Category Archives: News

Links, some of which relate to books and reading!

…so they are totally relevant here. Really.

I so need to go on a complete Little House re-read.

Yes to all of this. I mean, I have massive faith issues, but one of the problems that I have is that the hyper-conservative fundamentalists seem to have co-opted the term “religious”. The next time someone asks me, “How can you be a Christian and believe” whatever it might be (gay marriage being the most prominent example, but not the only one), I will send them a copy of this article.

I actually don’t want most of these things – except the booklight/bookrest. It’s far too expensive, but how cool. Also I love the tagline: May not be suitable for “1Q84”. [If you don’t know, 1Q84 is the newest Haruki Murakami book, and comes in either two or three volumes depending on what country you buy it in.]

Obviously, I’ve read Henrietta Lacks, but the biographies of the Curies and Fibonacci also look cool.

Want. That is all.

I absolutely must get to this exhibition. I will hate myself if I don’t.

My alma mater as well! She graduated the same year as my cousin. I also didn’t realise that she was a music major. (This information doesn’t really surprise me.) I also am kind of surprised, still, that people are surprised that Iowa can be liberal. This is a state that allows gay marriage, after all. (I have a post coming on Stephen Bloom’s Atlantic article, soon.)

Jane Austen! I’m not sure how much more we’re going to learn about her from the foundations of  her house, but whatever.

Not sure I want to read this, but I’ll consider it.

I so want to read the journal article on this when it comes out. I don’t know what journal it’ll be in, but if someone with JSTOR or academic library access could find out and get me a copy, I would love it.

I know her! Her sister was a friend of mine in high school, and someone that I always want to spend more time with. Also, Sharing the Dream is an awesome organisation.

I love Tomato Nation. I also have much the same relationship with the space program as Sars does. I was fascinated to read this “oral history” of the moon landings/space program, and think everyone should read it. And watch this. And From the Earth to the Moon.

Oh, Calvin. (and while you’re on, skim through some of their read/reread/rewatch series of posts. Because they’re awesome too.)


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Word of the Year! (not mine, though)

This is my new favourite blog post and this is why:

I read Far From the Madding Crowd on vacation, away from my computer and, crucially, internet access. At one point, Bathsheba was described as “tergiversating” [or some other form of the word] – and it was the first time I’d ever run across that word, in speech or in print. This kind of thing is exactly why I have a subscription to the OED Online ( (thanks, Mom!). (Well, rare words in books and late-night discussions about etymology are why I have a subscription…you might be surprised at how often the latter happens. Although, if you know me and/or my boyfriend, you might not be surprised….)

Anyway. With no internet access, we had to look up tergiversate a few days later, after we’d returned from our trip. (If you want to get technical, first we had to look it up in the book, to remember what exactly the word was and how it was spelled, and then we looked it up in the OED, and then we had a discussion about its appropriateness in the context.) We were fascinated by the word, and had vague notions of bringing it into our everyday conversation – something, sadly, that I have been unable to do, since most of the people I interact with on a daily basis don’t have the vocabulary basis to get it. Also, tergiversate doesn’t really turn up on a daily basis.

But we remembered the word, probably more than we would have if we’d looked it up while I was actively reading the book. So to see it listed as a word of the year amused and delighted me. Well done, Macmillan.

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The state of literature

I read this today.

I really just wanted to say that I agree with this article, and this perspective on literary trends. I would also like to say that contemporary best-seller status does not necessarily reflect long-term classic status. Books that sell incredibly well very quickly (which are the books that hit the best-seller list, whether they stay there or not is irrelevant) are not always remembered even a year after publication, and books that do not sell very well at first are sometimes the ones that are lauded and studied in generations to come (The Great Gatsby is a common example of this, but not the only one).  Literary history is just like any other form of history: the full impact of events cannot always be seen until years or decades later.

Just for example, take a look at the bestsellers from 1910-1919, and see how many of the titles or even the authors you’ve heard of.  I am fairly well-read, and I haven’t even heard of that many; and some of the authors I have heard of in other contexts (Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, and Arnold Bennett). The only titles I know on the list – a ten-year list – are Pollyanna and In Flanders Fields.

So, while the state of modern literature in all its forms is wide-ranging and sometimes frustrating, this is not a new thing, and in fifty or a hundred years no one will remember the books that are complained about now, except perhaps as a footnote in a literary encyclopedia.

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Dick Francis

Dick Francis has always been one of my favourite authors. He’s one for whom I will read everything he’s written – I think the only thing he wrote that I haven’t read yet is his biography of Lester Piggott. He’s the reason that I’m interested in horse racing, especially National Hunt (jump) racing.  For anyone who doesn’t know, he was a jump jockey himself, who rode in the Grand National 8 times, including for the Queen Mother.  His books almost all revolve around the horse world – his best books feature it in a prominent position, either as a setting or as the main character’s profession (jockey, usually) or both.  His family helped him with the research on a lot of his books, and – after a break of a few years after his wife died – his son helped him write them. He died last weekend, of old age. One last book with his son is set to come out this fall.  And this is one of the best tributes ever, I think.

I have a hard time picking my all-time favourite Dick Francis book. There are quite a few that I love, and will start with when I get in a Dick Francis mood. I can never remember the name of the one with the inventor, Steven Scott, but it’s one of my favourites. Decider, about the builder who finds himself with a share in a racecourse, is fascinating, as is the one about the actor set in South Africa (I think it’s Wild Horses, but that might be the one about the film director….and that’s also a really cool one). Proof makes me wish I knew more about wine. The Sid Halley books, the closest thing he’s got to a series, are great, as is the first Kit Fielding one (the second one is fine, but not one of my all-time favourites). The one about the South African rancher who ends up essentially spying is cool. To the Hilt is one of the best of his later years, even though it is a little bit farther away from the racing world. There are just so many fantastic books!

They’re not great literature, I must say. They probably aren’t going to be studied in fifty years’ time. They’re fast reads, “genre” reads in what is becoming a specific part of mystery/crime fiction: the racing mystery (there are a few “new Dick Francis”es out there). But they are interesting, and not obviously formulaic (Dan Brown, I’ve got you down almost to the page), and let you feel what it’s like to be in that world. When I go racing (too rarely!) I base most of what I know and what I look for in the races and at the course on what I learned from reading Dick Francis books. He, of course, talks about what it’s like in the inner circle, where I stand at the absolutely cheapest area possible, but I still know what I’m looking for because of him.

RIP, Dick Francis. I hope your race is run well.

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How do we read?

There was an article in the New York Times about the way people read and the way they share (or not) their reading experiences. Basically it’s an argument between “social” readers who use book clubs and social networking, and private readers, who…don’t.  The article starts with a quotation from the latest Newbery book (which I don’t know anything about, really – I am intrigued) comparing someone else reading your favourite book to an invasion of privacy, and kind of continues that line through the rest of the article.

Reading is, of course, a solitary action for most of us. There are ways, of course, to make it less solitary, by reading out loud or listening to audiobooks, but mostly reading is a solitary activity. Experiencing books, on the other hand, is not a solitary activity. Even if you don’t want to share your reading experience, you form a connection with the characters, the storylines. Even non-fiction, unless it’s an encyclopaedia, has characters and storylines that the reader forms an emotional connection with.

And the books that we love help us to form connections with other people. We feel a sense of ownership of our favourite books, sure, so I can see where they are coming from, those people who don’t want to share their favourite books.  But I also know that humans are social creatures, who wither without some point of connection with others.  You can tell a lot about people because of their reaction to books: both their favourites (and least favourites) and what they think of your favourites. I knew that one of my colleagues and I weren’t going to have a lot in common when she said that her favourite book was Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook because it was so well-written, for example. And I became close to one of my friends in Slovakia because of our shared love of Jane Austen (and Jane Austen adaptations).

Anyway, experiencing books is not a solitary activity. Despite what the article may imply, reading has never been a purely private pursuit.  18th and 19th century novels are filled with people reading in company, or sharing books, or passing around letters. Today, there are organized ways of sharing the books – like book clubs and social networking and literature classes – and there are casual ways – like a friend recommending a book and enthusing about their favourite parts.

For me, at least, reading is – and should be – both a solitary and a social activity. I have intimate relationships with books – I defy anyone to say the contrary – but like most intimate relationships, I find it difficult to put that relationship into words. So when I talk about those books, I don’t necessarily talk about the emotions of it, except to close friends.  I talk about the comic relief, or the plot points, or the weaknesses.  Just like when I fall in love – I don’t usually talk about the depth of my feelings, except to close friends. I talk about what we do, or what is annoying me about him, or when I’m going to see him again.

And just because someone else enjoys the same books that you do, that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – diminish your own relationship with the book. It’s still yours, as much as a book belongs to any reader (which is a philosophical question in and of itself). The laws of this universe, so far as we know, mean that you will not run into people from this world in your book. You read it again, and it’s your own private place just as much as it always was.


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What I’ve done recently

I entered a short story competition.

And I won.

Hello, people who found me through the Huffington Post! I’m still kind of in shock about the whole thing! Read and comment away – I love meeting new people and talking about books.

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Autism and adults….really?

Okay, granted, I have never studied autism. I don’t know much of the research and what I do know I get strictly from the news and conversations with people who have actually studied autism or deal with it on a regular basis (like my mom and my sister). I do know that one concern is over-diagnosis of autism and autism-spectrum disorders, which is why this article kind of disturbs me.

All that the article says is ‘new research funded by the Department of Health’ shows that 1 in 100 adults has autism. There is no link to the new research, no quotation from anyone who carried out the research, and no formal statement from the Department of Health. Just ‘new research’. What kind of research? What criteria are they using to diagnose? There are things that are part of responsible science reporting, and some of those things are missing in this article.

Also, ‘Mozart, Orwell, Einstein, Beethoven and Newton all had it’? Really? Again, by what criteria? When was this decided, and by whom? I’m pretty sure autism wasn’t recognized as a disorder when Mozart was alive, or Newton (anyone know when it was first diagnosed?). Posthumous diagnoses are tricky, because they are based on necessarily biased and incomplete accounts of a person’s behavior. My first instinct, when reading a statement like that lead, is to see it as nothing more than a publicity attempt, especially when there’s no further context for it. I’m not saying that the diagnoses are necessarily wrong, you understand. I just think it’s a troubling attempt to impose modern criteria on personalities of other eras, especially when it’s autism which is such a vaguely defined but highly public diagnosis anyway. I’d like to see whatever study came up with the idea that Mozart and Newton and especially Beethoven were autistic.

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But you don’t have to take my word for it.

Reading Rainbow airs its last episode

This makes me sad. Reading Rainbow was one of my favourite shows, and featured some of my favourite picture books. Like this one or this one.

What I think is saddest is the rationalisation for cutting the show. I have no problem with using television as an education medium to teach kids how to read, with emphasis on phonics or whatever the current vogue method might be. Literacy as an ability is important.

No, what I think is saddest is the implication that once you know how to read, you’re done. That it’s not necessary to instill and foster a love of reading for its own sake. That learning why to read is not important, at least not as important as knowing how to read.

This is patently untrue. Literacy is so much more than just the ability to read – something that I’m afraid the educational standards overlook far too often. Teaching kids that reading is fun and enjoyable is just as important as teaching them how to sound out words. One of the biggest obstacles that teachers face is students that don’t want to read. They don’t see reading as something to be enjoyed, just something to be endured. But if we can teach children that reading is not just required, but recreational, then we can create teenagers who can and will read outside of class, and then we have adults who read for pleasure as well. And adults who read can change the world.

Reading expands your mind. It gives you insights into other people, other lifestyles, other countries, other times, and other ideas. Reading teaches in a way that the classroom cannot. And people who don’t read tend to be more close-minded than people who do, simply because they don’t have the breadth of mental experience to understand that there are different perspectives in the world. Aliteracy is just as much of a problem as illiteracy.

We need adults who will read, not just adults who can read. And in order to have that, we need to have children and teenagers who read because they want to, not just because they have to. That is what Reading Rainbow provided. It wasn’t just about the featured book – although each episode had a fantastic featured book. It was also about how that book could connect with your life: Gregory, the Terrible Eater, for example, led to lessons on healthy eating and getting along with your parents and making compromises. And it was also about ordinary kids telling about the books they liked, showing that reading is something that kids just like you did even when it wasn’t a part of school, and giving a range of ideas for what to read after the show was over.

There is a hole in educational programming now; I only hope that something fills it before it becomes a hole in our lives as well.

The original theme song

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A disappointing mental_floss article

Literary Pilgrimages

I am actually a little bit disappointed in this list. There’s not a lot on there that is new to me. I didn’t know about Trilby, Florida, or Barnhill, but the others are either familiar or obvious. The other disappointment is purely personal – I really don’t care about Faulkner or Da Vinci Code tours or Anne Rice (and are there really no other literary connections to New Orleans? Somehow I doubt that. Wasn’t The Awakening set in New Orleans or at least southern Louisiana?). I was hoping for something on the list that I would see and go, “Oh, that would be so cool to go to!” Instead I went, “Done it; have wanted to go for years; done some of it; don’t care; eh, maybe someday; don’t care; how does this even count; don’t care; don’t care; eh, I suppose; done it; eh, I suppose; huh, interesting.”

I was also disappointed in the inconsistency of the list. Some of the items on the list were tours, some were locations, some had events….there was no consistency with the definition of ‘literary pilgrimage’. Barnhill isn’t described as even acknowledging the Orwell connection – it’s just “Go here! Orwell lived here once!”

The omissions of the list are also a bit disappointing. No Lake District, with its Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Beatrix Potter connections, to name a few? No Newstead Abbey or Eastwood [D.H. Lawrence’s hometown], she asks in a burst of regional pride? No Lincoln (home of Tennyson)? Oxford, but no mention of London with its walking tours of literary highlights [we did the Bloomsbury tour one year – FANTASTIC]? No Canterbury, one of the most famous pilgrimage locations in the English-speaking world since the thirteenth century? No Edinburgh (home of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns and Ian Rankin, among others)? Stratford-upon-Avon? Hannibal, MO? Dublin? The very first comment, with DeSmet, SD, home of Laura Ingalls Wilder (in fact, any of the Laura sites – they’ve all got at least SOMETHING up about her)? And those are just in the UK, Ireland, and the US – other countries don’t have literary pilgrimage sites?

I expect more from mental_floss. In the time I’ve been reading, I’ve gotten to really enjoy their list entries – I usually find them not just entertaining but informative. Maybe that’s just because they’ve usually been on topics that I don’t know that much about – unlike this one. One of the reason that I think this particular post is so disappointing is that it makes me question the quality of the other lists that I have read and will read.

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Some days, I wish I had studied science

Genetics was my favourite part of biology class, and is one of the reasons that I sometimes wish that I’d continued studying science past high school. I still follow science news, though, and was intrigued by this article about the Quagga. There are only 23 hides left, and yet from these 100+ year old skins they were able to extract enough DNA to analyse it and plan a breeding program. Thank goodness that there are still enough Plains zebras around to make such a project feasible. I doubt a similar program would work with the big cats or the rhinos (there’s a subspecies of black rhino, I think it is, that is near extinction): the gene pool just isn’t varied enough.

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