Review 1303: The Book: An Homage

Cover for The BookI’m not sure what I was expecting from The Book, maybe a collection of interesting facts or stories about books or the history of books. What I got was something quite different.

Burkhard Spinnen is a German writer and bibliophile. This book consists of a series of very short essays about books, particularly about whether the hardcopy book, or text, as Spinnen refers to it, will give way to the ebook. But it also has little essays about types of books, Spinnen’s relationship to books, and so on. Some of the essays read as if they were written long ago (referencing an incident in the 1970’s as “recent,” for example), while others are about more current ideas and issues.

I guess I think of this book as a trifle—something you might give as a gift to someone who loves books. I am a book lover myself, but I have to admit I didn’t get that much out of it. I’m not familiar with Spinnen nor with most of the German authors he cites, and this book feels like one that would appeal mostly to people who are fans of Spinnen. Maybe I should be more familiar with him and the writers he mentions, but I’m not sure.

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Day 1291: Through the Looking Glass: Further Adventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature

Cover for Through the Looking GlassThis book sounded interesting to me, but I did not realize it was a collection of Selma G. Lanes’s essays on various topics related to children’s literature. Lanes herself was a writer about children’s literature, as well as an editor, critic, and essayist. Although Lanes writes in the introduction about the tendency for publishers to look for marketable books rather than good ones, the essays largely deal with a more congenial time for children’s literature, the 1970’s.

This collection includes reviews, obituaries, and opinion pieces on such topics as whether children’s books are literature, what constitutes a great children’s book, and whether the pursuit of political correctness can go too far. These topics are interesting, but because most of the essays are from the 1970’s, some of them seem dated. Lanes also is nostalgic for the works of an earlier time, many of which I’m not familiar with.

A final essay about J. K. Rowling written in 2004 brings us more up to date as does the introduction. Still, a reader looking for good reading for a child (and sometimes an adult) can get some ideas, albeit older ones, from this book.

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Day 993: Slipping

Cover for SlippingI have read two novels by Lauren Beukes and greatly enjoyed their mashup of crime fiction and science fiction. So, I thought I’d love Slipping, a collection of short stories, essays, and other writings.

Beukes’s writing is energetic and her ideas unusual, often gruesome. Her stories are often bizarre. But, oddly enough, after a while they seemed to be very similar. Most of them are set in South Africa in what appears to be the near future, although some are set on other planets. Many are violent; many have characters leading glitzy but vapid lives. They feature a lot of slang that may be invented. There is a glossary, but I didn’t notice it until it was too late.

“Muse” is a short poem about the difficulty of writing, in which the writer receives gloves made of “muse skin” with barbed hooks in the fingertips.

link to Netgalley“Slipping” is about athletes who are artificially enhanced competing in a race. One of them is even a dead body. “Confirm/Ignore” is about catfishing. “Branded” offers advertizers a brand new idea for sponsorship. “Smileys” is a dystopian tale about a street vendor defending herself against extortion. “Princess” puts a startling interpretation on the story of the princess and the pea.

I don’t know why I felt this sameness, as the stories are obviously varied in nature, but I found myself not wanting to read more. I think some of the images were just to grotesque for me.

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Day 783: Let Me Tell You

Cover for Let Me Tell YouBest Book of the Week!
Although I almost always enjoy stories by Shirley Jackson, I was surprised and delighted to find myself even more captivated by the personal essays included in the collection Let Me Tell You. The book is divided into several sections, some of short stories, some of essays.

The first set of uncollected and unpublished short stories was interesting, although many were not her best. There were some bizarre or macabre stories, but the ones I enjoyed most seemed to be based on her own real-life preoccupations, a couple, for example, dealing with a professor’s affairs with his students. Her husband was quite the philanderer, apparently.

The essays, though, were centered around her home life and were funny and imaginative. Some are about the behavior of her children and the chaos of family life. In others, she imagines scenarios such as her toaster and her waffle iron having a feud because she toasted a frozen waffle. Or her two-pronged fork competing with her four-pronged fork. These essays are much more domestic than I expected, more whimsical, and funnier. I am now interested in rereading Life Among the Savages, her memoir about her family life.

link to NetgalleyThe last section of the book consists of essays on writing. I found myself absorbed by this section. I have read several books on writing, but they seldom include any advice that I found practical. Jackson’s essays include some very specific information about how she writes that I found revelatory.

I never thought I’d prefer essays to stories, but in this case, although the stories are enjoyable, I found the essays more entertaining and engaging.

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Day 669: Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries

Cover for Death by Black HoleA Quick Note: I just now published a new feature for my blog, an additional link called “List of Authors,” which lists all of the authors reviewed on this site and all their books. This new page will make it easier for people to find more books by authors they enjoy. Look for it at the top of the page!

* * *

Death by Black Hole is a collection of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s essays from Natural History magazine. In general, I’m not that fond of essay collections because just when I want an author to build on a point, the essay is over.

Tyson is always good, though, at explaining complex ideas in a way that a science novice like me can understand. He is also frequently amusing, funny enough for me to occasionally read passages out loud to my husband. Some of the pieces are probably written solely to provide amusement, like the one about the scientific errors in sci-fi movies. But he also includes essays about the creation of the universe, climate change, particle physics, cosmic curiosities, and the interface between science and the public.

If I can repeat a point, though, I think I would have appreciated even more a book that explained principles and then took me farther with them. Instead, by the nature of the beast, the essays are sometimes a bit repetitive, although none of them cover exactly the same ground.

I was really looking forward to the chapter on “intelligent design,” which is a sore point with me. But even though Tyson is clear that this is not a scientific viewpoint, his essay is a bit too tactful for my taste. At this point I would have appreciated some zingers.

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Day 615: The Rural Life

Cover for The Rural LifeThe Rural Life is a collection of essays, more like musings by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a writer of the editorial board for the New York Times. Most of the essays were previously published in the Times and are related to his rural life, whether through his family history on an Iowa farm, his own farm in upstate New York, his father’s ranch in the Sierras, or travels to various western states.

I thought this would be an interesting and perhaps informative book, as I plan to be leading the rural life within a couple of years. Certainly many of Klinkenborg’s essays struck a chord with me. I liked best the pieces that do not go far from nature, whether he is discussing the care of bees, the lushness of his farm in the summer, or the beauty of a snow fall. Occasionally, he gets a little more philosophical than I am interested in.

The book is beautifully written. It occasionally confused me because it is ordered in chapters by month, and in the summer months he seems to be hopping back and forth between his farm and Wyoming. It wasn’t until a paragraph at the end that I discovered the book combines essays written over several years.

Day 380: Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush

Cover for Lady Gregory's ToothbrushLady Gregory’s Toothbrush is more of a biographical essay than an extensive biography of Lady Gregory, one of the founders with William Butler Yeats of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin and a huge figure in the Irish cultural revival of the 1890’s and early 1900’s. The title of the book is based on a comment she made that reflected her own inconsistencies, that is, her firm roots in the Protestant aristocracy against her support for the culture of rural, Catholic Ireland. When Playboy of the Western World was being produced by the Abbey, there was a huge uproar by Catholic nationalists. Lady Gregory remarked that the dispute was between “those who use a toothbrush and those who don’t.”

Tóibín’s sketch effectively shows the contradictions in Gregory’s character. It would be easy to dismiss her as an elitist snob, but Tóibín makes very clear her contributions to Irish theatre and folk lore. She was one of the first people traveling to rural Ireland to collect Irish folk tales before they were forgotten. As well as writing her own plays as part of the movement to encourage and advance Irish culture, she collaborated with Yeats on his without credit, and some of her contemporaries believed she wrote the bulk of one or two.

An interesting detail from Lady Gregory’s life is how this redoubtable woman cossetted and gave in to Yeats. Tóibín recounts her son Robert’s indignation, for example, when he found that his mother had served Yeats “bottle by bottle” the entirety of his prized Tokay handed down to him by his father.

Copper Beech in Coole Park
The copper beech at Coole Park

Tóibín makes very clear the love she had for her husband’s estate, Coole, which she carefully preserved for her son while he was in his minority. There she entertained many of the great talents of Ireland, including Yeats, his brother Jack, J. M. Synge, George Bernard Shaw, and Sean O’Casey. The home no longer stands, Tóibín says it has been covered in concrete, but I myself have seen the great copper beech bearing their initials.

If I have any complaint of this short book, it is at my own ignorance (even though I have done some reading), for my lack of knowledge of the events of this time and particularly of the plays discussed makes it difficult to understand some of Tóibín’s remarks, particularly the furor around some of the plays. Having never read or seen Playboy of the Western World, for example, I don’t understand what was so upsetting (and indeed he implies that a modern audience may not).

Tóibín effectively and elegantly draws a brief but balanced portrait of this complex woman, showing us both her accomplishments and faults. Although I have read some of Yeats’ poems and some of Shaw’s plays, this short work makes me want to do more exploring around these figures in the Irish cultural nationalism movement and their works.

Day 26: Love, Poverty, and War

Cover for Love, Poverty, and WarEssays are not really my genre since I was terrorized by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in my teens, but I’ll give this a try.

Love, Poverty, and War is a collection of articles written by Christopher Hitchens between 1998 and 2005. It is a mixed bag containing book reviews, biographical opinion pieces, travelogues, and political polemics. I have read that he has said or written something to irritate everyone. I found him scarily intelligent and well-informed, although he has also been accused of picking his facts and disregarding those that don’t agree with his beliefs. He has a strong opinion about everything, it seems.

Hitchens’s book reviews are difficult for me to assess because I had not read a single one of the books (although I had read the authors) except Brave New World, which I read about 1970. I thought it was curious that most of the literature he reviews was written before the 1960s. Those reviews are included in the section called “Love,” so I suppose they are some of his favorite classic authors, but his selections made me wonder how he picked the essays to include in this book (if he did). I loved his review of a book by some academic that compared Bob Dylan’s songs to religious poetry by counting how many words the pieces had in common. His comments on this methodology are hilarious.

His portrait of Churchill was startling and shocking to me, as it was almost entirely negative. But then I started wondering about why it is included in the section called “Love” along with essays about Kipling, Kingsley Amis, and Orwell. I decided that he is fascinated by people of contradictions, although certainly he does not appreciate hypocrites.

I regret to say that I am not familiar enough with the details of events he discusses under “War.” For example, he repeatedly brings up the U.S. bombing of a Sudanese chemical plant, which I don’t recollect at all. He has been criticized for a shift from leftist to rightist politics because of his opinions about the U.S. handling (or lack thereof) of Salman Rushdie’s situation when he was under fatwa and then his reaction to 9/11 and the attacks following. I noticed that between essays he certainly shifted his position on the Sudanese bombing, maintaining at first that the factory produced aspirin and later that there were strong indications that it was used to produce WMD.

I didn’t see this as a political shift as much as the result of his knowledge of the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan and an honest abhorrence of some of the left-wing apologists after 9/11. Unfortunately, it seems that some of his optimism about the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan was a bit premature.

Hitchens is sharp and witty. I laughed out loud frequently even if I didn’t agree with him. However, if you are not very familiar with the events he discusses, he is sometimes hard to follow. And since these are essays, he does not cite his sources. Sometimes he states things as facts that make me wonder where he got his information.