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the agony and ecstasy of a reading life
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1. Time is a concept I do not understand

Just as I am thinking, whew, I can relax a bit and have some meandering reads, the book gods decided to have a big belly laugh. It is now my turn for Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast and The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. I’ve been looking forward to these for some time and I started the Chast last night and it’s so good.

These of course arrive at the same time I have gotten a review copy of The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak. I’ve not read Shafak before and I am really looking forward to it. It takes place in the Ottoman Empire starting around 1540 and centers around architecture, jealousy and rivalry.

And because that’s not enough, I’m expecting another review copy in the mail of a book called The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl. Nineteenth century book pirates! Yes, you read that right. They are out to steal Robert Louis Stevenson’s last manuscript. It sounds completely silly but I’m hoping for a good, fun adventure kind of novel. Fingers crossed!

These four books in addition to all the other books that are lined up or already on the go. I am quite probably demented. Also, I am fairly certain that I have no concept of time when it comes to books and how much time is available during my day for me to spend reading.

And then today I found out about a project at the Biodiversity Heritage Library where they are asking people to help transcribe old seed and nursery catalogs. Of course I want in on that!

Since I work at a Catholic University I will be having a four-day Easter holiday weekend. The weather on Friday and Saturday is forecast to be not so very pleasant which means I will have plenty of time to indulge in reading and catalog transcribing. But since I already know I have no concept of time, I no doubt am thinking there will be so much more of it available than there really will be. I wonder if the scientists at the Large Hadron Collider really do make contact with a parallel universe that might mean I can find another me and we can get together and divide and conquer. That’s divide and conquer the reading, though being in charge of a universe or two could be fun. Nah, it would cut into my reading time.


Filed under: Books Tagged: the nature of time

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2. Harbinger of Spring

No, it’s not a robin, I’ve seen a few of those already.

I’ve been starting new flats of seeds every week since the end of February and they are all coming along nicely. The onion sprouts were the first and they are getting tall. The peppers came next. Those take a long time to even sprout and just this last week a few little pops of green gave me relief that something was actually happening. Last week was tomatoes and cabbage. Tomatoes take a bit of time but the cabbage has started coming up. Today was marigolds and parsley.

Was it last week I mentioned the cover to the mini greenhouse was no longer functional? One of the zippers was broken and the plastic has become brittle. It turns out you can order new covers without having to buy the whole set up. Thank goodness. I ordered a new cover Monday and, fingers crossed, it will be here in the next day or two. I now have four flats of sprouting pots that are getting difficult to manage and being able to use the greenhouse will solve all my problems.

The weather this weekend has been chilly. This morning we had rain and now it is sunny but so blustery the house is creaking. Of course the forecast for the coming week is gorgeous when I will have to be at work and indoors. Sigh. Tuesday night Bookman and I are signed up for a class at the bike shop to learn how to fix a flat tire. I can change a flat on a car but I have no idea how to fix a flat on my bike. Oh, and my new bike, she has a name now: Astrid. Bookman gives me odd looks when I talk about Astrid but I really don’t care!

I know real honest to goodness spring will be here soon because the Friends School Plant Sale catalog arrived in my mailbox Friday. I wasn’t expecting it until this week so it was a surprise. I was only going to look through the herbs in the first section of the catalog and save the rest for casual browsing throughout the weekend, but I was kidding myself. I couldn’t put it down and devoured the whole thing, gleefully marking off plants. I’ll take this and this and oh, doesn’t this sound nice? And yes, definitely one of those. And that, a must. And, hmm, where could I put one of these? Want to know what a happy Stef looks like? That was her reading and marking up the catalog.

All year long I keep lists of plants as I learn about them that I think I might like to try in the garden. So Saturday I got out all my lists and scraps of paper and sat down with the catalog again and marked things from my lists. There were quite a few items on my lists that are not in the catalog but that’s okay, there are also plenty of plants that were.

Then, of course, I had to think about the chickens and the chicken garden area where their coop is going to be. A friend of mine recommended a very good book called Free-range Chicken Gardens. It has lots of helpful advice in it. I had been wanting to plant elderberries and serviceberries in the garden but couldn’t figure out where I could plant these large-sized shrubs. Well, they make good hedges and places for chickens to take cover it turns out so now I have a place and a reason for them. Yay! Also, I have an excuse for a wild rose bush and more gooseberries, more prairie grasses and all sorts of other plants. All these I have dutifully marked in the plant catalog.

Now I just need to win the lottery jackpot so I can afford them all!

And poor Bookman. He says he knows nothing about gardening and asks I just point to where I want him to dig and tell him what to put there. He’s going to be doing a lot of digging.


Filed under: gardening Tagged: chickens, Friends School Plant Sale

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3. Almost. There.

Still frantically reading and working on reviews for other venues but I thought I’d pop in and say hi because I miss you all even though it has only been two days. Seems silly, but there it is.

I have a couple links to share because links can be fun!

I first saw the article about someone photocopying their cat at a Wisconsin university library in my library news feed. It linked to an article about it at Time Magazine. Time linked to the original news story from the Badger Herald (Wisconsin’s mascot is Bucky Badger). The photos are hilarious. But now it turns out no one has actually been bringing their cat to the library and photocopying it. The copies found around the library were photocopies of photocopies that students were leaving trying to inject some levity and stress relief during midterms. Is it bad of me to say I am disappointed there wasn’t actually cat smuggling and copying going on?

Few things are as entertaining as an author insulting another author. After Pepys saw Midsummer Night’s Dream he wrote in his diary that it was “the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.” Stephen King said of Stephenie Meyer of Twilight fame, “The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.” Ouch. More at the link.

Ever wonder what the English spoken by Shakespeare really sounded like? Or Chaucer? What about the English in Beowulf? And how might King Arthur have sounded? The curious can find out here. I can recognize Shakespeare as still being English, Chaucer, only a few words. After Chaucer no one is speaking any kind of recognizable English but it sure does sound pretty.

Finally, my geeky science fiction heart is absolutely thrilled that the Large Hadron Collider is going to be used next week for an experiment to try and discover a parallel universe. Scientists have no specific parallel universe in mind, any one will do, they are just trying to prove they exist at the moment. How totally awesome is that?


Filed under: Links

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4. Shrinking the Collection

I have never felt like having a lot of books was any kind of clutter as long as they were all tidy. Nor was it any kind of burden even when moving house. But lately as I have been searching for ways to simplify my life and minimize my possessions, my eyes keep going to my bookshelves.

Over the last two years I have been borrowing more and more books from the library and buying fewer and fewer to put on my shelves. I have not felt the urge to own any but a few particularly enticing ones. Sure, there is the occasional book by a favorite author but these tend to not be many either. Actual book buying binges where I leave the store with a huge pile of books don’t happen anymore. These days I leave with two or three, sometimes even none.

When I first began noticing the change I worried something was wrong with me. Am I depressed? Unwell? Survey after survey said all systems go. I had plenty of books I already owned that I had not yet read and the library books never seemed to stop arriving so it’s not like I had nothing to read. In fact it seemed like I had been reading more than ever before. I just didn’t feel like I had to own all those books. Gradually I got used to the idea of library first, bookstore second. Lately this new habit has gotten so strong that even when I have a gift card it is hard to find something to spend it on. I think, Oh I know I’ll get XYZ. But then I stop and check the library catalog and generally end up saying, nah I’ll get that one from the library instead when I am ready to actually read it. And the gift card sits for weeks before I figure out what to buy with it.

The strange thing is that it has begun affecting Bookman too. I never said a word to him but his book buying habits have changed as drastically as mine have.

Then about the middle of February I decided I would take a Friday off in March and do some spring cleaning. Part of that cleaning would be going through the bookshelves in my study room. Three years ago I planned on adding another shelf but events conspired against it and by the time I had the chance to actually do something about adding the shelf my book buying habits had begun to change and I didn’t need it any longer. Now the very full shelves said not that I needed another shelf but that I needed to get rid of a quantity of the books that were on the shelves I do have.

Empty shelves

Look at all that space!

I had a tiny moment of panic. Then I had a few days of feeling a little unsettled. But as I got used to the idea, I started looking forward to that day off. When the day arrived it turned out to be a whole lot easier to make decisions about what books to keep and what books to get rid of. I actually felt good making piles of books to send out into the world to find new owners.

When all was said and done, My shelves were no longer crammed full and I even have a lot of empty shelf space. I filled to overflowing six fabric grocery bags. Bookman and I took them to sell at a secondhand shop yesterday. There were three bag’s worth of books they didn’t want for various reasons. Those we will now donate to the next library book sale.

I have to admit that Bookman and I did spend some time at the shop browsing and I did bring home a few books but compared to what I got rid of three new books for me and two for Bookman are not going to make a difference. What I brought home is:

      • Barren Ground by Ellen Glasgow. A Virago Classic first published in 1925 and set in Virginia. Poverty, seduction, betrayal, a woman who struggles to find herself and take control of her life and destiny. Sounds pretty good, eh?
      • The Giant O’Brien by Hilary Mantel. eighteenth century London, a parable of man versus science. You know, I had not gotten around to reading Mantel until her Cromwell books and I really like her. I think she may have become one of the authors whose books I definitely want to own.
      • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. He is another author whose books ask to be owned since they are all connected through characters and themes. The woman at the register gushed about how great the book is as I was paying for it. That’s a pretty good recommendation right there.

And no, I don’t feel suddenly compelled to buy books to fill the empty spaces on my shelves, otherwise I would have brought home more than what I did. We still have a library in the basement with books on the floor because there isn’t enough shelf space. It is a messy out of sight, out of mind thing. But I have plans to go through those books too. And Bookman has caught the bug as well. He speculates we could conceivably empty two or three bookcases. We have not set a date to start this process. I suspect it won’t happen until summer when it is hot outside and being in the cool basement will feel good. But I am confident that it will happen and I am looking forward to it.


Filed under: Books

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5. Happy Spring!

Onion sprouts!

Onion sprouts!

First off, happy spring! Or, happy autumn to those of you in the southern hemisphere! I hope everyone had a delightful equinox. Of course now that spring is officially here the lovely weather has disappeared and we have returned to a slightly warmer than normal temperature between 35-40F/1-4C. For anyone but Minnesota this sounds cold. It isn’t, but after several days around 60F/15C, it is severely disappointing. And all those people over the last week who were out in their yards removing winter mulch, what the heck were you thinking? Too early people! You know there is snow in the forecast this week, right?

Even my maple tree is confused. She has blossoms. And the forsythia has buds. It’s a dangerous time of year.

Seed sprouting moves apace. We got our mini greenhouse out of the garage to discover one of the flap zippers is

When the greenhouse was new

When the greenhouse was new

broken which prevents us from being able to leave anything in it overnight because the frost will get in. Also, the plastic after only a few years has gotten brittle. We are going to have to see if we can get a new cover or else buy a whole new greenhouse. They aren’t that expensive, but I expected it to last longer than it has. Humph.

The onion sprouts are doing really well. The peppers seeds from last week have not yet begun to sprout, they take a little while. Today we planted tomatoes and cabbage:

  • Henderson’s Pink Ponderosa. A huge beefsteak first introduced in 1891
  • Cherokee Purple. A medium to large sized purple-pink pre-1890 heirloom
  • Evan’s Purple Pear. A newer variety from 2008, selected from an accidental cross between heirloom varieties. Small, purple-pink fruit, most excellent for sauces and canning.
  • Red Express Cabbage. A newer variety of open-pollinated (non-hybrid) red cabbage bred especially for short growing seasons in Canada and the northern US

Makes my mouth water just typing that. Grow seeds, grow!

We worry about all kinds of things when it comes to food but how many of us stop to think about working conditions in moderne agriculture? Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, created a four-minute video not long ago outlining how bad it is for many people working in the fields. It’s eye-opening. Another good reason to start your own garden and buy from local farmer’s markets where you can talk to the farmer directly and find out how s/he harvests the vegetables you are buying.

A short post today. Posting in general might be light this week because I have review deadlines fast approaching. Then I will breathe a sigh of relief and, I hope, get back to a regular reading-for-myself schedule. I’ve been reading good stuff but there’s lots of other good stuff in the wings. If only I had more eyes and hands and could read multiple books simultaneously. Sure I’d look really funny, but think how much reading I could do!


Filed under: gardening

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6. Jane Austen Knits

Have I ever mentioned before that I knit? I don’t knit as much as I used to, mostly because I have tendonitis in my wrist and if I am not careful I can very easily make it flare up and give me all kinds of unhappy pain. But I still knit, if only for short periods of time at sometimes widely spaced intervals. In spite of the fact that I don’t knit a lot, I still enjoy reading knitting magazines and collecting patterns for things I will very likely never make. But that doesn’t matter really because I get great pleasure in imagining the whole project.

Recently I was perusing the latest issue of a knitting magazine I borrow electronically from my public library and saw an advertisement for a book called The Best of Jane Austen Knits. Whaaa? Of course I immediately checked to see if my library had it and they do. Yay Hennepin County Library! I love you so very much!

The book has patterns for 27 “regency inspired designs.” That translates to lots of shawls and shrugs. But there are a few cardigans, a couple of bags, some baby clothes, a tea cozy, some elbow-length gloves, some super-cute stockings, and a few other items. I can’t imagine Austen herself wearing any of them, maybe the stockings, or her heroines, but the idea is still fun. There are a few of the shawl designs I like very much from a filmy lace to a solid cute number that is long and designed to wrap over the shoulders and tie behind the waist. And did I mention the stockings? They are just below the knee and have a pretty lace and heart pattern up the side and are held up by a satin ribbon.

There is also a “loyalty and pin ball.” These were popular projects to make and give to friends (so the book says). They have a medallion-like motif on each side. It is stuffed and sewn together and trimmed with a ribbon or twisted rope. It is made with a very fine cotton and calls for size 0000 (1.25mm) needles. I have used size 1 (2.25mm) needles before but nothing that small. It seems like it would be something really fun to try. I promise if I manage one I will take a photo to share.

For all you bookish knitters out there, I recommend you take a look at this book. It’s got some super-fun patterns in it.

Do any of you have some favorite literature-inspired knitting patterns to recommend?


Filed under: Books, Jane Austen Tagged: Knitting

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7. Spring Fever

In February I was a bit down because of the horridly frigid weather that was better suited for January. Reading anything that wasn’t page-turning or zippy was hard. Now March, March has taken a sudden turnabout from February and it feels like April. I hope this doesn’t mean that April will end up being like March, that would be too much. But the warm, well warm for Minneapolis, has been so glorious it has made me unable to sit still. I want to be up and about doing things. Reading? Reading’s for those who have nothing better to do and I have lots to do.

I know! I can’t believe I just said that about reading either! I have a serious case of spring fever. While reading helps with other kinds of fevers, it only makes spring fever worse. It also doesn’t help that I have once again found myself in the middle of a bunch of books with nothing new just begun or anything about to be finished. Such a situation tends to make me antsy anyway then add the spring fever problem to it and I’m nearly bouncing off the walls. Some of that might be from the cup of coffee I just had, but still.

So today, how about a few weird things from around the internet?

First there was dinosaur erotica (it’s a thing, look it up!), now there is Conquered by Clippy, a short story about one woman’s torrid romance with a giant paperclip. The same author has another story called “Taken by the Tetris Blocks.” What’s next? “Making out with Mario”? No, that’s too obvious, maybe “Probed by Space Invaders.” Oh this could get to be silly fun. What unlikely erotica title can you come up with?

It seems that a good many people are aghast that digital natives prefer reading in print rather than on a screen. While I read ebooks for the convenience and easy carryableness of them, print is where it’s really at. A print book is one of the most perfect technologies if you ask me. But then I doubt any of you need convincing about that!

And while we are on the subject of books, have some fun reading How to Tell If You Are In A Virginia Woolf Novel. Because even Woolf deserves to be laughed at sometimes.

Finally, nothing to do with books but music. Specifically music for your cats. I played the clip linked in the article for Waldo and Dickens and they both looked at me with panic in their eyes not sure if they should run and hide or stay and listen. They stayed but they certainly didn’t relax or look like they were enjoying the music. But then that’s cats for you. You buy them an expensive toy and they like the bag you brought it home in better. You play them music just for them and they act as though it’s nails on a chalkboard. Ungrateful beasts.


Filed under: Books, Links

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8. Definitely a Monday

Today was definitely a Monday if ever there was one. I decked myself out in green and was so excited it was St Patrick’s Day. I actually have Irish heritage so I can really claim the day. When I got on the bus with my neighbor she saw my green dress and green cardigan sweater and said, gee you should have waited to wear that tomorrow. Huh? Why? Because tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, she said. No, it’s today, I replied. She looked at me and started laughing. No, tomorrow, on the 17th. So far no one has come to take away my right to say kiss me I’m Irish but I wouldn’t be surprised if my license gets revoked.

Then when I got to work my default printer to which all my circulation stuff is set up to print refused to wake up from its slumbers. I print a list of books to pull from the shelves every morning to send to other libraries in my consortium and I only have a short time to get this done because I have to open the library. I am the only one at the service desk to take care of this. The printer is one of those huge multi-function monstrosities that prints, scans, faxes, copies, and lurks in the corner with a surly teenager attitude. I had to take the drastic measure of restarting it. It’s easy enough to turn it off and on, but the thing takes ten minutes, sometimes longer, to reboot and run through all its diagnostics and who knows what else.

Why not print to another printer you ask? In the glorious world of library software we have, I would have had to close down my circulation program, change my computer printer default settings, then reopen the circulation software which itself take far longer than it should to start up. So I ran around the four floors of the library doing library opening stuff, came back to the desk and the printer was up. I pressed print for my list and had two minutes to pull five books from the shelves. I sprinted upstairs and made a mad dash through the stacks, barreled back down the stairs and got the doors open just in time. Luck of the Irish or just a crazy librarian at work?

Things got better as the day progressed but there were some trying moments.

On a more bookish note, I turned in my review of The Great Detective by Zach Dundas to Library Journal yesterday. What a fun read it was! I can’t really give it a full review here, but I did mention already about the first illustration of Sherlock Holmes. The rest of the book goes apace. It’s one of those books that does many things at once and combines personal experience/fandom, biography, literary criticism, cultural criticism, and a general attitude of “what a great adventure all this is.”

It is light and entertaining, a survey with a few lingering moments of strolling in a bit deeper, but not much. If you are a Holmes fan who has done a lot of reading about the great detective then the book is not for you. However, if you, like me, have read a story or two and watched a good many movie and TV adaptations but didn’t know much about Conan Doyle or any of the inspiration behind the stories, then you will very likely enjoy the book quite a lot. Look for it at your library or local bookstore and enjoy the read!


Filed under: Books Tagged: Sherlock Holmes

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9. Pie, Biking and Gardening

Bookman is proud of his pie

Bookman is proud of his pie

Did you all have a happy pie day yesterday? It was an extra special pi day because it had the most accurate decimals of pi in the entire twenty-first century. To celebrate, Bookman made us a delicious apple pie with apples that came from our own tree (preserved as pie filling). We also had pizza for dinner. A double pie whammy!

The weather this weekend has been absolutely gorgeous. It feels more like the end of April than the middle of March. No jackets, open windows, sunshine. Bookman and I took our new bikes out for a spin today and I wore my bike shorts and t-shirt with a windbreaker on top and was almost too warm (except when the wind was blowing across the still frozen lakes, that was a bit chilly). It seems like the rest of Minneapolis was out today as well.

It was my first time out on my new bike and I love her silly. She is so light and zippy. I practiced clipping in and out of my pedals for about half an hour before venturing out. At first I was terrified to be so locked on to my bike but after making a few stops and not falling over, I started to relax and really have fun. I’m still hyper-alert about releasing my feet before getting close to a stop, but after a few more rides I expect it will become more natural and less thinky.

We did an easy 18 mile/28.9km ride. I’ve never had a road bike before so it was very much a get-to-know you ride. Did I say how much I love my new bike? My city bike (affectionately named Ninja) is going to be so jealous. I am searching for a name to call this bike but nothing has come up yet. I was going to take a photo but forgot. Giant has a fine photo though with the same exact colors including saddle and handlebars in case you care to go take a look. The only additions I have made are silver fenders over the front and back wheels, a cage for my water bottle, and a holder for my iPhone which I am using as a bike computer.

Happiness is also more seed starting. The onion seeds I planted last week have begun to sprout. I would have taken a photo but they are so tiny yet you wouldn’t be able to see them in a picture. Friday night Bookman and I spent about an hour making paper pots for the next round of seed starting and beyond. Today we filled another tray with pots, filled the pots with soil, and planted:

  • pepperoncini
  • golden cayenne
  • leutschauer paprika
  • etiuda bell (orange sweet)
  • red mini bell
  • purple jalepeño
  • tall Utah celery

The celery was a last minute addition to the lineup. Bookman decided he wanted to grow some so we picked up a packet at our food co-op when we did our grocery shopping recently.

The seed trays reside on top of the refrigerator for the time being for warmth and out-of-the-wayness from

The perfect seed starting locale

The perfect seed starting locale

curious cats. Since the weather has been so pleasant these last few days the onions got to sit out on the deck in the sun for several hours. The week ahead is going to be ten to fifteen degrees cooler so there will be no deck time. Next weekend we will be setting up our mini greenhouse on the south side of the house and move the onion sprouts into it to make room for another seed starting tray of tomatoes on top of the fridge. The last time I did seed starting, about ten years ago, it seemed like one big hassle. I’m not certain what has changed, but at the moment I am having a great time.

For all of you out there who are new to the whole thing and want to try your hand at gardening, whether it be outdoors or indoors, in containers or in the ground, lettuce, herbs, or something else, check out Start a Garden (via). The site will give you easy, step-by-step instructions on how (for example) to grow thyme in a cup on your bathroom windowsill, tomatoes in a pot on your deck, or corn in your yard. Unless you live in a dark, cold cave, this site will help you find something you can grow.

And of course I had more fun reading about chickens this week too. A Chicken in Every Yard turned out to be a practical and informative guide to urban chicken keeping. When it gets closer to the time of having my own chickens I will definitely be buying myself a copy of this book. One thing I learned about chickens is that they can see color and when let out to free range they tend to stick to other flock members of the same color. This piece of information has me rethinking what kind hens I want. Do I go with two orpingtons (brown) and two australorps (black)? Or do I totally mix it up and go with one each of orpington (brown), ameraucana (brown), australorp (black) and barred rock also called Plymouth rock (black with white)? If I go with the one of each it will certainly be easier to tell them all apart. Thank goodness I have plenty of time to figure it out, and plenty of time to keep changing my mind! You’re going to get so tired of hearing about chickens before I even get the chicks next year!

Model for my future coop

Model for my future coop

As I mentioned before, we will be tearing down our old garage at the back of our lot. We will be installing a shed instead, this one to be exact This will happen in May or June. The tear down that is. The shed building will happen not long after that. We will have plenty of room for the chicken coop alongside it. I’ve been doing lots of coop plan browsing and have decided ours will look something like the red and white number in the photo. We’ll be making modifications, but this will be our foundation model. What do you think?

So much work ahead, but all of it good!


Filed under: gardening Tagged: chickens, seed starting

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10. Goodbye Mr. Pratchett

I’ve been a little bit sad today ever since I learned this morning that Terry Pratchett died. The outpouring of love for the man and his books on the internet has been overwhelming. It also is comforting, this collective mourning of a beloved author. I can’t begin to link to everything but I thought I’d collect together a few of the places that I have liked most: Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing, Jo Walton at Tor, a gathering of comments and tweets at the Guardian, a lovely mention at the Paris Review. Also at the Guardian, favorite Pratchett quotes which doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the marvelous things Pratchett said and wrote.

Writing humor is hard, writing fantasy humor is even harder. Pratchett is the only author besides Douglas Adams that has reliably made me laugh out loud reading his books. I was terribly sad when he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s a number of years ago, but yet he still managed to keep writing so his death today came as a shock.

Pratchett might be gone but at least we still have his books. And that’s something very special I think, to live on in the hearts and minds of readers around the world. Still, I’m going to miss him. As The Librarian, one of my favorite characters would say, Ook!


Filed under: Books, SciFi/Fantasy Tagged: Terry Pratchett

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11. Does Age Matter?

Since I finished Clockwork Orange I’ve been mulling a bit about age and books. Several people commented that they were blown away by Clockwork Orange when they read it as a teen. Then today in the comments at Necromancy Never Pays Jeanne commented that perhaps because she was older she liked the book under review better than two others who didn’t care for it as much. Does age matter when reading?

Not always, but sometimes it does. I think I would have felt differently about Clockwork Orange if I had read it as a teen. I didn’t read The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe until I was an adult and while I could see the charm for a kid, as an adult, I didn’t think it was all that. Same thing happened to me with Catcher in the Rye.

Conversely, when I was younger and read Moby Dick in high school English class I liked it but found it mostly really boring. Rereading it as an adult, the book turned out to be amazing. The first two times I read Jane Austen’s Emma I was in my twenties and I found her insufferable. When I read it last year I suddenly liked Emma and the book so much better.

Age matters but I don’t think it is age as a specific number, I think it is more age as experience — both reading experience and life experience. Does that make sense? I would like to think that age doesn’t matter when it comes to reading (and most of the time it doesn’t), the thought that there are some books out there that I haven’t read yet but might have missed the boat on makes me a bit sad. But then I can buoy myself up with the thought there are probably books I have not read yet that will be much more amazing when I do because of my age. Two sides of the same coin? Has your age ever made a difference when reading?


Filed under: Books, Reading

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12. Holmes Makes and Appearance

Holmes standing before the fire

Holmes standing before the fire

Ah, the magic of the internet! It allows us to see amazing things from the comfort of a favorite chair when just twenty years ago we would have been out of luck.

I was reading The Great Detective by Zach Dundas at lunch today and he was talking about the beginnings of the Sherlock Holmes stories and how they took off when the second Holmes story appeared in The Strand Magazine in July, 1891. He mentions you can read it on your iPad. He talks about the stories and illustrations not only in the Conan Doyle piece but in the whole magazine.

It is in the Strand story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” where the first drawing of Sherlock Holmes was made. It is a drawing that set the stage for how we still picture the great detective. And I thought, oh how neat! It would would fun to see it. But just on that alone I really had no plans on trying to find it. Until, that is, Dundas mentions an article in the same issue called “A Regiment on Wheels.” It is about a military regiment of bicyclists and there are illustrations demonstrating, among other things, a cyclist decapitating someone with a saber while riding his bike! Now that I had to see!

So to recap thus far: first drawing of Sherlock Holmes, not worth the bother of doing an internet search; drawing of a

Swords & bikes - who knew?

Swords & bikes – who knew?

cyclist decapitating someone with a sword, totally worth the effort to find.

The Internet Archive has the magazine, volume 2, number 7. You can view it online or download it as a PDF or several other file formats. Nifty.

To my credit, I found the Holmes drawing first and yes, he is exactly how you imagine him.

I did not linger long, however, there was a decapitation to find!

Pimp my bicycle

Pimp my bicycle

Of course it ends up being a bit disappointing. The cyclist isn’t actually decapitating a person but merely practicing by knocking a “head” off a post. I’m not entirely certain what I was expecting to see, but it wasn’t that. Nonetheless, it is an impressive skill to have and I might begin practicing it on my own bike. Perhaps I will use a stick though since I don’t imagine my neighbors would appreciate me riding up and down the street with a sword in my hand. There are children on my block after all. They would think it was cool and want to try too which would not endear me to their parents and I need to make sure my neighbors like me at least until I get them to sign off on my chicken permit. Then look out! I’m going to pimp my bike and when the zombie apocalypse comes I will be ready to make some zombie heads roll.


Filed under: Books Tagged: Sherlock Holmes

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13. Seed Starting

onion seeds

onion seeds

This is what you do when it’s 48F/9C outside: turn off the furnace and open a window. Then, gather your seed starting stuff with the tray of newspaper pots you made earlier in the week. Take it all out on the deck and don’t put on a jacket because it is warm outside. Spend half an hour filling all the paper pots, wetting the soil, and then planting four onion seeds in each pot. Sprinkle more soil on top of the seeds, spray with water and cover with plastic. Leave this out in the sun to get toasty warm before bringing it indoors to put on top of the refrigerator where you hope in a week or so you will see onion sprouts.

Yes, my friends, gardening season is upon us. There is still snow on the ground but the back of winter has been broken. Everyone I know is heaving a big sigh of relief. We made it!

What I planted today are red cipollini onions.

Grow, grow, grow!

Grow, grow, grow!

They are small onions that, if all goes well, will be ready to eat sometime around the middle or end of July. The first time I had ever heard of them or tried them was when Bookman and I had a CSA farm share and they came in our box. Oh, were they good! Very mild but still oniony if that makes sense. I’ve never seen then in the store. Hopefully they will grow and give me lots of onions. I’m a bit nervous about it because the only other time I ever tried to grow onion, long ago before my current garden, it was a disaster. The seeds sprouted but the plants never got very big and when it came time to harvest instead of having big yellow onions they were just weak green stalks with little nubs at the end.

The next season I tried long-day onion sets (you have to match your onion variety not only to the length of your growing season but also the length of your day because daylight stimulates bulb growth or something like that) and the results were onions that were the same size as the seed bulb I had planted. So past experience says I don’t have much luck with onions but I am determined to figure it out. I have read that root vegetables are nitrogen hogs, and when the seedlings get planted out I will seed beans in between them. Keep experimenting and one of these days I will hit the jackpot.

Now I have to start making another round of paper pots to plant peppers in. We bought so many different kinds of pepper seeds from sweet bells to pepperoncini to cayenne. I can’t even remember all the kinds we got. They will be fun to experiment with too. Their seeding will happen either next weekend of the one after that. I have to check the seed packets to pin it down.

It feels so good to have sun and warmth and the beginning of the garden.

Meanwhile I’ve also been reading more about chickens and looking at chicken coop photos to figure out what my coop design will be. Chicken coops it turns out are as various and interesting as their chickens and their keepers. Some people build with upcycled/recycled/found materials, others go brand new everything from the local home supply store. Sure you can buy pre-made coops and you can even buy plans, but where is the fun in that? Figuring out what I want is like playing with Lincoln Logs/Tinker Toys/ Legos — I like the window on that one, the removable nesting boxes from there, the access door here, the siding from that, and oh that’s how you do the insulation, I like that roof better, and ventilation, so many different ways to do it. Such fun!

This afternoon a couple friends came over. They have chickens so naturally we talked a lot about them. Now I am even more excited. If it wouldn’t be such a tight deadline rush, I’d get them this year instead of waiting for next spring.

On another note, allow me to recommend a lovely book called First Ladies of Gardening by Heidi Howcroft. I reviewed it for Library Journal and liked it very much. The women gardeners and their gardens featured go from Vita Sackville-West and Sissinghurst to Helen Dillon and her garden in the middle of Dublin. They are all private gardens and all the gardeners are amateurs which is quite inspiring given what their gorgeous gardens look like. If she knew nothing about gardening when she started and made that then surely I can make something halfway decent.

The book focuses on English gardens and except for two gardens they are all on very large estates. This is disheartening because I will never have acres to garden on. Nonetheless there are still good ideas to be found in plant and color pairings that I can manage in my own space. The photos are breathtaking and all the women seem so personable you just want to take a garden ramble with them. It is not a how-to book, it is not an extensive biography nor is it solely coffee table eye-candy but it manages to combine all the elements into a pleasurable book to dip in and out of.

Meanwhile, the Daylight Savings time change has me all messed up, what with the clock saying it is later than I think it is all day long. I suppose in a few days I’ll get used to it, but at the moment it feels wrong. And I know getting up for work Monday morning is going to be no fun. But it is supposed to be sunny and just as warm tomorrow so I can’t complain too much.


Filed under: Books, gardening

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14. Ancillary Sword

I loved Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie so much I was a little worried that I might be disappointed by Ancillary Sword. I began reading, holding back just a little, expecting disappointment and not wanting to invest too much but before I knew it I was in deep and happy as a clam. When I turned the last page I didn’t want it to be done. More please! There will be more. In October Ancillary Mercy will be published. I fear that will be the conclusion to the story and I will be bereft.

Ancillary Sword picks up right where Ancillary Justice left off. Breq, who is an ancillary and used to be a ship called Justice of Toren, has been given the command of Mercy of Kalr. She was given the command by the Lord of the Radch herself. Mercy of Kalr no longer has an ancillary crew, though the previous ship’s captain required all her crew to behave as if they were ancillaries. An ancillary is basically a human who has been implanted with all kinds of equipment and forced to become part of the ship’s AI. The ancillaries are soldiers but also the eyes and ears and mobile bodies controlled by the ship.

Breq in the singular is rather lonely. She could become an ancillary of Mercy of Kalr but she would then no longer be Breq. Because Breq used to be an ancillary she can communicate with Mercy of Kalr in a very different way than a human captain would be able to. All of the humans on the ships have implants that gives the ship access to their eyes and ears as well as their body’s functioning (heart rate, blood pressure, etc). The job of the ship AI is to take care of her humans. Because Breq is an ancillary, the ship can actually show her what the crew is doing through their eyes and ears. It is a small comfort to the lonely Breq.

Mercy of Kalr is sent to guard Athoek Station. On this station is the sister of the lieutenant Breq loved when she was Justice of Toren. So there is an interesting plotline there. We also have Lieutenant Tisarwat who is brand new and only seventeen, assigned to the ship by the Lord of the Radch. But Breq figures out pretty fast the Tisarwat is actually an ancillary of the Lord of the Radch and the ancillary bits are not working out so well in that body. There is also another ship, Sword of Atagaris which does still have ancillaries. The Radch empire is falling apart and there is a question about whose side Sword of Atagaris and her captain is on.

Toss into all this the continuing questions of identity that began in the first book. But add in another question — what is justice and what does it mean?

‘What is justice Citizen? […] We speak of it as though it is a simple thing, a matter of acting properly, as though it’s nothing more than an afternoon tea and the question only of who takes the last pastry. So simple. Assign guilt to the guilty.

Of course it is never simple and perfect justice can never be truly dispensed.

The writing is great. The pacing excellent. Since Breq can see and hear through the eyes of her crew (they have no idea she can do this) the perspective is constantly changing but is never confusing. It works really well for keeping all the balls in the air and all of the plotlines moving ahead together at the same time, there is no “meanwhile back at the ranch” kind of thing. Leckie does a good job of giving depth to even minor characters. And it’s just an all around great romping story. Ancillary Justice won a Hugo and a Nebula. Ancillary Sword is currently up for a Nebula. I can hardly wait for Ancillary Mercy!


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

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15. 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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16. 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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17. 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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18. 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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19. 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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20. 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!


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21. 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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22. 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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23. 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!


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24. 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.

Oy.

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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25. 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.


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