Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Awesome Evening of Science

13 October 2012

Yesterday when I got home from school, I caught the train into the city and met up with my husband. We had dinner at Sang Kee Noodle House and then took a taxi to The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, which was hosting the New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology program, a celebration in honor of John Templeton (born in 1912) and marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Templeton Prize and the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the John Templeton Foundation.

I might have ignored this event, but the star attraction was the lecture by Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality. I’m a fan of the NOVA series based on the first two books, and I have showed them to my students. Greene has also been on a couple of awesome RadioLab podcasts, The (Multi) Universe(s) and DIY Universe. So I convinced Greg we should go, and wrote in for free tickets.

The e-mail I got back said that the lecture was over-subscribed (the conference organizers had no idea that Greene was so popular?) so we arrived early to stand in line and get a seat. It was worth it. Before hand we chatted with a colleague and his students, and found out that one of his students had worked with one of my students over the summer. That student of mine was there with his brother and parents, and then I saw two others of my students there also! In fact, I got a photo of one with Greene!

This particular student plans to be a physicist when he grows up, and dreams of discovering a previously unknown law of physics.

After the talk, Greene answered a few questions. I asked if it was possible to observationally determine if there were in fact other universes outside of our own. The short answer is yes, IF another bubble universe bumped up with ours we should be able to observe the resulting “ripples” in the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Then, there was a panel discussion featuring

  • Marcelo Gleiser of Dartmouth, who is interested in the origin of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe
  • Geoffrey Marcy of UC Berkeley, who is a co-investigator on the Kepler extra-solar planet finding team
  • David M. Spergel of Princeton, who works with the data from the WMAP satellite, which distinguished fine fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background
  • Alexander Vilenkin of Tufts, who has developed the idea of the multiverse and works on inflation and cosmic strings.

Wow. What a collection of thinkers! They were given the questions

I. What was the earliest state of the universe?
II. Is our universe unique or is it part of a much larger multiverse?
III. What is the origin of the complexity in the universe?
IV. Are we alone in the universe? Or, are there other life and intelligence beyond the solar system?

and this is what the discussion centered on. Then they took questions. Partway through, Marcy commented that he was surprised that the audience seemed much more interested in the idea of the multiverse than with the idea of aliens from other planets.

Other interesting tidbits: we were seated right behind 97-year-old Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, who invented the precursor to the LASER (the MASER, which stands for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) and who is also a Templeton Prize recipient. According to Wikipedia, Townes is the only figure other than Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama to win both a Templeton Prize and a Nobel Prize. The conference organizer was Donald York, one of the Principal Investigators on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a project for mapping all the galaxies in the visible universe. I have had my students use the data for projects through the Sky Server website. The data released is so comprehensive, a dedicated middle-schooler or high-schooler could ask a question and do research that could be eligible for journal publication. Finally, the panel moderator was George Ellis, also a Templeton Prize winner, who is a pre-eminent researcher in cosmology and general relativity, and who has co-authored a book with Stephen Hawking. The only way this evening could have been more exciting would be if Kip Thorne or Stephen Hawking had been there too. It was awe-inspiring to be in the same room with these people!

 

Today

11 August 2011

Break from Japan posts (more are coming, I promise!) while I write a bit about my life at this very moment.

In less than three weeks’ time, I will be back in school with students. I have a tentative schedule and tentative class lists, though I am not printing any out since the class lists typically change up to and during the first week of classes. It looks like my planning period will be the last period of the day, which will be different, but my lunch period will still be 4th period, which is from 10:11 AM to 10:56 AM.  Since I eat breakfast at 5:30 AM, I will be hungry by then, but I will be hungry again at 4 PM as usual.

I have a lot of things to do and I keep putting them off. I need to use my watermelon for pickled watermelon rind and I need to do something with the inside part.  I have to (with my husband) move all the rest of the stuff that belongs in the kitchen out of the guest room, and put the guest room back to rights so we can have a houseguest.  I need to clean up my office so I can use it.  I need to write lesson plans, course standards, assignments, and blog posts, and I need to sort photos from Japan to put up on flickr.  I need to get the house neat enough to have a house cleaning person to come over and clean it.  I need to take the cat to the vet for his annual shots.

What have I been doing?  Well, in between traveling, I’ve been enjoying the opportunity of summer to READ. I really love reading!  Really!  I’ve read:

  • A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin
  • The Waters Rising by Sheri S. Tepper

I finished reading

  • Genius: the life and science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick

I’ve RE-read:

  • Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Forge of Heaven by C. J. Cherryh

I’ve STARTED but not finished reading:

  • The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (one of the summer reading books for my school)

I’ve continued reading (but also not finished) these books I started some time ago:

  • The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
  • Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

And I have on Kindle but have yet to start reading:

  • The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair
  • Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  • The Forgotten Genius by Stephen Inwood

So my mind has been in books lately, and today NPR posted a “top 100” list of fantasy and science fiction books and series, as voted by online poll.  Each person answering the poll could select ten choices to vote for.  The poll was available for about a week, and I did make my selections, along with 60,000+ others. Or at least that many other ballots – I don’t know if it was possible to vote more than once.

I was sincerely bothered that C.J. Cherryh did not make the list.  I was also annoyed that books that I had been unable to slog through as a teen (when I had even MORE time on my hands for reading) DID make the list.  Some of them had annoying protagonists.  Or dopey dialogue, or dry dialogue.  Or had no women characters, or had bad women characters – shallow, two-dimensional, dumb, whatever. My judgement of what makes a novel a GOOD novel specifically has to do with these things.

If I get lost in the world of the novel, if it seems real, if the dialogue is entertaining, if the protagonist is likeable, I will probably like it.  If the dialogue is dull or in a difficult dialect, if the characters do dumb things, if the world is unbelievable, or if the book is overtly sexist or worse, misogynistic, I probably won’t finish it.  I couldn’t finish the Salman Rushdie book I started – nothing ever happened in it.  I couldn’t force myself through Abbot’s Flatland because of the way women were portrayed.  And it was boring.  And forgive me my friends who love them, I cannot get into Jane Austen’s novels at all. I haven’t figured out if it is the language or the plots or the characters that I dislike, but I have never been able to read one all the way through.

Please don’t recommend any more books to me at the moment.  My slate is full enough.  But in a month or so you can start directing me towards next summer’s list!

Mini-break!

11 February 2010

Last weekend, we had a big snowstorm.  Maybe you heard about it.  Maybe you were in it.  Maybe you listened to the NPR reporters going on and on about it, heard about the government shutdown, and thought, “what, for a little snow? What wimps!”

Anyway, by the time it was all over, we had about 20 inches (51 cm) at our house, but the airport reported 28.5 inches (72.4 cm).  Happily, the neighbors used their snowblower to clear our sidewalk, but since my husband was at his graduate classes on Friday and Saturday, I had to shovel the snowplow leavings from the end of the driveway on my own.  Then, due to the local transit system shutting down, I had to go drive into the city to get him, which was fine, since I know how to drive in the snow and hardly anybody else was on the roads.  I took it slow and steady, and even without 4-wheel drive, I easily made it.

So then it snowed again Tuesday night and all day Wednesday, and I didn’t measure this time since it is harder to measure when you already have snow.  The airport recorded an additional 14 inches (36 cm) but here it was enough to top off our compacted-and-sunken snow cover back up to about two feet (61 cm).  And this was heavy, wet snow, since the forecast of temperatures in the teens (Fahrenheit) had been completely wrong.  The temperature hovered around the freezing mark, and some of the precipitation was in fact sleet and freezing rain at times.  YUCK!  Happily, both my school and my husband’s work were closed today so we could shovel out together.  I have the added bonus of no school tomorrow either, for some reason, so I won’t be going back to school until Tuesday, since Monday is a federal holiday.  So I am in the midst of a 6-day weekend!

You might wonder why I have not been spending all my free time writing blog posts for you to read.  Two reasons.  Number one, I actually had class for my AP Physics students yesterday and today, via “Elluminate.”  They are the same company who once upon a time told me I had to re-format my computer.  No problems this time, though, and I was able to teach all about how to determine the electric field from a dipole (along a bisecting axis) and a line of charge and a ring of charge and from a disk of charge. All of this required advance preparation, including some complex equations that I typed into Word’s equation editor ahead of time.  I have been told that it might be easier to do my equation in LaTeX, but I have never had the patience to figure that out.

The other reason?  Reading.  On facebook a couple of weeks ago, a cousin had mentioned Diana Gabaldon’s latest, and I hadn’t realized it had been published last year, so I got it from the library.  If you are not familiar with Diana Gabaldon, she writes time travel romances.  An Echo in the Bone is her seventh novel  (all are 700+ pages) about the adventures of Claire, a twentieth-century-born physician, and Jamie, her 18th-century Scottish highlander husband, and their family.  There are several goings back-and-forth between the 18th and 20th centuries, lots of historical figures (An Echo in the Bone features my ancestor Joseph Brant, as well as Benedict Arnold, Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, and major revolutionary war figures in Saratoga), and lots of sex.

Upon finishing An Echo in the Bone, I immediately started in on Connie Willis’s latest book, which arrived from Amazon.com last week.  Blackout is another time travel novel, featuring Oxford University historians studying World War II.  Connie Willis first introduced the history department of Oxford University, and its head of time travel James Dunworthy, in her short story Fire Watch in 1982.  Dunworthy is a major character in Willis’s novel Doomsday Book, in which a minor character from Fire Watch does her history practicum in the Middle Ages while Oxford suffers from an influenza epidemic.  Dunworthy appears again in the comic novel To Say Nothing of the Dog.  That one takes the historians to the Victorian era.  In Blackout, Willis returns to her favorite era and location: World War II Britain, and reintroduces one of the characters from Doomsday Book, Colin Templer, now seventeen years old.  Unfortunately, Blackout is only part I of two books, and the second half of the story, All Clear, is not due to be published until fall!

So there you go.  I have been keeping busy.  I have a bunch of tests yet to grade, that I gave on Tuesday, and I have some more work to do for my AP class (I want to send them some notes via e-mail, since we won’t be teleconferencing again tomorrow), and I am sure I can find plenty of other ways to continue to keep busy.  I have two netflix movies to watch, for example.  And I have some sewing projects to do.  And four more days before having to be back at school!

Opportunity

17 February 2009

One of the things I love about attending conferences is the chance to meet people and have great conversations. Then there are just those who I get to meet. I got to meet Paul Hewitt several years ago at a conference, and I got to tell him that I knew a woman who had taken his physics course and majored in physics because of him. I got to make him smile.

Paul Hewitt is the author of a physics textbook called Conceptual Physics. We use it at my school for the lowest level of first year physics, and I also have AP students read it. Many physics teachers admire Paul Hewitt very much, so it is actually pretty cool to have met him. I can also impress my students by recounting how I heard a talk by S. James Gates, who to my students is “the guy on the poster.” I’m not sure why it is so exciting to have seen in person a guy on a poster, but OK.

Well, this conference is the one where I got to have my picture taken with Connie Willis, one of my favorite authors! Woot! She even gave me permission to put the photo on my blog, so here it is:

meandconniewillis

When I was in high school, I first read Willis’s novelette Blued Moon, which was published in Asimov’s* (a magazine of short science fiction stories) in the 1980’s. I loved it, and thought that even my mother would enjoy it. My mom said she didn’t like science fiction, but this was a story about coincidence, language, and English majors.

Since then, I have read every book and story by Connie Willis that I have been able to find. I learned that he husband was a physics professor somehow, which made a lot of sense when I read At the Rialto and her novel Bellwether. At the Rialto is a short story that takes place at a quantum mechanics conference, and Bellwether involves someone who keeps alive the memory of her high school physics teacher.

I met Connie’s husband Courtney Willis at a conference in Madison, WI. I was heading out to find dinner one evening with my friend Liz, and Courtney was also on the same mission. We all found our way to an Afghan restaurant and had a good meal and a good conversation. Then a year or so ago I finally met Connie Willis when she gave a talk and a reading at Swarthmore College. She had a bad cold at the time, but she did the reading anyway and I hung on every word, and afterward asked her to sign my copy of her novel Passage.  The novel she read from that night will probably be published next spring (2010) and I am very much looking forward to reading it! It takes place largely in her favorite time and place: World War II, the Blitz. It features characters who are time-traveling historians, as in her short story Fire Watch and her novels Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog.

So, I still haven’t had a true conversation with Connie Willis, but I am still pretty pleased to have had several opportunities to say hello at the conference, and feel all glowy that I was at the same conference as Connie Willis. I also stayed at the same hotel Al Gore spoke in, in the same city where President Obama was spending the weekend, and I was in the same room as a Nobel-prize-winning physicist more than once! So I guess it was a pretty special weekend, but I still missed my husband and our cat. I’m glad to be home!

*short for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine

Another one

23 January 2009

It’s going to be another one of those weeks.  The end of another marking period, grades are due on Friday next, I have a backlog of grading to do.  Well, at least I am not taking any online graduate courses right now!  And I finished reading C. J. Cherryh’s latest: Regenesis (I shouldn’t have started it, but I love Cherryh and it is a sequel to her novel Cyteen) so that won’t be bugging me.  I don’t HAVE to do any Japanese lessons, since I am my own taskmaster in that.

So if you don’t hear from me again until February, now you know why.

In the meantime, here is a photo of the hard disk from my parents’ old computer, that I took apart and ran a strong magnet over a bunch of times so nobody can steal their data.  And then I hung the disk itself in the dining room by the sliding glass door, in hope that it will discourage wood doves from flinging themselves at it.

parts

Giving 2

12 January 2009

I win.

You know how it is really fun to find someone exactly the right gift, and they didn’t even know they wanted it or even suspect it as a possibility?

And then they react to it, and you feel all smiley inside because they love it, and its perfect, and you are so amazing to have found it!

I did that.

When I visited my parents over break, I perused the outside of their refrigerator as I always do, scanning the postcards, photos, newspaper clippings, and other things that find themselves stuck on refrigerators.  I tend to re-read the poems there, clipped from the Buffalo News and yellowed with several years of existence.

Mom saw me reading and remarked that she would love to have a book of poems by Albert Sterbak, who wrote three of the poems on the fridge.  So, since her birthday is in January (she shares the birthdate with  Stephen Hawking, David Bowie, Elvis Presley, and Mary Queen of Scots) I immediately started searching for such a book.  No luck.  Not on Amazon.  Nothing on Google.  But I was able to find an address.

So I wrote to Mr. Sterbak, with a nice pen on nice paper and sent it in a stamped envelope, hoping to have found the correct Mr. Albert Sterbak in my search.  I did, and he called me up on the land-line phone!  (This is the way we all used to do things)

We had a lovely conversation, and Mr. Sterbak agreed to send an autographed  poem to my mom, since he has no book as of yet.  We decided on a sonnet that is also a recipe, albeit a recipe for weasel (he didn’t tell me that part on the phone) and in less than a week I was on the phone with my mom hearing the excitement in her voice as she read the address from the envelope (in poem form), the sonnet, and the letter from Mr. Sterbak.  She was very happy and very surprised!  WIN!

I wrote back to Mr. Sterbak with a check enclosed.  After all, he had spent time and postage and this was a gift for my mom.  And while he has no book I would have bought one.  But today, I received my own poetically-addressed letter.  Actually, it is a limerick and an additional couplet:

O Postman:

Please rush this without a delay
To Ms. XXXXXX in MORTON, P-A
The Zip, when you go
Is 1 – 9 – 0 – 7- 0
But the rest doesn’t rhyme much, I’d say

Yet, lest this cause you further pain,
Try 1 – 3 – 8 ALTHEA LANE

He refused my check (sent it back), and mentioned that he has placed my letter and the one my mom sent him in thanks on his own refrigerator.

So, maybe eventually there will be a published book of light verse by Mr. Albert Sterbak.  In the meantime, write your favorite living poet a fan letter!  You never know what may happen!

Mid-January 2009

12 January 2009

I apologize for the extremely uncreative title.  But this is a catch-up post.

It’s mid-January already.  The marking period ends next week and all the kids are overwhelmed with projects and tests.  It’s only a week since we came back from break and it seems like break never happened.

My wonderful husband went to California last week to do some work, mostly videotaping but some web-tech stuff also.  Once his work was done he stayed for an extra couple of days to hang out with friends and play Rock Band with people who could really handle it…unlike those of us who played on January 2, who benefitted from the “no-fail feature.”  No, these were people who could keep my husband on his toes!

Meanwhile, I was home, working.  I had to do all of the chores myself: cooking, taking out the trash, feeding the cat, etc.  Which really is not all that hard to do.  I took advantage of mygarliccookbook opportunity and last Tuesday I roasted a chicken, using a recipe from the Garlic, Garlic, Garlic cookbook involving roasting some garlic, then putting the roasted garlic, a halved lemon and some herbs inside the chicken before roasting the chicken.  Afterward, a sauce is made with pan juices, more lemon juice, and the roasted garlic.  The bird comes out really tender and yummy!

I’m still eating chicken.

I am down to a last sandwich-worth of chicken salad, however, so that is pretty good.  I had some of it as soup, when I came down with “the virus going around school” last week.  I woke up freezing cold and wet with sweat several times a night for two nights in a row, and was achy and dizzy and very brain-fogged.  It made teaching a challenge, especially on Friday.  So anyway, I made a really easy chicken soup, as shown here:

chickensoup

Easy chicken soup, by teawithbuzz

  • 3 cups water
  • 1 tbs “better than bouillon” chicken base
  • about 1 carrot, chopped
  • about 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • about 1/2 cup chopped cooked chicken
  • 1 handful egg noodles

Put water and chicken base in pot, bring to a boil.  Add carrots and celery, simmer 5 minutes.  Add chicken and egg noodles, simmer until noodles are tender.  Serves 2, or serves one for dinner and serves one again for lunch the next day.

I slept a LOT over the weekend to recover, and I feel much better now, plus I have my husband back now, and he cooked a yummy stir-fry for dinner!    I enjoy having someone else cook dinner!

Unfinished

30 November 2008

bedsidebooksThis is the pile of books on my bedside table.  I have started reading all but two of them: Surfing Through Hyperspace and Genius.  Am I making progress on the pile over this mini-break for Thanksgiving?  No.  I picked up a novel I’ve read before, instead.

To be honest, Death in the Andes is hard to get into, and not particularly pleasant.  I have already read many of the stories collected in The Winds of Marble Arch (Connie Willis is one of my favorite authors, and I am eagerly awaiting the release of her novel All Clear next year.)  Physics of the Impossible and Krakatoa are fascinating and engrossing (yes, both!), and I go through little bursts of reading one or the other for several days over breakfast.  I haven’t picked up Driving Mr. Albert in over a year–both it and Krakatoa had used to live in the basement lavatory until I rescued them this summer, and I started back in on the one but not the other.  Guns, Germs, and Steel is something I keep meaning to get back to, but I feel like I ought to read some of the others first as it is a relatively recent addition to the pile.

I have in fact removed three books from the pile this past year, having finished them.

What’s on your bedside table (or equivalent)?  Which of these should I try to finish first?

I love to read – part 2

25 May 2008

There was a time in my life, from middle school through college, when I rarely read a non-fiction book for pleasure.  As a younger kid, I read many non-fiction books, about astronomy, archaeology and ancient history, dinosaurs, and other science-y topics.  I loved them.  But there was perhaps a dearth of such books aimed at 13- to 20-year-olds (or I had read them at an earlier age), or I really needed an escape in those turbulent and emotional teenage years.  Whatever the reason, I immersed myself in fiction whenever I could.  Nowadays, I am more receptive to non-fiction.  Here are some recommendations:

The first adult-level non-fiction book that was not assigned reading for a college course and which made a big impression on me (as in “Wow!  What a GREAT book!”) was Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.  This book about the history of textiles and women in society opened my eyes to things I never knew and is very engaging and accessible to the layperson.  While it may seem obvious to some that women would be interested in clothing, this book is not about fashion but the culture, meaning, and creation of cloth for fashion and decoration, from the paleolithic through ancient Greek and Egyptian times.  Barber starts with the earliest known textiles, of which there may be no evidence other than in ancient carvings or paintings.  I loved this book, and I finished it quickly!

Another great book from a similar time in my life is A Scientist in the City, by James Trefil.  I read this on an airplne to Chicago for an education conference when I was still new to teaching.  I read this book without particular expectations, and I loved it.  I love cities, and I was fascinated by the complexity of the systems that make cities possible.  I was also impressed by the accessibility of this book.  You do not have to be a scientist to enjoy it, only interested.  Well, it helps to have some high school education.  I have passed this book along to high school students, only to have them keep it for months, because after they read it, their mom has to read it, and their brother, and it takes a while before I get my copy back!

In a completely different vein is The Cartoon History of Time by Kate Charlesworth and John Gribbin.  Is there a name for non-fiction graphic novels?  Because this is one.  Dramatically different from Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon Guide to Physics, The Cartoon History of Time is very short (only 64 pages), very colorful, and is hosted by Junior Chicken and Alexis the ‘Quantum’ cat.  Starting with the laws of thermodynamics and explaining quantum theory, cosmology and relativity on the way, this is a fun and humorous look at exactly what the title says: the history of time.  Along the way, famous physicists are introduced and pop culture references abound.  While I love this book as well, I rarely find another person who loves it as much as I do, in fact most people I mention it to seem never to have heard of it.  However, I found another person in that situation, Lucy Lyall who is the creator of the webcomic Kaspall not only knows this book well but her whole family loves it—and yet, most people she knows/meets have never heard of it when she describes it as an inspiration for becoming a comic artist!

This winter I finished reading a book I spent at least two years reading: The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins.  Dawkins is a most excellent writer.  I love his precise and elegant sentences and the way he explains the more obscure vocabulary words that are specific to genetics and biology.  One of the best things about this book is that it is broken into small pieces, of only a few pages each.  Though the whole book (not including the notes and bibliography) is 614 pages, I could read three pages before falling asleep, feel like I had learned something, and not have difficulty picking it up again a week later.  I learned a LOT from this book.  Evolution is a topic I understand, but I am far from being an expert in it.  Dawkins helped me understand better where the evidence comes from and how we can trace the changes back to the origins of life on Earth.

While I was already reading The Ancestor’s Tale bit by bit, my husband returned from a trip with a book he’d picked up at the airport for airplane reading: Lynne Truss‘s Eats, Shoots & Leaves.  A charming book that appeals to those of us who are well-educated and enjoy good usage of Standard English, our copy comes with a “Punctuation Repair Kit” featuring sticky-backed apostrophes/commas to be placed appropriately when needed.  What is missing is the jumbo bottle of correction fluid for removing unnecessary quotation marks!  Interestingly, I still remember vividly the first time I heard that joke about the panda, told to me by my friend Line.

A panda walks into a bar,and orders a sandwich.  The waiter doesn’t blink an eye, and goes ahead and brings the panda the sandwich.  The panda sits and eats the sandwich, then when the waiter brings the check the panda pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter!  Then the panda starts towards the door.  The bartender who witnessed the scene from behind the bar leaps out and chases after the panda, yelling “What do you think you’re doing!  Why did you shoot the waiter?  He didn’t do anything to you!”  The panda turns and says to the bartender “I’m a panda.  Look it up.”  Then the panda continues on his way.  So the bartender goes back to the bar where he keeps his handy  encyclopedia, opens the book to the entry on pandas, and reads “Panda: a black and white bear native to China.  Eats, shoots and leaves.”

About six years ago I picked up Mark Kurlansky‘s tome Salt: a World History from the library, and read it while waiting for vacuums to form in various machinery I was using during my summer doing carbon nanotube research at the University of Pennsylvania.  Nearly every day I was evaporating metal onto a substrate to test electrodes, or putting my electrodes in a vacuum oven to test their durability under high heat and low oxygen.  When you need extreme vacuum, you have to wait awhile to get the air pressure low enough.  That gives plenty of time to read, which is good because Salt is a thick book.  However, it is fascinating!  When you look at history through the supply of salt available in various locations at various times, it is amazing how much influence such a simple and abundant compound has had.  I liked this book so much I gave a copy to friends as a Christmas present!  Now, since it is a holiday weekend, I am reading Kurlansky’s much slimmer volume Cod.

If you have a chance, try out one of these books!  If you think there are books I’d like based on what I’ve said about these books, I’d love to hear about them.  Summer library season is right around the corner!

I love to read – part 1

3 May 2008

Since I was tiny, I have consumed books like I breathe oxygen.  My parents started me on this path early, encouraging me to sound out words in books as soon as I showed an interest in being able to read for myself the books we brought home from the library.  My parents enrolled me in a book club, and I received books in the mail for years.  Some stories are still stuck in my mind: The Giant Jam Sandwich, in which a town solves their wasp problem in an inventive way; Stand Back, Said the Elephant, I’m Going to Sneeze, which is mostly about what happened the last time the elephant sneezed, and I loved the original stories from A. A. Milne about Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin.

I can remember in middle school reading six or seven books a week, in addition to whatever was required in English class.  However, most novels assigned in English class were not to my tastes.  The big exception was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I read nearly all the way through on the first night.  When the quiz question the next day was “What happened in chapter six?” I was stumped.  Since the teacher had assigned up to chapter six, she assumed we would all read only that far.  But I couldn’t put it down.

I took AP English Literature when I was a senior in high school.  I barely remember the books we read.  The two novels I remember are The Great Gatsby, and The Stranger.  Plus I remember writing one of the examination essays about Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, so we must have read that as well.  Why aren’t most of the books I studied in school the ones I love?  Why don’t I love all these examples of “great literature?”  I have always wondered.

What do I love about books?

I love plot.  I get drawn in by characters I can empathize with.  I like language that is clear, modern, and straightforward.  I like characters to make choices I find sensible—what would I do in the same situation? I also like a certain sense of humor.

Example:

I have never enjoyed reading Jane Austen.  I admit it has been a few years since I tried, but I have never successfully read an entire Jane Austen novel.  Compare to C.J. Cherryh.  While I cannot claim to love ALL of Cherryh’s work (her Russian folk-fantasy books were not my cup of tea, for example), there are many novels of hers I have re-read multiple times.  Why the difference?  Especially when a number of my friends appreciate Jane Austen very much?

Austen’s main characters are women.  The novels take place in country homes, the language is decidedly not modern, and the plots center around romance and the petty intrigues that romance can involve.  It’s like high school.  People snub each other, pass notes, try to attract attention from the right person, wind up with the wrong person who turn out to be the right person…I don’t mind watching the movies, but I won’t spend the time it takes to work through the books.

Many of Cherryh’s main characters are men.  The novels take place in the far future, once it is possible to travel between star systems in a matter of months as opposed to years. (OK, not something that can ever happen, but a useful plot device.) Cherryh used to teach high school Latin, but her language is very modern. While the plots can be traditional such as “coming of age” or “outcast learns to fit in,” she also explores the idea of “first contact” —what happens when one group of people encounters another group for the first time.

Maybe you have seen a movie about humanity’s “first contact” with an alien culture, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or ET: The Extra Terrestrial.  Cherryh’s books are so much better!  The advantage that Cherryh has as a novelist is that she can go much further than any movie.  Also, she can use words to create a vision in the reader’s mind of what the “aliens” look like, without the clumsiness of movie special effects.  While movie special effects are getting better and better, they still can’t compare to the pictures inside my head.

Take Cherryh’s Chanur series of novels: a human captured by one set of “aliens” escapes and stumbles onto the ship of a different species of “alien.”  Cherryh excels at portraying alien cultures through their interactions among themselves, their foods, their rules for government, their family structures, and their negotiations.  There is never a lesson, or an aside for explaining who these people are.  Background gets filled in gradually as different situations arise in the plot.  One of the great things about these books is that the one human character isn’t even the protagonist.  The human is in the position of the unknown outsider, and the narrative never takes his point of view.  This is a refreshing and different way of presenting the situation.

Another Cherryh novel I love is Cyteen.  This is a complex story originally published as a trilogy, in which a powerful and ferociously intelligent woman is cloned after her death and her clone is raised to be as much like the original woman as possible.  While the overall plot is ultimately political, so much goes on in this novel that it is difficult to describe.  In addition to the clone main character, there is a second main character: a man who was emotionally scarred by the original woman and who watches the clone grow up and be manipulated by her uncle.  A psychological theme runs throughout, as does a moral theme: that of the clones.  The powerful woman was the head of a company that makes cloned workers (among other things) and trains them through subliminal tapes listened to under the influence of drugs.  Brave New World and soma?  To some extent.  But while I was not interested in reading Brave New World (though I did read the whole novel), I loved reading Cyteen which is about three times as long!  I never empathized with the characters in Brave New World, but I felt Justin’s pain and Ari’s frustrations along with them in Cherryh’s amazing novel.  Why is it different?  Maybe Huxley was just too blunt with his Ford and Freud.  Maybe he went too far in making his dystopia.  Cherryh’s future (and far-away) world is much more ambiguous, with more shades of gray.  Huxley’s London wasn’t a place I wanted to explore.  Cherryh’s ReseuneLabs (where much of Cyteen takes place) is vivid and interesting.

I also recommend Cherryh’s other stories that take place, like Cyteen, in her vividly-imagined Alliance-Union universe.  These include Finity’s End, Tripoint, Heavy Time, and Downbelow Station.  Her Foreigner series is also excellent, and has stretched to three trilogies by now, with Cherryh working on yet another book in what will be the fourth trilogy.

I plan to tell you more about other books and I like, but it may be a while before I do.  I hope you take a chance on Cherryh sometime, if you haven’t read her books before.  Maybe you’ll find that Cherryh is your Jane Austen, and you can’t finish the book.  But maybe you will like her stuff!