Saturday, July 31, 2010

Reading is sexy XXXIX

(image by Andre Martins de Barros)
25.Curiosity by Joan Thomas. If you know anything about the history of earth science, you will know the name Lyme Regis, neither as English beach resort, nor as the set of Persuasion but as cliffs which were key to early 19th century understanding of the very nature of fossils, and the beginning of paleontology. Curiosity is a novel based on the life of Mary Anning, "fossilist", dealer and paleontologist. Anning was an outsider in every way - a working class woman, a religious dissenter, whose natural intelligence, insight, sense of injustice and largely self-taught knowledge set her apart. At a time when women were not even allowed to attend the meetings of the Geological Society of London, let alone belong to the Society, some upper class gentlemen-scientists seemed barely capable of acknowledging the daughter of a cabinet maker as a fellow human being (citing the gentlemen who purchased her fossil finds, rather than name her), most of her siblings did not even survive childhood and geologists were still trying to explain dinosaur fossils in terms of the Biblical flood story, Anning single-handedly found, identified and excavated dinosaur, fish and marine fossils (the first ichthyosaur skeleton to be correctly identified, the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found, the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany). Other real-life characters appear in the novel, including, Henry De la Beche, William Buckland, William Conybeare and Elizabath Philpot - all of whom owe certainly their fossil collections, and some of their fame and success in science to the discoveries of Anning. This is a novel, and a love story. Joan Thomas relied on primary sources which allude to a secret of Anning's, possibly thwarted love. She takes the liberty to interpret this as a love between Mary and Anning's great supporter and friend, who eulogized her to the Geological Society, Henry De la Beche. De la Beche was a bit of an iconoclast himself - expelled from military college for insubordination, willing to question received wisdom and be an actual scientist, rather than a theological apologist, and able to recognize genius in a woman, and a working-class woman at that. Nontheless, he also was a plantation -and slave-owner in Jamaica, for all his otherwise progressive beliefs. It makes for a rich story, of memorable, rounded characters, in a time of change and discovery.

26. The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia I bought this debut novel, seeing reviews which allude to García Márquez and Calvino, but I was captured by the reference to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. This, is one hell of a debut novel. It's a tale of great beauty, magic and pathos. Part creation myth, with origami organ replacement and one person made entirely of paper, it is filled with all the magic of Mexico (from loteria, to a sainted lucador Santos with his Japanese tag-team partner 'Tiger Mask' Sayama, to the Virgin of Trinidad whose halo burns so brightly she unwittingly burns the visionaries, to lime obsessions and curandero). This is a story of love lost, heart-break, family, quixotic battles and finding one's place in the world, or the solar system, as the case may (or may not) be. Further, there is Rita Hayworth and the lettuce pickers, mechanical tortoises with lead carapaces, Napoleon, Vatican troops, bees, and one Baby Nostradamus. When Frederico de la Fe's beloved wife Merced, finally leaves him and their daughter Little Merced, he and his daughter leave Mexico for California. They join the community of flower-pickers in El Monte, and soon the gang El Monte Flores (EMF) is enlisted in a war for autonomy and privacy against the omni-present oppressor Saturn. The book employs some of the things in the "post-modern" toolbox (many of which in fact were there with Cervantes, in Don Quixote), whether it be a dubious narrator, the author as character, telling and re-telling, levels of meaning and stories within stories or tricks of typography and occasional illustration - but these are used judiciously and seamlessly. You really should go read it, now, cause I'm not going to tell you more, and you do want to know.

{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}

Monday, July 19, 2010

the 'hood

roses and diamond
cyberpunk mural

Happy Birthday Blythechild

I hope you have a wonderful birthday and a happy, healthy, successful and miraculously relaxing new year!

Orbit Pillow

I made her a slightly furry Orbit pillow, just like Orbit (aka Lady Giggleswick) herself.

detail, reverse of Orbit pillow
reverse of Orbit pillow

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Reading is sexy XXXVIII

Time for some non-fiction (having read Seeing I was hoping for something less gut-wrenching).

22. The Eternal Frontier - An Ecological History of North America And Its Peoples by Tim Flannery The Eternal Frontier tells the story of successive waves of invaders of the North American continent. Starting 65 million years ago, (the K-T boundary to an earth scientist) when "a great fiery ball appeared in the sky and came crashing to Earth" with an "unfortunate chip-shot" ending the age of dinosaurs and devastating North America in particular, the book explains the evolution of the continent, the interplay of climate and ecology, in an engaging and fascinating way. It's filled with relevant colourful details*, such as the role of fossil-hoarding ants in paleontology, or how the nut-stashing squirrels changed the landscape on a large scale and allowed a source of protein far from water bodies for early indigenous peoples, or the story of George McJunkin, self-taught, African-American cowboy-scientist, who in 1908 excavated a bone pit containing entire (extinct) giant bison remains and hunting tools, which completely changed the understanding how long native people had been living on the continent. The book is divided by era (Act 1: 66-59 Million Years Ago - In Which America Is Created And Undone; Act 2: 57-33 Million Years Ago - In Which America Becomes a Tropical Paradise; Act 3: 32 Million to 13,000 Years Ago - In Which America Becomes A Land of Immigrants; Act 4: 11,000 Years Ago - AD 1491 - In Which America is Discovered; Act 5: 1492-2000 - In Which America Conquers The World) which allows him to trace how the changing climate controls the ecology, even on a continental scale. He purposely draws parallels between invasive animal (and even plant) species and later human invaders (First Peoples and later Europeans). He convincingly explains how the shape of North America creates a climatic trumpet, with essentially arctic winters and tropical summers through the bulk of the continent, and how this makes the plant and animal species unique. He's able to make simple arguments about the connection between size of land-mass, diversity, competition and likelihood of success of any invading species. His writing is very engaging: I feel like I now know the drama of the discovery of the Uinta beast, or the character and behaviour of the oreodonts. It left me devastated about the fate of the buffalo, and later wholesale ecological destruction. I was glad to learn that in Canada the Hudson's Bay Company was actively supplying smallpox vaccine to its traders in the 1830s for their native trading partners. At least there was some hint of humanity in the chapter on disease, otherwise filled with tales of evil. The book is well annotated and he is clear about his own biases and explains competing theories. Flannery is an Australian, which gives him a unique view as an outsider on the ecology (and the romance of the frontier) and the effects of invasive species. I can highly recommend this book.

The one disappointment was that he chose to focus on the U.S. - or so he claims. It might seem reasonable, as one must limit a book somewhere, and the scope was ambitious. However, he can't discuss many issues without describing the continent as a whole. No one interested in dinosaurs could avoid mentioning Alberta. He also describes the ancient civilizations of Mexico, and the Inuit of Canada's north. So really, when he says he is limiting the study to the U.S., he means the fifth act only, which then seems quite arbitrary. And it is in Act 5 that his status as an outsider fails him. I don't find his description of North American history, and in particular, unity, since the American Revolution, all that convincing. Though he spends chapters describing settlers, the revolution, and setting-up the North-South cultural differences, he skims through the Civil War in a few paragraphs - where I would have thought the ecological destruction, let alone the death toll, would have demanded much more - claiming it "definitively resolved the tensions that had been evident in British-settled America since its inception". Oh, really? He contrasts the United States of America with Simón Bolívar's unfulfilled South American dreams of unity and even Canada, which he seems to think is falling apart.** Now, in 2001 when the book was first published in Australia, he could be forgiven for writing that Québec's separation seemed imminent. It was, I believe, far from a given (note, it did not happen) - but, it was certainly a possibility. However, when he goes on to lump the threat of Separation with "the statehood and autonomy" achieved by the Inuit in 1999, as examples of "federation in reverse" he simply does not know what he's talking about. He also erroneously uses the word province. The creation of the territory (the difference between a province and territory is immense, but I'll spare you the gory detail***) of Nunavut was a great triumph for Canada and the Inuit of Nunavut. It is by no stretch of the imagination a sign of the dissolution of this country. Nunavut is very much part of Canada. This was wrong in 2001, and really should be remedied for this new North American release. It's probably flippant to suggest that the American Civil War simply became a cold war, and simmers to this day, but the fact that such a suggestion would be unoriginal gives the lie to the claim of "definitively resolved" tensions. Let me contrast two numbers which I think are revealing when considering the nature of confederation on this continent.

Since 1861, the number of deaths which have ensued from the issue of succession versus unity
In Canada: 1
In the U.S.A.: 625,000
I really do no see the U.S. as more united than Canada, and I haven't even broached the issue of voting patterns.

While I agree that "pluralism seems to lie at the heart of the Canadian ideal" I believe he is very mistaken that this indicates disunion. In fact, I think he missed an opportunity to compare and contrast the role of regionalism versus federalism north and south of the border. There are some interesting parallels. In both countries power is balanced between an unruly group of either states or provinces and territories and the federal government who often disagree with each other and amongst themselves. Further, since he takes the idea of a boundless frontier and traces this to mass production and consumerist culture in the U.S., comparing and contrasting this with Canada and Mexico, whose frontiers were likewise vast, would also have been interesting.

23. The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt This novel is excellent. Read it. It's the story of Victorians, largely Fabian socialists, and their children, the Edwardians who grow up to go to war. In the interim there is much magic. It starts with beautiful Olive Wellwood, lady novelist, who writes successful children's stories, fairytales with just enough darkness, whose research visit to Major Cain and the South Kensington Museum changes lives, when their respective sons Tom and Julian discover Philip, a young, working-class runaway who has been living secretly in the museum. He needs to create things and has come to learn. The novel interweaves the Wellwoods - charming Quaker, black-sheep and Fabian, Humphrey, writer of satires of the socioeconomic situation, Olive, her sister Violet who keeps everything together and their growing family, Tom, the golden boy like Peter Pan, Dorothy, who discovers she has an ambition to be a doctor, pretty Phyllis, headstrong Hedda, and little ones, with the London Wellwoods: banker Basil and German wife Katerina, with daughter Griselda who is interested in stories and son Charles who is moved by his uncle's socialist tirade, with the military-curator Major Cain, whose son Julian is interested in Tom, and beautiful daughter Florence is calm and collected, with local artists, potters and puppermasters and their children. Olive keeps a notebook for each of her children, documenting a never-ending fairytale just for them. Tom's story, a quest to find a stolen shadow underground, draws on Olive's childhood fearing for her father and brother who went down into the coal mines. Dorothy's story is of shape-shifters and a hedgehog skin. These stories, Olive's own published stories and the lives of the parents and children are seamlessly worked together. Byatt often includes fairytales in her novels and in this novel in particular, I find, that it's magic. It is integral to the tapestry in which the novel itself progresses. The story is told against a backdrop of changing social mores, increases fluidity of the class structure, socialism, anarchism, Marxism, a growing awareness of women's rights and the battle for the vote, acknowledgment that children are children and not miniature adults, but children, who have a need to play and develop, growing acknowledgment of human sexuality (without proper birth control, and with hypocritical consequences and responsibilities for mothers, of course), irresponsible speculative financial markets, fading imperialistic ambitions and the build up to world war. Further, the literature and writers of the times are part of the fabric of the book, from the tragedy of Oscar Wilde, exiled in Paris, H.G. Wells' fiction and his role in the Fabian society, through Lewis Caroll's Alice, and J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, or both the furniture, art and writing of William Morris and the arts and crafts movement and art deco. It's telling that Aunt Violet likes to tell the children about the cuckoo, and how hard it is to know who one's parents really are. Eventually the children, of course, loose their innocence, and learn some things they might not have wanted to know. They create their own lives, as artists, scholars, suffragettes, lovers, anarchists, potters, puppeteers, doctors, martyrs, heroes, soldiers, husbands, wives and parents, or not, in a world forever changed by a larger loss of innocence. It's quite beautiful, dark and real.

24. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi I thought it was high time I read this book. The cover is filled with surprised reviews by people who wouldn't have thought that the elements would make such apt muses, but I guess they must know little chemistry. To chemist, and memoirist, Primo Levi, the elements themselves are filled with connotations, metaphoric, historic and inspiration for pure storytelling. He begins with Argon, a Noble gas, as a means to discuss his heritage, ancestors and their unique blend of Pietmontese and Hebrew languages. He proceeds to work through other elements (but not the periodic table itself in any systematic way), and tells sorties about his experiences as a boy interested in science, as a chemistry student, as a rock-climber, as a chemist, mainly before and after, but sometimes during (in a concentration camp) WWII. A few of his early stories are blended in to this mix. He is a great observer, both as a creative, experimental chemist of course, but also of people and the series of sketches of the people in in life are very evocative. Mysteries about seeking the elements themselves and revelations about people appear in equal measure. I enjoyed both the romance of the chemistry itself, and the memoir of his life.

*I'm looking at you Simon I never saw an irrelevant tangent I didn't like especially if it allows me to show off my research or compliment my alma mater, Oxford, of course Winchester.
**This is a good way to irk federalist Canadians.
***Canadians consider any discussion of Constitutional Law as cruel and unusual punishment to be avoided at all costs.

{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}

Friday, July 16, 2010

secret 'editorial formula' as subway map: the moral underground

Reposted from birdgerl, it's the Tube, as explanation of the Daily Mail's editorial strategy, according to The Poke, who write
Speculation that The Daily Mail’s success was down to a top secret formula started in the late eighties, but it was dismissed as Fleet Street legend along with the real parentage of the Hitchens brothers and that thing Una Stubbs is into. Though such explicit mapping of the newspaper’s friends and enemies have set tongues wagging, the main surprise seems to have been the bizarre use of the underground system. Reports that The Daily Star’s secret formula is based on the number 10 bus route remain unconfirmed.

I'm sure this is even funnier if you know the paper's track record (and can identify everyone and everything listed). The connections between stations are funny in and of themselves ('Nigella Lawson' to 'E. Coli'?). Follow the link to read it in detail. I particularly like 'All the Redgraves', 'Rabies', 'Etonian Playboys' and 'Pidgeons'. I'm amused also that my mother would have made the 'Arch-Enemies' list as a foreign nurse when she lived in London, before I was born (even if nice Canadian girls from small-town Manitoba are not what they have in mind when they write 'foreign').

Friday, July 9, 2010

Prehistoric Meat

And while I'm at it, re-posting things which amuse me, this is the cleverest ad campaign I've seen in a very long time:

These and other packages were placed in supermarkets for a week to get buyers interested in a Bosch fridge and its food preservation abilities as explained here.

(via Street Anatomy)


This morning, I saw this at the Chateau Thombeau (who titled their post 'Let's go!') and I needed to share it with my degenerate peeps.

It's funny how out-dated propaganda intended to denigrate a city I love could cheer me up.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Queen St W

"I feel it too
bat and birdpurple tag
bird rocket
cash register bird

Today, I worked on a large multimedia piece. Then I decided to spend some gift cards. I managed to get 8 books without paying a penny of real money. I got jeans and a shirt for $20 and then a pin at Magic Pony. I continued along Queen W, and stopped for ice cream at the White Squirrel. I wish I had made the sea creatures in the window of the Paper Place, but it gave me an idea. I walked all the way home enjoying the sunshine. See, you can indulge in ice cream if you lug eight novels home 6 km. It was a lovely day.

paper jellies and nautillipaper sea creatures

Thursday, July 1, 2010