Friday, November 30, 2007

The Stuff of Thought

This was really interesting. The author is a professor of psychology at Harvard. He has written a number of other books about language and how it works. This one was about how language reflects how our brains work.
I felt like I really learned a lot about the ordering of language. The way he groups categories of nouns, verbs, etc. according to how they are used and how they can be formed into sentences makes much more sense than the traditional ways of organizing language that you find in a prescriptive grammar, or that we all learned in school. In fact, one of my lowest grades was in my required English grammar class at BYU.
I don't think I'm going to go into how cause and effect seems to be mirrored in language, and not just English, but many others. Mostly because I would have to read the book again in order to properly summarize it. So if you are interested, look this one up in your own library.
There was one point I really liked. He has a chapter discussing swearing; why, how, common themes among all languages. One point he made that I had wondered about was why swearing is so forceful and unpleasant. He said that when a person swears, he forces anyone in hearing range to think about something disgusting or extremely unpleasant. It is a means of social aggression, which is why young men, in the "swagger" phase, are notorious for using it. He also said something which I have thought for a long time, but he said it so nicely:

Language has often been called a weapon, and people should be mindful about
where to aim it and when to fire. The common denominator of taboo words is
the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone, and it's worth considering
how often one really wants one's audience to be reminded of excrement, urine,
and exploitative sex. Even in its mildest form, intended only to keep the
listener's attention, the lazy use of profanity can feel like a series of jabs
in the ribs. They are annoying to the listener, and a confession by the
speaker that he can think of no other way to make his words worth attending
to. It's all the more damning for writers, who have the luxury of choosing
their words off-line from the half-million-word phantasmagoria of the English
lexicon.

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Steven Pinker. Viking. 2007

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Hatch's Order of Magnitude

I actually bought this book for Ryan, because he is constantly asking what is the biggest, smallest, best, worse, whatever. It is basically a book of lists, starting from one end of a scale and moving to the other. For example: Amount of Sleep
  1. Wink
  2. Power nod
  3. Power nap
  4. Afternoon nap
  5. REM cycle
  6. A good night's rest
  7. Sleep like the dead
  8. Coma
  9. Permanent vegetative state
  10. The Big Sleep

So stuff like that, completely arbitrary because it is made up by the author with a minimum of research, but I thought he would like it. But David noticed some categories I had missed while browsing, so I needed to go through it more closely, with a black Sharpie in hand, e.g. levels of chastity, breast size, and levels of affection, male and female. So I will remove a few pages and hope he doesn't mind a few black marks in his book.

So it is included in this list because I have now read every word including some that no one will read again out of this particular volume.

Hatch's Order of Magnitude: Methodical Rankings of the Commonplace and the Incredible for Daily reference, by a Man of Extraordinary Genius and Impeccable Taste. Michael Hatch. Writer's Digest Books. 2007

No Graves as Yet

This is a novel set just before WWI and while on the surface it was a mystery, it also explores the idea of what kind of peace would be worse than entering a war.
A young man's parents are killed as they are traveling. His brother reveals that the father was bringing a document to him; one that would reveal a terrible plot that would destroy England and blot its honor forever. So the plot revolves not only around who killed the parents, but what is this terrible plot and how does it relate to the events in Yugoslavia. The murder of the parents happens the same day that Archduke Ferdinand was killed and sparked the beginnings of WWI.
It is interesting to me to read these type of novels that take place just before an important event. We all know what happened in the end, but the characters fret and worry about whether Britain will enter the war, and think the "Irish Question" is more important. Afterward it is hard to remember the how things were before the war changed everything.
I have been interested in British history and WWI really changed a way of life more that any other war. Think Mary Poppins. That smug, secure, upper class existence was gone after the war, then the depression, then the next war. The first half of the Twentieth Century was cataclysmic to England. Things changed dramatically in the US too, but not as fast, and we were going up. Great Britain was losing a lot of her institutions, social habits and a lot of her empire.
This is the first in a series. I will probably read the others too. I like Anne Perry. She has led a very interesting life and now she is LDS. She writes a monthly column on the LDS website Meridian that I read occasionally.

No Graves as Yet. Anne Perry. Ballantine Books. 2003

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Time Traveler's Wife

This is not the type of book I usually get. But I was at the library by myself so I took a few minutes and read it for a while and got hooked. I don't usually read relationship driven novels because they are usually an exploration of how two people can send each other over the edge. Or if not dwelling on unpleasant people who make terrible choices, they are overly sentimental and saccharine. You know, killing people off unexpectedly so as to make you cry and feel like you've had an emotional experience.
Anyway, this book talks about a man who is an involuntary time traveler. It is sort of like an epileptic seizure, caused by stress usually. He disappears from where he is and reappears some when else; naked and penniless because nothing travels with him.
He meets a girl when he is 28 and she is 20, they fall in love, and marry. The complication is that after this point, when she becomes important to him, he begins time traveling back to her childhood. So he meets her when he is 28 and she is 20, she meets him when she is 6 and he is 36. This could have been done in so many wrong ways but it is handled beautifully, for the most part. He helps her with her homework, teaches her chess, refuses to say anything about the future and tries to be patient.
She does not want to be patient and so some of the tension of the novel begins. It follows a more or less chronological line, as Henry bounces in and out like a superball. How the relationship develops, as Claire grows, as Henry deals with his own issues, and as the complications of turning up naked and alone in various places build up the story just pulls you in.
I think this may have been made into a movie, but I'm not sure. It was probably rated R because a naked man is one of the prominent features of the story.
And how you deal with death is handled with care. The loss of parents, friends, and the foreknowledge of our time traveler is not ever sappy but agonizing and moving.
I must say, as I got closer to the end, and the point where Henry's death, which he knows about, (obviously,) I couldn't put it down. I stayed up way too late and then I cried for the last 50 pages.
There was an irritating incident with an ex-boyfriend of the wife after her husband dies that I don't think was necessary. And more sex and language than I would like to have seen. Honestly it was right on the edge of what will make me put a book back I'm glad I can skim quickly and skip that stuff. Of course, not having it in there at all would have been better.

The Time Traveler's Wife. Audrey Niffenegger. MacAdam/Cage. 2003.

P.G. Wodehouse

This book is one of those omnibus editions, it has five Wodehouse novels:The Return of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster Sees It Through, Spring Fever, The Butler Did It and The Old Reliable. P.G. Wodehouse is one of the authors that everybody hears about but not so many people read any more.
They are really funny, but slightly dated. They were mostly written in the 50s and have that same feel. The plots tend to be similar, revolving around marriage and money. It is sort of like Jane Austen on laughing gas, all giddy and trying not to take serious things very seriously.
This would be a much better book to own than to check out from the library. Wodehouse is very funny, but trying to read all this in a short amount of time so as to return it to the library, things get repetitive. I've noticed that almost all authors have favorite phrases and metaphors, which isn't unexpected, but when you read several books in a row this can get irritating.
When I was on bed rest while pregnant with Bridget, I would have David bring me all of a given author at a time from the library. I could tell the really good ones easily, because their style didn't start to grate by the time I was done with the stack.
David had never read Wodehouse before and I knew he had picked it up because I could hear him laughing from downstairs. So I will probably get him a single Wodehouse novel, since I have to return this one to the library, I've already renewed it once.

Five Complete Novels: P.G. Wodehouse. Gramercy Books. 1983.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo

I got this book to read to the boys. I had heard a lot of good things about it. But since the book we are reading now is a bit old for them (The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents- very good) I will probably not read it with them now.
OK, now a week after I wrote the above sentence. We are going to Salt Lake for Thanksgiving and I got the CD version to listen to in the car. We will see how it goes.
I liked this book a lot. It is a subtly LDS book. It was published by Shadow Mountain, which is an imprint of Deseret Book, but there are no LDS references in it. But it has themes and attitudes in it that are very LDS.
Instead of God there is reference to "fate. Which I think is sort of weaselly but a common thing when trying to adjust a book for the mass market. But the attitudes about trials and suffering and why you are placed on the earth and what being alive is for all dovetail nicely with LDS doctrine. David thought I was reading things into the book, but so what if I felt that some things were uplifting then they were. Author intent doesn't really matter in a case like that.
I don't know if this is a nationwide book or not, so someone that lives away from Utah, leave a comment and let me know if you find out.
Harry Potter has really help the cause of good YA literature. As someone on a newsgroup that I read occasionally pointed out, YA fiction is where the really interesting things are happening in fiction right now. I think a lot of books like this one would not have been published if it weren't for Harry Potter. There are some that maybe shouldn't have been anyway, but on the whole it is a good influence I think.

Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo. Obert Skye. Shadow Mountain. 2005

First Among Sequels

I repent of some of the bad things I've said about my library. They have gotten both of the new books I've been interested in lately. I bought Making Money, but I've resisted this one and felt very virtuous about it and it was at the library the last time I went. I was quite surprised. And I must say the only reason I had not bought it was because the local bookstore didn't have it, so I'm not that virtuous.
I really like Jasper Fforde. He has a very odd sense of humor, a vivid writing style and a wholly new take on the interface between the reader and a work of fiction. The Thursday Next series (this is the fifth) are about a woman who can enter fiction and joins the inter-fiction police department, "Jurisfiction."
The world he has created is one where books are popular like movies are. In some of the earlier books Richard III by Shakespeare is done with audience participation, like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. A crooked politician almost buys an election by presenting England with a long lost Shakespeare play, Cardenio. And there is a branch of detectives for literary fraud and similar issues.
If you love fiction, and are familiar with some classics and the way things are "supposed" to go in fiction you will enjoy these.
The first four take place in the eighties. This one takes place fourteen years later. The protagonist has three children, including a stereotypical teenage son. Though what he does with this stereotype is entertaining. Nothing is just a stereotype or cliche in Jasper Fforde.
Having raved this much, I must say, I didn't like this one as much as some of the others. It wasn't bed, just not my favorite. And Jasper Fforde does write like a non-LDS person, so there are some bits of swearing and such. But I sure like the way he thinks.

Thursday Next in First Among Sequels. Jasper Fforde. Viking. 2007

Friday, November 2, 2007

Good Night, Mr. Holmes

I had a mommy night out last night, went to the library and got some books. This was was pretty good. I read it all last night. It is amazing what having some time to myself does for my mood and motivation.
This was a sort of spin-off book. It is based in the world of Sherlock Holmes. The author took the story A Bohemian Affair by Arthur Conan Doyle and then wrote a novel expanding the character of Holmes's opposite in the story. I don't stay opponent because it wasn't that confrontational but she outwitted Holmes in the story, which is unusual.
You have to be a pretty confident, or clueless, writer to take on something as venerated as Sherlock Homes, but I think she did a pretty good job. It wasn't something that will be saved as wisdom of the ages or anything but a nice story, interestingly told. I found it a bit far-fetched in some aspects but that is par for the course.
I think a lot of writers choose the late Victorian period to write in because issues that are of interest to people today were just starting to develop and it is much easier to write a period novel and leave out the sex, language and violence that peppers today's novels. I think that is why Anne Perry writes Victorian mystery novels. She is LDS and she can talk about a lot of issues with compromising principles. I know that there is a lot of pressure from the publishing business arm to put that so-called "crowd-pleasing" stuff in and period novels can avoid this.
Not to say that they all do, but I think that it is one sanctuary for authors, so I read this kind pretty often, along with other "sanctuary genres" like Young Adult and Science-Fiction and Fantasy, (the safety value of these has declined dramatically but they seem easier to sort) and Middle-Age Woman mysteries (the ones with recipes and pets featured prominently). Though I really can only read the last category when I am feeling brain dead or while pregnant (though those two are synonymous) because they are incredibly formulaic.

Good Night, Mr. Holmes. Carole Nelson Douglas. Tor. 1990

The Greatest War Stories Never Told

I picked this one up for Ryan, he has been into "war stories" lately. The school librarian gave him a war stories book that had him worked up for weeks. She said she has an animals in war book he might like too. She is in our ward which is handy since my boys bring books home, take them to their rooms and I never see them to make them go back to school.
I'm glad I decided to read it first. It was connected to a series on the History Channel so it was just a page per anecdote and only took me about half an hour to read. But some of the stories were not what I would like Ryan to be reading. Like the one about Theodora, Empress of the Byzantine Empire, who started life as an "exotic dancer."
I did like the one about the CIA spending a ton of money to develop a way to use electronically implanted cats as listening devices, then when they let the prototype out of the van, it immediately got run over by a car. That ended the project pretty quickly.
I hate stories that say "never told" or something like that. You expect it to have lots of new stuff, but I had heard most of these stories before. It was more like greatest stories not brought up regularly on the news but hanging around here and there. Oh well, a quick browsing book, not for eight-year-olds though.

The Greatest War Stories Never Told. Rick Beyer. Collins. 2005

A Sorcerer and a Gentleman

I didn't like this one very much. I kept reading petty much only because it was around in the places where I read. I have been to busy to do much reading lately. I actually finished this one over a week ago.
Some books try to be "avant-guard" or intellectual by messing with the conventions of fiction story-telling. Some, not many, succeed. This wasn't one of them. The author tries to create suspense by artificially ending scenes then making you wait for the middle of the next chapter to find out what actually happened. It does make you keep reading to find out what happened but it is also very irritating. If I was telling you a story then quit in the middle and then called you a week later to talk about something unrelated and then dropped in the middle of the conversation, "Oh yeah, about that thing I was talking about last week, here's what happened." It would have the same effect.
There was also a person who was developed like she would be a major character then killed off-screen (so to speak) and dropped in a couple of paragraphs. And an abortion. Only a mild curiosity in what was going to happen kept me going, then it didn't really end, just the fuzzy conclusion of a book obviously intended to start a long series. I haven't seen any other books by this author, so I don't think the rest of the series turned up. No great loss.

A Sorcerer and a Gentleman. Elizabeth Willey. Tor. 1995