frome and bonding with his grandchildren was not something he did, really.) 

Not only do I want to go through these again, I need to buy his other collections of stories! If anyone doesn't know James Herriot, he — no, just Google. I will go on for far too long otherwise. 


Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson

If you do not know Calvin and Hobbes, pretty much I weep for your childhood. This is just one of his many collections. I should, perhaps, attempt to methodically collect all of them, but I haven't gotten there yet . . . 


The Complete Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle

These are in better shape than many of the others because they are a box set (a gift from my Dad, again!) The box itself grew too tatty for me to keep using, and so now the books are just on my shelf. They're actually gorgeous editions and the box was bringing 'em down. Anyway I adore Sherlock Holmes. Always have, always will. Last night in between bouts of throwing up my toenails, I found myself too miserable to focus on a book . . . so I watched the Jeremy Brett adaptation of Hound of the Baskervilles. The love goes deep. 




That's all for today! This week I will be playing catch-up with book reviews, so watch for those, for sure!


  

3.18.2015

Walter Mosley, “Devil in a Blue Dress”

Reading Mosley on lunch break!
Those are my feet in argyle socks at the bottom
of the photo. 
Well this was fun.

It's been a darn long time since I have found a new (well, new-to-me) mystery series that I can whole-heartedly enjoy. The Easy Rawlins mysteries are now officially on the list!

I just love me some good detective fiction. I am a bit picky. I tend to strongly prefer whodunits and am a big fan of Golden Age detective fiction. I read a lot of British authors, but I also really enjoy American authors like Rex Stout.

And now Walter Mosley.

I wouldn't say this is a perfectly classic whodunit, but it comes close. It is written in a gritty hard-boiled style, rather than a “cozy” style, which is a change for me, but one I definitely enjoy (I don't like cozies because they're cozy; I like cozies because they're whodunits).

Anyway, our sleuth Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is a reluctant sort of sleuth. He's just been fired from his job for standing up to his racist boss. He needs money or the bank will foreclose on his house. So when a mysterious stranger approaches him in his friend's bar and offers him a hundred bucks just to find a girl . . . it's hard to say no.

Adventures ensue.

This series is set in the 1940's through, I believe, the 1960's (obviously I haven't read the whole series yet, so I don't know what the full time-span is). This one is set in the late 40's. Easy is a black man living in L.A., just back from combat in WWII. And Walter Mosley? Damn fine writer. The last murder mystery series I tried was the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. I like historical series a great deal, and I like female protagonists, so I hoped that one would be up my street, but no. The prose was painful, the historical background was poorly considered, and the lead was a Mary Sue. Ugh.

Walter Mosley, however, just nails it. if I didn't know better I'd say this book was written in the 40's. His writing is crisp and compelling and never ridiculous. His characters are vivid and well-imagined and his dialogue is snappy. His descriptions are evocative and never wind on pointlessly. The story was well-plotted, carefully paced, and just damn good overall.

If you like noir-style detective fiction, you will. like. this. book. Highly recommended.



3.17.2015

Finding God in the Verbs, by Jennie Isbell and Brent Bill

This book was much different than the sort of books I usually read on religion. I like to read rather academic work on theology and/or the history of religion; spiritual memoirs; and spiritual or devotional classics.

I'd probably call this a modern devotional. I wanted to read it partially because these are My People. I know Brent very slightly; we met once at a big Quaker conference . . . in the bookstore, of course! I've never met Jennie, but we travel in the same circles. I am sure we must have at least one mutual friend.

Mostly, though, I wanted to read this because the book uses the sort of technique I'm used to from reading and writing poetry to analyze what's going on when I pray — and suggest improvements.

This book didn't end up speaking to me, but it was still a good book.

Poetry and faith are very close to the same thing in my mind. I use the same approaches to each. I understand my faith as, more or less, an enormous sort of poem that interprets the world for me. The part of my brain that analyzes a poem is the same part of my brain that analyzes theology. So applying techniques usually used in a writing seminar to prayer? Right up my street.

The problem, I realized about halfway through this book, is that I don't use words when I pray. At all. I just . . . am not a prayer-in-words, and I feel no compulsion to be. I am fond of “centering prayer," which is the Western version of mindfulness meditation (and almost as old), but even my intercessory prayer is a wordless directing of the attention, not at all a verbal thing.

(In secular terms, if I am praying for someone, I am sitting there holding my love and care and worry or sometimes frustrations with and for that person foremost in my mind. Which is why intercessory prayer “works" for me, even leaving God out of it, because when I do this for a person nine times out of ten I come to some insight about how I can be a better friend to them, and always, always I am then able to be kinder to them when I see them in person. This is especially useful for people I don't get along with very well. So anyway, I pray a lot for people and it works really well, even without any reference to God.)

The authors talk about “resistance" to various spiritual practices towards the end of the book. In their terms, a “charged" resistance is when there is something emotional going on under the surface preventing you from doing something that you really might want or need to do. Then there is “uncharged" resistance, which is when you don't want to do something 'cuz you just don't wanna. Maybe it doesn't work for you; maybe it's fine but it's not a priority; something like that. But there's not an emotional block.

At any rate, I realized by the end of the book that I have an uncharged but pretty strong resistance to using words when I pray. It just isn't my jam. I can do it. but it is not so satisfying for me.

So in the end, sadly, the book itself was not for me — but that was entirely because of my whole not-praying-with-words thing and had nothing at all to do with the quality of the book, which really was excellent. I am strongly in favor of anything that combines writing and faith! They go together like a hand in a glove so far as I'm concerned, and this was such a clever and insightful way of doing it.

I'd recommend this book heartily for anyone who does pray with words and would like to use the techniques of a writing workshop to improve their prayer life. I think you'd get a lot out of it.




3.12.2015

Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test

I tend to roll my eyes when I hear a book described as a “romp." It has always struck me as Too Precious By Half.

But that was before I read Jon Ronson. I recant! I recant!

One wouldn't think a book on psychopaths could be considered fun, but this one is.

The titular “Psychopath Test" is a diagnostic tool created by Bob Hare to evaluate for psychopathy. The book isn't about the test per se, but uses the story of the development and use of the test as a proxy for our understanding of psychopathy. This could easily become a Serious Study on Mental Illness, but Ronson treats it playfully, largely through his own self-deprecating humor.

In addition to his self-deprecation, he has a keen eye for the ridiculous, as when he profiles the possibly psychopathic CEO who owns a truly excessive collection of predator statues: bears, lions, birds of prey, etc. Even more pleasurably, he has a knack for playing up his subjects' inability to themselves appreciate the ridiculous; his sly rendering of his interview with said CEO was delightful. 

“Lions," said Al Dunlop, showing me around. He was wearing a casual jacket and slacks and looked tanned, healthy. His teeth were very white. “Lions. Jaguars. Lions. Always predators. Predators. Predators. Predators. I have a great belief in and a great respect for predators. Everything I did I had to go make happen."

Item 5: Conning/Manipulative, I wrote in my reporter's notebook. His statements may reveal a belief that the world is made up of “predators and prey," or that it would be foolish not to exploit weaknesses in others. 
“Gold, too," I said. “There's a lot of gold here, too." 
I had been prepared for the gold, having recently seen a portrait of him sitting on a gold chair, wearing a gold tie, with a gold suit of armor by the door and a gold crucifix on the mantelpiece. 
“Well," said Al. “Gold is shiny. Sharks." 
He pointed at a sculpture of four sharks encircling the planet. “I believe in predators," he said. “Their spirit will enable you to succeed. Over there you've got falcons. Alligators. Alligators. More alligators. Tigers." 
“It's as if both Midas and also the Queen of Narnia were here," I said, “and the Queen of Narnia flew above a particularly fierce zoo and turned everything to stone and then transported it here." 
“What?" said Al. 
“Nothing," I said. 
“No," he said, “what did you just say?" 
He shot me a steely, blue-eyed stare, which I found quite debilitating. 
“It was just a jumble of words," I said. “I was trying to make a funny comment but it all became confused in my mouth."


If you are one who feels that grim subjects must always be Approached With the Gravitas They Deserve, and feel that lighthearted treatment of grim subjects is Disrespectful To the People Impacted, you will not enjoy this book. 

I, however, deeply enjoy lighthearted treatments of grim subjects; further, I felt that the conceit of using the diagnostic test for psychopathy as the thread we followed throughout the narrative made for a very interesting look at the limits of our knowledge of mental illness in general and psychopathy (if you can even define it as a mental illness, which is debatable) in particular. 

What is a thing if no one can agree on its definition or diagnosis? What does our desire to label others say about ourselves?

This pageturner of a book approaches these questions in a light and easily digestible way. It's a book that can easily be read in one sitting or one afternoon, so if you have even the slightest interest I would say it's worth your reading time. If only for the giant menagerie of tiger statues. 




3.11.2015

What I'm Reading for BookRiot's #readharder challenge

I'm a fan of BookRiot, so back in December or January or whenever-it-was when they devised a 2015 reading challenge, I thought it sounded like a lot of fun.

Here's a link, but the basic idea is to read your way through 24 categories of book:

A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25
A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65
A collection of short stories
A book published by an indie press
A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ
A book by a person whose gender is different from your own
A book that takes place in Asia
A book by an author from Africa
A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture
A microhistory
A YA novel
A sci-fi novel
A romance novel
A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade
A book that is a retelling of a classic story
An audiobook
A collection of poetry
A book that someone else has recommended to you
A book that was originally published in another language
A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind
A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure
A book published before 1850
A book published this year
A self-improvement book

I made up my list in January and have been chipping away at it since. Seemed like the sort of thing to share on my blog! So here you go: 24 books in 20 minutes.






3.10.2015

V. S. Naipaul, Among the Believers

V. S. Naipaul, for those who are unfamiliar, is a Trinidad-born British author and Nobel laureate (2001). He is perhaps best known for his novel A House for Mr. Biswas but his nonfiction, and particularly his travelogues, are also quite well-known.

Among the Believers is one of those travelogues, though it is often billed as a commentary on Islam. That's certainly why I picked it up. Naipaul spent six months traveling through Iran, Pakistan,
Malaysia, and Indonesia, writing about his experiences.

The prose was my favorite thing about this book by far. Here's a passage right at the beginning that was part of what drew me in when I picked this up off my dad's shelf:

We came to an intersection. And there I lost Behzad [Naipaul's interpreter in Tehran]. I was waiting for the traffic to stop. But Behzad didn't wait with me. He simply began to cross, dealing with each approaching car in turn, now stopping, now hurrying, now altering the angle of his path, and, like a man crossing a forest gorge by a slender fallen tree trunk, never looking back. He did so only when he got to the other side. He waved me over, but I couldn't move. Traffic lights had failed higher up, and the cars didn't stop. 
He understood my helplessness. He came back through the traffic to me, and then—like a moorhen leading its chick across the swift current of a stream—he led me through dangers that at every moment seemed about to sweep me away. He led me by the hand; and, just as the moorhen places herself a little downstream from the chick, breaking the force of the current, which would otherwise sweep the little thing away forever, so Behzad kept me in his lee, walking a little ahead of me and a little to one side, so that he would have been hit first. 
And when we were across the road he said, “You must always give your hand to me." 
It was, in effect, what I had already begun to do. Without Behzad, without the access to the language that he gave me, I had been like a half-blind man in Tehran. And it had been especially frustrating to be without the language in these streets, scrawled and counter-scrawled with aerosol slogans in many colors in the flowing Persian script, and plastered with revolutionary posters and cartoons with an emphasis on blood. Now, with Behzad, the walls spoke; many other things took on meaning; and the city changed.
Prose like that, the portrayal of an image and a moment like that, is what drew me to this book, but what I really wanted from this book was a big fat piece of religious, social, and cultural analysis, and that's not at all what I got here.

As a cultural critic, Naipaul leaves a lot to be desired.

He is very aware of how the people he meets are culture-bound. He meets businessmen, students, journalists, religious and political leaders, poets, and teachers, and he has a knack for putting his hand on the blind spots in their thinking, the place where their unexamined beliefs are leading them into fallacious thinking. That's actually a great trait in a journalist, but he combines this with a total lack of insight into how his own beliefs are culture-bound.

He pushed hard against the idea he heard over and over that “Islam is a total way of life." What did that mean? he asked them, and never got a satisfactory response. He was frustrated by that and attributed it to a certain failure to examine closely held beliefs, which it may well have been, but he had a total lack of empathy for that position. This exasperated me, given that he himself expressed the value he placed on “secular" or intellectual life and I would be surprised if, when pressed, he could give an adequate expression of what that means. I doubt I could, especially not when pushed by an interviewer from a very different culture.

This lack of insight into the universality of humans not examining their deeply held beliefs led him to sound pretty damn condescending. As he (as I praised him for above) skillfully laid his hand on the unexamined flaws in his interviewees' thinking, I could smell the condescension coming off the page. “Look at these ignorant rubes," was the strong implication.

Additionally, I felt that he was trying to draw lines of causality between the values of Islam and people being ignorant rubes. I am allergic to suggestions like that (I could list a lot of -isms right here but don't want to; also V.S. Naipaul is an author of color himself so . . . complicated), and it turned me sour on the whole book.

If we must paint others as ignorant rubes (which is a questionable move to begin with), it would behoove us to point out that being an ignorant rube is common to the human condition and doesn't  have much to do with country of origin and religion. Thinking that other people are ignorant rubes has a lot to do with class and privilege, though. JUST SAYING, V. S. Naipaul.

JUST SAYING.

After writing the bulk of this post, I searched for other commentary re: Among the Believers, and found that the Christian Science Monitor posted this thoughtful piece from their archives (originally published in 1981, just as the book came out.)

Their take on it is less that Naipaul is Islamophobic (which tends to be my take) and more that he is of the school of thought that Religion Makes You Stupid.

Possible. Possible. This is not an unusual belief in academia. On the other hand, the CSM might also be biased; they may well be over-sensitive to any suggestion that Religion Makes You Stupid. Either way, though, their article is worth reading.

While I have Beyond Belief, the fifteen-year follow-up to this book, sitting on my shelf, I do not think I will be picking it up any time soon. Whether Naipaul is Islamophobic or hates religion in general or just expresses himself unfortunately, or even if I am just being over-sensitive (also possible) I need to give myself some time for my hackles to smooth back down before I want to read more of him. If and when I do, I might go for his fiction, instead.




“Top Ten Tuesday:” Five series of books for readers who like Harry Potter

March 10: Five Series For Readers Who Like Harry Potter


Here we are with top ten Tuesday again! This week, the theme is “Books to read if you liked (blank)." (Yeah I'm doing five this week. Whatever!)

It's no secret (or maybe it is?) . . . I think Harry Potter is a bit over-rated.

I liked it OK. I enjoyed it. It was fun. I was of the generation that bought each book as it came out, and “grew up" with the characters.

But it was far from my favorite childhood fantasy novel series. FAR FROM. Here are five apparently and tragically overlooked fantasy novel series that I loved when younger. All of them blow Harry Potter out of the water. All of these are on my shelves to this day. I let go of all my Harry Potter books years ago — I just didn't care any more. THESE were the books I loved and wore to pieces growing up and could never let go of.

I am so sad I don't see more love for these books around the bookiverse. I give them ALL MY LOVE to make up for their cruel neglect. Dear books, I will never abandon you!

Lloyd Alexander, The Prydain Chronicles. Like Harry Potter, the characters start young and grow through the course of the books; there is a group of loyal friends; they must battle an ancient and overpowering evil. Set in an ancient and mysterious land something like ancient Wales. These are probably more middle grade but I re-read them occasionally to this day.

Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising series Oh my goodness.  Like Harry Potter, they are contemporary and British and Magic is real but secret. But this magic is...oooohhhhhh. This magic. Never a plaything; always just on the edge of uncontrolled. Start with Over Sea, Under Stone, but know that my unrivaled favorite is The Dark Is Rising, which comes second in the sequence, so don't stop with the first one! These also follow children who mature over the course of the novels battling an ancient malevolent force.

Ursula LeGuin, The Earthsea Cycle. Best world building I have ever read (possibly rivaled only by Frank Herbert in Dune and, of course, Tolkien). Perfect prose. Even Harold Bloom admires LeGuin's prose. Compelling characters. The first book is a school story, though not the rest. And again, the magic? Incomparable. Beautiful. Frightening. Again with the Battle Against Evil, though LeGuin has a much subtler conception of evil than any of these others. LeGuin is one of my all-time favorite authors though (definitely in the top ten), so I can't say enough good things about these books.

Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast. (I haven't read the whole trilogy but what I have read was fantastic). Steerpike would obviously have been a Slytherin. Rare to find such a frank anti-hero in this genre. These are by far the densest books among my recommendations here as the prose is delightfully flowery, so if you prefer a lighter easier read: not these.

Garth Nix, the Abhorsen series. Sabriel, the first book in the series, is just SO good (I like the others too though not as much). A young woman leaves school to rescue her father, the Abhorsen, who lays the dead to rest but has himself been trapped in death...and that's just the first book. Of all my recs here, these read closest to Harry Potter, both in prose style and in atmosphere.

Please comment and let me know if you love any of these as much as I do, or if you are planning on picking them up!

Happy reading!