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the agony and ecstasy of a reading life
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1. Reading in March

February is the worst month of the year in my opinion. It’s the last solid month of winter in which all the fun things about cold and snow suddenly become terrible. It’s the month every year during which winter overstays its welcome. Good thing February is short! Now March, March is a month of wild weather swings that can bring us t-shirt wearing weather one day and a blizzard the next. But the thing about March is, no matter snow, ice, sleet, or cold, there is an end of winter in sight.

In mid-February I came to a realization about my reading this time of year. Starting around the end of January when the cold begins to wear me out, my reading begins to go all wonky. Any classic or serious book, any heavy nonfiction is impossible for me to focus on. This pretty much happens to me every year but I have just now bothered to recognize it instead of fighting it. So I gave myself permission to not bother with a couple books I have on the go and totally indulge in what made me feel good. Mostly that has been gardening books and science fiction and fantasy.

Even though I had been enjoying it, I decided to give up on Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. When I kept picking up everything but that book it became clear that I lost interest. I feel bad about that because it is a good book, but I just need to move on to something else right now. Maybe I will pick it up again another time.

I didn’t read more than a few pages in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, and I didn’t read one page of Proust.

What I have been immensely enjoying is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword. I am about twenty pages from the end and oh, do I love this book! I also started reading A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin. When I finish it, which will be a little while, I will be all caught up and waiting with the rest of the world for Martin to finally finish the next book. I fear when that book comes out Bookman and I might have to arm wrestle to determine who gets to read it first. Or we will each have to by our own copy.

I am reading a number of books for review in other places. It makes things a bit complicated for writing about those books here since I am reading and writing for someone else. It’s fun, but I have to figure out some kind of balance so I don’t get overwhelmed. One of the books I am reading is for Library Journal and is called The Great Detective: the amazing rise and immortal life of Sherlock Holmes by Zach Dundas. It is off to a marvelous, nearly perfect start which has me so very excited about it. I hope it manages to sustain that excitement. Don’t worry, I will let you know, I wouldn’t leave you hanging like that.

Just as in February I spent time reading about chickens, I will be reading more about chickens this month too. I’ve also got a couple gardening books to peruse. One of them is about biodynamic gardening, Culture and Horticulture by Wolf-Dieter Storl. I am only marginally familiar with biodynamic gardening so the book should be interesting. Part of this gardening practice is to plant according to the lunar calendar. I do not believe in astrology, but I am curious to learn more because it also emphasizes an integrated practice of soil fertility, plant growth and animal care to create a sustainable system. Stay tuned.

Technically I can now also start placing library hold requests again. I am pretty surprised I managed to make it two months without putting any new books on hold. I still have six or seven outstanding hold requests though and haven’t even begun to make a dent in the books I own that are sitting on my reading table. So I have decided to not go crazy and request books. I’m going to try very hard and limit myself to no more than five outstanding library hold requests at a time. That means until two or three of my current requests make their way to me, I will not be placing any new ones. Seems like a good idea, right? We’ll see if I can stick to it.

I hope March turns out to be a happy reading month for everyone!

Filed under: Books, In Progress

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2. A Clockwork Orange

If I had not read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess along with Danielle, I doubt I would have managed to finish it. It’s a book that is generally ranked among the classics and I have been wanting to read it for ages. It wasn’t the Nadsat slang that put me off, I admire Burgess for doing that, a very bold move on his part. I mean, there must have been, and are, so many people put off by a book that reads like this throughout:

Then, brothers, it came. Oh bliss, bliss and heaven. I lay all nagoy to the ceiling, my gulliver on my rookers on the pillow, glazzies closed, rot open in bliss, slooshying the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh.

Burgess created the slang himself using the Russian language as a base. Sometimes the language in the book can be rather poetic. At other times I was a bit baffled and just had to go with it. To Burgess’s credit, I was never lost and unable to figure out what was going on in the story because of the language.

In case you don’t know what the book is about, a quick synopsis. Alex is a teenager and lives in a not too distant future England. Alex is the leader of a gang and he and his “droogs” go out at night to drink and get high and do some “ultra-violence” (burglary, armed robbery, assault, rape and eventually murder). When Alex murders a woman in her home, his gang abandons him. Alex goes to prison and after a couple years he is offered a choice. He can serve out his fourteen-year sentence, or he can undergo a behavior modification treatment called the Ludovico Technique and be released from prison. Alex, not quite understanding what he is agreeing to, opts for the treatment. The results of the process make Alex become sick at even the thought of violence. Unfortunately, the treatment also leaves him unable to enjoy the classical music he so loves.

Once out of prison, Alex finds his parents have rented out his room and he has nowhere to go. His first day out is a harrowing one as he is assaulted by people he had beat up previously and one of his former droogs and a gang rival are police officers now who take Alex outside of town and pretty much beat the crap out of him. Eventually Alex tries to commit suicide. He fails to kill himself but the head injury he gets from it cures him of his “cure.”

There is a controversial final chapter that appears in the British version but not in the US version. In the UK version, the book has a “happy” ending: Alex “grows up” and decides he wants to get married and have a family. The US version ends with Alex being cured from his conditioning and thinking of all the violent fun he’ll be able to have again.

That synopsis did not go as quickly as I had hoped.

The book is broken up into three sections. The first section is unrelentingly violent. This is why I almost put the book down. It really made me feel sick as though I was the one who had gone through the Ludovico Treatment. The next section is Alex in prison and the aversion therapy. The final section is Alex after being released from prison.

I had a few problems with the book besides the violence. Alex is such an unsympathetic character with no remorse for his actions that I had a hard time feeling sorry for him going through the aversion therapy. Burgess clearly wants us to know the therapy is wrong; it takes away a person’s free will. It is also, of course, a slippery slope. First the state puts violent criminals through the therapy and next thing you know, anyone who doesn’t agree with the government is getting the treatment too. If Alex had been a more sympathetic character I would have felt the wrongness of the treatment more than just intellectually. As it was, I found myself pleased about Alex getting a taste of his own medicine, as it were.

The other problem I had is with the “happy” ending. Alex gathers together a new gang and continues in his old ways until suddenly one day, after meeting one of his old droogs who is now happily married, he decides he’d like to get married and have a family. But as he is thinking all this, he is also thinking that his son will probably be violent and his son, and so on and so on and there is nothing that can be done about it. This, to me seems like a boys-will-be-boys kind of thing as well as suggesting that violence is something they just have outgrow. I almost hurt myself grinding my teeth together.

Clockwork Orange is an interesting book and I am glad to have read it, but I can’t say I liked the book or the reading experience.

Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Anthony Burgess, dystopian fiction

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3. Chickens! Bicycles! Rambling!

What a busy weekend it has been! It’s been chickens and bicycles and not much time for reading which stresses me out a bit but I suppose I will survive, it is only one weekend after all.

Yesterday I took Bookman to work so I could have the car to go to my chicken class at Egg Plant Urban Farm Supply. I got there a little early so I could buy some seed starting things. Hauled that out to the car and then returned for the class. I had hoped there would be chicks to pet but they had all been bought already. There was a full-grown 8-year-old chicken named Goldilocks that kept us company through the class, however. She was a big girl, I don’t remember what breed, and quietly clucked and cooed, let us feel her crop (that sounds naughty but it isn’t) and give her some seed.

I learned quite a lot about chicken keeping. There is a bit of a start-up cost with building the coop and run and feeders and all that, but after that it seems like it’s not a while lot of work for quite a lot of satisfaction. As Bob (co-owner of the store and chicken keeper of 8 years) said, chicken care is not as much as dogs but a little more than cats. I can handle that. We talked about health problems and expectations and feed and city permits and coops. In Minnesota it’s a good idea to insulate the coop and provide a heat lamp. Bob said while we should be concerned about keeping chickens warm in winter, they are pretty hardy birds and generally do just fine as long as they are protected from wind and damp. It’s summer heat we have to worry about more. So he talked about the importance of good ventilation and keeping the coop free from moisture and making sure the chickens have shade.

I learned that three is the smallest flock. Bob recommended four with the fourth so if/when one bird dies there are still three. I had only wanted three but having four makes sense because chickens are social and death is an eventuality and I do not want a flock of two being stressed out over not being much of a flock any longer. However, when applying for a Minneapolis permit, you have to say how many chickens you are going to get and when your neighbors give the okay for that number, that is all you get unless you go back to them later for their signatures on additional birds. So, ask for as many as you think you might ever have.

The class ran a little over the scheduled two hours but no one minded because we were all learning what we needed to know. Like me, there were several people there who came because they thought it would be neat to have chickens but wanted to find out what was involved. I think we left wanting to go forward with the process. I just had to convince Bookman.

Bookman has gradually softened from absolutely not to maybe and when I picked him up from work yesterday and told him all about the class he said he couldn’t get as excited about it as I was but that he thought chickens would be ok. Woo hoo! We’re gonna get chickens!

But not this year.

Garage, your days are numbered

Garage, your days are numbered

This year we must deal with the garage. The photo (click to enlarge) is the back quarter of our city lot: a concrete slab and a garage that is out of square. The plan is this summer to have the garage and all of the concrete removed. We never park in the garage even in winter because our car is too low and light to get through the snow in the alley before it gets plowed. We have enough difficulty on the street sometimes and getting stuck in the snow in the alley is a close to nightmare scenario. Since we do not use the garage we are not going to rebuild it. Instead we are going to build a small shed for garden tools and bicycles. This will leave plenty of space for a chicken coop and run as well as additional space for gardening. I have already begun imagining what I want to plant and I don’t even know what the final configuration of it all will be!

When it comes to the chickens, we’ve decided to get a permit to keep five. That means, even though we are only planning on having four, we will build the coop and run to accommodate five. I can foresee a future when one of the hens dies and we are left with three, getting two new chicks because it just seems wrong to raise one chick by itself. Thinking ahead!

Also in the category of counting chickens before they have hatched, I’ve already decided what kind we are going to get. When it was only three in the plan I had decided on three Buff Orpingtons, quiet, docile, friendly birds. I have it in mind I will name them after three literary sisters. Now that we will have four birds, we’ll add a Black Australorp to the mix, an equally docile, quiet bird of a similar size. Bookman will get to name this one. He is saying he might call it “Noodle” as in chicken noodle. I wouldn’t put it past him. He named our first cat together Kamir ( say “come here” fast) and our dearly departed cocker spaniel was Godzilla. So a chicken named Noodle would be quite in line with his naming tradition. Stay tuned.

Because of all the pre-work we have to do to make chickens happen, and because we want to hand-raise chicks so they will imprint on us and be used to being handled by us, and because the chicks are only available from Egg Plant from now until June, we will not be getting them until this time next year. But that’s ok. We want to do this right which means not rushing. I’m sure there will be plenty of chicken preparation stories to tell!

One change we will have to make in our main garden is filling in Amy Pond. I was looking forward to another season of trying to make the pond work, but since it is such a big raccoon attractor and raccoons will eat chickens and our raccoons have already demonstrated their determination and destructive powers in catching very small goldfish, the pond has to go. And it has to go this year so the raccoons will learn it no longer exists and won’t come looking for it after we have chickens to worry about next year. Maybe in the future we might be able to find another location for Amy Pond, but for now it has to go.

Enough about chickens. Bookman and I spent several hours this afternoon at the fantastic Hub Bike Co-op where the marvelous AK helped us find the perfect bikes to propel us to our goal of riding a half-century (50 miles/80km) in October and a century (100 miles/161km) in summer 2016. Bookman decided on a Giant Anyroad cyclocross bike and got a great deal on a 2014 closeout model. I had a hard time deciding between a really nice women’s Jamis model that has a steel frame and a smooth ride or a Liv Avail women’s model that has an aluminum frame with a carbon fork and a bit more vibration than than the Jamis. In the end after taking each for a test ride, I went for the Liv Avail because the bike fit me perfectly and since I will be spending hours and hours on this bike, the fit is very important.

I also got clipless pedals (clipless on one side, platform on the other) and bike shoes (they didn’t have my size so I had to order them), a new helmet because mine is well past its prime, and a small, lightweight fender. Bookman got a new helmet too and is getting the pedals that came on my bike put onto his because they have adjustable foot straps on them already. Bookman decided to go with straps because he has clonus in his right ankle due to his MS and he isn’t sure he’d always be able to get his foot unclipped from the pedal quickly enough.

We left the bikes at the Hub for them to add the fenders and do the pedals and make sure everything is tuned-up and ready to go. We’ll pick them up Thursday. Now, if only it would warm up enough to actually make riding a comfortable endeavor without having to don winter gear. With any luck, that could be next weekend. The long-term forecast is predicting 40F/4.5C!

One last thing. The wonderful Colleen of Jam and Idleness interviewed me for her Brain/Food series. Check it out!

Filed under: gardening Tagged: chickens

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4. Where Do You Draw a Line?

So here’s a question for you. How much leeway do you allow books, especially those from earlier times, when they are sexist, racist, classist, condescendingly colonial, etc? It’s been rattling around my brain a bit since I finished Foundation. Given Asimov wrote the stories in the 1940s, I can forgive him a little for his lack of inclusiveness when it comes to women. But only a little because part of me thinks he should have known better. And when I read H. Rider Haggard’s She, the whole thing was so absurd and the book so terrible on so many fronts that I could only laugh. But the misogyny and anti-immigrant sentiments in Dracula horrified me in a way that I could not find funny. I could laugh off Haggard, get away with being annoyed at Asimov, but Stoker made me angry. I could probably pinpoint why if I sat and thought about it for awhile but my brain is tired and doesn’t want to expend that much effort at the moment.

Instead, it just knows that there are some books I can forgive their moral transgressions and some I cannot. Do you find that to be the case too? And if so, do you know why you can forgive some but not others?

I’m not talking about the authors themselves. If I had to like the authors in order to enjoy the books then there would be a lot fewer books on my TBR pile. I try to keep an author’s personal leanings, whether they be grade-A jerk or heavenly angel, out of my opinions of their books. Of course if an author whose books I like turns out to be a really nice person that makes me happy, but it is not a requirement.

I like to think when it comes to books I can be generous and understanding, but truth be told, I sometimes can’t make the effort. I’d like to say there is a definite line and if the book crosses it then it’s all over between us. But it’s actually a line in the sand that keeps shifting. Where the line ends up depends on my mood, what kind of story it is (adventure, romance, mystery, drama), when it was written, whether the issues (sexism, racism, etc) appear to be deliberate or unconscious (don’t ask me how to tell, I don’t know, but I still make the judgment), how much a part of the story it is (a page, a scene, a chapter, the whole book), and probably a few other things that aren’t coming to me at the moment. It’s probably not entirely fair to change the standards all the time but I also don’t think it’s fair to have one blanket standard either. It’s case-by-case.

My brain is running out of gas so I will leave my thoughts there for now. I’d really love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Filed under: Books, Reading

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5. Female Characters are Human Too

After reading Foundation and the absurdity of having only one woman in it and that only very briefly, it was serendipitous that I came across not just a great article at Tor deconstructing the strong female character in science fiction, but also a most excellent link from the always wonderful Ana to an article about why we need more unlikeable female characters (careful, this article has links to other articles discussing similar topics, you might fall down the rabbit hole like I did).

All these articles basically come down to saying the same thing: women characters should be allowed the full spectrum of humanness and not be pigeon-holed into a few types. And I bet you know what those types are so I’m not even going to bother listing them. It’s so bad that when Claire Messud dared to write a book with an unlikeable woman protagonist she got all kinds of grief about it. If Messud were a man and the protagonist male, I doubt there would have even been much discussion about it.

That this whole conversation about female characters has been going on for so long and continues to go on because it is still a problem is disheartening. Freud famously asked once what women want. My answer to his question: to be human beings. Because that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? Far too often female characters are defined solely by their being female. It sure would be nice to have characters who are human beings, and, oh yeah, also happen to be female. Men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. We are all from Earth; we are all human; we all want to be treated as such in real life and in fiction.

So give me female characters who kick ass, who runaway in fear, who rule the universe, who are afraid to walk out the front door, who are lovable, who are hatable, who I want to hug, who I want to punch in the face, who are mothers, who have no children and aren’t sad about that, who are old, who are young, who are beautiful, who are ugly, who like men, who like women, who don’t know who they like, who are all the colors of the rainbow, who are smart, who are dumb, who are — you get the picture — human.

Filed under: Books

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6. Foundation has a Woman in It!

Well, I soldiered on to the end of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and around page 135 (of 172) a woman appears! She is the young and beautiful wife of a petty tyrant with big aspirations who married her only because her father has money and power in the Empire. She, of course, is an unhappy woman with a sharp tongue, always pestering her husband with how dumb he is and threats of telling her father. She suggests she will leave her husband and he threatens her with violence:

‘Well, now, I’ll tell you what my lady. Perhaps you would enjoy returning to your native world. Except that, to retain as a souvenir that portion of you with which I am best acquainted, I could have your tongue cut out first. And,’ he rolled his head, calculatingly, to one side, ‘as a final improving touch to your beauty, your ears and the tip of your nose as well.’

But don’t worry, it all comes right when he gives her some fancy jewelry like no other that any woman at the big party will have that night. She immediately shuts up and starts admiring herself in the mirror, then goes away happy.

And very late in the book almost at the end, we are told that war with another planet will be avoided in part because the small, nuclear powered household appliances they have been buying from the Foundation for several years will begin running out of power (the appliances all have tiny individual nuclear power generators like a fancy battery). This other world will not go to war with the Foundation because they won’t be able to get any more of the things they have come to rely on. The women will start complaining when their nuclear knives no longer work, when their stoves begin to fail and when their washers stop doing a good job at cleaning.


Foundation is made up of a collection of five short stories that appeared between 1942 and 1944 in Astounding Magazine. They were collected together into a book and published in 1951. This became the first book in the Foundation Trilogy which later expanded with prequels and sequels and is now known as the Foundation Series.

The prose is fairly pedestrian and the plots aren’t all that interesting. Even though the stories deal with a series of crises, there isn’t really any threat of failure because, as we are told over and over, it was all already predicted by Hari Seldon, the great psychohistorian and cruncher of numbers. Where’s the tension when predestination is at play?

One of the more interesting things about the stories is how the Foundation, made up of a bunch of scientists, in order to survive and conquer, has turned science into a religion with priests and rituals and all the trappings. The priests and acolytes are trained in science enough to be able to maintain things like power grids and perform minor “miracles” but not know enough to actually “do” science on their own. They pretty much believe the whole religion scenario. The high ranking muckity-mucks are actual scientists who are in on the scam, constantly working to perpetuate it and to spread the Foundation’s dominance across their little corner of the galaxy through it. Domination by science through the vehicle of religion.

My main amusement while reading the book, however, was the invented slang and swearing. How can things like “son-of-a-spacer” and “I don’t care an electron” not arouse a giggle or at least a smirk? And exclamations like “space knows!” and “by space!” pepper conversations and is intended to sound so futuristic and scientific. It was almost worth it just for that. Almost.

Still, though I found it all a giant dud, I am glad to have read it. At least I know what it is about now even if I don’t understand why it’s so popular and considered a classic. Maybe the other books sort it out better but I have no interest in reading them so I guess my understanding will remain incomplete. I’m okay with that.

Filed under: Books, Reviews, SciFi/Fantasy Tagged: Isaac Asimov

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7. The Psychology of Winter

This last week was a really hard week. Winters in Minnesota are so long that to get through them you create a psychological dependence on how the season should progress. January, particularly the end of January, is the coldest part of winter. As February moves along one expects the days to get noticeably warmer. When I say warmer I mean warmer for us, typically temperatures during the day fluctuating between 30 to 40F (-1 to 4C). This year, that is what January was like so you can imagine everyone expecting February to be the same or, dare we hope, even warmer. But February has been what January was supposed to be. This last week we had several nights in a row below zero (-17C) and today as I type this in the late afternoon, the temperature is -1F (-18C). The week ahead is forecast to be much like the week just past. Most of the people I know are walking around like zombies; we’ve mentally checked out. Our bodies might be here but our brains have flown off to warmer climes. When we manage to talk coherently, we speak mutually reassuring words about the weather getting warmer soon and encourage each other to hang in there.

Green ferns - good for the soul

Green ferns – good for the soul

In order to forestall complete psychological breakdown, Bookman and I went to the conservatory this morning and spent nearly two hours getting high off the smell of paperwhites and stargazer lilies, being mesmerized by the riot of colors the swarming and hungry koi made in the pond, and listening to the trickle of water while thawing out and imagining ourselves in a ferny glenn. Good for the eyes. Good for the heart. Good for the soul. Even if we had to walk back outside into the tundra afterward and were half-frozen by the time we made it to the car.

Prior to visiting the conservatory we went out to breakfast at our favorite cafe and talked about chickens and garden plans and all kinds of other things while eating and drinking copious amounts of coffee. I’ve been doing research on chicken keeping and sharing it with Bookman. Currently his only concern is how much work it will be to take care of them. My chicken class is coming up on Saturday (28th) and I expect I will find out an answer to that question there.

I also got to babble on about things to plant, things I’d like to try, what we can possibly do with the space at the back

A pretty mystery plant

A pretty mystery plant

of the garden when we no longer have a garage and the huge concrete slab is gone. We talked about what we wanted from our garden. We talked about Amy Pond and the raccoon problem it creates and what we should do about it. And finally we talked about starting seeds. I discovered a few days ago that we need to start our onion seeds by March 1st. This week we will be making paper pots, locating our plastic seed trays to put the pots in, finding the leftover seed starting mix from last year and figuring out how much more we will need. And, by next weekend, be ready to plant some onion seeds.

Then two weeks after that it will be time to start all the various kinds of peppers we got seeds for. Two weeks after that it will be tomato time.

The fact and activity of seed starting combined with today’s visit to the conservatory has done quite a lot to lift me out of the exhausted funk I had slipped into. I have things to do! There is a garden to prepare! And by the time the tomato seeds are stubby sprouts it will be April and the plant sale catalog will arrive and I can get lost in that for hours. Not to mention that as soon as the ground thaws in April there will be new beds to dig and existing beds to prepare for planting cool weather vegetables at the end of the month.

These are the things that get me through when winter is doing its worst. Oh and books. There are always books!

Filed under: gardening

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8. On Immunity

Between the measles outbreak that began at Disneyland a few weeks ago and it recently being entered into my medical records that I am moderately allergic to the tetanus vaccine (fever, body aches, fatigue and injection site pain far above and beyond a mere sore arm), I was primed to On Immunity by Eula Biss. I fully believe in the importance of vaccinations and have a hard time understanding the whole anti-vaccination movement. I mean, small pox no longer exists because of vaccination and polio is nonexistent in the United States and very close to being wiped out in the rest of the world. Yes, there is always a small risk — allergy, severe illness, death — but the risk is so small in comparison to the benefit that it seems more than worth it. Yet, so many are eager to believe that the measles vaccine causes autism (it doesn’t), or that the government and/or pharmaceutical companies are purposely poisoning children (they aren’t), or any other number of strange reasons having to do with government control, conspiracies, science experiments and invasion of privacy.

Biss is pro-vaccination. She is well-educated and her father is a doctor. Yet, when she became a mother even she had qualms about vaccinating her son. It is through this lens that she examines the fears and beliefs of those who refuse to have their children vaccinated. Along the way we get a cultural and scientific history of vaccination.

We fear a good many things these days and if you have children, the fear is intensified because it is your job to keep them safe. What do you do when you hear about all the chemicals in food and BPA in plastics? Or toxins in the air and water? It is hard to enough to protect a child from the threats you can see, how can you keep them safe from the ones you can’t see, and worse, don’t even know about? We hear that a particular vaccine might have mercury in it used as a preservative. We know mercury is poisonous, therefore the vaccine is poisonous too. We blow the tiny risk factors far out of proportion because here is something we can do to protect our children.

The thing is, the human body is already “contaminated.” We are porous creatures and our defenses from outside organisms were breached long ago. We have pieces of virus DNA in our genes. And here is a fascinating bit of information:

The cells that form the outer layer of the placenta for a human fetus bind to each other using a gene that originated, long ago, from a virus. Though many viruses could not reproduce without us, we ourselves could not reproduce without what we have taken from them.

Some might wonder then what the big deal about not vaccinating is if viruses are so important to our very being. Besides being useful in some circumstances, viruses also kill and disable and it is those viruses we vaccinate against.

Those who do not vaccinate rely on the protection of all the people who do. You can only have children who are not vaccinated against measles never get the disease because the child is surrounded by people who have been vaccinated. Biss points out over and over that we think vaccination is an individual choice that has no effects on anyone else, but we are wrong. Because in order for vaccinations to be most effective, most people in the population need to be vaccinated. Immunity to disease is a communal undertaking.

Here I have to admit that in spite of believing whole-heartedly in vaccines, I have never gotten a flu vaccination. My reasoning has always been that I don’t get the flu. And truly, it has been so long since I have had the flu I can’t remember when it was — fifteen years at least. But Bookman dutifully gets a flu shot every year. He has to because he has multiple sclerosis and therefore his immune system is compromised. Now after reading Biss’s argument about vaccination being a communal thing I realize that perhaps one reason I have not gotten the flu is because nearly everyone I know gets a flu shot. In addition, it is possible for me to get the flu and then give it to someone who, for whatever reason, could not be vaccinated and then they could get really sick or possibly die. Because people do die from the flu. Did I ever get a big dose of guilt realizing that. So now next year when the email goes out at the University where I work that free flu shots are being given, I will go an roll up my sleeve.

It was easy to get me to change my mind about flu vaccination, but what about all those people who refuse more important vaccinations for their children? Studies show that forcing science down the throats of anti-vaxxers does no good whatsoever. Biss is unable to offer any suggestions other than insisting on the communal nature of vaccination. It worked for me but it won’t work for all those parents who still believe vaccines cause autism or that the HPV vaccine will make girls more likely to have sex. Clearly for those parents there are many factors that need to be addressed. It is a complex issue and sadly, government is not very good at solving those sorts of things.

On Immunity is a well-written, non-judgmental look at the issues in the vaccination debates. It could not have been more timely if it tried. If you’d like a little insight into the anti-vaccination movement, then I highly recommend this book.

Filed under: Books, Nonfiction, Reviews, Science

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9. Reading Insecurities

Recently I was feeling like my credentials as a reader of science fiction weren’t up to snuff. There are certain books and authors that are classics in the genre that I haven’t read and sometimes, especially being a female who likes to read a genre that has been dominated by males for a very long time, I feel like I’m not quite legit. My latest feelings of insecurity did not come from anywhere specific, they just sort of bubbled up from who knows where. But I think they are feelings we can all relate to as readers because no matter what we read there are always going to be books we have not read, big gaping holes even, that will leave us insecure about whether or not we can consider ourselves well read. It’s like saying you love Victorian literature but you’ve never read Wilkie Collins, that sort of thing.

From insecurity and curiosity, I decided it was about time I read Isaac Asimov’s first Foundation book. I’ve read one Asimov book before, Fantastic Voyage, and quite liked it. So with Foundation I was expecting something adventure-y. I was also expecting a novel. The book is neither. It is a collection of short stories. Okay, I can adjust to that. But instead of adventure we get politics and the collapse of an empire and lifting up of science into a religion.

The political maneuverings are really the only thing keeping me going. The book was published in 1951 and the stories had appeared in a magazine at various times before making it into a book. The science is amusingly dated. Psychology has been elevated to the heights of being able to predict the future. Nuclear power is considered clean energy. And this group of scientists have been tasked with writing an encyclopedia and a good deal of their research is done using microfiche which is supposed to be the gold standard for reading and research technology. And back in the day it was. But this book takes place so far into the future that humans have spread out to the farthest reaches of the galaxy and Earth either no longer exists or is uninhabitable and has become a mythical place lost in time and history.

All that is just fine and kind of amusing. What is not amusing is that there are no women in the book. All the scientists are men, all the politicians are men, every single character is a man. Women aren’t mentioned as wives or mothers to sons or even buxom love interests. It’s like they don’t exist. As I am reading along and trying to not grind my teeth I am suddenly reminded, oh yeah, this is why I haven’t read a lot of the “classic” SF books! And this is why women have felt left out of the genre for so long.

I’m about halfway through the book and I can tell you right now that I won’t be reading the rest of the books in the series. I’m not going to let myself feel insecure about that either. Because really, it doesn’t matter whether I have read them or not. What matters is that I enjoy the books I read and not worry about what others might think.

Filed under: Books, Reading

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10. The Neuroscience of Learning to Read

The New Yorker online has an interesting article on How Children Learn to Read. The information in it comes from a study cognitive neuroscientist Fumiko Hoeft published last fall. In 2008-2009 she recruited a group of five and six-year-old children from a variety of backgrounds, ran a bunch of tests and then had them all back three years later and ran more tests. Her goal was to study the neuroscience of reading development and she discovered some interesting things. For one, over-all intelligence and IQ did not matter when it came to learning to read. Instead, it has everything to do with a specific organizational pattern in your brain:

When Hoeft took into account all of the explanatory factors that had been linked to reading difficulty in the past—genetic risk, environmental factors, pre-literate language ability, and over-all cognitive capacity—she found that only one thing consistently predicted how well a child would learn to read. That was the growth of white matter in one specific area of the brain, the left temporoparietal region. The amount of white matter that a child arrived with in kindergarten didn’t make a difference. But the change in volume between kindergarten and third grade did.

White matter is like a series of roads that that allow communication between various parts of the brain. The more roads you develop, the better the communication, the better your reading ability. White matter apparently has a particular window for development, and if it doesn’t happen, or it happens incompletely, children will have a hard time turning letters into words that mean something.

Of course there are all kinds of things that can go wrong but Hoeft also discovered some fascinating things the brain can do to compensate. Development of the white matter is a combination of genetics and environment which is a help to fretful parents who might worry they have failed their child in some way.

Read the article for all the details. It isn’t super long. One thing I am disappointed she didn’t talk about is early readers. If the white matter develops between ages 5 to 9 and this is what spurs reading development, what about those of us who could read before the age of five? Are we freakish outliers? Or is there something else going on, and if so, what? I know studies like these are expensive so of course you are going to study the group that is the most typical age for reading development, but gosh darn it, I want to know about what my brain was up to when I was four. What was going on that allowed me to read early instead of beginning the process in kindergarten with my peers?

Isn’t neuroscience interesting, especially when applied to one of our favorite subjects? That our brains are so much alike yet at the same time so different is fascinating. At least I think so!

Filed under: Reading

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11. Library Books and Chickens and Biking Oh My

I haven’t added any books to my library hold list in a month and a half but that has not kept the holds I had already placed from arriving. And, of course, as these things happen, they arrive in bunches. So now I am frantically reading On Immunity by Eula Biss. It is very good. And then I have to try and read Geek Sublime by Vikrma Chandra. I do not get to renew either of these because there are others waiting their turn for them. Well, only two books with hard deadlines but it seems like a lot for some reason. Probably because I have Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie that I am desperate to start reading. And that book at work that went AWOL — This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein — it finally found me! So I have that to read. Thankfully since it is from the university library I have it for a couple months instead of a couple weeks so I don’t have to rush through it which is good because damn, is it depressing and I can only take in small bites.

Also in the pile from the library are several chicken books. Yup, I am slowly wearing Bookman down when it comes to us having chickens. The urban farm supply store is offering another backyard chicken class on February 28th and I have signed up for it. I know I was going to wait until next year to take the class, but I decided sooner is better than later. The class will explain how to get the required city permits, the coop requirements, chicken care, the whole nine yards. After the class I will know for sure whether or not we will do the chicken thing. And if the answer is yes then over the summer I will enlist Bookman into preparing for chickens this time next year. This will be a bigger project than just chickens that will involve tearing down our crumbling detached garage so it will definitely be interesting.

Goodness, no wonder I’m feeling pressed for time books and chickens and garden planning. But also biking, indoors at the moment, taking up time. I think I’ve mentioned a couple of years now in September about Bookman and I doing a thirty-mile ride in the St Paul Bike Classic. Well, I decided I liked it so much that I want to go for longer rides. I’m ultimately aiming for a century — 100 miles. This year the goal is a half-century ride in Mankato in October. One of the rest stops has pie which makes it all worth it right there. So five nights a week I ride for an hour and Saturday afternoons I started doing a fast as I can 90 minutes. I managed 34.7 miles during my 90 minutes yesterday on a programmed course with hills. I think that’s good but I’m not sure since I have no one else to compare to. One thing I do know, thirty miles is now really easy and I look forward to getting outdoors and trying a long ride on the road on a new bike which I have not bought yet but will very likely go hunting for next weekend.

I’ve always enjoyed biking but I never expected to catch the biking bug. I think what did it was my first ever group ride this last October. It was a really short ride and at times unbearably slow, but I had a blast riding with other people. I’ll be joining a local bike club this spring, I have several to choose from so will be going on some test rides too see which group I like best.

So busy, busy around here. But it’s all good stuff. Now, if only it would warm up. It’s been below zero (-18C) the last several mornings and I am ready to be done with winter.

Filed under: Books, gardening, Personal

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12. Centireading

Centireading. Have you heard of it? Me neither but it’s officially a thing now because it’s on the internet. A gent in the UK named Stephen Marche invented the word and you can read all about it at the Guardian (via).

What is centireading you ask? Why reading a book one hundred times of course. Since my response was why on earth would anyone want to read a book 100 times, I am not a good candidate for centireading. Marche says that it

belongs to the extreme of reader experience, the ultramarathon of the bookish, but it’s not that uncommon. To a certain type of reader, exposure at the right moment to Anne of Green Gables or Pride and Prejudice or Sherlock Holmes or Dune can almost guarantee centireading.

Extreme sports I can understand, but extreme reading? Nope (unless it involves reading in strange, possibly dangerous, places then extreme reading makes sense to me). I’m not much of a rereader to begin with. I only ever reread one to three books a year and sometimes none. The most I have ever read a book is six times. The honor belongs to Pride and Prejudice. I can imagine reading it again one day, but I would be surprised if, at the end of my life, the total times I’d read it reached ten. Still, I suppose one never really knows. Perhaps one day I will be snowed in somewhere for days and have only one book to read and one thing will lead to another and before I know it I’ve read it 99 times and once you get that far you have to read it one more time just so you can say you read it 100 times.

Marche has only read two books 100 times, Hamlet and The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. Yes, after reading a book so many time you are on the verge of having it memorized. And yes,

By the time you read something more than a hundred times, you’ve passed well beyond “knowing how it turns out”. The next sentence is known before the sentence you’re reading is finished. […] Centireading reveals a pleasure peculiar to text lurking underneath story and language and even understanding. Part of the attraction of centireading is that it provides the physical activity of reading without the mental acuity usually required.

So it seems eventually after a certain point, even Hamlet becomes a sort of comfort read. Still, you’d have to really like a book a lot to read it that many times. And what about all those other books you don’t read because your are reading that book again?

A faint tang of guilt can sometimes follow a bout of centireading. Life is brief and there is so much to read. But I cannot imagine that I will find another book to read a hundred times in my life. You can be acquaintances with many books, and friends with a few, but family with only one or two.

What is the most times you have ever read a book? How likely is it you will ever be a member of the centireading club?

Filed under: Books, Reading, Rereading

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13. The Art of Stillness

In 2011 essayist and travel writer Pico Iyer wrote a piece for the New York Times on The Joy of Quiet. From that piece has come a wonderful TED talk in 2013 about Where is Home? in which Iyer asserts that it is stillness that gives movement meaning. This has been followed by a slim book in 2014, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere.

The book is a meditation of sorts on the adventure that is being still and staying in one place. But talking about stillness, Iyer says is “really a way of talking about clarity and sanity and the joys that endure.” Iyer spends many pages talking about Leonard Cohen who spends a good amount of his time in a monastery in the mountains of southern California practicing the art of stillness. He talks about other people he has met, like the woman who sat next to him on a twelve-hour flight. She did nothing but sit quietly the whole time, no reading or looking at magazines, no doing the sorts of things you do on an airplane in order to endure the time you are on it. She just sat, quietly alert. It turns out she was on her way to vacation in Hawaii and she used this time as a way to disconnect from her overly busy life so when she touched down on the island she’d be fully present and relaxed.

But you don’t have to go to a monastery or take a vacation to a faraway place in order to get away from it all. Staying put, going Nowhere, is an adventure all on its own because you never know what you might find. There are all kinds of things waiting to be discovered. Iyer quotes Henry David Thoreau:

It matters not where or how far you travel — the farther commonly the worse — but how much alive you are.

Going Nowhere and sitting still is a journey but it is an inward journey. We hurry around trying to find happiness outside ourselves when, if we would only sit still, we’d find that happiness lies within. Cohen told Iyer that sitting still is “a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”

Iyer is well aware that sitting still is very hard:

Nowhere can be scary, even if it’s a destination you’ve chosen; there’s nowhere to hide there.

And he acknowledges,

It takes courage, of course, to step out of the fray, as it takes courage to do anything that is necessary, whether tending to a loved one on her deathbed or turning away from that sugarcoated doughnut. And with billions of our neighbors in crying need, with so much in every life that has to be done, it can sound selfish to take a break or go off to a quiet place. But as soon as you do sit still, you find that it actually brings you closer to others, in both understanding and sympathy.

Just like the paradox of exercise giving you more energy, taking time to sit still and be quiet and going Nowhere, gives you more time and energy to share with others.

The Art of Stillness is a beautifully written, gentle, simple book. Yet, as with Thich Nhat Hanh, the simple is not easy. If it were so easy to sit still we’d all be doing it and we’d all be much better off for it. But instead we fill every minute of the day and complain about still not having enough time. It is as though we are afraid of stopping, afraid of what might happen if we took five minutes, ten minutes to sit still and quiet. I very much liked that Iyer makes it into a great adventure. It puts a different perspective on going Nowhere. Because really, in going Nowhere we really are going Somewhere. Do we dare take that journey?

Filed under: Books, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: Pico Iyer

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14. Texts from Jane Eyre

What’s there to say about Mallory Ortberg’s Texts from Jane Eyre except what fun! When I first began seeing the book around the interwebs I thought, pfft, how stupid, this is as bad as turning Pride and Prejudice into a story about zombies. But I was wrong. This my friends is a delightful book of humor. Who cares that Circe and Odysseus didn’t have phones? If they did I’m sure they would have texted each other something like this:

where did the pigs come from Circe

i don’t know
a pig farm
a pig mommy and a pig daddy who loved each other very much and gave each other a special handshake


oh my god okay fine
they’re your crew, you got me
I turned all of your friends into pigs

why did you turn my friends into pigs

I don’t know
maybe the real question is
why are your friends
so turn-into-pigsable

Ortberg is great at capturing the absurdity, oddness, or quirk of story or character, or even real life authors. Like the spoof of John Donne and his poem The Flea:

it means we’re basically married
it has my blood and your blood in it
you’ve technically already had sex with me
and you might as well do it again

I don’t
but there could be a lot of other blood in there too

well we might have to have sex with all those people too

Or Henry David Thoreau texting Ralph Waldo Emerson:

o you know whos my family ralph


these squirrels
these squirrels and this chipmunk and that crow there

the crow on the chimney?

not that one
god i hate that one
hes not my family
hes a fucking asshole

There are also paranoid texts from J. Alfred Prufrock and texts from the Lorax cracked me up. There were a few I had a hard time relating too since I never read any of the Sweet Valley High books, the Baby-sitters Club or the American Girls. I did laugh at the texts between Nancy Drew and her boyfriend Ned though.

Texts from Jane Eyre is a quick, light book sure to make you laugh more than a few times. I can promise that if you are reading it with someone else in the room you will want to read some of the texts aloud to that person in order to share the fun. And if you enjoy Ortberg’s humor, you can catch it nearly daily at The Toast.

Filed under: Books, Humor, Reviews Tagged: Mallory Ortberg

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15. Love Letter to the Earth

Recently I accidentally discovered a newish book by Thich Nhat Hahn, he of The Miracle of Mindfulness that I enjoyed so much. This book is called Love Letter to the Earth. It is a slim volume filled with compassion and the wisdom of mindfulness. It begins:

At this very moment, the Earth is above you, below you, all around you, and even inside you. The Earth is everywhere. You may be used to thinking of the Earth as only the ground beneath your feet. But the water, the sea, the sky, and everything around us comes from the Earth. Everything outside us and everything inside us comes from the Earth. We often forget that the planet we are living on has given us all the elements that make up our bodies. The water in our flesh, our bones, and all the microscopic cells inside our bodies all come from the Earth and are part of the Earth. The Earth is not just the environment we live in. We are the Earth and we are always carrying her within us.

We are the Earth and the Earth is us. When we harm the Earth, we harm ourselves. When we harm ourselves, we harm the Earth. A simple, yet profound idea that the world has forgotten about because if we remembered we would not be arguing about climate change and oil pipelines and fracking and emissions and pesticides that kill bees and butterflies. If we remembered we wouldn’t be eating artificial sweeteners or synthetic vitamins, wouldn’t be driving everywhere, wouldn’t be consuming more than we need and tossing our excess into landfills.

Earth and Moon from 6 million miles away via NASA

Earth and Moon from 6 million miles away via NASA

Thich Nhat Hahn asks us to remember. Stop, look around, pay attention. That piece of toast you are shoving in your mouth as you hurry out the door to work in the morning, that piece of toast is a miracle made of stardust and sunshine and Earth. And we are made of the same stuff. Once we see how we are connected to all things we can see the effects of our choices, our actions. We can see how we always have a choice to cause or alleviate suffering.

Hahn’s approach to healing the Earth is to first heal ourselves. I admit I scoffed. That’s not going to help, something needs to be done and it needs to be done now, sitting still will get us nowhere. But then I had to laugh because he knew I was going to think that:

We tend to think we have to do something to heal the Earth. But sitting with mindfulness and concentration is doing something.

And what sitting with mindfulness is doing is allowing you to be yourself, to relax, to stop striving, to be present, to be happy within yourself. And when that happens we begin to heal. We stop needing to consume, stop buying things we don’t need. We start being loving and compassionate to all things and realize our interconnectedness. Heal ourselves, heal the Earth. A simple thing that is so very hard.

No one could ever call Thich Nhat Hahn a prose stylist. His words are plain and unadorned. His sentences tend to be short. He repeats himself a lot. It is at times like I was reading a children’s book, “See Jane run. Run Jane, run.” He says the same thing over and over but in a slightly different way. I suppose it is necessary, the repetition, for children and beginners in mindfulness. We can sometimes be rather thick headed.

Love Letter to the Earth is a quiet, uplifting sort of book infused with the gentle spirit of its author. At the end there are ten letters intended to be used as meditations. Here is part of one I especially like from letter number three, “Walking Tenderly on Mother Earth”:

Dear Mother, you wish that we live with more awareness and gratitude, and we can do this by generating the energies of mindfulness, peace, stability, and compassion in our daily lives. Therefore I make the promise today to return your love and fulfill this wish by investing every step I take on you with love and tenderness. I am walking not merely on matter, but on spirit.

The Earth doesn’t need us, but without the Earth, we have nothing.

Filed under: Books, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh

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16. February Reading

Review a book or talk about books in progress and the state of my reading plans for February? Well, since we are almost a week into the month, let’s talk about the latter. The book review can wait.

So for the last couple days I’ve been moaning quietly to myself about how January was a terrible month for reading, that I read hardly any of the books I planned to. Then I looked at my January plan and realized the month was significantly better than I thought. I finished four of the seven books I was in the middle of. Not bad, right?

The carryovers:

  • The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. Even though I like this book it keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the in progress pile. I mean, nothing against Pinker, but when it’s between him and Roxanne Gay, or him and Ann Leckie, or him and Patrick Rothfuss, Pinker loses every time. Right now he is losing out to Mallory Ortberg. I do want to finish the book, I really do.
  • This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate Change by Naomi Klein. I got halfway through this very good, hefty book before I had to return it to the library because my three weeks were up and there is a long line for it. I checked the university library system where I work and there were a couple copies there checked out but with no holds and both due soon. So I put in a hold request. Now, a mysterious disaster has struck.

    When I arrived at work Monday morning I discovered that the book was supposedly on the hold shelf at my library. Hooray! I went to retrieve it and it was not there. Hmm. The computer says the hold arrived on Saturday so I questioned my Saturday colleagues and none of knew what I was talking about, there had been no book courier delivery on Saturday. So I emailed the circulation person at the library from which the book was sent. She checked her shelves. The book was not there. We thought perhaps a student worker had goofed and the book might still be in transit through the courier. Monday and Tuesday came and went and it still did not arrive. Today I sent out a system-wide email to all the library circulation departments asking if the book might have ended up on their hold shelves. Nope. So the book is AWOL.

    Here’s the bad part, if the hold expires before the book makes its way to me, I lose my chance to have it and have to place a new hold. While there were no holds when I put one in a month ago there are now four hold requests for two books one of which is now AWOL. University checkout periods are much longer than at the public library. My fingers are crossed the book arrives before the hold expires and I have to get at the back of the line.

  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. If I hadn’t made it to part two of the book when I did, I was going to stop reading. The first part is so raw and horribly violent it was making me sick to my stomach reading it. People on my metro train were probably wondering what was wrong with that scowling person reading her Kobo. Was her breakfast not agreeing with her? Did she have a bad day at work? Even though I am past the first part, the book still presents a problem: I don’t like it. Intellectually, I can see why it is considered an important book. Emotionally it is all kinds of messed up. But I keep reading because intellectual me says my discomfort is probably a good thing. Thank goodness the book is short and I only have about 100 pages left.

Then there are the two ongoing project books: John Keats’ Complete Poems and Proust’s Guermantes Way (which is suffering from the same problem Pinker is).

Got all that?

Now for new books in February. I am laughing my way through Texts from Jane Eyre at the moment. I like to read it before bed. I have frequent outbursts of laughter and sometimes I interrupt Bookman’s reading to read to him. This book will probably be done by the end of the weekend. The next one that gets picked up will be Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness.

I just got notice today that waiting for me to pick up from the public library is On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Bliss. I’ve been waiting my turn since November and now my turn comes in the midst of an ever growing measles outbreak that began at Disneyland in California a couple weeks ago. I am safe from measles, I have been vaccinated against them twice. Once as a child and then again when I was 18 and heading off to college. At that time you had to provide proof of vaccination in order to attend and exceptions were rarely granted. For whatever reason my childhood health records did not show I had been vaccinated. The university needed proof in writing, not my mom’s solemn promise, and so I had to get vaccinated again. Ow. There’s a reason they give all these shots to kids, it’s so you don’t remember how much they hurt! The book will no doubt be even more interesting now given how relevant it is proving to be at the moment.

Finally, I have a new book to read and review for Library Journal. It is one that makes me very happy. It’s called First Ladies of Gardening: Pioneers, Designers and Dreamers by Heidi Howcroft. It is filled with gorgeous color photos of beautiful English gardens and teeny tiny print about the gardens and the women who created them. I began reading today and is it ever wonderful.

Well that should do it for February plans. Since it is still winter here I have lots of hours of reading under a quilt with the cats to look forward to.

Filed under: Books, In Progress

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17. Ancillary Justice

It’s been so long since I’ve read a right and proper, complex, deliciously well-written space opera that when I finished Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie I broke my no new library requests until the end of February ban and put myself on the list for the next book, Ancillary Sword. I’m number 4 so I hope I don’t have to wait so very long. I already mentioned how the book plays with gender. It stopped being so weird after awhile to have everyone be “she” and slipped right into the background.

What’s the book actually about? It’s a complex story with lots of interlocking pieces. Breq, our narrator, used to be a troop carrier, a ship called Justice of Toren. Breq, or rather One Esk segment nineteen, is an ancillary or Justice of Toren, a human body connected to the AI of the ship. The troops Justice of Toren carries are all ancillaries of herself. They are all connected and can see and hear what is going on through each segment and Justice of Toren controls them all. The Ship has consciousness and her human crew, the captain of the ship and various lieutenants in charge of the brigades of ancillaries have implants that allow them and Justice of Toren to communicate directly to each other. The humans think the ship is just a computer but they are mistaken. Ships have favorites, and Justice of Toren’s favorite is Lieutenant Awn. Got all that?

So the first half or so of the book moves back and forth between present and twenty years ago. Twenty years ago Breq/One Esk was with Lieutenant Awn on the planet of Shis’urna, a planet that the Radch, an ever expanding empire, had annexed. They had been on the planet for five years, making nice with the new citizens and helping them adjust to being part of the Radch empire. Everything was going pretty well until it wasn’t. It turns out there is a pot afoot involving the ruler of the Radch empire, Anaander Mianaai who herself is made up of no one knows how many ancillaries. I’m pretty sure the original Anaander was human but she has lived on for thousands of years through her numerous ancillaries, expanding her empire and growing ever more powerful.

In the present, Justice of Toren was destroyed and Breq is all that is left of the ship. She is on a mission, out to take revenge against the one who destroyed her. People from the past keep showing up and she has to work hard to hide who she really is or else her plans will all be ruined. She is pretty sure she will end up dead when all is said and done. Does she get her revenge in the end? Yes and no. Does she die? She comes pretty darn close. And instead of the end she thought it all would be, it turns out to be only the beginning. I said this was a space opera right?

So great plot. Great pacing. Lots of cool stuff. But the best part is that is not all of the book. Because the book is also about empire and politics and class and war, about following orders (or not) and taking responsibility for your actions. And most of all, it is about identity. Breq is Breq and One Esk segment nineteen and Justice of Toren. She is not human but is often more human than the humans. She struggles with being lonely since until twenty years ago she has never been an “I” and never been alone. She discovers that while she is now singular, she is not actually alone. Breq also often battles with and is hindered by emotions. She makes choices she doesn’t fully understand. She is a spark about to ignite the dry tinder that the Radch Empire has become.

Filed under: Books, Reviews, SciFi/Fantasy Tagged: Ann Leckie, Imperial Radch Series

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18. The Name of the Wind

Bookman has been after me for quite some time — a few years — to read The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s the best fantasy I’ve read since Lord of the Rings, he says. I’m pretty sure that was a bit of hyperbole to get me to read the book because now that I have read it I’ll say it’s really good but not the best thing since Lord of the Rings good.

Part of my reluctance to read the book was that it’s one of those multi-book epic fantasy sagas and while those are enjoyable from time to time, I much prefer stand-alones. But now I find myself working through all the Game of Thrones books (only have one more before I’m caught up and waiting for the next one with the rest of the world) and now I’m committed to the Kingkiller Chronicle of which Name of the Wind is the first. The second in the series was published in 2011 and a short side story book was published in 2014. It’s a good thing the second book is even fatter than the first one, I will have plenty of time before I find myself caught up and waiting for the next book.

So what’s Name of the Wind about anyway? It’s about a big red-headed man named Kvothe (pronounced like “quothe”). He’s an innkeeper in a backwater farming town. Except he’s not really an innkeeper. He’s in disguise. He’s actually a hero who has songs and stories written about him. We aren’t quite sure why he’s masquerading as an innkeeper but he’s been at it for a little over a year. Except things are starting to happen, rumors filtering in and strange, huge spider-like creatures attacking people on the roads.

One day Chronicler arrives at the inn. Chronicler is a very famous historian-type person come to find Kvothe and get the true story behind all the songs and legends. Kvothe reluctantly agrees, and so begins his tale of when he was a boy in a troupe of traveling players. His father was head of the troupe and they sang and performed plays and did all sorts of things that traveling troupes do. Kvothe is an extremely bright boy and picks things up faster and more easily than anyone else. One day an arcanist joins the troupe. An arcanist is someone who has trained at the university, knows magic and other things. Ben had healing skills and could also do some great things with lighting which made him a welcome addition to the troupe. He began teaching Kvothe math and chemistry and history and eventually, magic. By the time Ben met a woman and decided to marry her and leave the troupe, Kvothe was more skilled than a good many students who had been studying several years at the university.

Kvothe’s idyllic childhood comes crashing to an end when he returns to the caravan one evening, after having been sent out by his mother to gather some herbs and told to take his time, to find everyone in the troupe killed and all the wagons burned. The men that did the nasty work were still there, sitting by his parents’ campfire and saw Kvothe. He would have been a goner too but was saved by the approach of some mysterious something or other approaching in the dark night sky.

Orphaned and alone, Kvothe eventually ends up living on the streets in a mean city for several years before he finally manages to come into enough money to allow him to travel to the University and attempt to become admitted. Of course he is even though he is only fifteen at this point. And of course he is still poor and he makes friends and enemies and has adventures and gets into trouble. He is still at university when the book ends, but it ends in a good place, one that leaves you feeling satisfied but also wanting more.

Now, if you decide to read this book you should know that this is one of those stories where the first hundred pages are slow going and sometimes downright boring. It’s a slow build. But by the end it fairly barrels along at near breakneck speed. The writing is at times a bit uneven, especially in the first half of the book. Once the momentum gets going the writing improves too and everything eventually clicks together for a great fun read that I had a hard time putting down. I’ll be taking a little break before I venture into the next book, probably during the summer months. I do, after all, have that Games of Thrones book to read.

Filed under: Books, Reviews, SciFi/Fantasy Tagged: Kingkiller Chronicle, Patrick Rothfuss

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19. Playing with Gender

I’m in the middle of reading Ann Leckie’s fantastic book Ancillary Justice. One of the things I like about it so much is that it plays with our gender expectations. The story takes place in a fictional universe in which the Radch regularly annex planets to their empire. The language spoken by the Radch has no gender, it does not recognize male or female anything. This presents a conundrum for Leckie since English requires gender designations. How do you translate? Leckie has decided to make the default pronoun “she” serve for everyone.

The story is told from the point of view of Breq who used to be a starship. She knows many different languages but she is Radch and as such always has trouble figuring out gender when speaking a language that requires it.

What is super-duper fascinating is to read everything through the “she” pronoun. I picture all the characters as women and there is nothing in any of the characters’ actions that give away what their biology might be. Nor does anyone get described as curvy or beautiful or brawny or any of the other myriad ways gender and biology get marked. Everyone is just people who happen to be referred to as “she” when a pronoun is required. But, as I said, I keep picturing all the characters as women because that is what “she” asks me to do in English.

So you might be able to imagine then how disconcerted I was while reading last night to discover an important character is actually a biological male. He was only referred to as “he” once in a conversation Breq was having with someone in a gendered language and then it is right back to “she” again. My brain went all wobbly trying to replace a she with a he but it didn’t last long. The further I got away from “he” and the more “she’s” that got piled on in referring to this character, my mind reverted right back to picturing a woman.

The cool thing is there is no reason why all the characters couldn’t actually be women. In the context of this world, there is no question about whether a woman can lead an army or captain a starship or beat the crap out of someone or rule the empire or do anything else. Gender is not recognized and when there are no gender boxes to fill it is amazing what kinds of other things can be focused on instead.

Reading a book in which “she” stands in for the universal gender points out how fallacious English is to insist that “he” can be used as a universal pronoun meaning men and women. It can’t and it doesn’t and I never believed that it did. Whenever I’m reading and come across a “universal he” I am always brought up short. I have to stop and take the time to mentally insert myself into the equation because “he” is not me. I wonder, any men reading this, when you come across “universal he” do you think, oh that means men and women? When you see “he” standing in for everyone do you picture everyone as being male? And if you are a male who has read Ancillary Justice, what was your experience reading a book where everyone is “she”?

I can’t begin to say what a pleasure it is to read a book like Ancillary Justice. It’s no surprise Leckie won the Nebula and the Hugo for it. I can’t wait to find out how it ends and I am greatly looking forward to reading the second book, Ancillary Sword.

Filed under: Books, In Progress, SciFi/Fantasy Tagged: Ann Leckie

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20. Don’t Tell Kids What to Read

There have been some really interesting articles on reading around the internet lately. I’ve seen one on reading ebooks, there was the one on the canon and the one about easy and difficult books. I’ve seen articles on YA books and several on books and children. The ones on books and children could be playing a match at the Australian Tennis Open for all the back and forthing. Do we crack down on kids and make them read? Do we let kids choose their own books?

Has there always been so much anxiety about children and reading? I don’t have kids so I generally don’t pay attention, but at the moment is seems to be particularly volatile. Personally, I agree with Max Ehrenfreund’s blog post at the Washington Post, If we stop telling kids what to read they might start reading again. There have been some recent surveys that suggest kids who get to pick their own reading material enjoy reading more and as a consequence, spend more time reading. Kind of a no-brainer, really. As an adult I wouldn’t want anyone telling me what to read, why do adults think kids would like it?

Now and then when I read one of those bookish memoirs of people who grew up with the gentle guidance of adults directing them toward The Iliad or Jane Eyre at the tender age of ten, I sometimes wish that had been my experience. But if I think about it longer than a few minutes and I consider what I was reading when I was ten, I’m glad I was left to my own devices.

About that time is when I began venturing out into fantasy and science fiction. I loved all things unicorn and Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn was totally awesome. And then I discovered science fiction with A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle and read it because it had a unicorn on the cover. But it turned out to be the third book in a series so after I read it I started at the beginning and wow science and space travel and time travel! I found these books on my own because my mom let me wander around in a bookstore and choose them for myself. Never once did my parents tell me what I could and could not read; never once did they frown at my choices and tell me I should be reading something else. They let me explore on my own and discover for myself what I liked and didn’t like to read. I got plenty of assigned reading at school, they didn’t need to give me assignments too.

My reading choices were an eclectic mix of age appropriate teenage angst novels by Judy Blume and generally adult fantasy and science fiction. Being able to choose my own books helped me develop into a self-confident reader willing to try any kind of book at least once. If my parents had ever told me I couldn’t read something because it was too easy or too hard or silly or any other way not right or good or appropriate, if they had put limits on me I suspect I would be a very different kind of reader today.

I appreciate what my parents did for me. I want kids these days to be allowed to have the same opportunity. Let them choose their own books no matter what those books might be. Let them explore and discover. It will help them love reading and it will help them be better readers because of that love.

Filed under: Books, Reading

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21. Not so Bookish

This has not been the bookish weekend I had hoped it would be. Well, there was some bookishness yesterday but it wasn’t the fun relaxing kind. I had to finish up reading a nonfiction book of comparative literature for a Library Journal review that is due by tomorrow. The book is called An Ecology of World Literature From Antiquity to the Present Day by Alexander Beecroft. It’s an interesting way to compare literatures but is entirely aimed at an academic audience so wasn’t exactly easy-going fun. Finishing it took far longer than I expected and left little time for more pleasurable reading. Then of course today I had to take the time to write the review. I only get 200 words, which is not so very easy to stick to when assessing an academic book. But I managed with about five words to spare. We’ll see what my editor thinks.

After yesterday was a wash on my own personal reading I thought I could indulge today but that didn’t happen either. The morning was given over to chores of various kinds and the afternoon got eaten up with switching to a new phone and mobile carrier. Bookman and I discovered recently that our mobile carrier was charging us for phone and unlimited texting as much as AT&T would charge us for iPhones with a small data plan. So we switched. I finally have a “smart” phone. Since I have an iPad and a Macbook they all sync up which is kind of convenient. Of course the switching has not gone as smoothly as it was supposed to. Getting our phone numbers switched over to the new phones from the old carrier is still a work in progress and we’ve been promised it will be completed within the hour. Fingers crossed. And of course I’ve had to transfer phone numbers from my old phone to the new and choose ringtones and set up my morning alarm clock and all the other stuff that an iPhone requires one to set up. But it will all be good, right? I won’t regret finally giving in and getting rid of my not-smart phone? That question mark tells you I am not entirely certain on the matter.

My ban on placing hold requests at the library is going pretty well. I have been really good at resisting, though it has not been without pangs from time to time. I did borrow a few cookbooks, however. Since these are not books one sits down to read for hours over the course of a few weeks, I decided it was allowed. They are all vegan cookbooks I have never heard of before. Of course I started with the dessert, Lickin’ the Beaters: low fat vegan desserts and Lickin’ the Beaters 2: vegan chocolate and candy. Recipes for chocolate donut holes and gingerbread chocolate cookies just seemed so much nicer to swoon over this weekend than recipes from North Africa and India. I’ll drool over those next weekend.

I’ve had so many book finishes lately I now find myself in the middle of a good many books and nowhere near the end of any of them. I am enjoying each one and don’t have that “I’m not getting anywhere” feeling I often get when I find myself in this kind of situation. The only thing this time around I’m having trouble with is coming up with post topics since I have nothing to review. I’ve managed so far but I don’t yet know what the week ahead holds. We’ll see. If posting is spotty you’ll know why!

On a side note, all those seeds I ordered last weekend got delivered on Friday. I didn’t even open the packages because well, snow-covered garden. It would just be too depressing to have to look at those colorful seed packets.

Enough pointless rambling for one day. Our phone numbers still haven’t transferred, there’s another what the heck is the problem phone call to be made.

Filed under: Books, Cookbooks, Personal

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22. A Small Buffet

Just a few things tonight. First, the silly.

The folks on the east coast of the US who are being bombarded by a blizzard should totally have an army of awesome Japanese snow robots that scoops up snow and poops out snow bricks perfect for building snow forts. I’m sure there will still be plenty of snow leftover for the epic snowball fight that all those snow forts will require.

Next, Books as obstacle course, which Javier Marías makes sound rather appealing. The walls of his parents’ apartment covered in books with art hinged to the shelves, what a magical place it sounds!

Remember Dirty Chick? The book is now available on audio read by the author. You can have a twenty minute sample listen at SoundCloud. It’s from the beginning of the book when she is taking care of her parents’ chickens and duck and the duck sexually assaults one of the chickens. It will give you a good flavor of what the whole book is like.

Finally, can books change the world? Sure they can! Darwin’s The Origin of Species anyone? What about 1984? Or Jane Austen’s entire oeuvre? Rick Kleffel offers Nine World-Changing Books from 2014 (via). I’ve heard of some of them, others not at all. And there are several I’d really like to read and a few I’m content just reading good essays about them by others who have read them. Are there other books from 2014 that should be on the list? Are there books there that shouldn’t be? Is there a book from 2014 that changed your personal world? I had a number of books that rocked my world in 2014 but none that changed it. Still, several large book-quakes are nothing to sneeze at.

Filed under: Books

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23. Books I Won’t Read

Back in the distant past, about two or three months ago, someone commented on a book review about not reading books on certain topics and perhaps that might be something I could write about sometime. This being in the murky past, I have no recollection of who made the comment nor on what book review post it was made. I thought it was a great idea at the time but had so many other fascinating things to write about I never got around to it and soon forgot about it. Until this morning when I was dredging my brain for something to post about besides links to interesting articles. So tonight’s the night! Avoiding books because of subject matter.

I’m not talking about book genres here so there’s no, “I never read romance novels” or some kind of blanket thing like that. It’s more like, “I can’t read books with child murders in them.” There’s a difference, yes? My first thoughts were that there is absolutely nothing I wouldn’t read about. But of course, that’s not true. Nonetheless, I had a hard time with it because it is such an automatic response I am not even aware of it most of the time. And sometimes I might make exceptions for one reason or another.

This list then, I’m not sure how accurate it is. I might have left something off. But I can say that this is a list of topics/plots/things I tend avoid when reading:

  • Books about women whose main goal in life is to shop their way to happiness or find the perfect husband. I never read The Devil Wears Prada because I thought it was this sort of book. I never saw the movie either until this last fall after a coworker told me it was totally not what I thought. And she was right. I liked the movie quite a lot. I have no plans to read the book because it seems the movie covered it all and I didn’t like it that much.
  • Books that will give me nightmares. This is one of those “I know it when I see it” sorts of things. It’s usually a horror-type novel. I will never, for instance, read The Shining. But it’s not a blanket horror ban because I really liked Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. I can do psychological horror such as Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House. Loved that book. I guess it’s more of the graphic supernatural violence/horror that gives me problems. But not only that. It’s also the idea of a threat without having any kind of predictability. If there are rules like “don’t blink” I can handle it. But if it is random or unexplainable, no way will I go there. You are all welcome to psychoanalyze me now.
  • Books that are overtly misogynist and deliberately degrading and cruel to anyone, especially to women.
  • Books with dogs. These tend to fall into two categories. The worst are the emotionally manipulative smarmy ones. If it’s not one of those I still won’t read it because I will at some point during the book break down into a sobbing mess usually in the last chapter when the dog inevitably dies. My trauma around this began when I was in third grade and read Where the Red Fern Grows. Twice. And then the second time having my mom walk into my room when I was in the midst of a glorious sobfest and she was, briefly, very concerned and a bit scared about why I was crying. So perhaps it’s not about the dogs at all but a personal concern about scaring people who might find me sobbing. Because I do sometimes make an exception. However, while reading those exceptions when I come to the crying part I try really hard to make sure I’m alone.

There you have it, the books I will pass by if they are any of these things. I think I got them all but as soon as I push the “publish” button I will probably remember one I forgot. Or Bookman will read this and say, “and what about …?” That’s what updates and comments are for, right?

What about you? Are there topics or plots or other things you will not read?

Filed under: Books, Reading

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24. Shiny New Books

The new issue is up! You can find me there today, Reading for Other Worlds with, I hope, fun and interesting science fiction recommendations. Most of them are older so if you are looking for something besides Station Eleven or The Martian, check it out! And don’t forget to browse all the other fun bookish goodness while you’re at it.

Filed under: Books

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25. Cabin Fever

It’s still winter and it’s still cold and no matter what the groundhog says tomorrow it will be months yet before I can do any gardening outdoors. This week the forecast is promising a few nights will slip below zero (-18C). In spite of that, the worst of winter is behind me but the hardest part is still ahead. This is the time I begin to get a bit of cabin fever. And while Bookman and I have a Valentine’s date planned that includes a trip to the conservatory, it is only temporary relief.

So I’ve been gazing at gardening books and gardening catalogs and doing garden planning like a thirsty person in the desert. Grocery shopping Friday night, our natural food co-op had the seed rack out already and I immediately spied a package of cosmic purple carrot seeds. Since I forgot to order carrot seeds with all my other seeds I grabbed a pack. I’m still hoping to find atomic red carrots somewhere but if not, the purple alone will do.

And then I got an email from the urban farm supply store saying it’s time to order chicks if you want any. And I couldn’t help but look at the varieties they had on offer. Such beautiful birds! They offer a class on backyard chicken basics and you get to pet chickens too. The class is next weekend and I came this close to signing up just to pet the chickens. Plus, Bookman said I should totally do it. He figures if I took the class and learned all about it I will either a) no longer want chickens or b) want chickens enough that I will be able to convince him that he wants some too. But I decided to wait until next year to take the class. We have far too many other plans for this year in the garden to be able to find the time and energy to proceed with chickens if we decide to go there. Something to look forward to for next winter!

I spent a good amount of time studying up on season extending gardening techniques and mini hoop houses. Bookman also came up with an idea of making a temporary unheated greenhouse that we could walk into from the backdoor of the house. That is an exciting prospect. It has a few complications we will have to work out if we decide to do it next winter, but just the thought of it has me jittery with excitement. The mini hoop houses though will be easy. The hardest part will be timing planting the things we will grow in them because once daytime temperatures drop below freezing, the plants inside will stop growing. Which means the size of the lettuce and spinach and whatever else will be in there at the time will be what we have to work with all winter until it warms up enough for things to start growing again. In a hoop house, that will be much earlier than in the ground, but here in Minnesota I’m still looking at four months at least. I’m not sure I can grow enough lettuce plants to last four months, but even if they only last two or three that’s something.

I’ve got the seed starting for my tomatoes and peppers all worked out including the timing. Bookman and I will be making our seed pots from newspaper, a cool thing because we just plant the paper pots in the ground in spring and paper composts right there. We’ll need quite a few pots, haven’t worked out just how many yet. I’ve been saving up newspaper from work so we’ve got plenty of that ready to go. The pots are quick and easy to make and I want to make them now just for something to do but it’s far too soon. The seeds won’t be started until mid-March and I have no place to keep a pile of paper pots safe for a month and half.

But February is a short month and it will fly by, right?

It was a good weekend for reading. I finished two books and am very close to finishing a third. I am very happy to have books to write about for the coming week. I also got an email from Library Journal to let me know a new book is on the way for me to read for review. This one is a gardening book called First Ladies of Gardening: Designers, Dreamers, and Divas. Doesn’t that sound like fun? I have two books to pick up from the library that have been in my hold queue for a time, the hold queue to which I have not been adding anything no matter how hard it’s been (yay me!). I can tell you my library list has gotten really long though! The books I will be picking up are Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg and Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness.

Now off to enjoy what remains of the weekend.

Filed under: Books

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