Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Belgariad

I've been thinking about books to read to my boys, who are horribly picky about choosing a good-night book. Joshua wants something that is unremittingly funny and Ryan wants lots of action and fighting. Those don't usually go together well. So I thought of this series of books I read quite a while ago and started reading them again, with a view to how much the kids would like them. It changes how you look at something when you are reading it for a specific purpose.

I think these are a bit too old for my kids right now, there is a little bit of romance and some talk about men and women stuff that I don't think they would get right now, but in a few years they will enjoy them I think.

The Belgariad is funny because I enjoy reading it, but for completely different reasons that I enjoy most fantasy. A lot of authors go out of their way to know how long it would take people to go somewhere, and all sorts of authentic details. There is none of this in Eddings' work. The plot moves quickly, the characters are great and the dialogue very enjoyable. But if little details are important to you, don't read them because the little details are not right. For example: if you had a cave system that travels all the way from top to bottom of a mile high mountain, it would take you more than a few hours to get through it. There are a lot of that type of thing, using big numbers, to be impressive then compressing the actual time it takes to travel, or fight or whatever, for the sake of moving the story along. They are fun books, but not for analyzing.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Penguin Who Knew Too Much

I really like these Donna Andrews books. For some reason they tickle my funny bone and the plots doesn't seem as predictable as most light mysteries do. Of course they are secondary mysteries, because humor seems to be the main genre. They are light, funny and not so stupid I have to disengage my brain to read them. I only wish my library had more than two. I know that there are a lot more. I always feel weird about buying these kinds of books because I read them so fast and don't usually reread them. It seems like a waste of money. So, I need to get someone else to do it. Cammie, you should really try these, I think you will like them, if you like that other author, Mary Janice Davidson. (How's that for subtle?)
The Penguin Who Knew Too Much. Donna Andrews. St. Martins. 2008

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Name of the Wind

This was a great book, (great big actually). It was a typical coming of age fantasy type, but the writing was amazing. The story is told in the first person and it really made you feel like you were listening to someone tell their life story. A lot of first person narratives just use the storytelling as a frame. Like in the movies when someone starts talking and then you fade into the rest of the movie. A book does the same by switching from first to third person. A good first person is hard to keep up, a lot sort of fade in and out.

This one kept the first person the whole time, and as a double-layered story too. The feeling of an older man, telling about his remembered feelings and the interpretation: how he saw things then, and how his older perspective changes things was very consistent. I am impressed by such good writing craft.

Then the story was good too. The biggest complaint I have is that the next book in the series doesn't come out until April. I'm going to start only reading dead authors. I hate waiting for a new book to come out. This one dragged a bit, but when I finished my hands itched, wanting to continue the story, or even reread the one I had. I probably would have but David has started it now and I don't want to steal it from him.
The Name of the Wind. Patrick Rothfuss. DAW. 2008

Friday, July 18, 2008

What the Nose Knows

Most people know that the sense of smell is most of what we taste, but did you know that there are only a few thousand chemicals that make up all of what we smell? And that a human's nose isn't really one of the worst in the animal kingdom?

The author is a psychologist and does all sorts of work with smell. The most interesting thing to me was that he tracked down some numbers that come up again and again when people are writing about smell and found where the figures really come from: usually someone made it up a long time ago and it just gets passed around until everyone believes it. Kind of like the drink eight cups of water a day, which was started by the bottled water people.

Gas Chromatography is explained, the way they figure out what chemicals are given off by any certain thing, and which ones smell like what. The author was very good at telling the story. Since he has been in the industry a long time, he has plenty of good stories. I enjoy this type of science book, well written and with lots of cool stuff you didn't know before. If I ever write a book, I would like to do this kind of one, though I can't imagine anyone paying me to do the research needed.

What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life. Avery Gilbert. Crown Publishing . 2008

How the States Got Their Shapes

When I showed this book to David he said, "Sounds boring." And I admit, this wasn't a book to keep me up nights and think deeply. But it had some little interesting tidbits, and was a perfect book to read while I was eating or just in small chunks, which is how I read most of the time.

I learned more about treaties the US has made with other countries, and how that give and take process works. That is where a lot of the state boundaries come from, treaties as the US was gaining territory. It was also funny to see how big each territory wanted to be and how Congress chopped them all down. I had always thought it was only Utah that it happened to, but all territories overstepped their reach and were cut back.

The square design of the central states also indicates something I thought was non-existent: foresight and planning on the part of the United States Congress. They wanted to make the states as equal as possible, so making the even boundaries, three degrees high and seven wide was one way to do that. Pretty impressive that they stuck to it for that many states. Proof all is not lost in hoping for intelligence from our elected officials.

How the States Got Their Shapes. Mark Stein. Smithsonian Books. 2008

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Deepness in the Sky

This was a pretty heavy duty book. A classic science-fiction book, with not two, but three different cultures clashing. You have the deep space trader group, a group who uses mental slavery to achieve the types of analysis that computer programmers only dream about, and a newly industrialized planet of spider-type aliens.

It took me a while to get into it, I've not really been in the mood to read something so heavy, so I would read a few pagers while I ate breakfast or supervised piano lessons. Then I began to be more interested in the story and stayed up late to finish it.

One of the best parts of the book was the extrapolation from current abilities. Nothing in the book depended on something fantastically new. No faster than light, no anti gravity, no force fields and all that stuff, just cryogenic suspension to get through the thousands of years it would take to travel the stars.

The author is a computer science professor, so a lot of the technology depended on computers, and he had something I've never seen before, a programmer/archaeologist. Even today much of what programmers do is built on what has been done before, subroutines and all that. So imagine thousands of years of built up subroutines. I know what happens to my computer in just a couple of years, imagine thousands of years of different programs, all for different things, but none of it cleared away, just used to make the "next generation" programs run better.

This is why I like science fiction, the playing with ideas, carrying them further and further. This book also had the common theme of civilization collapse. I don't know that it is plausible. Once you get the degree of literacy we have now, how could all that be lost? I think it would be possible to regress some, but completely? Maybe I am not pessimistic enough.

A Deepness in the Sky. Vernor Vinge. Tor. 2000

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Royal Treatment

This was crude, vulgar, and absolutely lacking in lasting literary merit. That said, I really enjoyed it. Though I don't swear myself, sometimes I find it funny. I guess one part of adolescence that sticks with me. The formula of having someone lacking in social graces enter the royal world is popular and funny. But in this one the royal family isn't exactly the most formal either. The dialogue was very enjoyable. But if swearing bothers you at all, don't read this, don't even acknowledge that you know I read it. It's too hot to read serious important type books.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Great Deliverance

When we take trips as a family we borrow books on CD and other audio type entertainment from the library. On several trips we have listened to the stories of Maynard Moose, very funny renditions of fairy tales. In one of them, called Sleeping Beastly, when the beautiful princess first sees the hairy snoring beastly she says, "Oh, Igg, what a hideous sleeping beastly!"
So now, when something is icky or otherwise nasty I say "Igg, Igg." So though this was well written and had a good puzzle and all that good detective book stuff, the ending made me say "Oh, Igg." I wish someone would invent mind bleach, for all those things you didn't mean to put into your mind, but end up there anyway.

A Great Deliverance. Elizabeth George. Bantam. 1988

Monday, July 7, 2008

Physics of the Impossible

OK, I admit it, I am a science nerd. Even though I only ended up with a minor in physics, I still love it. The whole idea that you can describe the real world with mathematics is just so cool. So I liked this book which combined two things I like about science: the real stuff and science-fiction movies. The author, who is a real physicist by the way, not someone who just writes science books for a living, takes a number of special effects things from movies and goes over how they could work from a real world perspective and how close we are to achieving the same results.

The thing that impressed me about this book was how the author seriously went into the science of things that most of us just blow off as not in a million years. Like force fields, he describes the types of forces we know know; gravitation, electricity & magnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and then why they don't make a cool blue shield that will keep out laser bolts. He went on to describe the types of things we have today, that maybe someday could be used to keep out laser bolts, but they still won't be visible in the real world, no matter how many Star Wars movies you watch.

It had the best and most understandable description of string theory I have ever read. Not surprising considering the author is one of the people who developed it. He graded everything by how soon, if ever we could accomplish that particular technology. He had only two that he graded as flatly impossible, contradicting the laws of physics as we now know them: perpetual motion and precognition. I was impressed that with everything else he could see a way that maybe it could work. But I'm not going to explain the arguments on time travel, you will have to look the book up yourself.

Physics of the Impossible. Michio Kaku. Doubleday. 2008

Swimming Without a Net

This was the literary equivalent of cotton candy. I have a weakness for them but only one at a time. I tend to get one when I have a Mommy's night out and then read it while I'm out so I don't have to admit to anyone I read it. Davidson writes silly supernatural romances. Sometimes the supernatural is higher, sometimes not. I do try to avoid the mostly romance ones because they tend to be heavy on the sex as well, which I don't appreciate.
They are quick, easy reads, good for a night out when I want to leave my responsibilities behind for a little while.

Hey look, I put the picture of the book in. Cool huh? Maybe I can make this thing look more interesting, though if you don't read much, it will still be boring, sorry.

Swimming Without a Net. Mary Janice Davidson. Jove Books. 2007

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Secret History of Moscow

This book made me sad. It was a good story, sort of a Neil Gaiman type of magical things happening in a large city. The story made me want to read more about Russian folklore and the history of that country. I've often thought I wanted to know more about Russia because so much of the information we have in the US tends to boil down to a few stereotypes: cold, stoic, vodka, melancholy, old communists, new mafia, blond, ballet, Siberia. This book had lot of those things in it, but from a Russian perspective.
Living in the desert, I hate the cold, but the acceptance, and beauty found in the ice and snow was different, if necessary when you live in a climate like Moscow's. The saddest things in the book was the lack of belief or hope in the characters. Even the mythical characters who have been banished to an underground hideaway have no hope for the future. They just exist, glad to have somewhere relatively safe, but not willing to question or wonder.
The humans who find themselves in this place are also grateful for the sanctuary, but equally lacking in hope and meaning. The amazement as they find childhood stories is good, but to an American that amazement would turn to wonder, joy, or other mostly positive emotions. Here we find them lacking the hope to find joy. Since everything is so messed up on the surface, everything will get that way down below.
I kept running into passages that highlighted how important meaning, more than just existence, is to the human soul. And how so many in Russia have lost any sense of meaning further than their own bodily wants.
Most of the time I don't realize how different I, and any other person with faith, is to those who have lost it. To be happy and mentally healthy I think you need to believe in something more than yourself. Whether that be your family, God, the common good, or whatever. When the State or something else takes that hope away, there isn't much left to keep you going. All of the people in the novel end up in the underworld because they had hit the point where they had nothing left in the surface world to keep them there, so the chance to maybe go somewhere else was worth taking.
The hope, the incentive to get up and try to make the new day a little bit better than the day before, is something I tend to take for granted. I need to be a bit more aware and grateful for that.

The Secret History of Moscow. Ekaterina Sedia. Prime Books. 2007