Thursday, February 26, 2009

Rapunzel's Revenge

The most telling thing about this book was that I was the last person in my house to read it. Even my 7-yr-old loved it so much she sat and read it in one afternoon. All of my kids who can read, read this book in one sitting. So I think as far as the pre-teen audience goes, this is a great book.
I liked it too, but I'm not that much into graphic novels. It was a cute book, a reworking of the Rapunzel story (obviously) and the pictures are great. I just like longer books, something that only takes me a half-hour to read is too short.
I loved the place names (Devil's Armpit for example) and the people. I do need to take some more time and look over the map more closely.
I will probably buy this book at some point, just to complete the set if nothing else. And I just can't resist a books that can draw in my kids that way. I think this was the longest book E. has ever read and she loved it, even cried a little at one part. It is wonderful as long as you don't need a long book to catch your attention.

Rapunzel's Revenge. Shannon Hale. Bloomsbury. 2008

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Making Money-part 2

I read this book a year and a half ago and was so-so about it. I reread it and discovered a book about banks and money is funnier now than in '07. Mostly because of the tragic aspect of comedy; when you could either laugh or cry, I choose to laugh.
I found some good quotes, and since I already reviewed the book, I'll just put these in.
I have no sense of humor whatsoever. None at all. It has been proven by phrenology. I have Nichtlachen-Keinwortz syndrome, which for some curious reason is considered a lamentable affliction. I, on the other hand, consider it a gift. I am happy to say that I regard the sight of a fat man slipping on a banana skin as nothing more than an unfortunate accident that highlights the need for care in the disposal of household waste.

Watching a dog try to chew a large piece of toffee is a pastime fit for gods. Mr. Fusspot's mixed ancestry had given him a dexterity of jaw that was truly awesome. He somersaulted happily around the floor, making faces like a rubber gargoyle in a washing machine.

They told him things for all sorts of reasons: to gain some credit; to gain some money; for a favor quid pro quo; out of malice, mischief, or, suspiciously, out of a professed regard for the public good. What it amounted to was no information but a huge, Argus-eyed ball of little wiggling factoids, out of which some information could, with care, be teased.

Hubert's an economist. That's like an alchemist, but less messy.

Making Money. Terry Pratchett. Harper. 2007.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Planet Google

The subtitle really caught me on this one; one company's audacious plan to organize everything we know. I've long had this desire to know everything, so I could relate to the "audacious plan." It was more of a business oriented book, so I admit that I skimmed a lot of it.
The details of how you organize a tech business and, more important, learn to make a profit was interesting to me. The author hints that Google's success was more a lucky chance than anything else. They chose to do the notes on the side thing, linked to the search term, at the time other companies were going with banner ads and similar models. Google's ability to pay only for a click, rather than eyeball space, lets them be more diverse and by only advertising what people are looking for, they have more clicks. So Google makes money and has for a while now.
But one of Google's acquisitions, YouTube, doesn't make any money and they have yet to find a way to make it generate income. That was very funny to me. YouTube is wildly successful and a spectacular failure.
Google appeals to me because it tries to have a more engineering approach to business which causes it to have PR problems on a regular basis, but if you are using an engineering model that is to be expected.
The author had a lot of access to Google while writing this and seems to sway between admiration and caution. If Google does succeed in becoming the portal to all known information, perhaps he doesn't want to mess up his chances with our future overlords.
Reading such a current book is also chancy because I think some of the things he wrote about are already dated, but such is life in tech business. Though I learned some things from it, any book that is 1/3 notes and index is too detail oriented for a dilettante like myself.

Planet Google. Randall Stross. Free Press. 2008

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The World in Six Songs

I love music, though in a completely amateur way because I can barely even read music. So I love books like this, that discuss music without using nasty terms like chord progression to explain themselves.
This book I half liked. The part about the songs we love as human beings, the types that run through all sorts of cultures and times. That was great as the author has a wonderfully diverse sense of music and really went to great lengths to insure he was well rounded in talking about songs the world over. There were some great comparisons and some new thoughts. You have to love a book that references the Bible and Lord of the Rings in the same paragraph.
But then the section the subtitle refers to just irritated me. Perhaps I shouldn't have been reading this book with a massive headache, but the evolution sections were annoying. Its not that I have anything against evolution, but using it to explain social phenomena always seems hit or miss to me. Sometimes the examples and assumptions are unlikely to the point of being silly. The one that comes to mind is the thought that groups who buried their dead found an evolutionary benefit because it was more hygienic-so they were a tiny bit healthier than other groups. But weren't these ancient groups nomadic? So there would be just as much hygienic value in leaving the bodies at the old campsite. Or just dragging them off where you couldn't smell them any more. Or what of cannibalistic groups? They wouldn't have to spend the energy digging a great big hole and they would get extra protein. I could come up with questions about this particular theory all day. It was mentioned in the book by the way, in the section on religious songs. I think that is another reason I didn't like the evolutionary posts, the author seemed to be bringing in a lot of behaviour evolution to support his thesis, whether it was relevant or not.
I might try the author's other book, This is Your Brain on Music, because it seems to be more what I would like to read. Maybe since it is his first book, it will stay on topic more.
On a slightly related note, I have been suffering in silence because my MP3 died. But my new one came in the mail and I am going to go play with it now.

The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. Daniel J Levitin. Viking. 2008

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Long Way From Chicago

Just to start, having spent some months in Chicago, I think being a long ways from there is a good idea. No one but farmers should have to put up with that kind of weather. My sister-in-law and then my mother-in-law recommended these books. I was especially happy to see them at the library. This is not the type of book I would just pick up to read, mostly because they take place during the Depression and I have learned to avoid those type because Depression seems to be an accurate description of most books set in that time period.
The characters of the novel are what set it apart. Not only is the Grandmother hysterically funny, but the first person narrative voice of the child is very genuine. It was hard to believe that these books were fiction. They felt so real that you wanted them to be real.
I read a lot of YA fiction and this was the first time I have ever wished that a book was written for young people. The first person narrator is a child, and sees the other characters, especially his grandmother, as a child sees her. All we know of the Grandmother is what this boys sees of her. We know very little of her history, what made her such a formidable figure. The next book, while showing a girl's perspective on Grandma, still has the limitations of the voice. Reading this book as a child, or even as a teenager, I don't think I would notice a lack. But as an adult woman I want to know more about Grandma. I want to know when she married, where she grew up, how many kids she had. What made her such a strong woman, one who cares for the people on the edges and tries not to show it?
Grandma was the heart and soul of the books and I want to know more about her. I suppose it shows how good the books are that I have these questions. I laughed at the stories, and would definitely recommend them, especially to a teen reader, but I sure wish there was an adult version somewhere.

A Long Way From Chicago: A Novel in Stories & A Year Down Yonder. Richard Peck. Scholastic. 1999

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Everything I Want to Do is Illegal

This is a book that would make Robert Heinlein rolled over in his grave, yet he would completely agree with it. It is a book to make me, the mildly rebellious anti-authority person I am, become a raving Libertarian. It also will make you think twice, if not three times, before you buy meat at the grocery store again.
The author of this book is a farmer in Virginia. He is trying to run a small farm and sell the products from his farm. Most of the things he wants to do, sell eggs, fresh chicken and other meat, raw milk, are, in one way or another, illegal. The laws that in theory were set up to "protect" are just promoting the industrialization of food production. This month, with a mass hysteria over peanut products, we can see how safe the industry is. Unfortunately the result will be more regulation, resulting in more centralization and more areas where a large company can ignore the regulators and small ones can't get in at all.
The best part of this book is that the author is not writing a theoretical tract. He is no animal rights activist who has never seen animals in the wild, he is not a professor, years from getting mud on his shoes, he is a farmer first. He has become an activist only because of the years of fighting the system.
While the details of how ridiculous the regulations involving the production of food were, the parts of the book that really got to me were the places he discusses the ideology behind the regulations. For example:
One of my icons, Wendell Berry, makes the excellent point in his classic The Unsettling of America that ultimately the rabid environmentalist and the rabid factory farmer are cut from the same cloth: they both idolize a landscape devoid of humans. Ultimately they both hate people. . . Asked to supply a picture of the ideal landscape, neither group will include humans in the portrait.

Or this point,
As these types of laws proliferate, all of us find fewer and fewer spots of autonomy left. Being able to make self-directed decisions is critical for expressing our humanness. Not that any individual expression is okay. . . but these basic moral codes are a far cry from the kind of micro-behavioural codes emanating from today's politicians. The Romans had a saying that the better the government, the fewer the laws.

or this one,
Teddy Roosevelt used to say that nothing in government happens by accident. There is always an agenda. And especially today, the agenda usually involves more power and money to large corporate and bureaucratic interests with a parallel disempowering and impoverishing of smaller public and private entities.

I especially like that last paragraph, as he neatly skewers both the Left and the Right. This is a man who has thought deeply about our political process and the practical applications of it. All he wants to do is feed his neighbors and his family, the government will not allow it. While I think that a part of his problem is living in the East, even in the West more kneejerk reaction laws are passed every year. If I had a lot of money, I would buy this book for every person I know, as it is, get this from the library and read it, remember it when election time comes around and every time you have to deal with any sort of government bureaucracy.

Everything I Want to Do is Illegal. Joel Salatin. Polyface Inc. 2007

Monday, February 9, 2009

I Will Tell You in Your Mind and in Your Heart, by the Holy Ghost

This lesson was very long and had a lot of good quotes and scriptures. Because I had a cold and wasn't sure my voice was up to the lesson, I had everyone in class read a lot. To catch up on that read the lesson yourself, you might learn something.
This was definitely one of those more for the teacher days. I think most of them are. The nice old ladies all tell me my lessons are good, but I think they would do that if I stood up there and recited nonsense for 45 minutes. One of the quotes I liked, and that seemed to resonate in my brain was this one
Elder Boyd K. Packer counseled:“Sometimes you may struggle with a problem and not get an answer. What could be wrong? It may be that you are not doing anything wrong. It may be that you have not done the right things long enough. Remember, you cannot force spiritual things. Sometimes we are confused simply because we won’t take no for an answer. … Put difficult questions in the back of your minds and go about your lives. Ponder and pray quietly and persistently about them.The answer may not come as a lightning bolt. It may come as a little inspiration here and a little there, ‘line upon line, precept upon precept’ Some answers will come from reading the scriptures, some from hearing speakers. And, occasionally, when it is important, some will come by very direct and powerful inspiration. The promptings will be clear and unmistakable” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1979, 29–30; or Ensign, Nov. 1979, 21)
The Holy Ghost is our connection to the Father. He wants to communicate with us, any problems receiving revelation are due to us, not him. He will not leave us alone, and when the lines of communication seem to be down, we must do something to fix them. It felt a bit harsh saying that, but then a lot of the gospel can seem that way in our age of political correctness and trying to restore and bolster self-esteem, instead of built integrity and strength. If there is a problem, it is with us-period. The Lord does not change his promises, or stop answering prayers because he is too busy. If we can't figure out what is wrong on our own, then we need to go to the bishop and counsel with him why we are not feeling the prompting we long for.
It is the same thing with determining where the revelation is coming from. We know what our stewardships are. If revelation seems to come outside of the direct lines that have been laid down, it is not of God. If it contradicts what the prophet says, same thing. If it causes confusion, fear, darkness, anxiety it did not come from God.
This can be hard. I have had times in my life I denied the messages I was getting. My life became very dark and difficult. Because I would not receive what the Lord was giving me, I couldn't receive the Holy Ghost in other ways either. It is an experience I hope never to repeat.
The peace that comes from the Holy Ghost, as in John 14:27 is a priceless gift.
26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

This kind of peace is only to be found from Jesus Christ. The world wants us to be afraid; to turn to the guru of the week to learn how to cope with the latest crisis. Only through revelation from the Father, through the medium of the Holy Ghost can we have peace.

Addendum: Please understand that I am talking about and to myself mostly through this post. Don't feel I'm trying to solve your particular revelation problem, especially if you are depressed, then more help than just the bishop will be needed.

Friday, February 6, 2009

His Majesty's Dragon

This was a really excellent book. I've known about them for a while, even had this book in my car for a month or more, but never got around to reading it. But once I started I was hooked. I stayed up two nights in a row to finish both books that are currently at our house. This was okay with David because he was staying up reading book one, while I read book two.
The simple description doesn't do them justice. The book is set in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. A British ship captures a French one and on it is a dragon egg. The life of the dragon and his keeper/associate/friend are what follows. I'm not much into alternative history, which is why I never got around to reading it. Napoleon and Nelson with dragons sounded kind of corny.
The writing is what gets you though. The prose is clear, descriptive without being overbearing and the story moves along at a perfect pace, not so fast you feel rushed, nor so slowly you get bored and want them to hurry up already.
The setting is approximately the same one as Jane Austen and the writer does a wonderful job of conveying that same type of social setting amid the military and warfare. The main character is the third son of a noble, so while he has little money, he has the manners and expectations of the British upper class. How that comes in conflict with the men and organizations of the dragon corps is a a rich part of the tale. In another writer's hands this type of thing would have bogged down the story. There would be dinners and discussions of protocol. Here it is inserted naturally into the story, and blends with everything else. The characterization is also done wonderfully smoothly. In some books you can almost see the little yellow caution sign, WARNING: CHARACTER EXPOSITION AHEAD-- SLOW. You know the characters, especially the dragon and the action never slows down.
My only regret is that David is a much slower reader than I am, he will be reading these books for the next couple of days and I am already done. But one of us has to be useful and I was the one who suggested he read them.

His Majesty's Dragon & The Throne of Jade. Naomi Novik. Del Ray. 2006

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Debt Anyone? -NB

I mentioned before we are officially on a budget. It's going well, I can't complain. I saw this clip and it summed it all up, both nationally and personally.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Lee in the Lowcountry

The key to this book is already knowing a lot about the Civil War. It is a bit of a vignette book, no really important battles are fought, so my lack of knowledge of the War Between the States was an impediment.
The writing was a bit choppy and there was an assumption that I knew a lot of the names, which I vaguely did. It was also a very Southern book. I am from the West, so I have always heard the Northern point of view. Winners do write the histories for the most part. There were no overtly Southern things, no evil Yankees, but a slight bias towards the South. This only stands to reason since the author wrote the book with the help of the South Carolina Historical Society.
Lee was a complex and fascinating man. I need to read more about him as this small book only whetted my appetite to learn more. His frustration with dealing with civilians who weren't taking the war seriously, officers who were incompetent and generals too busy building their own fiefdoms and building their egos to defend and territory is a story many leaders are familiar with. But a man who could write,
God alone can save us from our folly, selfishness & shortsightedness. The last accounts seem to show that we have barely escaped anarchy to be plunged into civil war. What will be the result I cannot conjecture. I only see that a fearful calamity is upon us & fear that the country will have to pass through for its sins a fiery ordeal.
and still serve for his native Virginia is a complex study in loyalty. The country was still more loyal to states and regions than to the nation as a whole.
The book is also filled with anecdotes from the numerous people who wrote letters and journals detailing the war. A young man, never having held a shovel, tells of the embarrassment of failing at a job of loading sandbags, an officer describes the interior carnage in a fort that had been shelled and this note from Mary Boykin Chesnut, describing the Charleston fire, "Carolina institute, where secession was signed, burned down. From East Bay, along Broad St. down tot he river--Mr. Petigru's house. So being anti secession does not save. The fire, as the rain, falls on the just and the unjust."
The book is a nice addendum to any Civil War study, but does not cover the subject in enough detail or with the background a novice would need.

Lee in the Lowcountry: Defending Charleston & Savannah 1861-1862. Daniel J. Crooks Jr. The History Press. 2008

Monday, February 2, 2009

Triumph and Tragedy

This is the last of Churchill's volumes on WWII. This one had a different tone than the other ones. Perhaps because the issues in this volume had not been resolved at the time of writing, or perhaps because Churchill himself was disappointed at how things ultimately turned out (apart from winning the war that is). The theme of this volume is telling:
How the great democracies triumphed, and so were able to resume the follies which had so nearly cost them their life.
Not bitter about being kicked out of office as soon as the war was over, is he?
Because this book opened with D-Day, Hitler was soon reduced to a paper villain, unimportant because his fall was inevitable. The real evil of the time was Stalin. Even if you add all the fatalities of WWII at Hitler's feet, Stalin still killed more people. He was shrewd, cunning and a virtuoso at public appearances. He could lie to your face and smile. He openly called for the underground of Warsaw to rebel against the Germans, then left his armies 10 miles away until they had all been slaughtered to enter the city. Though it trivializes the war a bit, the image that keeps coming to mind is Hitler's Count Dooku to Stalin's Darth Sidious.
The present ineffectual design of the United Nations is the result of maneuvering to get Russia to join it. Field Marshall Smuts, who was tasked with finding a compromise that Russia would accept in forming the UN, optimistically wrote to Churchill,
The principle of unanimity will at the worse only have the effect of a veto, or stopping action where it may be wise, or even necessary. Its effect will be negative; it will retard action. But it will also render it impossible for Russia to embark on courses not approved of by the USA and the United Kingdom.
Russia soon proved that it would do as it liked and operated through its proxy states, even as early as before the Germans capitulated. Marshall Tito nearly got into open combat with Allied soldiers over the Italian port of Trieste, even though they were supposedly on the same side. When Churchill asked Stalin to reign in his underling, Stalin denied he had any influence over Tito at all.
It didn't help that France was actively empire-building and resisting all calls to free Syria and other held possessions and Greece was close to anarchy, with only British troops able to keep the peace. I think Churchill felt the war had only been paused and forsaw a rapid decline into anarchy with Russia a vulture, eager to devour the spoils.
Though the death of Roosevelt and Churchill's loss of political power enabled Stalin to set up puppet states all through eastern Europe, the Iron Curtain (Churchill coined the phrase) did not result in another world war. I think Churchill would have been surprised that the ideological conflict between democracy and communism never erupted into more than regional conflicts.
Through all of his distrust of Stalin, he was still as swayed by the dictator's personal magnetism as any. At the meeting where Truman told Stalin of the atomic bomb, Churchill reports, "I was certain that at that date Stalin had no special knowledge of the vast process of research upon which the united States and Britain had been engaged for so long." We know now that Stalin knew all about it. He had a spy at Los Alamos for years.
It is intriguing to think what would have happened if during the post-war negotiations, the Conservative party had stayed in office. The animosity between the US and USSR that developed would have been shared more equally by Great Britain it is almost certain.

Triumph and Tragedy. Winston Churchill. Houghton Mifflin. 1953