Friday, April 5, 2013

Reading is sexy LIII

detail from a portrait of Madame de Pompadour by Francois Boucher. Source:

I want to read more books this year than last. (I wrote this a while ago and am only publishing it now).

1. back alleys and urban landscapes by Micheal Cho. Toronto is indeed a city of back alleys elegant illustrations capture its feel. I appreciate also his notes about making his art and what inspired a given illustration.

2.Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie. Now, I am a fan of Mr. Rushdie's books, particularly his amazing novels. I also believe in civil liberties, think censorship is wrong, am against capital punishment and am very clear on the fact that there is no excuse for threatening someone's life for what he thinks or writes. So, I obviously think that what happened to Rushdie is wrong. No one can deserve a fatwa to be issued calling for their death, and this is especially true if their 'crime' is writing an excellent novel (which by the way, doesn't actually say anything directly about Mohammed). In fact, when I read The Satanic Verses I kept expecting to find the provocative part, and was left confused about how someone could think it was blasphemous. In fact, in Joseph Anton Rushdie points out that one of the British Muslim organizers of a Satanic Verses book-burning later renounced his faith, showed up at a reading and pointed out that he now wonders what all the fuss was about. That said, having read Joseph Anton, I can't help but feel less fond of Salman Rushdie. Yes, it would seem that several British politicians, public figures and newspapers were less than kind and blamed him for his plight and the cost of his protection. Yes, I think he was in fact innocent, and certainly could not have been expected to foresee the response to his novel, warn the publishers, or censor himself. However, both 'Joseph Anton' (his pseudonym while in hiding) and Salman Rushdie also come across as well, unself-aware, pompous, entitled, at times petty, unfaithful and prone to name-dropping (cough! Bono, ahem). I do think that he deserved to be protected by his country when a foreign state threatened his life (and his translators and foreign publishers did get shot, stabbed and murdered, so the threat was real). I do agree that Western powers should have stood up to death threats from extremists - but his assertion that the fatwa led inexorably to 9/11 is simply that - an assertion. He does not make the case, and it strikes me as self-important and unfounded. Yes, the newspaper he calls 'The Daily Insult' did write some petty things about his appearance, but he responds in kind. He does come across as a dedicated father. He remained close with the two wives who bore him children post-divorce, which is admirable. He clearly loves his friends, though he does point out their shortcomings. He does a convincing job of painting wife number 2 as probably mentally ill and less than kind, but frankly, he's the one who married her. By the time he gets to wife number 4, I found I'd lost much sympathy for him in his personal life. It's probably unfair to expect authors to be wise just because there is beauty and insight and wisdom in their novels, but I was surprised at him. For whom did he write this book? If it can dismay a fan, I don't see how it could convince someone who thought he deserved his fate. He does describe his writing process, which will be interesting to many. If you ever wanted to know where he went (London, mostly), and how he was protected, and who paid for what, it's all revealed. If you're interested in gossip about the literary world, this is the book for you. You will find the typical Rushdie love of language and word play. The memoir is written in the 3rd person, as if it were a novel. The novelistic aspects are enjoyable, but like many memoirs, facts get in the way of it really flowing like a novel. I don't think he's capable of writing a bad book, but several (possibly all) of his other books are better than this.

3. NW by Zadie Smith This novel is a little different. It has four protagonists and sections written in their own style. There are several chapters 37, the first one following chapter 10 and other literary tricks, including one person described with a concrete poem. The protagonists are tied together by neighbourhood (hence the title). The stories of the four slowly intertwine. While the characters are full and real, this novel left me craving a bit more.

4. Seduced by Logic - Émilie du Châtelet, Mary Somerville And the Newtonian Revolution by Robyn Arianrhod. I picked up this book because Émilie Du Châtelet and Mary Somerville! While the two are not entirely an obvious pairing, born almost a century apart, on either side of the Channel, they are two of author Robyn Arianrhod favorite women in history (and mine). They both taught themselves mathematics and became world authorities on Newtonian mechanics, when few imagined a woman capable or even interested in such a thing. Émilie may today be remembered as Voltaire's lover, but her impact on continental physics, and bringing Newton's Principia to Europe (and even to those in England more able to read French than Latin) cannot be overstated. To this day, modern translators of Newton's Principia (where he finally, after much goading, printed the bulk of his understanding of mechanics and his famous three laws), still rely on Émilie's translation, explanations and re-organization of his work. She was aristocrat who not only dedicated herself to knowledge, writing about physics and experimentation, she enjoyed clothing and could be extravagant. Voltaire was known to call her Madame Newton-Pompom-du Châtelet for the pompoms she wore. His own writings on physics were written in collaboration with her and often quoted her word for word. It wasn't long before her skills and interest far exceeded his own. She had some insight into the relationship between light colour and heat, long before a modern understanding of energy (at the time, scholars debated whether kinetic energy or momentum was the pertinent thing - we now know that both are important, yet distinct). She leaned towards Leibniz' ideas on the subject, which shows how she was at the cutting edge of contemporary physics knowledge and debate. She translated Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees into French and used the preface to denounce the prejudice that prevented women from access to a proper education. Nonetheless, a product of her time, she focused more on her daughter's marriage prospects and her son's education. She had to fight to be taken seriously and deal with sexism from even the well-meaning; she and contemporary part-time Bolognese physics professor Laura Bassi were not impressed when their friend Algarotti wrote a rather patronizing popularization of Newton's physics called (I wish I were kiding) Newtonianism for the Ladies (I feel like there is a Kate Beaton comic in this anecdote). The story of her long-lasting relationship with Voltaire is quite fascinating, as is that of her husband, Voltaire and final lover Saint-Lambert all at her bedside with she died. Mary Fairfax Somerville was born in 1780 in Scotland and allowed to run wild, roaming the fields. She happened upon mathematics at 15, when she saw which published mathematical puzzles. She proceeded to try to teach herself using one of her father's books on navigation, and convincing her brother's tutor to buy her Euclid's Elements. Luckily when she first attempted solving published puzzles she met another self-taught mathematician and early mentor Wallace. Soon she moved on to Laplace's Celestial Mechanics, which she would eventually translate into English - and her translation became the standard university text for decades. This brought her fame. After a brief, unhappy marriage, she was mercifully widowed, and went on to meet her beloved husband and supporter of 41 years, William Somerville. As she continued to educate herself and write about mathematics and astronomy, she came to meet the leading scientists of the day (before the word or concept of a 'scientist' really had meaning... in fact the word was coined by Whewell when reviewing one of her books). She also wrote On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Physical Geography (1848), and Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869). In 1835, she and Caroline Herschel became the first women members of the Royal Astronomical Society. Her excellent writing skills made her a best-selling author of science texts. She also believed in the rights of women and in 1868 (at age 87), she signed John Stuart Mill's unsuccessful petition for female suffrage. These two women and their stories are inspiring and the book is engaging. Unlike many history of science books this one has the context needed to really understand the contemporary state of science and the role they played, since Arianrhod is an astrophysicist by training; she does put the mathematics in an appendix, if that's not your thing - but it's all there for those of us who appreciate it.

5. A Fine Line - Scratchboard Illustrations by Scott McKowen by Scott McKowen. If you live around here you'll recognize McKowen's art from his iconic posters for the Shaw Festival and the National Ballet, amongst others. I really appreciate his work as it is similar in effect to a relief print. His descriptions of his process are wonderful, as are all his anecdotes of the theatre, theatre people, and synopses of many plays.

6. Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi. This is a perculiar novel - a sort of battle of wills between a Mr. Fox and his mostly-imaginary muse Mary Foxe, who doesn't appreciate he way he kills off all his heroines. They trade off casting one another in tales. Reynardin plays a bloody role like Bluebeard. It's a sort of love-hate triangle story between Mr., and Mrs. Fox, and Mary Foxe. It's set in different times and places and is rather magical.

7. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I picked this one up because told me too. So far, so good.

{Series so far: books read, more books read, books read, books read continues, more books read, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII,XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII XXIV, XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII, XXIX, XXX, XXXI, XXXII, XXXIII, XXXIV, XXXV, XXXVI, XXXVII, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XL,XLI, XLII, XLIII,XLIV, XLV, XLVI, XLVII, XLVIII, XLIX, L, LI, LII}

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