Thursday, May 18, 2017

Flood Friday

Flood FridayFlood Friday by Lois Lenski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just re-read Lenski's Strawberry Girl recently and became interested in finding more of her Regional Series of books for children. Apart from Inter-Library Loan, they are difficult to find and out-of-print copies are getting pricey. I managed to find Flood Friday for under $10 so I snapped it up.

The story takes place in Connecticut in 1955 and is told from the viewpoint of a young girl and her friends. The narrative conveys the terror of the event as well as the persevering spirit of the people caught up in the flood.

A temporary shelter is set up in the local school. Children are simultaneously anxious and bored and Lenski portrays this so well. The uncertainty of the situation as missing family members are looked for is full of tension. Later, neighbors put up people who have lost their homes or who need time to clean up before they can live in their homes again.

After huge efforts at cleaning up and rebuilding, families are able to return to their homes. Their simple gratitude for a roof over their heads and family and friends to share a meal with is touching and humbling. I'd recommend this book to children and adults alike.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Conspiracy of Paper

A Conspiracy of Paper (Benjamin Weaver, #1)A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Considering this mystery focuses on 18th-century London stock fraud, it succeeds far better than I might have expected. With a few murders to season the sauce, we're off to visit some unsavory characters, both high- and low-born, Christian and Jewish. The combination of the intricate financial dealings and Benjamin Weaver's more forceful investigative style create a balance and tension throughout the novel. Weaver is a retired pugilist (The Lion of Judah) and a former petty criminal. Liss writes in a style reminiscent of the time period without getting tedious about it. His detective, or "thief-taker" in the parlance of the day, knows that he has to try to understand the stockjobbing world he's been thrown into, but sometimes his frustration results in a violent beating or two. This method yields results.

Quite a few times I was reminded of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe character:

"He aimed directly at my jaw, and in my weariness I did not see it coming. Or rather, I did see it coming, but I could not quite remember what to do about a punch aimed full to my face."

"The barkeeper showed me nothing but terse indifference--something just shy of politeness. I made a note to myself to return to this place, for I liked its way of conducting business."

Benjamin Weaver is an outsider, but an intelligent one. His wry sense of humor and friendship with Elias Gordon were some of my favorite parts of the story.

I found this book when I was searching for historical fiction about the East India Company. The third novel in this series will find Benjamin Weaver entangled with the EIC. I'm looking forward to that.

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

I noted about halfway through this book that the author was hardly a typical hillbilly. At the age of sixteen, he was "consuming books about public policy." This might explain how he ended up at Harvard, but he makes it clear that there were plenty of opportunities for him to crash and burn. He credits his grandparents, especially his grandmother (Mamaw), with making the difference in his life. She sounded like a force to be reckoned with and somebody you wouldn't want to piss off. As her grandson noted, Mamaw's favorite TV show was "The Sopranos": change the names and dates, and the Italian Mafia starts to look a lot like the Hatfield-McCoy dispute. Vance's family traces their ancestry back to those infamous tribal combatants.

Vance also nails the half-hearted attempts to brighten up blighted downtowns in the rustbelt:

"Efforts to reinvent downtown Middletown always struck me as futile. People didn't leave because our downtown lacked trendy cultural amenities. The trendy cultural amenities left because there weren't enough consumers in Middletown to support them."

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Little Folly

A Little FollyA Little Folly by Jude Morgan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I loved the other two books by Jude Morgan. Unfortunately, this one fell off for me about half way through. Not sure what was missing or if I just wasn't in the mood. There were some funny observations and situations, but I didn't get much involved with the characters, as I remember doing with An Accomplished Woman and Indiscretion.

A few notable quotes:

"Sir Clement Carnell's ruling passion, until the very last moment of his life, was his passion for ruling. In other times and circumstances he might have made a fine king of the absolute and despotic sort, bringing troublesome provinces to order, crushing rebels under his chariot wheels, and inscribing on a giant column his exact and fearsome laws. Being, however, only a country gentleman of Devonshire, he had to make do with tyrannising his wife and children."

"But Miss Rose's determination to be ignored and slighted was not yet satisfied; and there must be a good deal more fuss about her taking a glass of wine, and her insisting that she did not expect such a privilege, before the matter was done, Miss Rose in this demonstrating the peculiar talent of those who proclaim their absence of self-esteem for getting a lot of attention by pretending they never get any."

"Demi-reps, my dear. Cyprians. Votaries of Venus. The muslin sisterhood." "Oh," said Louisa, in an impressed tone. "I thought they were just prostitutes."

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Rights of Man VS Reflections on the Revolution in France

The Writings of Thomas Paine - Volume 2 (1779-1792): the Rights of ManThe Writings of Thomas Paine - Volume 2 (1779-1792): the Rights of Man by Thomas Paine

Reflections on the Revolution in FranceReflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke
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So you are reading along in Thomas Paine's defense of the French Revolution when you come across a compelling argument as to why his opponent, Edmund Burke, is not only wrong, but morally reprehensible:

"But Mr. Burke appears to have no idea of principles when he is contemplating Governments. 'Ten years ago,' says he, 'I could have felicitated France on her having a Government, without inquiring what the nature of that Government was, or how it was administered.' Is this the language of a rational man? Is it the language of a heart feeling as it ought to feel for the rights and happiness of the human race? On this ground, Mr. Burke must compliment all Governments in the world, while the victims who suffer under them, whether sold into slavery, or tortured out of existence, are wholly forgotten. It is power, not principles, that Mr. Burke venerates; and under this abominable depravity he is disqualified to judge between them." (p. 23)

Oh, that horrid Burke! See!? He's ethically challenged, so his arguments are invalid. But wait. Here's what Burke actually wrote:

"Abstractedly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good; yet could I in common sense, ten years ago, have felicitated France on her enjoyment of a government, (for she then had a government,) without inquiry what the nature of that government was, or how it was administered? Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom?"

Paine has crafted an artfully edited statement with which to skewer his adversary. Or did he accidentally reverse "could I" to "I could"? Either way, this was long before anyone had coined the term "Fake News."

Friday, March 24, 2017

Promiscuous Knowledge Acquisition

It's not what you're thinking. I'm using the word in the sense of its second, slightly less derogatory meaning:

pro·mis·cu·ous /prəˈmiskyo͞oəs/
demonstrating or implying an undiscriminating or unselective approach; indiscriminate or casual.
"the city fathers were promiscuous with their honors"
synonyms: indiscriminate, undiscriminating, unselective, random, haphazard, irresponsible, unthinking, unconsidered
"promiscuous reading"

From page 26:

This idea came to mind when I started reading my latest eBay acquisition: a set of books called "The Golden Treasury of Knowledge" Margaret Bevans, editor-in-chief. The 16-volume set, originally published by Golden Press in 1961, contains "420 basic articles with 2500 illustrations and maps; not organized alphabetically--random articles on a wide range of topics in each volume, cross-referenced in the index (vol 16). Intended for children (level probably around age 8-12)." This description comes from Goodreads.

When I was young, our family had a set of encyclopedias, but this is something different. The introduction in Volume 1 states, "The articles in the volume are chosen for variety and interest. You can open the book anywhere and find absorbing reading. But when you have read an article that suggests another idea, look in the index in Volume 16 for related articles and facts." What I like about this method is that it is both thought-out and systematic while appealing to the random "scrappy" impulses of a curious mind.

Now, for a sample of the promiscuous content of Volume 1: The Universe, Giotto, Domestic Cats, The First Firearms, Venezuela, The Chestnut Blight, Molecules and Their Structure, The French Revolution. At the back of each volume there is a time chart showing how the periods of history relate and at what time the events in the articles took place.

These are the kinds of books for whiling away an afternoon, whether you are nine years old or a little bit older. And please don't tell me that all this information is available online. While that's perfectly true, it doesn't suit me to stare at a screen any longer than I already do. These books are refreshing, in an old-school kind of way.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Galileo's Daughter

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and LoveGalileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent science biography from the Ambleside Online Year 9 curriculum. I'm trying to pre-read more of the Ambleside books before my children get to them. This is a book that I had wanted to read when it first was published, but I never got around to it.

I had a mistaken notion that Galileo's daughter was also a scientist. She was not. She was born Virginia Galilei in Padua in 1600. Galileo never married her mother, though she bore him three children. Her sister Livia was born a year later and her brother Vincenzio was born in 1606. The two daughters entered the convent in Arcetri while the son was later legitimized by arrangements his father made with church officials. Suor Maria Celeste (Virginia) and Suor Arcangela (Livia) spent most of their lives in the Convent of San Matteo. The convent was of the Order of Saint Clare, known for their vows of extreme poverty modeled on Saint Francis of Assisi. The sisters lived through several rounds of plague outbreaks in Italy and were continually on the verge of starvation. Don't girls always get the best treatment? ... but that's another story.

Dava Sobel uses the letters from Suor Maria Celeste to her famous father to chart the course of his later life. This approach humanizes a figure who was subsequently painted in heroic proportions by his admirers. Galileo's struggle with the Inquisition and censors of his treatises on the revolutionary Copernican heliocentric worldview are the stuff of scientific legend. Galileo the man was not quite so heroic, but who can blame him? When your opponents can torture or kill you for disagreeing with them, it's usually advisable to take a pragmatic approach to dialog.

There were a number of passages that I highlighted throughout the book. My absolute favorite is one tending more towards philosophy than science, but the two were much more closely related in Galileo's time.

"The deeper I go in considering the vanities of popular reasoning, the lighter and more foolish I find them. What greater stupidity can be imagined than that of calling jewels, silver, and gold "precious," and earth and soil "base"? People who do this ought to remember that if there were as great a scarcity of soil as of jewels or precious metals, there would not be a prince who would not spend a bushel of diamonds and rubies and a cartload of gold just to have enough earth to plant a jasmine in a little pot, or to sow an orange seed and watch it sprout, grow, and produce its handsome leaves, its fragrant flowers, and fine fruit. It is scarcity and plenty that make the vulgar take things to be precious or worthless; they call a diamond very beautiful because it is like pure water, and then would not exchange one for ten barrels of water. Those who so greatly exalt incorruptibility, inalterability, etc. are reduced to talking this way, I believe, by their great desire to go on living, and by the terror they have of death. These individuals do not reflect that if men were immortal, they themselves would never have come into the world. Such men really deserve to encounter a Medusa's head which would transmute them into statues of jasper or of diamond, and thus make them more perfect than they are." --Galileo's "Dialogue" translated by Stillman Drake

Apart from refusing to suffer fools gladly, unless instructed by the Inquisition to do so, Galileo is cemented in my memory with this quote:

"Galileo prided himself on having been the first to build a proper telescope and point it toward the sky. But he believed his own greater genius lay in his ability to observe the world at hand, to understand the behavior of its parts, and to describe those in terms of mathematical proportions." (326)

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