July 16th, 2011


Books 24 to 27

Book 24:"Murther & Walking Spirits" by Robertson Davies

As McWearie used to say, one's family is made up of supporting players in one's personal drama. One never supposes that they starred in some possibly gaudy and certainly deeply felt show of their own.

Having been murdered by his wife's lover in the first sentence of the book, Connor 'Gil' Gilmartin becomes a ghost, the walking spirit of the title. In life he was an editor at a Toronto newspaper, and he is murdered by the paper's theatre reviewer, and in death he finds himself sitting next to his murderer at a film festival, but he isn't watching the same films as the rest of the audience. Instead, he sees the stories of some of his ancestors, in Europe and North America, complete with voice-overs, montages and split screen effects, just like a real movie.

Gil sees how his ancestors' experiences, including religion (he comes from a long line of Methodists), bankruptcies, unhappy marriages and manipulative parents have shaped his paternal relatives and himself, but there isn't a strong plot to tie the stories together, and after a strong start in 18th century New York, they seem to become less and less interesting. The ending feels somewhat flat, with no explanation about why Gil has been shown these particular ancestors' stories, or big revelation about what will happen to him next. Not one of my favourites by this author.

Book 25: "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card

It made him sorrowful, but Ender did not weep. He was done with that. When they had turned Valentine into a stranger, when they had used her as a tool to work on Ender, from that day forward they could never hurt him deep enough to make him cry again. Ender was certain of that.
And with that anger, he decided he was strong enough to defeat them- the teachers, his enemies.

I found the story of Ender's training really quite sad, how he was deliberately isolated from his fellow students and made to believe that no adult would ever come to his aid. But it's not easy to believe that they would have left the safety of earth to a bunch of pre-pubescent children, however intelligent and well trained they were. it seems inconceivable that they had not been able to find suitable adult soldiers to defeat the Buggers. So although the story works on an emotional level, I kept being pulled up by how ridiculous and far-fetched it was.

Book 26: "The Cunning Man" by Robertson Davies

Canada isn't nearly as bad as Ernest says, just about thirty years behind the time artistically and what he says about being bourgeois and uncultured and narrow and pious could just as well be said about Nottingham or any of a dozen places we know and keep away from.

While "Murther and Walking Spirits" tells tales of a Canadian Methodist family, the second book in the unfinished Toronto Trilogy concerns a very different form of protestantism, as it concerns the clergy and congregation of Saint Aidan's, an extremely High Church Anglican parish in Toronto. The story is told by Jonathan Hullah, the Cunning Man, best friend of Brocky Gilmartin, lover of Brocky's wife and and godfather of his son Gil (the protagonist of "Murther and Walking Spirits"). Jonathan is a doctor who becomes involved with the church when he sets up his practice in the grounds of a house next to the church and finds that another of his old schoolfriends is a curate there. His landladies are a lesbian couple, both artists, and part of the story is told through letters from one of them to an old friend in England, whom I gradually realised was Barbara Hepworth the sculptor. In fact Chip's lively letters and the descriptions of her humorous illustrations were the best part of the book. I preferred "The Cunning Man" to "Murther & Walking Spirits" because it had more of a plot, a couple of mysteries to keep me interested, and some interesting characters.

Book 27: "Speaker for the Dead" by Orson Scott Card

"Will you have the meeting?"
"I'll call it. In the Bishop's chambers."
Ender winced.
"The Bishop won't meet anywhere else," she said, "and no decision to rebel will mean a thing if he doesn't agree to it." Bosquinha laid her hand on his chest. "He may not even let you into the Cathedral. You are the infidel."
"But you'll try."
"I'll try because of what you did tonight. Only a wise man could see my people so clearly in so short a time. Only a ruthless one would say it all out loud. Your virtue and your flaw-- we need them both."

The events of "Ender's Game" are three thousand years in the past, but Ender and Valentine Wiggin have spent so much time travelling between planets at near light speed, that they are still in their thirties. Ender became a Speaker for the Dead, someone who speaks the truth of a person's life at their memorial service, not whitewashing their life, but getting to the heart of who they were and why they acted as they did.He started by speaking the life of the Bug... Queen, whose race he destroyed and of his bother Peter, and many other people since Ender have chosen to become Speakers for the Dead. So when an inhabitant of the planet Lusitania, the home of the only other intellgent alien species ever discovered, request the services of a Speaker for the Dead to speak the life of a man killed by the Piggies, they do not realise that the first Speaker for the Dead, the author of the "The Hive Queen and the Hegemon", is coming.

I found it hard to get into this book because to start with I did not like the main characters, but I gradually warmed to most of them. I have always liked stories where anthropologists, linguists or archaeologists are studying alien species, whether living or long-dead, to try and figure out what makes them tick. It gradually became clear that the policy of trying to avoid cultural contamination of the Piggies, by neither asking or answering questions, has caused nothing but misunderstanding and heartache on both sides, and that we can never hope to share the galaxy with alien species unless we open ourselves fully, and really come to understand each other's culture and customs. So the moral of this story is not exactly subtle, but it was enjoyable all the same.
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Book 40 for 2011

Shade's Children by Garth Nix. 352 pages.

Post-apocalyptic fantasy in which the evil Overlords have taken over the Earth fifteen years before the book opens, at which time everyone over the age of fourteen disappeared. The remaining children are herded into the Dorms an used as material for making the Overlords' creatures and for breeding more children for the same purpose. On their fourteenth birthday each child is taken to the Meat Factory where they're transformed into things that are no longer human to fight in the Overlords' ritual battles.

Some few children escape the Dorms and an even smaller number find the sanctuary offered by Shade, a computer simulation of a human adult, who has made it his mission to fight the Overlords and restore the world to humanity. But even Shade isn't all he seems.

As might be expected from Garth Nix, a strong story with strong characters and plenty of twists and turns. The motives of the Overlords are rather sketchy, but since the book is from the point of view of four of the children who escape the Dorms, that's fair enough - the reader knows what the characters know and the Overlords don't tend to have heart to heart chats with humans. The ending was perhaps a tiny bit rushed after all the buildup, but that's the only real criticism I can muster.


The definitive history of the original Burma-Shave signs remains Frank Rowsome's The Verse by the Side of the Road.
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Bill Vossler's Burma-Shave: The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times, builds on Mr Rowsome's work, drawing on recollections from his Minnesota neighbors, including some employees of the old Burma-Vita Company (which gave the impression of being a much larger company than it was, on the strength of the word of mouth its signs produced.)  The title of Book Review No. 20 suggests one unusual feature of the book:  if you want to find the jingle about the "cough drop" brothers, it's listed; oddly, it makes one reference to "halos" when there are at least two jingles that use the concept, but you have to look up "harp" to find the second one.  The complete list of jingles is not in chronological or thematic order: for that you have to look at Verse by the Side of the Road, or this site.  A chronological ordering would help unravel an intriguing story from Idaho, in which one badly-maintained set of signs had two from one jingle and three from another jingle, and somehow the convex combination made sense.  The story sheds light on the construction of the signs.  Verse suggests signs were either pine boards or for a while aluminum sheets (the latter being more easily perforated by gunfire).  This book describes original board signs being overlaid with new jingles on aluminum (perhaps another reason to go to all red for the signboards, the last sign not having to be overlaid?)  The author also gives in to the temptation to interpret and analyze ... perhaps it's Minnesota Blue State Smug, perhaps it's recognition that the end of the roadside jingles was another E-T-T-S moment for The America that Worked(TM).Collapse )
The book ends just before the 1997 return of Burma-Shave, complete with signs. (Somewhere in the slide collection is the illustration of a sequence outside Wenonah, Illinois.)  That return was an effort of the American Safety Razor Company.  Such an archaic name; apparently the product launch didn't take, and the company filed last year for bankruptcy.  The author also chose not to mention the use of the format by other companies.  I want to say Country Living magazine used some of the original jingles (again, somewhere in the slide collection) and Illinois ethanol promoters mimic the format.  Just this month, and just for fun, Iowa is resuming what Burma Shave begun.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
local, history

Books 28 to 30

Book 28: "Darwin's Radio" by Greg Bear

"I hate to have women blame men," Mitch said. "It makes me want to throw up."
"I don't blame anybody," Kaye said. "But you have to admit, it's a natural reaction."
Mitch shot her a scowl that bordered on a dirty look, the first such he had ever given her. She sucked in her breath privately, feeling both guilty and sad, and turned to look out her window, peering down the long straight stretch of Broadway: brick buildings, pedestrians, young men wearing green masks, walking with other men, and women walking with women. "Let's forget about it," Mitch said. "Let's get some rest."

This is more of a technothriller than a science fiction novel, full of political and scientific machinations as the powers that be try to prevent the human race from evolving, after the activation of a some junk DNA leads to a worldwide outbreak of miscarriages followed swiftly by unusual pregnancies. If I hadn't done a biology degree I think I would have found it boring and skipped over the convoluted descriptions of genetics and retroviruses, but as it was, I found the science and politics more interesting than the story of the frankly rather irritating main characters. Kaye is an expert in retroviruses and Mitch is a disgraced archaeologist who makes a strange discovery in an Alpine cave that may be linked to present day events, but they weren't believable characters.

Book 29: :Darwin's Children" by Greg Bear

Kaye and Mitch had protected Stella like a rare orchid throughout her short life. Kaye knew that, hated the necessity of it. It was how they had stayed together. Her daughter's freedom depended on it. The chat rooms were full of the agonized stories of parents giving up their children, watching them be sent to Emergency Action schools in another state. The camps.
Mitch, Stella, and Kaye had lived a dreamy, tense, unreal existence, no way for an energetic, outgoing young girl to grow up, no way for Mitch to stay sane.

As I had copies of both books, I decided to read the sequel straight after finishing "Darwin's Radio". I found myself much more interested in what Dicken and Augustine discovered in the 'new children' school, than in Kaye and Mitch lying low to avoid their child being taken from them. Although it was never stated in the book, I think the main reason that Kaye dumped Mitch as soon as he was no longer useful for protecting the family, was because he was showing signs of depression, and she didn't want another husband with mental health issues after her experience with Saul. So them getting back together again later made no sense to me; in fact, nothing about their relationship rang true. And why the obsession with Mitch's hands - yes he used to be an outdoors Type who worked with his hands, and now he isn't - I get it!

Book 30: "The White Hotel" by D. M. Thomas

She stumbled over a root, picked herself up and ran on blindly. There was nowhere to run, but she went on running. The crash of foliage grew louder behind her, for they were men and could run faster. Even if she reached the end of the wood, there would be more soldiers waiting to shoot her, but these few extra moments of life were precious. Only they were not enough. There was no escape except to become one of the trees. She would gladly give up her body, her rich life, to become a tree, frozen in humble existence, the home of spiders and ants. So that the soldiers would rest their rifles against the tree, and feel in their pockets for cigarettes. They would shrug away their mild disappointment, saying, One did not matter, and they would go home; but she, a tree, would be filled with joy, and her leaves  would sing her gratitude to God as the sun  set through the trees around her.

The book starts with an erotic poem supposedly written by one of Sigmund Freud's patients, Anna G, followed by his case file on her. In her fantasies, Anna and her lover are staying at a white hotel on the shores of a lake, and although they see it as a cosy place to retreat from the world, it is a place of danger, with their fellow guests dying in various disasters in and around the hotel. the poem is followed by Freud's (fictional) case history of Anna G. written in 1919 when she consults him because of terrible pain that has no physical cause.

The story of Lisa Erdman (the Anna G of the case history) is picked up again in 1929, when she is now more or less cured, but still unmarried and averse to having children, and as the years went by I realised that her visions and psychosomatic pains were actually premonitions of terrible events yet to come. A readable and moving book with a sympathetic heroine.

Books 10 and 11

10. Breaking night : a memoir of forgiveness, survival, and my journey from homeless to Harvard, by Liz Murray. Wow. I didn't think anything could be harder to read than Halse Anderson's "Wintergirls." This autobiography was well written, even lyrical, and the view so honest-- but it is very hard to read at times because it is a true story, and so heartbreaking. I guess part of me was angry-- the signs seemed so obvious: why didn't officials get involved sooner? The question is almost "why didn't they get involved, period??" Murray grew up, along with an older sister, to parents who were hooked on drugs. Her parents manage to remain sympathetic, but the things they do to get their fix are pretty horrible (selling her winter coat, hooking up with a man who turns out to be a child molester...) Murray relates many times when she and her sister went to bed hungry because her parents used the money they received from welfare on their next hit. Murray felt like an outcast at school because of her dirty clothes so frequently was truant. She managed to pass through her grade levels until high school. On her mother's death when she was 15, Murray took to the streets, relying on her friends for food and shelter (again I have to ask though-- why didn't the friends' parents report anything??)  When she was 17, she realized she couldn't continue living the way she was, so she looked into schools again and was finally accepted into an alternate high school program. She manages to take enough classes -- getting straight A's -- and graduates in a year. All while homeless, living out of a backpack. Eventually she is accepted at Harvard and manages to get the grants and scholarships needed to attend. Her story is very inspiring... no, amazing. Do follow it with a comic chaser, though. As I said, this one was hard to get through, especially the first half.

11. Reliable fundraising in unreliable times : what good causes need to know to survive and thrive, Kim Klein. I checked this book out as a potential source and inspiration for writing grants. I'm investigating grant writing to continue the computer classes I had been teaching. Not sure if it was good for that purpose, but it's an excellent book for those who work in the nonprofit sector. Klein has a very conversational writing style and her book is full of good advice, compiled from her years in working the nonprofit sector. For the most part I found myself nodding in agreement with her suggestions and observations. I wanted to cheer when she hit on something I've thought for years, although she articulated far better than I could: That the emphasis on "administrative costs" in terms of determining the worthiness of a charity is overblown and can actually be harmful. I've always said- you get what you pay for. And if someone is working 40+ hours for a nonprofit they should be compensated for their effort and skills. I've always been a bit suspicious myself of nonprofits that claim to have a tiny administrative overheard. They are either a. very small or not "full time", b. overworking their volunteers or c. massaging the books. She also make some interesting observations on boards, their functions and -- mostly-- the problems with boards. While she is talking specifically about nonprofit boards, I'd say the same philosophies and issues come up with bodies such as school boards. But I digress.
I did disagree with a couple points, personally, like the issue with newsletters. I had to chuckle a bit. Perhaps I'm in the minority, but... does anyone really read those? Maybe it's because I'm a bit jaded-- so many organizations send newsletters to newspapers, either instead of a press release or thinking the papers will be interested (please, save yourself the postage-- newsletters are NOT a press release and no staffer is going to do anything but chuck them). But all in all, this should be a must-read for nonprofits, whether they are struggling or are, for now, doing well. Klein has actually written a series of books for nonprofits, and she does well with giving suggestions on fundraising in not just these uncertain economic times, but she points out that uncertainty is always going to be an issue.