Monday, June 27, 2011

Books for nerds

Perhaps it is just further proof of what a hopeless nerd I am, but the most compelling book I’ve read in a long time is about the Oxford English Dictionary. I don’t think it is just my quirky interests that made The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary a compelling read. Simon Winchester is a brilliant author in telling the story of how the dictionary was compiled and the brief history of dictionaries. There’s wonderful definitions from the OED at the head of every chapter and a detailed defense of the plural “protagonists”. But best of all, and the real focus of Winchester’s story, are the eccentric and, in one case, mad characters who did the actual writing and research for the OED. He is at once straightforward in telling us about their lives and quirks, but it tempered with an warm and genuine affection for them. It is a delightful and fascinating combination.

There is yet another nerdy reading choice to report. I loved Packing for Mars. I had put off reading it because I assumed that with all my hours watching NASA-TV, I knew most everything about astronaut training and space ship design. That was a silly assumption -- I apparently knew nothing! It could have easily been a very dry read, but Mary Roach’s science writing is at once clear, interesting and very, very funny. I was sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s, reading the section on the research of bodily waste issues in zero-gravity, and got a serious case of the giggles -- not just because I have a scatological sense of humor, but because it was so very funny! It is extraordinary the things people do for a living, researching issues things that are a serious matter in the business of space flight.

Fellow nerd and author AJ Jacobs enjoys poking fun at his own foibles and OCD tendencies, and invites his readers to laugh along with him. His Year of Living Biblically could have tipped over into pure farce, but he was earnest in learning as much as possible and fleshed out his experiment with many interviews with both serious Biblical scholars, rabbis and ministers and with some of the more fringe religious elements. I also enjoyed The Know It All, an account of his reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, in pure alphabetical order, in a year.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Happy Birthday, Dorothy Sayers!!!

It is a happy coincidence that I'm currently reading Clouds of Witness.

Friday, May 13, 2011

My boys...

It's been such a treat having both boys home for the last 5 months.

They've been enjoying each other's company as never before.

Photos can't capture the rapid fire sarcastic repartee.

But they can capture the brotherly bond that warms this mother's heart.

"Really now? Brotherly love? Get a grip, woman"

The oldest leaves for college in August and the youngest will be leaving next year for college.
It's going to be awfully quiet around here, but these few months have felt like a payment for all those long, tedious and frustrating homeschool years!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Daybook, February 12, 2011

Outside: Simply beautiful. Sunny and 72 degrees

In the garden: Blueberries and strawberries are developing. Calla lillies and camellias are in bloom and the bird of paradise planted last summer has a couple of blooms that are radiant in the late afternoon sun.

At the feeder: Finches and more finches. White crowned sparrows, towhees and a couple of iridescent green hummingbirds that won't pause long enough to let me identify them.

In the kitchen: Counter tops rediscovered! Pumpkin bread that I've been wanting to bake since November.

On my music stand: Elgar Salut d'amor for prelude tomorrow morning at church. Beethoven string trios that need to be practiced with a metronome.

On my night stand: Two non-fiction works, that are wonderful but not catching my attention, and a stack of fiction.

On my mind: Finding joy in the most mundane parts of the week while I savor the time we are sharing as a family. My older teen boys are at a stage where they are fun to be around, and they are simply entertaining. This may be the last extended time we share as a nuclear family as the oldest will head off to college in the fall.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

January reading

My reading has gotten off to a very slow start, partly due to life, partly that I haven't had a page turner in my hands so far this year.

Terry Pratchett's Discworld series continues to be a staple of my audio book life. I read Thief of Time in January, with its riffs on quantum mechanics and string theory and time made it tie in quite nicely with all the Fringe episodes we've been watching. My current "car book", which is what I turn to when on the freeways, is Nightwatch. It is another Discworld time travel book but this time featuring my favorite character, Sam Vimes caught in the ol' Star Trek paradox of being stuck back in time but having to be careful to not change history.

Someone asked me where to start with the Discworld books, and I have to say I think the best starting place is Going Postal, a book about bringing the mail service back to life in the Discworld city of Ankh Morpork. It has all the best Discworld elements: terrific characters, very funny writing, and a terrific story that you want to finish. Discworld is, well, I'll let Terry Pratchett's cite explain what it is.

Bridge of Birds was the first book of the year for a virtual book club organized by a friend. What a delightful discovery! It is an epic fairy tale set in a "China that never was". The story follows the epic quest of Number 10 Ox and Li Kao who must find the cure for the children in a small village. It is a Chinese epic, rather than a Western one with the hero who discovers he has unknown skills and gifts. The elements of the story are all based in real Chinese myths and stories, which for me with my Chinese Studies background was so much fun. One thing or another would seem familiar, would niggle loose a memory from college classes, and I'd have to put the book down to research the Chinese word or story to refresh my memory. It is one I'm going to have to re-read in order to simply enjoy the story instead of treating it like a comprehensive exam.

I've been re-listening to Bill Bryson's At Home when I just need something to fill few minutes. It is as great the second time as was the first, and as it is so packed with information you pick up something new each time you listen (or read.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Daybook January 17, 2011

I was just visiting the always lovely Shades of White blog and really liked her daybook entry for today. I'm copying the idea, but it won't be as lovely and poetic, nor as profound and thoughtful.

Not this week.

Just look at the photo on the left. That pile is in the hall on the way to the garage. It has been there since the beginning of December and it is growing. Like a cancer.

There are books and math manipulatives to donate now that I'm done homeschooling.

There are toy dragons to donate and bags of clothes.

There are boxes left from Christmas.

And now there are suitcases my son brought home after living in Florida for the year.

But we didn't just bring my son and his suitcases home from Florida. Nope. We also brought home the flu. For the last 5 days I have barely looked outside a window, have not gotten dressed, have not read more than a chapter of a book, have not thought a single coherent thought. Well, I wasn't totally useless. I did manage to watch 3 discs worth of Fringe episodes.

I felt human enough today to putter around the house a bit and was startled when looking at the calendar to see that the month is halfway over. Huh? Last I remember it was the 3rd or 4th. A week in Florida followed by a week with the flu and I've missed half the year already. I feel as disoriented as Agent Dunham does when she gets spit out from a parallel universe.

So no thoughtful daybook from me today. Just a sharing of my surreal and jarring slide into the middle of January.

Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The year in books!

This is the year of Discworld. My 15yo reading buddy and son was having too much fun listening to and reading all the Discworld books, so I finally took the plunge. They are filled with dry humor and some laugh out loud humor and often have great characters and compelling stories. I think I’ve read 9 of them:

Lost Continent -- surreal visit to the Discworld version of Australia. Some of the funniest lines.
Going Postal -- perhaps my favorite. The story of the post office in Ankh Morpork
The Truth -- The story of the Newspaper in Ankh Morpork. Not as good as Going Postal
Guards! Guards! -- the beginning reads like a Monty Python skit.
The 5th Elephant -- more Sam Vimes and the Night Watch
Thud -- Where’s My Cow? I loved this book and the previous 2.
Jingo -- rather unmemorable
Reaper Man -- Death takes a holiday. What can I say? It is silly and funny.
Unseen Academicals -- just read this one. Good characters, but not a favorite.

I should have known it was going to be an odd year of reading as my first book of 2010 was Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

I read some classics this year, too.

Mansfield Park -- a very different Austen book.
Pride and Prejudice -- from cover to cover for the first time since my teen years
Jane Eyre -- I really liked this and it prompted me to read a biography of Charlotte Bronte
Wuthering Heights -- I couldn’t finish. Catherine and Heathcliff annoy me to no end.
Moby Dick -- I didn’t hate it, in fact it was an enjoyable listen. Not always compelling, though.
Heart of Darkness -- it almost seems cliche, but it was the first “evil white colonialist” book

Other older titles that I enjoyed were The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which was an unexpected joy to read and The Sign of Four, one of the Sherlock Holmes novels. The plot for Sign of Four is now confused in my mind with The Moonstone as both stories deal with stolen goods from India.

My son and I both loved At Home by Bill Bryson. It really brought so much of 19th century England to life, the details from all that British literature I read now are not something I gloss over but actually describe something tangible. A couple of other titles from same time period was Remarkable Creatures, a historical fiction about Mary Anning's life and The Fossil Hunters, a biography -- poorly written -- of Mary Anning. (She is the woman who sold sea shells by the sea shore in Lyme, and discovered the ichthyosaur and plesiosaur fossils.)

I listened to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, based on my son’s love of the book. It made for a great car trip as we wound up talking about politics and Heinlein’s libertarian leanings. Far North was the most evocative book I read, I think. The landscape and situations are still vividly real in my imagination. Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series was entertaining fanstasy, but not memorable.

I haven’t read all the books I bought at Comic-con, but I thoroughly enjoyed the one I have read. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss has a terrific protagonist, someone who is NOT the chosen one, NOT going to fulfill his destiny. That alone is refreshing!! But the setting and the plotting are refreshing too. His second book comes out in March, and my son and I are clearing our calendar for that one.

All in all I read 55 books this last year, though admittedly a few were put down somewhere in the 2nd half and I only skimmed the end. I've got a stack ready to go for next year, including a few more Discworld titles...