Library Book Sale!

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♫♪It’s the hap-happiest time, of the year!♫♪ That’s right, it’s the weekend of the fall library book sale in my county. It’s one of the most magical places. They have rows and rows and stacks and boxes of books. Mass market paperbacks are fifty cents. Fifty cents!!!!! And the most expensive book I’ve ever seen there was $4, although I would never pay that for a book sale book. I usually go there with a $20 budget, and for the first time ever I managed to stay under it. Below, a preview of my haul:

Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World, Karen Armstrong. Karen Armstrong might be my favorite religion/theology writer. Her History of God is amazing. I’m very much looking forward to digging into this one.

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind, Richard Fortey. A narrative history of evolution and the creatures that have outlasted all of the others of their time. And even it were just about horseshoe crabs and velvet worms I probably would have gotten it. Those things are cool.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, Nadia Hashimi. In 2007 Kabul, on streets still controlled by the Taliban, a young girl is supporting her family through an ancient custom that allows a young girl to be treated as a son until she’s of marriageable age, a custom her great-great-grandmother had used as well, and the way their stories weave together.

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert. My husband just read Dune  (although he should have ages ago), and neither one of us has read further on in the series, so it seemed a good choice for us to read together.

The Green Brain, Frank Herbert. And I wanted to see if Frank Herbert was any good at writing books about forests, or if he could really just do the one ecosystem.

J, Howard Jacobson. This is a book that has been on my to-be-read list forever. J is a dystopia where there has been a calamity that no one mentions and collective memory has vanished. And it’s described as a darkly humorous tale. This very much appeals to my interests.

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, Ben Loory. A short story collection that looked intriguing (It’s the one up there with a tentacle and a UFO – I totally judged the book by its cover). But one of the blurbs on the back also described Loory as a combination of Mother Goose, Philip K. Dick and Richard Brautigan. I pretty much had to buy it.

Upon the Sleeping Flood and Other Stories, Joyce Carol Oates. I know I had to read something by Oates in school, but I honestly don’t remember it at all. And I’ve only read one short story since. She seems essential reading for anyone who likes American literature (which I do) so I wanted to give her a better shot.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel.  A bit of an impulse buy, as I knew nothing about this, but it caught my attention. Another dystopian future, this time when a devastating flu pandemic has completely disrupted civilization, and a small troupe of artists trying to keep the humanities and humanity alive.

The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman. This is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best books, on how World War I got started. World War I was such a ridiculous war that should never have happened, and it could use more discussion. Especially these days, when we regularly see people abdicating responsibility, making decisions everyone knows and agrees are wrong, and letting stubbornness and foolish allegiances make decisions rather than any sort of thought or sense. I increasingly think we don’t need the tales of pure evil to warn us for today so much as the tales of history’s great blunders.

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Simon Winder. Basically, a humorous history of Central Europe and the Habsburg Empire, who ruled over the region for centuries (pretty much until World War I, so it’s sort of a companion piece to Tuchman’s book.)

Not Even Wrong, Peter Woit. I’m fascinated by physics and the search for a theory of everything, as I’ve written about before. And, having just read some critiques of string theory and how it doesn’t work with our current universe, I’m excited to read this book critiquing it in depth.



ericFaust Eric,Terry Pratchett

At the end of Sourcery, Terry Pratchett had a slight problem. Rincewind had ended up stuck in the dungeon dimensions. But as the hero Discworld deserves, if not necessarily the one it wants, Rincewind will obviously have a greater role to play and can’t just remain exiled to a different plane. So what to do? Oh, sure, Pratchett could have just started the next book by saying that Rincewind had been saved by, oh, let’s say Moe, but Pratchett is no slacker. He’s a professional, so he went ahead and wrote a ministory to explain how and why Rincewind had returned.

And, well, that really seems to be the purpose of this book. Eric is quite short, clocking in at just over 100 pages, and tells the tale of a teenage boy who decides to become a great demonologist, attempting to summon a demon that will grant him his three wishes of having dominion over all of the world, having the most beautiful woman in the world, and living forever. Unfortunately, when he opens the door to the dungeon dimensions for summoning he brings forth Rincewind instead.

Eric was not the greatest of the Discworld novels, but it was fine. It had some bits that were quite clever, such as the Discworld variant of the Trojan Wars, and an always appreciated cameo by Death. (As well as The Librarian, who is the true history of Discworld.) But it also seemed to be a bit dashed off. There is more than one quip that is fine at first, but wears thin quickly and one has to assume would have been changed out in subsequent drafts if time permits. The horrible deity Quetzlovercoatl, for instance, is a play on words that would be fine once, but more than that and it seems to be a place holder but nothing better came up.

All in all, though, I thought it was a perfectly cromulent Discworld book, and at its short length, one may as well read it just to complete the series. I’m looking forward to getting back to Death and The Witches a couple of books on, though.

Focault’s Pendulum

foucault's pendulumFocault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco

Do you remember when The Da Vinci Code came out? And people were amazed by it. Everyone talked about how amazing the book was, how mind-blowing, how amazingly well researched. It covered so many topics, and it really made you think. It spurred a whole series of think pieces, Church responses and seminars, and ‘documentaries’ on the National Learning Channel of Discovering History.  And then, if you’re anything like me, you finally read this life-changing book and it was, you know, fine. It was alright, I guess. I mean, Dan Brown knows how to write a page turner- I finished the book in one afternoon. But, well, it was just your average thriller. Shocking and mind-blowing it was not.

Foucault’s Pendulum, by the ever brilliant Umberto Eco, written in 1988, is the book that I thought Da Vinci Code would be. It truly is amazing, it is an amazingly well-researched book on the occult and conspiracies, it is actually suspenseful with twists one never sees coming, and it really does have something to say about the world that should make one think.

The book centers on a man, Casaubon, who had been a history student studying the Knights Templar and attempting to write a serious thesis of the history of the Knights. He makes the acquaintance of another man, Belbo, who works at a vanity printing press, which unsurprisingly attracts a large number of conspiracy theorists, and asks if Casaubon will review a manuscript on the Knights Templar and their plan to take over the world. Shortly afterwards, Casaubon decides to abandon his studies, and travels to Brazil, where he has some other interesting experiences with people interested in the occult and mysticism, including an encounter and somewhat friendship with an older man, Agliè, with a wealth of knowledge in the subject area and who strongly implies he is hundreds of years old and perhaps the immortal Comte de St. Germain.

Upon returning to Italy, Casaubon again connects with Belbo and begins working as a freelance researcher for their printing press. With a third friend, Diotellevi, and inspired by the many occult documents and conspiracy manuscripts that have come their way, they decide to amuse themselves by coming up with their own Plan, with which they can outdo even the previous manuscripts they’ve seen and identify the true leaders behind all of it, those pulling the string so the many secret societies. The ur-conspiracy. They eventually decide to test how well they’ve created their hoax by sending it to Agliè, after which things spiral. The book opens with Casaubon hiding in fear for his life and recounting how they arrived at this point, so it’s only a matter of reading to find out how this conspiracy has sucked them in.

In Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco plays with ideas that he will come back to in other books, such as Baudolino and Prague Cemetary, to unfortunately much diminished effect in the case of the latter, ideas such as the accidental and mundane truths behind conspiracies, which never the less imply a lack of coincidences and an inability for many of us to perceive the full truth. He toys with the idea of why there is this pull from conspiracies and occult. And, in something that should be more relevant today, in the world of QAnon and ‘ironic’ racism or sexism or hoaxes, how deeply can you be immersed in something and stay above it? When does something veer away from being a hoax? Throughout the book (and many of the modern controversies) I returned over and over again to the Kurt Vonnegut quote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

This is, without a doubt, the most thoughtful and original “secret society conspiracy suspense” book I’ve ever read (it’s a genre and a topic I actually really like.) However, like all of Eco’s books, Foucault’s Pendulum can be a bit difficult to get into, you have to be willing to put in some work with his books. But for anyone who does stick with it, you will be richly rewarded. This book will stick with you for years to come.

The Martian

the-martian-by-andy-weir-r-1000x1000The Martian, Andy Weir    

There are often times in life where I have to explain something to a group, and I’m struggling with how to get started, or to condense a complex topic down to a few power point slides. And as I’m trying to figure out how to do this and playing online, I realize that xkcd has already done this, and so much better than I could ever hope to do.




So. Yeah, that’s a fairly good description of this book. This is an excellent piece of science fiction, with a hard emphasis on the science. I first read this book because I heard an interview with the author on a science podcast I listen to, and the author was hilarious and incredibly interesting. Andy Weir even talked about the challenges he faced running simulations of interplanetary travel at different points in the future to make sure the possible orbits he was discussing would happen at the proper times as he wrote in his book, and that the rocket flights would be mathematically correct. That is a nerdiness and attention to accuracy of which I am in awe.

For a hard science book, The Martian is also a very easy and enjoyable read. For those of you who don’t know the background yet, it takes place in 2035, when Martian missions are relatively new but semi-routine. One mission requires an emergency evacuation and astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is accidentally left behind. The rest of the book is dedicated to Mark Watney staying alive, and the crew and NASA trying to save him. (Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon in the movie, leading to a wonderful breakdown of how much money the world has spent rescuing Matt Damon. Roughly US$900 Billion, adjusted for inflation).

The way all of the problems are solved in the book are wonderful. If you like McGyver, or that one scene in Apollo 13, if you’ve ever done Odyssey of the Mind spontaneous problems, you will love this book. The way that NASA realizes that Watney is still alive is one of the best points, in my opinion, but everything about how he keeps himself alive, builds and rebuilds life support systems, was wonderful. And even when things go wrong-and lots of things go wrong-it was interesting and realistic. (If you didn’t read the alt-text on the xkcd cartoon, it states “I have never seen a work of fiction so perfectly capture the out-of-nowhere shock of discovering that you’ve just bricked something important because you didn’t pay enough attention to a loose wire.”) It also made me consider how absolutely amazing it is that we have ever been to space. Everything, absolutely everything, has to go right, or everything immediately goes wrong.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who enjoys hard science fiction, anyone who enjoys suspenseful novels, and anyone who enjoys a fun beach read. I finished in two days; someone without kids can probably do it in one.  It’s not that the book is perfect, the author admits that in a few places he had to take some liberties with the science in order to make it workable. He just ignored how radioactive being in space is, for instance. But most of it is pretty accurate, and the whole book is a fantastically fun read. If you missed it the first time it went around, you should probably pick it up today.


Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lproust-was-a-neuroscientistehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist aims to make the argument that artists may understand the human condition even better than scientists.  In particular, neuroscience—probably an easy place to make the case, seeing as how relatively young neuroscience is compared to other disciplines and how little we still know about the brain.  It’s not a bad idea, and I generally agree that art can be another way of knowing and explaining the world in a different way from science that the Western World should have a great deal more respect for-that’s why I picked up the book.  But in this case, the execution was severely lacking.

The book starts with Lehrer—a Rhodes scholar who studied both neuroscience and humanities as an undergrad—taking a break to read some Proust, as so many of us do.  While reading A la recherche du temps perdu he was struck by Proust’s discussion of eating a madeleine being transported to a scene from his childhood.  Now, far be it from me to question the origin story for this book, but if there’s one thing any cultured intellectual type person knows about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past it’s that it’s really, really long.  And if there’s a second it’s that the taste of a madeleine and tea returns him to the happiness he felt as a child.  However it happened, that passage made him think of how neuroscience has since proved how closely scent is tied to memory, but that Proust was onto it far earlier.

I found the discussion tying Proust’s discussion of how his memory worked to scientific research into memory intersting, but the book never made a strong argument for why we should care outside of an intellectual curiosity.  And the book struggled to defend its thesis-that art often predates science.  Most of the relationships seemed quite tenuous, some of them just seemed wrong.  According to Lehrer, because she said that to be alive is to grow, George Elliot’s books suggested that our personalities are in flux and we are constantly growing and changing.  I’m not entirely sure that she’s the only author who has suggested such a thing, but I am entirely sure that she wasn’t actually arguing that our neurons can repair themselves (a relatively recent discovery) or that our brain is constantly making new neural pathways.  I doubt that what she was saying was even particularly controversial at the time, and certainly not arguing against science.  It just seems a bit of a stretch to say she’s predating official neuroscience.

Elsewhere we have strong connections, but Lehrer never takes the step to show why art may better explain the world than science.  Gertrude Stein’s poetry is highlighted to show that she understood that there were innate building blocks to language long before Chomsky proved that there was a universal grammar.  (  The problem here is that, as Lehrer himself points out, Stein studied psychology and studied writing and language in particular, so it seems odd to make the point that it’s where art and science are clashing.  (There’s also the small problem that the theory of universal grammar has found itself under criticism recently and may not be true.  But I suppose if you had to wait for the science to be settled you could never write about neuroscience.)  What seems undoubtedly true, though, is that Stein found writing and poetry to be a better medium for her to explore the realities of language that psychology.  Why would this be?  Was it purely the hostility of the male students and teachers?  Had science not caught up with what she had to say?  Did she find art to be a better and more useful medium?

Stein seems as if she should be a great jumping off point for a discussion of how art can be used to explore a concept that science may not have explained.  And in other cases perhaps art explores new areas of conscience, describes the human experience in a different way than science does.  Art and science can be complementary paths to helping us understand the world, and art can express truths that we all know but that science has not been able to prove, or has not yet found a way to explore.  This seems the reason that science should actual share more with the humanities.  Instead, Lehrer seems on the verge of actually constructing an argument for more respect for art, but stops short and gets too distracted coming up with crazy coincidences and chasing false comparisons.  Ultimately, we’re left with a few mildly interesting connections and nothing else.  There’s just no there there.

Lost in a Good Book

lost-in-a-good-bookLost in a Good Book, Jasper Fforde

Lost in a Good Book is one of those books that would be bad if it weren’t so good.  It runs the risk of being too clever by half, but it’s just clever enough, and the risk of being too convoluted, and too gimicky, but in the end it’s none of those.  Just an incredibly fun read and especially wonderful for literary nerds who can get all of the references.

The second book of the Thursday Next series, following The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book takes place in 1985 Britain in a world that is very similar to ours, but is different in a few very big ways.  For instance, genetic engineering can occur through at-home cloning kits-our hero has a pet dodo.  And because of that Neanderthals were cloned but are not allowed to breed and are fighting for their rights.  Most long distance travel occurs through pneumatic tubes.  Vampires and werewolves are real, but are mostly just a nuisance.  Time travel is real, and the Crimean War has been going on for over 100 years.  And the most important difference: literature is important.  Really, really important.  Like, people get trampled at book sales and there’s an entire police agency dedicated to book forgeries and keeping books the same important.  Oh, and also some people-although not all-can jump back and forth between the fictional world and the real world and interact with the characters.  That’s kind of important, too.

In The Eyre Affair, Thursday Next is on the hunt for her former literature professor turned master criminal, Acheron Hades, who has kidnapped Jane from Jane Eyre for blackmailing purposes.  Next tracks him down and saves the novel-making a slight adjustment to the ending-but also traps someone from Goliath Corporation (if you can’t tell from the name, they’re bad guys) in the text of The Raven.

Lost in a Good Book picks up after the events of The Eyre Affair have settled down somewhat.  Thursday is married to her childhood sweetheart and expecting, she’s a minor celebrity for saving Jane Eyre and back at work.  Unfortunately, others have demands on her time as well.  Her time-traveling father, a former Chronoguard officer who now officially doesn’t exist, is warning her that the world is about to be destroyed under pink goo, and JurisFiction, a secret department made up primarily of fictional characters hopping between worlds, is both arresting her for meddling in Jane Eyre (which results in a great trial á la Kafka) and making her an agent, and the Goliath Corporation wants help bringing their employee back from The Raven.

It can all get a bit confusing.  Fforde’s books definitely keep you on their toes.  But they move along briskly, and they’re clever enough, witty enough, and fun enough to keep the reader involved.  For a ridiculously pretentious read, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  And the messiness of the plot recalls other British authors as well.  It’s a bit of Douglas Adams via a tour through the classics section of the library.

Revenge of the Lawn

revenge-of-the-lawnRevenge of the Lawn, Richard Brautigan

I adore Richard Brautigan.  There’s something about his writing that I just want to sink into and reread again and again.  Somehow, his books can create a picture with just a few short words.  With stories that are surreal and playful and don’t always make sense in a logical way, they nonetheless feel real.  His descriptions are short and unique, I doubt anyone else would write the way he does.  Yet they are so evocative of time and place- late 60s/early 70s and the Pacific northwest-that I can smell pine trees and ocean spray and feel moss and loam under my feet when I read his books.

I suppose the proper description of Revenge of the Lawn is a collection of short stories, although that’s not quite right, primarily about his life in San Francisco.  It’s so odd that his work is divided up into his poetry and his novels and short story collections.  Because his prose is still poetry–his sentences are meaningless, all that is important is the rhythm and sound of the words and how they roll around on your tongue or in your mind.  And even if we are to classify the writing as prose, “stories” is a strong word.  Snippets is more like it. Most of the stories are no more than 2 pages.  Some are much shorter. Here is the entirety of one of them, “The Scarlatti Tilt”:

“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.”  That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

This portrait is perfect in its way.  After all, what more needs to be said?  Other snippets involve a woman who buys liver and lives with bees, drinking coffee, Ernest Hemingway’s typist, and the problem’s that occur when you replace all of your pipes with poetry.  Unsurprisingly, it poses a lot of problems.

I encourage everyone to read at least one Brautigan book in their life.  It’s important because you’re not going to read anyone else like Brautigan, there’s just him.  Words work differently for him.  The order that the words go together and the picture they paint don’t seem that they would make sense, and they wouldn’t if you or I wrote them, but for Brautigan they do.  I don’t know why a story of people forever trying to bury their lion (who accepts in stoically) is a good story to read, but it is.  His descriptions are brilliant, such as describing a woman “adorned in yellow and jewelry and a language I don’t understand,” and he pulls you into the countercultural life of California at the time while blending the real and unreal.

Brautigan is delightful and original and he taps into something true somehow in everything he writes.  And unlike some surreal writers, there’s no struggle to understand.  The words are just there for you to pick up or not, as you will.  And if you do pick them up, I promise, they’re quite a treat.