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Engaged with the World

Category: Book Reviews (page 1 of 2)

In Which I Briefly Review Some Recently-Read Books

 

Here are some of the pages I’ve been turning in 2017.

Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson. I finished the first book of this series on New Year’s Eve and immediately started on the second.  Tomes of 1000-plus pages take no time at all when the story is engaging with dynamic characters, a well-paced plot, and high stakes. I’m looking forward to the next installment. Epic high fantasy. Yasssss.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. I galloped through this memoir. The author jarred me with his anecdotes of his own coal country and rust belt roots. Ostensibly his story should at least partially explain current working-class disillusion with current politics and economics. However, he casually accepted extremely abusive relationships. He showed no empathy for the hopelessness felt by people who lacked his resourcefulness, intelligence, and drive to remove themselves from familiar dysfunctional surroundings. Maybe that’s the telling attitude that explains the state of middle America today.

The Fourth Turning, by William Strauss and Neil Howe. My beloved aunt Jackie recommended this book to me after Donald Trump won the presidency. I finished it just hours before #45 issued his disastrous executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim countries. The authors dissect the historical, cyclical patterns of political engagement, economic crises, and social dysfunction. The predicted “hero” generation should save us, but (cue sinister music) the American Civil War cycle skipped that generation to propel us into a disastrous Reconstruction.  If the authors’ prophecy proves true, political matters will get worse before they get better. Kids, hold on to your pants. It’s going to be a rough ride.

Dr. Seuss Goes to War, edited by WWII historian Richard H. Minear. I saw a cartoon online, searched for it, and discovered the existence of this book. I had to own it. Before The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss drew political cartoons. From January 1941 – January 1943, his cartoons covered the political climate of the time. These prescient, recognizably Seussian drawings speak of racism, isolationism, immigration, demagoguery, refugees, and a fearful populace. Like his books that still hold the fascination of 21st-century children, so many of these cartoons are timeless: “America First,” isolationism, and racism went hand-in-hand in 1941, just like they do in 2017. That didn’t work out so well in 1941, and it won’t work out well in 2017. And Dr. Seuss, who explained so many things so very well,  explains why.

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, by Sam Kean. I like Kean’s enthusiastic, punchy writing style. He clearly knows his topic and uses footnotes well. (I do wish they appeared at the bottom of the page instead of stuck in the back, though.) Tales of brain injury abound, starting with Henri II of France’s mishap with a broken lance through his eye socket and ending with an iron rod shot through Phineas Gage’s frontal lobe. Neurologists trace seizures, language, consciousness, learning, memory,  and bizarre behavior to specific parts of the brain as well as to all parts of the brain. The history of neurological discovery makes a riveting journey. It ranks among the best books our club has chosen, in my opinion.

The Blood Mirror, by Brent Weeks. I really liked the first book of this Lightbringer series, but now in Book 4, I suspect the book’s editor has taken a vacation. The writing itself has become sloppy. The uneven timeline bugged me. At one point, a weekend passes for one character across about six chapters, while months pass in the interspersed chapters focused on another. I have had issues with two of the main characters since Book 2. One guy can’t decide what name to call himself (and neither can the author). Another swings schizophrenically between the terror of ridicule and abandonment and the confidence of charismatic leadership. If the author were in my critique group, I’d strongly encourage another revision.  I keep reading because the story itself is still good. I do love me some epic high fantasy.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. This is the first volume of her Maddaddam trilogy, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. My all-time favorite English professor, Fred Busch, introduced me to Margaret Atwood when he assigned her book Surfacing. Possibly her best-known book is The Handmaid’s Tale, that dystopian look at North America in the thrall of a dysfunctional religious right. (For some reason it has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity since November 8, 2016.) Oryx and Crake starts off with eugenics and touches only lightly on dystopia before immersing the reader into post-apocalyptic survival. Science goes horribly wrong, and, terrifyingly, the wrongness was planned.

The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. This extremely popular Chinese science fiction author has won numerous awards. This book won the Hugo in 2015 for Best Novel. Ye Weining, the primary antagonist traumatized by the Cultural Revolution makes one decision after another to set up the inevitable conflict between humans and extraterrestrial intelligence. The author does a great job with the physics of near-lightspeed travel. (I understood about a tenth of it.) I’ve never before in science fiction encountered aliens such as these either in form or in sympathetic substance. The translator, Chinese-American writer Ken Liu,  included extremely helpful footnotes; otherwise, references to China’s Cultural Revolution would have evaded me.

Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. My friend Gladys knows my love of colonial American history. She was shocked that I had never read this book. While waiting at a restaurant for our dinners to arrive, she placed an order on Amazon. Not only did it arrive, so did every other book by the same author.  (Thank you, Gladys!) The author has taken historical facts and enlivened them into a lyric of time, place, and emotion. From Martha’s Vineyard to the original library at Harvard College, she weaves a vivid tapestry of 17th-century life for English settlers and their attitudes toward their Wampanoag neighbors.

 Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks. (Thank you again, Gladys.) Bubonic plague, a good-hearted woman, orphaned children, incredible loss and abuse, sincerely held religious beliefs, dead rats, an earnest young cleric, angry villagers, accusations of sex with the devil, herbal lore, and quarantine of a 17th century English village. What more could anyone ask for?

March, by Geraldine Brooks. (Thanks, Gladys.) As kids we all loved Louisa May Alcott’s  Little Women books, right? One of the under-developed characters is the father. At the end of the first book, he returns from the Civil War after suffering an illness.  March is his story.  We see Marmee in a new light, and not everything flatters her. Alcott could never have written this gritty story with its raw emotions.

Little Lord Fauntleroy, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Recently I saw a local musical production of The Secret Garden. Along with A Little Princess, Burnett’s two famous books played a prominent role in the bookshelves of my childhood. I did not find them hidden among the family treasures hoarded by my mom or my sister.  I located and ordered the editions I remembered: the ones with the illustrations by Tasha Tudor.  (Which, I’ll have my mother know, were copyrighted in 1962 and 1963 respectively and therefore could not have been hers when she was a child they’re mine and Susan’s so there.) Along the way, I discovered that Burnett also wrote this little book. It took me almost two whole hours to read it on Easter morning. I should have been out looking for zombies. No kid is that damn good. And who would want them to be?

 Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (revised edition), by James W. Loewen. High school textbook authors continually propagate factually false, Eurocentric, and romanticized views of American history. Loewen collects these popular myths in one place and systematically shatters them. He examined a dozen high school American history texts for accuracy and for their relative perspectives. I’ve read this book slowly because each chapter has independently managed to get my blood boiling. Patent lies and sinister fact-twisting may assuage Euro-American sensibilities, but these white-washed stories of American history taught in schools foment racism and xenophobia. The results pollute social media posts and right-wing “news”.  No other book has so adamantly compelled me to join a protest.

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. Yes, another one by the same author. This wasn’t as fast a read as her others, nor was the story as compelling. It did send me to look up the Sarajevo Haggada, though. The book ended too soon. Circumstances threatened the Haggadah again in the last decade without a ministry of culture. Fortunately, the recently reopened National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina displays the book again. I hope the museum makes digital images of the pages available. I love illuminated manuscripts.

Gardening With Silk and Gold: A History of Gardens in Embroidery, by Thomasina Beck. Beck is the author of several books about florals and embroidery. I joined my local chapter of the Embroiderers Guild of America a year or so ago. I’m learning cool things and seeing amazing handwork done by very talented people. The chapter president is clearing out her collection and gave this book to me. (Thank you, Sandy!) Gorgeous images of gardens and flowers fill this book. The author explains the history of the techniques. It’s a lovely addition to my library and suitable for display on the coffee table.

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. I started watching the series on STARZ and got confused, so I re-read the book. Once again I must remind myself that books are not movies, and movies “based on” books are not cinematic reproductions of books. This time I read the 10th Anniversary Edition, which is a revised edition that includes some things Gaiman left out of the original. It was still an amazing exposition on why we worship both the old gods and the new. Also, his prose is pure poetry. Also, read his other stuff. Also, he’s an amazing writer, did I mention that?

The Anglo-Saxon World, by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan. The Anglo-Saxons invaded England after Rome vacated the premises. Arthur fought them.  They buried a lot of gold in Staffordshire. Alfred was the Greatest of them. William conquered them and now they’re all gone. These half-truths are about as much as most people know about the Anglo-Saxons. I love the maps and high-quality images in this book. Yes, I read textbooks for fun. Shut up.

N.K. Jemison‘s Broken Earth trilogy: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky. OhmyfuckingGOD rush out and get these books NOW.  Do not hesitate. Do not dally. Get thee to a bookstore and find them immediately. Read them. Caress them. Savor them. There’s a reason the first two books in this trilogy won the 2016 and 2017 Hugo Awards for Best Novel. The only reason the third book hasn’t is that it was just published. This trilogy is world-building and world-breaking at a level most of us can’t even imagine. This trilogy has character development that goes deeper and more multi-faceted than any of the rest of us can even hope to glimpse in real life. The books are written in the second person – a feat very few authors ever in the history of writing have effectively pulled off – and as the reader understands who the narrator is speaking to, who the narrator even is, and why the second person is necessary, the reader also understands the love and pride of parents and the devastating independence of children. This trilogy is sublime. READ IT.

Behave, by Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky. It’s easy to adore Dr. Sapolsky. He studies stress and publishes serious science books with titles like Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and Monkeyluv.  His book A Primate’s Memoir is one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read – I push it on people regularly. Part travelogue, part primate behavior, and all solid science, it explores behavior and conflict in contexts that stretch from personal to continental. It’s the only science book that has ever moved me to tears. Behave is almost as good. As the New York Times Book Review put it, this is the book you’ll wish you had in college to understand the brain.  Sapolsky’s writing is always understandable to a layperson. His voice is pleasant, cheerful – at times pretty darn funny – and immensely knowledgeable. He explores the chemistry and structure of the brain, how it changes as it ages, how and why it triggers the reactions it does, and how it controls itself. It also explores the concept of free will. The philosophers among us will like that. Watch his recent TED Talk and watch his graduation address to Stanford students in 2009. He’s engaging, personable, and brilliant, and it all shows in his research and writing.

Grace Without God, by Katherine Ozment. I met the author at the Arkansas Literary Festival and the book was selected for our book club. The author participated by Skype – how cool is that? This book is important because, aside from being written by a former Arkansan without religious faith, it was written for other people without faith. It’s hard to be different. How do we explain to children why we are different and how can we effectively participate in our communities when our communities are organized around religious institutions?

On Costain, the Plantagenets, and History Books

I love all these things. I love reading, period. There is so much to learn, so much to know. If I can come away from a few minutes of reading with one real fact to share at a cocktail party, the magazine rack in my bathroom library is worth the small investment.

I like science books explain concrete things that we don’t ordinarily think about. They engage us in subjects that aren’t essential to our survival or even to our happiness, but that simply interest us and send us off on a quest to know more. They may be the books that explain innovations, technologies, or practices that controlled the civilizations of their time, from the development of agricultural practices to the economy of the Silk Road. They may examine animal behavior, linguistics, migrations, burial practices, or art. They may be the history books that examine the politics and personalities of an era that led to a revolution. The books that stick with us are the books that teach us something.

I know which books kicked open my love of English medieval history. I know when I read them and why. Sometime in the mid-1970’s, my dad was re-reading one of his favorite authors. As he often did, he read the fun parts aloud to whichever of his children happened to be in earshot – he loved sharing his books as much as he loved reading them.

That day, he was reading Thomas B. Costain’s Below the Salt.  I remember asking him what the title meant, and he explained that in medieval times salt was still a precious commodity. Only the wealthy had much access to it. Even in the dining halls of royalty or nobility, only the head table was allowed free access to a salt cellar. At the other, lower, tables sat the hired hands, the retainers, the working people, and the less influential members of the noble house. They sat “below the salt,” or at tables without access to valuable salt.

below the Salt

Salt? Cheap, ordinary salt? I was incredulous. Dad read me more passages from the book about heroic William Marshal, the beautiful and tragic Maid of Brittany, and King John, perhaps the most depraved of the Plantagenet kings of England.

“The stories are true,” he told me. “Mostly.”

Thomas B. Costain wrote historical fiction that was so well researched that even experts found it difficult to discern what was truly history and what was not. When Dad finished Below the Salt, I picked it up and read it for myself. Then I asked for more. Dad didn’t just give me Costain’s novels, though. Costain had written four nonfiction books about medieval England’s Plantagenet rulers. These works are his true gifts to his readers. Those four books about the very real, larger-than-life descendants of William the Conqueror absolutely riveted me. I couldn’t put them down. I was only about 14, and I was fascinated by the battles, the swordplay, the tournaments, the lust, and the alliances.

And I had so many questions! Why was the Count of Anjou called “Plantagenet”? (Because he wore a sprig of blooming broom – “planta genêt” in French). Why were the kings of England named for a French Count? (Because he was their father, and married their English princess of a mother, who used to be an empress before she had to settle for a mere count.) How did the counts from France get to be English kings? (Read the books!)

Then I asked for more. Dad didn’t just give me Costain’s novels, though. Costain had written four nonfiction books about medieval England’s Plantagenet rulers. These works are his true gifts to his readers. Those four books about the very real, larger-than-life descendants of William the Conqueror absolutely riveted me. I couldn’t put them down. I was only about 14, and I was fascinated by the battles, the swordplay, the tournaments, the lust, and the alliances.

A History of the Plantagenets Boxed Set (1962)

Costain’s writing led me on a romp from one English civil war (with the death of Henry I and the usurpation of the throne by his nephew Stephen of Blois) to the next (the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses). I credit these books with making medieval English history roar to life for me. Costain’s vivid descriptions of the personalities and actions of the Angevin kings, their nobles, and their enemies launched my lifelong fascination with this era.

And the writing! These are not dull history books. Engaging, fluid prose exposes the mysteries, romances, political posturing, and betrayals. Anyone who can tell stories like this really should be a history teacher. No one can possibly come away from these books without a new fascination for the Conqueror’s family and their unique brands of turmoil and governance.

I realize that all this sounds like hyperbole, but truthfully, I don’t have enough words to explain how wonderful these books are and how they made such a difference in how I viewed history – and not just English history, but all of it – for a lifetime.

When I looked on my mother’s shelves for these beloved books a few years ago, I couldn’t find them. I set about the business of locating replacements. The books were out of print and resellers charged a premium for them. Apparently no one who owns them really wants to give them up, and others who want them can’t find them.

I finally came across a boxed set of the books online and I ordered it. When it arrived, I devoured every word just as I had done years ago. Costain’s writing and storytelling are every bit as good as I remember. Some of the stories were missing, though, especially those about the fractious, ruthless sons of the Conqueror. In particular I remember a story of a very suspicious hunting accident that brought down King William Rufus…no, dear readers, George R.R. Martin wasn’t the first to think of a boar hunt as cover for regicide. I realized that the first book of the set I now own was edited rather heavily before its inclusion.

The boxed set holds Costain’s own explanation as to the revision:

A HISTORY OF THE PLANTAGENETS

I began these books of English history with the hope of carrying the series forward, under the general title of The Pageant of England, to a much later period than the last of the Plantagenet kings. Pressure of other work made it impossible, however, to produce them at the gait I had hoped to achieve. And now the factor of time has intruded itself also. Realizing that my earlier objective cannot be reached, I have decided to conclude with the death of Richard III and to change the covering title to A HISTORY OF THE PLANTAGENETS.

This has made necessary some revision in getting the four volumes ready for publication. The first five chapters in the initial book, which began with the Norman Conquest and covered the reigns of William the Conqueror, William (Rufus) II, and Henry I, had to be dropped. The first volume in this complete edition of the four begins with the final scenes in the reign of Henry I, whose daughter married Geoffrey of Anjou and whose son son succeeded in due course to the throne of England as Henry II, thus beginning the brilliant Plantagenet dynasty. The title of the first volume has been changed to THE CONQUERING FAMILY. In addition to the deletion of earlier chapters, a few slight cuts and minor revisions have been made throughout the series. Otherwise the four books are the same as those published separately under the titles, THE CONQUERORS, THE MAGNIFICENT CENTURY, THE THREE EDWARDS, and THE LAST PLANTAGENETS.

 

The boxed set of the four Plantagenet books is available at a premium – it’s out of print and only available in the secondary market. The lowest price I found a full set for was $175.00 at Amazon, although a seller on Facebook is offering it at a bargain for only $164.99.

Barnes & Noble doesn’t even have the full set, but does have then as eBooks and is even offering free downloads of the first two volumes – the first volume is the original title of the first book, so I downloaded it and have hope that it contains the missing parts that were edited from this final version contained in the boxed set. I’ll be reading it tonight, looking for clues as to who killed William Rufus. (Spoiler: the culprit was likely a minion of his brother Henry, grandfather of those fascinating Plantagenets.)

Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi

There actually was an upside to being assaulted in my own home and held at gunpoint while thugs ransacked my house.  By being a victim of crime, I met neighbors I had not encountered in the seven years I’ve lived here. Oh, I’ve known the neighbors who live immediately next to me. Jean, who lives across the street, was my friend long before I moved here.  But beyond one house on all sides of me, and the dread Townhouses in the Park below me, I really haven’t encountered any other of my neighbors.

Until disaster struck, of course. Then I met all kinds of great people I didn’t know I shared a neighborhood with. One of these new friends, Andy, happens to be a reader. A couple of nights after the robbery, we had a conversation on Facebook that ended up with me over at his house and us talking about books. He thrust three into my hands before I left a couple of hours later. I’m very glad to have met this neighbor, because his taste in fiction is wonderful. I can’t wait to find more books from his shelves.

The three books he gave me were Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi, The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross, and Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. I’m about to give up on the nonfiction Godel, Escher, Bach – which is fascinating, but I’m getting bogged down because I don’t know enough about music, and I keep taking breaks to listen and learn more. It’s taking me forever to read, and I’m not sure I’m taking it all in. The other two I finished in really short order – they were both so good I couldn’t put them down.

The first of the three that I read was Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi. Scalzi wrote this book on his website in 1999, just to see if he could actually write a book. In 2005, a literary agent found it and offered to publish it. The original version is still available online.

The story is a campy take on first contact between humans and alien intelligence. I have never bought the notion that alien life forms are going to resemble us or any living creature we think of as having sentience. Enter John Scalzi and his eminent good sense. (He agrees with me.)

The aliens in this book are described essentially as amorphous gobs of snot. No, make that morphous gobs of snot.  The snot morphs into the shape of an aquarium, the shape of a water bottle, the shape of … other things. Its morphability (is that even a word?) and its uncanny resemblance to that which comes out of our runny noses (or what is left behind in the wake of a snail) form the backbone – the completely invertebrate backbone, yes – of the plot of this story. The aliens recognize that we humans will find their appearance disgusting, so in the interest on good inter-species relations, they decide to hire an image consultant to break the news to humanity of their existence.

Not just any image consultant will do, of course. As we all expect, the aliens have learned all about our species and civilization from the cacophonous roar of radio waves and television signals emanating  from our planet. They already speak idiomatic English fluently, they know how our culture is organized, they know how we interact with each other, and they know how we are likely to react to them. These aliens are smart.

Being beings of higher intelligence, the aliens have recognized that the very best image consultants are those who successfully sell vacuous people to the rest of the world. These consultants expertly package their clients in such a way as to persuade the public to overlook their flaws. Knowing that they will appear to us a snot-based life forms, these aliens decide to hire the best for their public relations. The aliens bypass Madison Avenue for the true experts in the field. The aliens bypass Madison Avenue for the true experts in the field: Hollywood agents.

I can’t talk too much about the story without giving away important plot points that, when revealed through the natural course of the book, will literally leave you laughing out loud and searching for someone to share it with.

What I can do is tell you to find this book and read it. It will buoy your mood, make you think about things as heady as the ethics of eugenics and things as light as the stuff encrusting the tissue of your winter cold. And when you blow your nose while reading it, you will suddenly find yourself examining the results for sentience.

The story is original, mind-bending, heartwarming, and hilarious.

Seriously, find it. Read it.

 

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho: Pondering the Soul of the World

It’s no secret that The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is one of my favorite books. I’m leading the discussion in my book club this month, and The Alchemist is the book we’re discussing. I feel fortunate, but overwhelmed at the same time.

I’ve re-read the book during the past week to get ready for the book club discussion. Reader’s Guides are readily available for The Alchemist. The tenth anniversary edition, which I have, contains one after the epilogue. Its discussion topics seem so obvious to me. There is so much more to this book than those canned study guide questions point out.

For instance, there are two different types of alchemy: scientific alchemy and spiritual alchemy. While the gold that scientific alchemy yields is tempting, Coelho’s beautiful fable teaches us that the spiritual aspect of alchemy is the important one. The tale of Santiago the shepherd boy underscores that without achieving the Master Work of spiritual alchemy, no one can attain the Magnum Opus of scientific alchemy.  The discussion of both types of alchemy is a discussion of the book itself, as well as a philosophical discussion that may never end.

Santiago’s quest for his Personal Legend is full of lessons. Santiago’s wisdom, and the wisdom of the people he meets in his travels, must have been sound bites that Coelho collected for years then wove seamlessly into this tale. All of Coelho’s books seem that way, though. But the wisdom and joy of The Alchemist makes it the only one of Coelho’s books that literally makes me cry.

Each time I’ve read this book I’ve cried, and each time I’ve cried at the same point. For me, the climax of the book comes twice. The first is not when Santiago finds the physical treasure of his dream, but when he first lays eyes on what fabulous wonders men can achieve.  Yes, this is when I cry, and I’m crying with the profound joy the book has given me.

At the moment when Santiago thinks he should find his treasure, he is attacked by several refugees from the tribal wars he has dodged all across the Sahara. One attacker announces that it is stupid to cross a desert to look for buried treasure  just because of a recurring dream. The attacker doesn’t know it, but Santiago has done exactly that, and is at the point of realizing that dream when he is beaten bloody and left nearly dead by these attackers. As outside observers we readers laugh, knowing that whether or not Santiago finds his material wealth in the desert, his journeys have resulted in a spiritual wealth beyond most people’s imagining. He has learned that if he wants to, he can become the wind.

Coelho uses phrases and terms of his own making, but they are philosophical terms necessary to understanding the spiritual alchemy he presents in his book. The Soul of the World, the hand that wrote all, the Language of the World, and one’s Personal Legend are concepts Coelho deftly teaches us with this story of a shepherd’s quest, undertaken because of a recurring dream. Without initially understanding those terms, though, we struggle along with Santiago to grasp the concepts of spiritual alchemy.

Fear hampers our quests for our Personal Legends. The fear presents itself in different ways. First, it is a fear of leaving the familiar comforts of what we know to go in pursuit of a dream. But when we take those first few tentative steps toward our dream, beginner’s luck encourages us to keep pursuing the dream. Eventually, though, our initial success creates another fear within us. We have achieved so much. No, it’s not what we set out to achieve, but it is enough. We can die happy because we got this far and we are comfortable. But, if we listen to our hearts, we know that this temptation to settle for less than our Personal Legend is really a fear: a fear that we have had so much success that we are bound to fail soon.

The fear of failure prevents many people from realizing their Personal Legends. Settling for “good enough,” these people stop listening to their hearts and listen instead to the comforts of having come this far and achieved this much. They feel blessed to have done so much; to try to do more tempts fate, does it not?

Yes, it does.

That’s part of the pursuit of the Personal Legend, though. We aren’t rewarded with the realization of that legend unless we show that we have truly learned the lessons along the way to achieving it. Proving that we’ve learned the lessons means we have to be challenged, and the challenges aren’t supposed to be easy. If we want something enough, if our goal is our dream, and our dream is our Personal Legend, the path gets harder, not easier, the closer we get. Nevertheless, if we step carefully and read the omens sent to us, we will achieve success. We will recognize and live our Personal Legends.

I’m making four presentations to make on this book this month. In each, I want to examine a portion of the story, and a portion of the philosophy of spiritual alchemy. I don’t know if I can limit myself to just four!

I’ve come up with a list of omens Santiago notices in his adventures. Some of them have layers of meaning. I want to talk about them.

Throughout the book, Coelho sprinkled concepts from the three Abrahamic religions. I want to talk about each, yet I know that those in my audience who know me not to be a follower of this religious tradition will want time to challenge me on my interpretation, and will want to offer their own. There must be time for that.

There are mystical elements that defy being categorized with something else, so must be treated separately.

Each major character, plus a couple of minor ones, have wisdom to share. I want to examine their profound observations – ALL of them!

Then there are the literary aspects of the book. Coelho’s writing style, the format of the story, foreshadowing and other literary devices, character development . . . I’m babbling already and I haven’t even begun my presentation.

And then there is alchemy, both scientific and spiritual, to tackle. To be fair to each, they should be dealt with separately, then addressed together so as to underscore the similarities. There are specific alchemists mentioned in the book whose biographies might be interesting to my audience, yet I fear boring the masses with my enthusiasm.

But wait: Santiago’s strengths were his courage to do what he wanted, and his enthusiasm in the process.

His strengths were what enabled him to become the wind.

The Mote in God’s Eye – 35 Years Later

The Mote in God s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I have always considered The Mote in God’s Eye a seminal book about initial contact between humans and another sentient, advanced species.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, both true masters of hard science fiction, collaborated on this book in 1974. I read it in high school – so sometime shortly after it was written. I remembered it clearly as cutting edge stuff. In one scene that has popped into my mind on multiple occasions throughout the years, the humans react with horror to the speeding vehicles used by the Moties for individual ground transportation. I was glad to know my ever-unreliable neurons hadn’t messed with my memory when I found it on pages 252-253 of the new copy I bought recently:

Tall, ugly buildings loomed above them to shoulder out the sky. The black streets were wide but very crowded, and the Moties drove like maniacs. Tiny vehicles passed each other in intricate curved paths with centimeters of clearance. The traffic was not quite silent. There was a steady low hum that might have been all the hundreds of motors sounding together, and sometimes a stream of high-pitched gibberish that might have been cursing.

Once the humans were able to stop wincing away from each potential collision…

Motie, found on Rocket Ship Pajamas

Motie (source)

 

The first time I read that passage, many years ago, I imagined the reaction of an 18th century sophisticate to riding in a modern New York taxicab or merging onto an urban freeway at rush hour. I thought about how a Cro-Magnon might respond to riding in a car down a quiet street in a small town. What if the Cro-Magnon was on a motorcycle?

Thirty-something years later, as someone who writes speculative fiction – sure, merely as a hobby, but, hey, a girl’s going to dream – I noticed this classic story didn’t seem so cutting edge any more. I realized that a book written during my own lifetime, a book that blew me away when I first read it, has become dated.

I’ve noticed this a time or two before. Robert Heinlein’s books about Lazarus Long, for example, are very dated in some of their sexist, chauvinistic attitudes, even though the stories and the science are not. Heinlein makes multiple references to the pleasing shape of his female characters’ anatomy, but never to the sexual attributes of male characters. The worst offenders of these books were written near the end of Heinlein’s long, prolific career. Oddly, the character noticing the anatomy didn’t rub me wrong, perhaps because we all are capable of noticing pleasing physical characteristics of the opposite sex; the author himself struck me as a dirty old man. (I know, I know. I have no basis other than my gut for even saying that. And I revere Heinlein as one of the everlasting gods of the genre. Really, I do.)

Something similar struck me on a number of occasions while rereading The Mote in God’s Eye. For instance, when Sally explains human birth control methods to a Motie, she says that “nice girls” don’t use birth control. She explains that they simply abstain from sexual relations if they don’t want to become pregnant. Her words shock the Motie, but not for the same reason they shocked me.

Even of those I know who are relatively prudish, I doubt very many, at least the people I know, would actually think that “nice girls don’t take birth control.”  Nope, not even my devoutly Catholic best friend. (Of course, to hear the abstinence-only sex education crowd talk, that’s all it takes for birth control. I submit that those folks are completely unrealistic, and statistics belie their position. But that is a topic for another day.)

I guess I’ve become accustomed to the progressive social portrayal of the future that modern speculative fiction tends toward. Except for futuristic dystopias such as The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, which feature government-imposed sexual repression, sexuality’s treatment in speculative fiction over the last half century seems fairly universal – all sex, all the time, anything goes. Certainly that was the case by the mid-70’s.

The sexual revolution was in full swing in 1974. Attitudes and social mores toward sex heaved and groaned in those years. Roe v. Wade had been decided the year before. The Equal Rights Amendment had passed both houses of Congress two years before, the same year that the Joy of Sex, which was still in the top five bestsellers in 1974, became a sensation.  Birth control was in wide use, and the Summer of Love was almost a decade in the past. In 1961 – thirteen years before the Mote sun gleamed in the middle of the Coalsack, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land paved the way for these attitudes when Valentine Michael Smith created a new religion incorporating free love.  By 1974, co-ed college dorms commonly dotted campuses across the nation. Penicillin cured everything but herpes and hepatitis; no one had heard of AIDS or HIV.  Hair was six years into its run on Broadway, complete with full nudity.

The attitudes that dated The Mote in God’s Eye extended to the personnel on the two ships that visit the Mote world. With the exception of Sally and the perpetually pregnant Moties, every single character in the book is male. But, there’s more. I remember this book as one of the truly inspirational ones in my adolescent library, packed with action and tension. Reading it this week, it hasn’t felt the same. At first, I couldn’t figure out why the book just didn’t hold my attention the way I remembered it doing 30-something years ago. Now, less than a hundred pages from the end, I think I may have figured it out.

Olivetti Typewriter


Poster issued by Olivetti Typewriter Co. featuring the Olivetti Lexicon 80 typewriter, Marcello Nizzoli, about 1953. Museum no. CIRC.634-1965
Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum
(source)

The book needs red ink. Had Niven and Pournelle not banged out this novel on an Olivetti typewriter, if they had used a word processor, they probably would have tightened their prose and eliminated things like lists, awkward scene transitions, jerky dialogue, and other things we can now avoid by revising a million times without rewriting the whole darn thing page by tortured page. Editing just isn’t what it used to be, for which we probably should be grateful. Otherwise our eyes might still cross, reading post-Victorian verbosity.

And then there’s the passive voice. The book doesn’t read like a scientific treatise, but still, a lot of the descriptions employ the verb “to be.” Characters interact actively, but they tend to observe their surroundings in a list. I wonder if I noticed this only because I’ve been writing more myself, and try to use E-Prime unless it just sounds silly. I wonder if I notice it because I have critiqued the work of other writers in recent months.

I hope critiquing hasn’t led to this. I like reading what other people write, making suggestions for improvement, and getting good feedback from them on my own work. If critiquing means the joy of reading suffers, then I’ll have a big hole in my life.

But now, now I have a book to finish. And even if it isn’t as good as I remember, it’s still good.

 

Book Review – This Dark Earth

 

 

John Hornor Jacobs has written a powerful novel of the Zombie Apocalypse. In his just-published second novel, the zombie virus is a biological weapon that is accidentally released from the installation in Whitehall, Arkansas. The opening scenes take place at a Little Rock hospital. After the government drops nuclear bombs intended to eradicate the outbreak, a doctor and a truck driver join forces with a military unit to set up a local government and defend against the hungry hordes of undead. They soon find themselves in conflict with a megalomaniac who wants to take over what remains of the still-living world.

Well written and fast-paced, the first-person voices of survivors shape this novel into an exposition of how some people survive and many others die when society falls completely apart. This Dark Earth is more robust than an ordinary zombie novel. It deserves classification with the exceptional novels of catastrophic social change, including Steven King’s The Stand, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon.

 

The Laughing Sutra: A Book Report

laughing-sutra.jpg

 

Let me tell you about a story I just read. It is enlightening, and I am compelled to share it with you. The book is called The Laughing Sutra, by Mark Salzman.

This is a book report, not a book review. I am telling you about the entire book, not just a tantalizing bit to get you to read the story. Skip the bit between the spoiler warning and the end of spoiler indicators below if you want to read the book without knowing what happens.

Knowing how it happens won’t necessarily spoil the book. In fact, I knew all along how it would end. The path to the end was a joyful, fun experience, though. I am not going to tell you of all of the adventures experienced by Hsun-Ching and Sun Wu K’ung. That part you really will need to experience for yourself.

The Laughing Sutra is a story about loyalty and learning. It is a story about companionship and the clash of cultures. It covers the period from just before Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the mid-1970’s.

The book opens in the early 1960’s with a solitary monk who calls himself Wei-Ching, “Guardian of the Scriptures,” who is painstakingly copying ancient Buddhist scrolls. Wei-Ching seeks enlightenment, and therefore seeks more scrolls to add to his library. He hears of a mysterious scroll called “The Laughing Sutra.” He is told that “[t]he Laughing Sutra is a scroll so precious that whoever understood its message would instantly perceive his Buddha-nature and … achieve immortality” along with his enlightenment. Wei-Ching is determined to find this scroll. He prepares for a trip to America to recover it from the man who has it.

As he is leaving, a mysterious, hairy man in ancient armor appears at the temple with a shivering boy with the long earlobes of wise men. The boy is Kuo Sheng-hui, whose name means “Flourishing Knowledge,” but the old monk does not know that because the boy is mute due to the trauma of being thrown over a waterfall by an attacker. The boy cannot remember anything of his former life. Time goes by and the monk becomes attached to the boy. He has abandoned his plans to go to America to find The Laughing Sutra so that he can care for the child.

The old monk reads the sutras to the mute boy, who does not seem interested. However, when he reads the boy a story about a monk traveling from China to India to find valuable Buddhist scrolls, the boy finally listens. The traveler in the story, Hsuan-Tsang, was accompanied by Sun Wu K’ung, a Monkey King who protected him with supernatural powers and martial arts. The story is interrupted by a storm, and the boy finally speaks to ask what happens next to the Monkey King, who the monk learns is the boy’s favorite character.

Wei-Ching believes that because of his advanced age he will not be able to make the journey to America himself to locate the Laughing Sutra, so he sees the timing of the boy’s recovery as a good omen. Perhaps the boy will go to America and seek the scroll in his place. Wei-Ching renames the boy Hsun-Ching, “Seeker of the Sutras.”

The boy proves to have a remarkable mind, an almost photographic memory. He learns to read Chinese, then English. He reads the ancient Chinese scrolls but finds them boring. Wei-Ching decides that his pupil should have better books to learn English, so they make a journey to a city.

Once in the city the boy encounters food such he has never before experienced. He asks his master, “I thought Buddhist monks never eat meat or drink, but tonight we had fish, ham and liquor. What will happen to us now?”

Wise Wei-Ching, in typical Chinese fashion, justifies the excesses. Indicating the impious chef and owner of the restaurant where they have enjoyed their meal, Wei-Ching explains, “It is true that one should not eat meat or drink liquor. But it is even more true that a Buddhist monk should be compassionate. That man needed to prepare us a good meal, to redeem himself for ignoring religion during his life. If we had refused, we would have prevented him from carrying out a pious act and gaining merit. So you see, we soiled ourselves temporarily, that he might be cleansed.”

The boy and the man live comfortably together even as the boy ages slowly and the old man ages quickly. Then, one terrible day in 1966, teenage members of the Red Guard stumble upon the temple, burn the precious scrolls, and brutalize the old monk. They threaten the old man’s life unless the boy joins them. Reluctantly Hsun-Ching goes with the Red Guard, but when Mao’s army stops the marauding of the Red Guard, the boy is quick to surrender. He is misidentified as the leader of the group of Red Guards and is sent to a reeducation work camp so that he can learn the true meaning of Chairman Mao’s message.

When an emaciated friend dies of encephalitis at the age of twelve in the work camp, prayers are prohibited. Nevertheless, Hsun-Ching sits by the grave and ponders the meaning of each word of the prayers he and Wei-Ching used to recite. He comes to the conclusion, “If there were really a Buddha, or a Goddess of Mercy, this couldn’t have happened.”

After ten years, Hsun-Ching is finally released from the work camp. He returns to the temple to find that Wei-Ching is still alive, but very feeble. The temple is in terrible shape, never having been repaired since a decade before when the Red Guards burned parts of it. Hsun-Ching, who is now twenty years old, plants a garden and tends to his old master.

The subject of the Laughing Sutra is raised, and Hsun-Ching decides to retrieve the scroll from America for his foster father. He feels that because ten years were taken from him in the work camps, his education was interrupted and he lost his faith. If he attempts to obtain the scroll for Wei-Ching, his life won’t be so much of a waste.

Wei-Ching suggests that Hsun-Ching travel to America with the man in the ancient armor who saved him all those years ago. He tells the boy where to find the strange man, and Hsun-Ching goes to the waterfall and finds him living alone in a cave.

The man tells Hsun-Ching to call him “Colonel Sun,” which seems appropriate given his brilliant yellow eyes. Hsun-Ching has to explain the communist revolution to Colonel Sun, and explains that Chairman Mao is dead and the Gang of Four have been smashed, but that China is still communist, which is supposed to be better than capitalist America. The Colonel snorts derisively and remarks that it is good, then, that the scroll is in America, because “we can just buy it from the owner instead of having to steal it from some nut who doesn’t believe in money.”

:::SPOILER WARNING:::

On the journey to the border of China and Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns from Colonel Sun that he is at least two thousand years old, and that the ancient armor he wears belonged to Emperor Shih Huang Ti, the founder of the Ch’in Dynasty in 221 B.C., and creator of the famous army of terra cotta soldiers. Once inside Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns that the colonel is at least 700 years older than that when the colonel gives him a bar of ancient gold to sell to raise money to buy them appropriate food and clothing.

In Hong Kong, Colonel Sun tells a story about traveling with a monk across a desert to find scrolls, and the lie he told that saved their lives. Hsun-Ching recognizes the story, and realizes that Colonel Sun is Sun Wu k’ung, the Monkey King from the book that helped him to speak after his trauma.

Separated from Colonel Sun in Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching is attacked by thieves and stabbed. Colonel Sun arrives and chases the thieves away, but Hsun-Ching passes out from his injury. He awakes in a ready to go back to China. He does not want people to be hurt in his quest for the Laughing Sutra. Colonel Sun convinces him not to give up the quest, then reveals that they are on a ship headed for America. Colonel Sun has made a deal with the captain of the ship that he will teach him martial arts, then will fight in a bar fight in San Francisco to pay for their passage to America. The Laughing Sutra is supposed to be in a museum in San Francisco.

Arriving at the museum in San Francisco, Hsun-Ching learns that the scroll has been given to the Dharma Institute, a place where Buddhism is studied by wealthy people. The lovely assistant curator helps him get an appointment with the director of the institute, but it is Friday afternoon and he cannot see the man until Monday morning. They part, and Hsun-Ching goes to find Colonel Sun at the bar where he is supposed to fight.

Something is wrong when he arrives at the bar. Boxing night has been moved to Tuesday, and dwarf tossing is now the feat for Friday night entertainment. Disgusted with the idea of throwing such a small man, Colonel Sun suggests throwing a full-sized man, and when he throws the captain of the ship that brought them to America over twenty-five feet, a huge bar brawl breaks out. Naturally, the police are summoned. The pair also lose their way back to China, since the ship’s captain no longer wants to have anything to do with Colonel Sun.

Taking the winnings from the bets at the bar, the two find a hotel. Colonel Sun is nearly incapacitated with pain. Because he has lost his temper and fought so far from home, he explains, he is weakened. He believes he will get stronger, though, and the next day they explore San Francisco, meet the stoned proprietor of a soup kitchen, and attend a modern art exhibition, spending the next night in the bus the soup kitchen operator lives in.

The next day the lovely assistant curator, who has befriended Hsun-Ching, takes them to the aquarium where they see an orca show. Believing the animal trainer to be a mighty warrior to dominate a sea monster in such a way, Colonel Sun insisted upon meeting him, then sent his spirit to speak to the man warrior to warrior. The animal trainer, however, turns blue and begins choking. Colonel Sun is disgusted at the lack of foundation the man’s mind has.

That night they eat at the soup kitchen and Colonel Sun meets an elderly Chinese man who tells him a tale of prejudice and bureaucratic hell that prevented the man from being reunited with his wife, who had to remain in China. The man, who sent all of his earnings to his wife in China, is homeless and poor and his eyesight is failing. Colonel Sun sees a strength in him, though, and admires the man’s courage and perseverance in the face of the adversity he has endured.

The next morning Hsun-Ching and Colonel Sun return to the Dharma Institute to retrieve the Laughing Sutra. They are almost turned away, but the director of the institute, believing them to be Tibetan, finally welcomes them. However, the director tricks Hsun-Ching into admitting he is not Tibetan, and then evicts both the Chinese men without allowing them to see the Laughing Sutra.

Hsun-Ching despairs, and tells Colonel Sun that he has decided to stay in America and not return to China. Colonel Sun takes his leave of Hsun-Ching at that point, because he came on the journey to help the young man get the scroll. America has no soul, only appearance, he says, refusing Hsun-Ching’s pleas for him to stay in America, too.

Hsun-Ching sneaks back into the Dharma Institute and hides in the men’s room until he hears the front door being locked. He creeps out, but is dismayed to hear footsteps and the sound of heavy things being moved. Finally he goes to the storage room and sees that it is Colonel Sun who is making all the racket. They find the scroll of the Laughing Sutra.

As they are leaving they set off a burglar alarm, though. The police come, but see only one of the Chinese men. The colonel tells the younger man to stay hidden and to escape when he has the attention of the police. Terrified, Hsun-Ching sees Colonel Sun shot by the police and throw himself into the ocean, swimming until he disappears under the waves far from land.

Hsun-Ching barely reaches the ship before it leaves, and as he attempts to get back into China he is arrested and the scroll is taken from him. He is put through much interrogation and is told that in order for Wei-Ching to be allowed to read the Laughing Sutra, he must say publicly that he found the West to be a decadent place and that he wanted nothing more than to return to China when he attempted to run away. He agrees.

Granted permission to read the scroll himself, Hsun-Ching finds most of it incomprehensible, The monk with whom Colonel Sun had gone to India to obtain the scroll had added a colophon to the very end, summarizing it. Essentially, the Laughing Sutra explains that the desire for enlightenment is really no different from desire for more worldly things. Understanding this “unity of desire,” understanding that the desire for enlightenment is no different that desire for wealth or possessions, is what makes the person seeking enlightenment laugh, and what makes the achievement of true enlightenment possible. A person seeking enlightenment for the sake of achieving it, and not coming to enlightenment naturally, will not understand the Laughing Sutra.

Determined that Wei-Ching will not have the damning words of the ancient monk to disappoint him, Hsun-Ching cuts the colophon off the end of the scroll before giving it to his foster father. The dying old man reads the scroll in his hospital bed, but turns to the young man sadly. He explains that the scroll is full of superstitious nonsense. But then he begins to laugh. “It is as the Buddha said all along: Enlightenment cannot be found in books. It must be experienced directly! Foolish as I was, I did not take him at his word. But now I do! I am free!” Wei-Ching has understood the point of the Laughing Sutra.

Colonel Sun, who was saved from the policeman’s bullet by one of the gold bars he always carried, has also returned to China and has accompanies the young man as he spreads Wei-Ching’s ashes a few weeks later. The old man had only a couple of weeks left to enjoy his enlightenment. Within a few month, Hsun-Ching is offered a job because of his superior English-speaking skills and relations with America are normalized. He receives a letter from the lovely assistant curator at the American museum telling him that she is coming to visit. Perhaps Hsun-Ching’s life got better from this point.

:::END OF SPOILER:::

The book contains many pearls of wisdom. It is funny, sad, poignant, and wise. Here are a few gems from its pages:

Wei-Ching, to himself, before meeting the boy: “Buddhist literature often reminds us that true knowledge cannot be found in books. If that is so, why is there any Buddhist literature at all?….When asked this question, an enlightened master once said, ‘If I see the moon, but you do not, I will point at it. First you will watch my finger to see where it goes. Eventually, however, you must take your eyes off my finger and find the moon for yourself.’ So it is with the sutras. The point you toward truth but must not be confused with truth itself.”

“Bad action produces bad karma,” the boy Hsun-Ching remarks when he sees the body of the Red Guard leader who had attacked an old man lying in the street of a city.

When Hsun-Ching objects to Colonel Sun’s statement that they may have to kill border guards to get out of China, Colonel Sun declares, “I’m not saying we should kill innocent people! I’m telling you that, regardless of your intentions, you’re about to start something that may get you into trouble. You must be prepared to defend yourself if you’re threatened!…You want to leave China to do an old man a favor, to make his life’s dream come true, but those men are prepared to shoot you down if you try, and they think they have a right to do it! Well, I’m telling you they don’t! They have no more right to do that than a criminal does to stab you for your money.”

When Colonel Sun disarms and vanquishes attacking policemen by basically staring them down, Hsun-Ching is amazed. “I cannot explain why it works,” the colonel explains. “If you fear nothing, not even death itself, then you grow strong. You can look at a man with an intent to cut through him, and he will feel crushed by your gaze.

Colonel Sun to a disbelieving Hsun-Ching: “Be courteous and stop telling me who I can or cannot be.”

Colonel Sun: “War is a terrible fact of life, but if it is inescapable, then you must approach it as an art. Otherwise, defeat is certain.”

Colonel Sun: “You can’t live without suffering losses now and then, that’s just a fact. But you can’t lose spirit over it. It should strengthen your resolve!”

Colonel Sun: “Anything you do out of loyalty or friendship looks foolish when you add up the expenses. …[but] stick to it and don’t worry about the costs.”

Hsun-Ching: “Loyalty is something we do for other people.”

Colonel Sun: “When you make a promise, you carry it out, regardless of how foolish it may seem.”

The wisdom of The Laughing Sutra is more than just what we eventually learn the scroll itself has to say. The wisdom of the book by Mark Salzman teaches us that loyalty has its price as well as its reward. It also teaches us never to go to a foreign country without first getting the proper currency.

Children’s Literature for Adults

Madeleine L’Engle is Dead.

I saw the headline in the online edition of the New York Times yesterday, and a wave of nostalgia washed over me. Meg Murray, the protagonist in L’Engle’s classic, Newberry Award winning series, is one of my favorite literary characters from childhood. I wanted to be her. I probably was her: nerdy, intelligent, sarcastic, a diamond (or at least a white topaz) beneath the rough adolescent exterior of too-thick glasses and a mother who didn’t pay attention to children’s fashion.

When Jack was old enough to read A Wrinkle in Time, I handed him the tattered, oversized paperback I had read so many times myself. He looked at it with a sneer. I sighed. It really was falling apart. I had actually taped a few pages back into it as I reread it before deciding that, yes, it was time for him to learn about fewmets and tesseracts.

Barnes and Noble carried the entire series in hardcover. I bought them. Besides looking really swell on the shelf in their matching dust jackets, I knew that these books would never get outdated. Jack’s children will read them, and maybe his grandchildren. Their grandmother- and great-grandmother-to-be has read them again as an adult and finds no reason not to keep them on the shelf. These are not the kind of children’s books that are outgrown and packed away for a future generation. Like our hardcover Narnia books in their cardboard display box, Madeleine L’Engle’s books are meant to be seen and read regardless of my age or Jack’s.

There are a lot of children’s books that are really, really good even for adults. It seems that the “phenomenon” of Harry Potter surprised some of my adult friends, as well as adults all over the world. Books written for and about adolescents don’t have to be sophomoric. Those that aren’t, that are well written and tell a good story, have universal appeal even if they are sold from the children’s section of the bookstore.

There is a trend to make movies of such books these days. Holes, by Louis Sachar, had a great box office return. The classic story of a teenager punished excessively for something he didn’t do, evil jailers with evil agendas, bullies, friendship, loyalty, and karma had just the right amount of symbolism, philosophy and mysticism to appeal to adult book clubs.

Eragon did poorly at the box office, but that should be no reflection on the book. In the tradition of S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders), Eragon was written by 16 year old Christopher Paolini, who followed it with Eldest. The third book in the trilogy is due to be published within the next year. Paolini is an amazing writer, and I expect to see him producing prolific amounts of real literature as his writing becomes more seasoned. Yes, adults who like science fiction, especially those of us who like dragons, will love Paolini’s books.

In the world of Eragon and Eldest, there are no more dragonriders, because the evil king, who has the only dragon left in the world, declared war on them and killed them all. When a dragon’s egg appears mysteriously in the mountains where Eragon, a teenage boy, is hunting, he takes it home. He thinks it is nothing more than an interesting stone until it hatches. Suddenly Eragon is bound to Sapphira, the young dragon hatchling, and the two embark on adventures that are destined to change their world, and hopefully depose the wicked king and bring back dragons and dragonriders. Elves, dwarves, battles fought on the backs of fierce fire-breathing dragons: it’s all there. Personally, I can’t think of anything more I need in a dragon book!

Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, is being put on celluloid. The Golden Compass, based on the first book in the series, is due to be released in December. I hope it does justice to the book. As always, I fear for the bastardization of the story. Pullman is a British author. In the UK, the first book in the trilogy was released as Northern Lights. For whatever reason the title of the book was changed to The Golden Compass when it was published in the US.

His Dark Materials have been called the antithesis of Narnia. Parallel universes serve as the backdrop for this series, and demons replace the souls which exist outside the bodies of their humans. Children are being kidnapped and used in horrible experiments with the element “dust” which the religious authority believes to be proof of original sin. The themes in the book pull at religion, authority, and justice without insulting any true existing form of religion. The church in Pullman’s books is perverted from the Christianity in our universe. These books challenge the reader think about authority and faith in different ways. I doubt the movie will be able to convey these themes. I will wait to see.

The Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud hasn’t yet been brought to the silver screen, and hopefully it won’t be. In case you couldn’t tell form my comments already, I just hate it when movies ruin the fantastic books they claim to based upon. (I know, I know- they’re making a movie, not making the book. Still, I think the movie makers ought to be true to the story, dammit.) In the first Bartimaeus book, The Amulet of Samarkand, a boy with innate magical ability is fostered to a magician who neglects him. The boy is determined to learn magic anyway, so he studies on his own. He calls up a demon just because he can, and naturally all hell breaks loose. Bartimaeus is a sarcastic, secretly good-hearted demon, though, and quite a character. Together the boy and the demon expose corruption among the magicians, managing to topple the government of England in the process. Magical duels, subterfuge, roving gangs, other demons with other agendas, exploding buildings, daring rescues from inaccessible towers… sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Cornelia Funke is to German speaking kids what J.K. Rowling is to their English speaking contemporaries. Her first book to be translated into English was The Thief Lord, and it was all the rage among Jack’s 4th grade peers. Since it was a thick book (like Harry Potter), I picked it up. What a story! Think of Oliver Twist and a teenage Fagan doing their work in the labyrinthine canals of Venice. It’s dark, the water is scary, and someone is chasing our orphaned heros… Funke’s next book to be translated into English was probably better than The Thief Lord, though. In Inkheart, a character from a book is called into real existence when Meggie’s father reads aloud. Unfortunately, Meggie’s dad dooms her mother to becoming a character in the book. Someone has to replace the one that was removed, after all! The challenge is to get Meggie’s mom back out of the book, and to put the characters who have escaped back intro the books. Two minor characters, Dustfinger and Basta, really stand out as examples of how a writer creates a fantastic, fully dimensional character.

When Jack reads something and then presses it one me to read, I do it. He reads what I tell him to, as well. This means I’ve introduced him to other books about kids his age that were written for adults, and he’s introduced me to children’s books that ought to be read by more adults.

Jack and I have always shared books. When he was in kindergarten, I’d climb into bed with him and we’d read a chapter or two from whatever book I had chosen. We read the entire Narnia series aloud that year. We also read the first three Harry Potter books that way. I think Jack became a stronger reader because he would follow along in the books as I read them aloud, giggling when he caught me skipping words or saying something that wasn’t actually written. By the third grade he was reading adult level books on his own.

I asked him about books to mention in this blog, and he told me, “Most children’s books are terrible. It’s the same stories over and over again. Kid finds something magic, kid goes on quest, kid meets girl, kid and girl become friends during the quest, kid and girl almost don’t complete the quest, but then find that the thing they need to complete the quest is inside them the whole time, like it’s ‘love’ or something.” Jack liked and likes the books that are original, that have more complexity.

Jim Butcher, the author of the wonderful Harry Dresden, Wizard mysteries, has started a series about people who can call up the elements to do their bidding. Air, water, earth, metal, wood, and fire are at the beck and call of talented individuals in this post-Roman Empire alternate world. The main characters start as teenagers in the first two books, and by the third they begin to come of age. They fight deadly giant insects who possess people making them zombies, go to war against a race of wolf-like creatures, and they get involved in diplomatic maneuvering among nobility with powerful magic. I’m really looking forward to the fourth book in the Codex Alera.

Ender’s Game is a fantastic book to give to any kid who likes video games. Orson Scott Card’s Ender series is probably his best known work, although he is a prolific writer of several genres. The Ender series is pure science fiction. A six year old boy, Ender Wiggin, is sent to battle school where he spends countless hours playing battle-type video games. Although he is initially segregated from the other students, Ender’s status as a strategic battle prodigy earns him the respect of the other students to whom he teaches tactics after regular school hours. Ender deals with bullies among his peers as well as an adult military command that puts him in charge of battle groups over his objection. Spoiler: When it is finally revealed to Ender that every battle he has fought on the video screen has been a real battle against real enemies, he falls into a catatonic state for several days. He has destroyed an entire race of aliens, including their home planet. The books that follow all address xenophobia and mental illness in creative ways. The series should be a classic for adults and kids alike.

Card also wrote an alternate history series with a teenage boy as his primary protagonist. In Seventh Son, the first book in the Tales of Alvin Maker, Alvin is known to be a man of incredible talent. He has a “knack” for making things – out of virtually nothing. His almost god-like powers change the world, and in later books characters from history interact with Alvin and have their own “knacks.” Tecumseh, William Henry Harrison, and the Indian Prophet Tenska-Tewa make their appearances, and Tippecanoe isn’t quite the same.

My philosophy has been to give Jack books that are about kids his own age, and a little older. When I read a story of a teenager who goes on the quest, or is thrust into a position of having to use his wits to survive, I give it to him. Frank Herbert’s Dune is a good one for teenagers because a teenager is suddenly thrust into a position of authority and responsibility, and must act creatively and desperately to save himself. Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shanarra is the classic quest book that Jack complained of, but its complexity is sufficient to keep not only Jack but plenty of others entertained through a long series of books. Likewise, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is about adolescents who are prophesied to save the world and fight against the veritable gods of their reality.

I recently read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Maybe it is a bit of science fiction when a man is chronologically challenged, but when he materializes naked at the age of forty-three in front of his six year old future wife, things get interesting. The wife grows chronologically through the book, but never knows whether she will meet her husband in his future or his past.

A girl is identified by a homeless man to be the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary in The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn by Janis Hollowell. Although her mother tries to protect her from the headiness that comes with being suddenly invested with the power to heal and the power to bless, Francesca’s aunt is more avaricious and sees the potential for making a profit off the situation. As Francesca herself matures, so do her powers. Book clubs loved this selection, because of the possibility of a mass psychosis that either caused or resulted from Francesca’s powers.

I know my list is weighted heavily toward science fiction and fantasy because Jack and I both love the genre. There are other books out there about kids, though, that are great. I’d love to hear what others have read.

Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run (Part III)

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Leonhard Seppala and His Lead Dog, Togo

Getting the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome the fastest way possible was paramount. The lives of scores of people, if not the whole town, depended on it.

The original plan for dog sleds was for two teams to meet in the middle. One team would set out from the end of the railroad at Nenana, and the other would set out from Nome. They would meet in the middle, at Nulato, and the Nome team would return with the serum.

The logical choice for the team to make the round trip between Nome and the halfway point was Leonhard Seppala and his team of Siberian Huskies, led by Togo. Togo was 12 years old, which was somewhat elderly, but he had been Seppala’s lead dog for tens of thousands of miles across the Alaskan Interior. Seppala himself held records for races like the All-Alaska Sweepstakes. He had trusted Togo with his life more than once.

Togo had not originally seemed like lead-dog material. In fact, Seppala tried to sell him twice, but Togo kept finding his way back to Seppala’s kennels. When he was just eight months old, Togo had escaped the kennel and followed Seppala. Seppala couldn’t turn back to return Togo, so he let the pup run with the team. Togo finished that trip in the harness next to the lead dog, and Seppala realized that Togo had great potential.

Alaska’s territorial governor was familiar with Seppala’s speed records across the frozen expanse of Northern Alaska’s interior, but thought that the fastest way to get the serum to Nome was by a relay involving more teams – thus, no team would be driving exhausted, the dogs would at their fastest and freshest, and the serum would get to Nome where it was desperately needed that much faster. The governor sent a telegram to the US Postal Inspector in Nenana, who would have the closest official contact with the mushers. The Postal Inspector contacted the Northern Commercial Company, which actually hired the drivers of the dog sleds. The company notified drivers all along the route to be ready for a relay. They wouldn’t be getting paid for this run. It was a mission of mercy.

Twenty teams of men and dogs took part in the relay. Athabaskan Indians (native to the Alaskan interior), Eskimos (native to the Alaskan coasts), and US Postal Service mushers all participated.

Dogs and men are believed to have arrived in Alaska together, walking across the Bering Land Bridge. Although the people native to Alaska hunted other animals, the dog was their only domesticated species. Dog fur kept Eskimos warm, dog meat filled their bellies when there was no other source of food. Dogs were used for hunting, as beasts of burden, and as guides through the confusing white terrain. It is believed that the Eskimos first came up with the idea of hitching dogs to sleds. The Athabaskans of the interior did not use sled dogs until after white men came to Alaska.

Twenty-four hours after the crate of diphtheria antitoxin serum left Anchorage, Alaska, the temperature in Nenana, Alaska, at the end of the railroad, was fifty degrees below zero. Traditionally, when the temperature reached -38 degrees Fahrenheit, so cold that mercury froze in thermometers, neither man nor beast went out. Wild Bill Shannon set out from Nenana with his team of Malamutes in that searing cold for a fifty-two mile run over very rough terrain. Normally the 52 miles between Nenana and Tolovana, where the next team in the relay waited, took two days with an overnight stop in Minto.

The train from Anchorage arrived at 9:00 p.m. January 27, 1925. Despite being cautioned by the Nenana Postal Inspector to wait until morning to start the run to Tovolo, Shannon insisted upon leaving immediately. “People are dying,” he said. His attitude was the attitude of every driver in the relay.

The trail normally used by the dog sleds had been churned up by horses in the days before, so Shannon turned his team to run on the frozen surface of the Tanana River. The air over the river was even colder, and the danger of water breaking through the ice was ever-present. As time wore on, Shannon had a harder time warming his feet and hands. He began losing his focus. Suddenly Blackie, his lead Malamute, swerved, taking the sled in a new direction. Shannon nearly lost his grip on the sled and looked around in surprise at Blackie’s move. He saw a black hole in the ice – an area of open water that the team had narrowly missed. Thanks to Blackie’s canine perceptions and quick thinking, disaster had been averted. It would not be the only time along this relay that the serum was nearly lost. But for the wit and courage of the lead dogs, the serum would never make it to Nome.

The temperature continued to drop through the Arctic night. Shannon felt his extremities freezing and knew he had to take steps to get the blood circulating in his body. So, he took steps. He got off the sled and literally ran alongside the team. This helped for only a short time, and soon Shannon realized he was in real danger of hypothermia. By the time he reached Minto, the halfway point between Nenana and Tolovana, the outside temperature was -62 degrees. Four dogs had bloody muzzles from breathing the icy air, and Shannon’s face was black with frostbite.

After four hours of warming himself by the stove in Minto, Shannon set out for the remaining 22 miles of the run to Tolovana. He had to leave three of his dogs behind because they were too weakened by pulmonary hemorrhaging caused by the cold to continue. A fourth dog looked questionable, but Shannon decided to take him. If necessary, that dog could be unhitched from the team and ride the rest of the way to Tolovana. Shannon made it to Tolovana by 11:00 a.m. on January 28. It was -56 degrees Farhenheit when he turned the precious cargo over to Edgar Kallands, the next driver in the relay.

In Nome that same morning, Leonhard Seppala set out. He had 315 miles to travel to get to the halfway point at Nulato, then 315 miles back to Nome with the serum. On the way he had to traverse the questionable pack ice of Norton Sound. The Sound might be completely frozen or it might have ice floes that would kill him and his team. the shortest distance between Nulato and Nome lay directly across the Sound, though.

In the meantime, the number of confirmed cases of diphtheria in Nome were increasing by the hour. Although both the white and native populations obeyed the quarantine, the strain was extremely virulent and and probably infected the population well before the quarantine had been ordered. The diphtheria bacterium could live for weeks outside its human host on something as benign as a toy. The children of the area had all attended Christmas celebrations and had been in school and church prior to the quarantine.

Nome’s mayor contacted the territorial governor again, begging for relief by airplane. A little more serum, enough to treat perhaps five people, had been located in Juneau and was being sent by rail to Nenana to await the next mail run. It wouldn’t be enough.

Next: more dogs, and a nation holds its collective breath …

Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run (Part II)

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Diphtheria has now been largely eradicated in developed countries. In the US, for example, preschool children typically receive multiple doses of the DPT vaccine, which immunizes them against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), and tetanus. Children who are not immunized, especially those who are in close proximity to other non-immunized children, are most prone to the disease, even in places where it was previously under control. For example, after the fall of the Soviet Union a lapse in enforcement of the immunization programs resulted in outbreaks in several its former states. In 1924, though, the children of Nome had not been immunized against diphtheria. Indeed, the vaccine had only been successfully tested the previous year for the first time. Antibiotics were not available to treat the disease until after World War II.

Prior to 1891, a child with diphtheria could be expected to die within a few days of falling ill. Diphtheria was a dreadful disease, highly contagious and had a mortality rate of nearly one hundred percent. Children are the most vulnerable targets of this bacterium, although it can infect and kill adults, too. In a single outbreak between 1735 and 1740 diphtheria killed as many as 80% of the children under 10 years of age in some New England towns.

In the 1880s a method of intubation was discovered that prevented victims from suffocating, but this method did not stop the toxic effects of the bacteria. The mortality rate fell to 75%, which was small comfort when the disease attacked a community.

In the 1890s, however, a Prussian physician, Emil von Behring, developed an antitoxin that did not kill the bacteria, but neutralized the toxic poisons that the bacteria releases into the body. The first Nobel Prize in Medicine went to Dr. von Behring for this discovery and the development of this serum therapy for diphtheria. It was this serum Nome so desperately needed.

Six of Nome’s children had died of diphtheria by January 22, 1925, the day the telegram was sent pleading for serum. Two days later, two more children had died, Welch had confirmed diphtheria in 20 children, and 50 more were at risk of contracting the disease because of exposure to sick siblings.

The only ground-based link to the rest of the world during the winter is the Iditarod Trail, an established mail route used by the mushers and their teams of dogs. The trail stretches 938 miles from Seward on the southern coast of Alaska, across several mountain ranges and the vast tundra of the Alaskan interior before reaching Nome, situated on an icy port just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Because the cockpits of airplanes were open in 1925, the only way mail and supplies could get to Nome was the dog sled.

Nome, Alaska, sits at the top of the world. In January, the coldest month of the year, temperatures hover in single digits much of the time. In late January 1925, though, a series of winter storms were blasting across northern Alaska, pushing temperatures 30, 40 and 50 degrees below zero. It was through these strong winds and driving snows, and through the perpetual twilight of the Arctic winter, that the dogs and their mushers would have to transport the serum.

It was decided that the serum would travel by train to Nenana, as far as the tracks could take it. A teams of dogs would meet the train and take the serum to Nulato, approximately half the distance between Nenana and Nome. Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian musher based in Nome, would take delivery of the serum and transport it back to Nome. Seppala and his dogs were famous for having won races across the Alaskan interior, and it seemed logical that he should hurry the serum to Nome.

Now that there was a plan for transporting the serum, Dr. Welch waited to hear that sufficient serum had been located and could be sent to Nome. In the meantime, as more children and adults developed the gray membrane of diphtheria, Dr. Welch began administering the expired serum that he had on hand. Possibly the confirmed case that worried Dr. Welch the most was that of Nome’s school superintendent, who was also a teacher. Every child in the Nome area would have been exposed to diphtheria through him. Dr. Welch hoped that the million units of serum he had requested would be enough to treat the entire population.

News finally came that 1.1 million units of the serum had been located at hospitals along the west coast of the US, but it would take until January 31 for the serum to arrive in Seattle to begin the trek to Nome. The serum was gathered and began its trek north. Having confirmed diphtheria on January 20, Dr. Welch knew that if no serum arrived until well into February, it would be too late for many of the children of Nome.

A few days later, 300,000 units of serum were located at a railway hospital in Anchorage. It wasn’t enough to save the town, but it was a start. Anchorage’s supply of serum would reach Nome long before the serum being sent from Seattle. The serum was packed in as much cushioning as possible to protect it from the jarring of the sled. The doctor in Anchorage pinned a note to the blanket surrounding the crate of serum instructing the mushers to warm the serum for fifteen minutes at each stop along the trail. He delivered the crate to the railroad and sent it north to Nenana. The serum would arrive in Nenana on January 27, a week after little Billy Barnett had died of diphtheria.

Next: the dogs…..

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