Sunday, January 29, 2012

Flying Books? Oh my!

Wow, just wow, is all I can say. Watching this made me all verklempt! It's a MUST SEE for any bookish person.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mr. G

Mr. G / Alan Lightman
New York: Pantheon, c2012.
214 p.

This latest book by Lightman, physicist and novelist, combines the ideas of quantum physics with the concept of divinity in the human imagination. It had its charms, even while not winning me over as completely as, say, Einstein's Dreams, still my favourite of his works. Think of this as a creation myth infused with quantum physics.

Mr. G is, in fact, God. Of sorts. He exists formless and shapeless in the Void, a place outside of human reckoning. With him are Uncle Deva and Aunt Penelope, a comic duo who somehow guide and direct Mr. G when he decides it is time to create something -- one universe, or many. Although I had a few reservations about these three characters at times, I found Aunt Penelope's injunction to Mr. G that he just needs to slow down rather amusing. "“You shouldn’t do things with such haste,” she says. “You rush into things. Slow down. Take your time with this project.”

Read more here:

Mr. G puzzles over how to create a self-contained universe...what should the rules be? Should he be involved with its development or simply observe as it develops according to his primary quantum rules? He turns out to be a rather hands-off creator, putting the universe down while he wanders off for a walk through the Void, or goes for a nap, and finds upon his return that eons have passed within the Universe.

Lightman has stated that he is an atheist who doesn't believe in the idea of a creator -- but thinks that the human search for meaning and transcendence still adds value to our existence. This book takes both of those positions and combines them into an intellectual experience, with many scientific rules being explained and explored as Mr. G ponders how to set up the universe. Time, dark matter, the Big Bang, even chemical interactions that form life, are all discussed and made comprehensible through story. But, Mr. G also says about the self-aware life forms which develop on their own that “I admire their dreams of immortality. It is noble to try to imagine the unattainable”. Lightman sees scientific rules as the basis for life, rules which explain everything quite effectively. But the human search for transcendent meaning is also a part of life which won't go away, and he acknowledges the beauty inherent in that search.

The duality in this book between science and religious feeling perhaps reflects the idea that when something is created, so is its opposite: light/dark, matter/antimatter, Creator/Destroyer. Mr. G encounters a shadowy figure in the Void named Belhor, who questions him about his purpose in creating a universe and what he is going to do about it. When Mr. G created something new, he also brought into being this annihilator of Being.

I found this a dense, intellectual read, even with the humour and cleverness. The style reminded me strongly of Saramago, very strongly actually -- at times I felt I could nearly hear Saramago himself. It is a novel of ideas rather than plot or character, but was also a satisfying approach to this idea of our need for a "first cause". As Mr. G says after his universe has developed somewhat, "How was it possible that something I'd created from my own being was now larger than my being? Is it possible that the created can create its creator?"

If you like Lightman's work already, or if you are looking for an unusual read, try this.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Happy Year of the Dragon!

Happy Chinese New Year! This year we are entering the Year of the Dragon -- 2012 will be the year of the Water Dragon. What does this mean to you? Read more about how this affects each sign in the Chinese Zodiac.

As for me, I enjoy sharing books featuring each animal yearly...some years are easier than others! There are many more enjoyable dragon books than ox books, for example :)

Please share your own suggestions and recommendations in the comments as well -- we each have our favourite discoveries. Each year I mainly stick to children's books, and this year is no different. Here are five of my favourite dragon books:

1. My Father's Dragon / Ruth Stiles Gannett

The 1948 classic about Elmer Elevator and his quest to free a baby dragon from Wild Island. He uses his cleverness to outwit the wild animals trying to stop him, by appealing to their vanity. The ending is particularly amusing in its choice of language.

2. A Book Dragon / Donn Kushner

A quiet tale of Nonesuch the dragon, whose family is wiped out during the War of the Roses. He shrinks to the size of a large insect to save himself, and finds a treasure to guard: a medieval Book of Hours. He accompanies this beautiful book throughout the centuries, ending up in the back room of an American bookstore in the 20th century. His life story is full of historical fact and intriguing side characters. Sadly, out of print, as far as I know.

3. The Secret in the Matchbox / Val Willis -- illustrated by John Shelley

Another book which is unaccountably out of print, this is a delightful picture book perfect for reading aloud. Bobby Bell takes a matchbox to school, one which has a dragon inside. Nobody believes him until he lets it out and it grows and it grows and it grows.... causing chaos galore! The illustrations, by John Shelley are also fabulous. See for example, the full grown dragon:

4. George and the Dragon / Chris Wormell

I love this book to distraction! Little George, a shy mouse, moves into a new cave right beside a dragon's lair. Upon unpacking, he finds that he has no sugar for his tea. Asking his new neighbour (a vicious princess-stealing dragon who happens to be terrified of mice) for a loan has repercussions George could never have imagined. A true delight, especially for tea lovers ;) And the illustrations are exquisite.

5. The Best Pet of All / David LaRochelle -- illustrated by Hanako Wakiyama

This is a cute story about a little boy who realllllly wants a dog, but his mother doesn't. She does say okay to a dragon, though... if he can find one. He finally does, at the drugstore. But is it a good pet? You'll have to read this to find out. The illustrations really make this book; they are vintage style and have great visual jokes in them -- the second to last page always makes me laugh.
Read it if you can... or you can listen to Reese Witherspoon reading it! (though the pictures are kind of hard to see)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Science Book Challenge 2012!

So glad to see that the Science Book Challenge is running again for 2012! I love this challenge and have tried to read for it each year since it began. It is hosted by Jeff from Scienticity, a science education non-profit in the States. The rules are easy as pi! (love that!) They begin:

Read three (or more!) nonfiction books in 2012 related to the theme "Science & Culture". Your books should have something to do with science, scientists, how science operates, or the relationship of science with our culture. Your books might be popularizations of science, they might be histories, they might be biographies, they might be anthologies; they can be recent titles or older books, from the bookstore or your local library. We take a very broad view of what makes for interesting and informative science reading, looking for perspectives on science as part of culture and history.

After you've read a book, write a short note about it giving your opinions of the book. Tell us what you'd tell a friend if you wanted to convince your friend to read it--or avoid it.......

As part of this Challenge, your reviews can be added as "Book Notes" to their database of science books recommended by readers, with a straightforward rating scheme. If you love reading science-related books and want to help build a community of reviews supporting this area of reading, please join in with this very relaxed and engaging Challenge. Also, you can join the new Facebook Group for the Challenge as well if you'd like to have ongoing discussion of books and science-y themes.

I'll be reading spontaneously for this, as the last couple of years I've failed miserably at reading the books on my premade lists! Any suggestions are welcome, although currently I'm thinking about reading The Poisoner's Handbook and/or Henrietta Lacks...

Looking forward to participating in this one once again... Join us!


Intersecting Sets / Alice Major
Fooling Houdini / Alex Stone

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Saturday Snapshot

I've never played along with Alyce's "Saturday Snapshot" meme before, but having seen it over at Bookpuddle a few times now, and even having my other half participate before I did, I decided to share a recent photo of my own.

This is the snow labyrinth I built on New Year's Eve day (well, it turned out to be half snow and half mud, thanks to our weirdly warm weather). I, and a few others, walked the labyrinth considering our year just passing, and what we wanted the year ahead to look like. It was a very nice day :)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Invisible Mountain

The Invisible Mountain / Carolina de Robertis
Toronto: Anchor Canada, c2010.
448 p.

I received this book from Random House ages ago, and somehow didn't get around to it. But I was finally tempted by this gorgeous cover -- isn't it beautiful?? And it is a brilliant summation of the story itself; this book deals with three generations of women in Uruguay, and the cover says to me that they are three separate women yet somehow the same one at the same time. One family, three individuals.

I really enjoyed reading this once I finally opened it! The beginning is magical, with a rural family discovering their lost baby (now a little girl) in a tree, on the first day of 1900. Pajarita grows up to have a daughter, Eva, who has a daughter, Salomé. Each section of the book tells each woman's story, with the inevitable interweaving of all the characters as the story progresses. Each of the women is fascinating, although as with another "three generation" book I read last year (The Children of Mary by Marusya Bociurkiw), the middle generation gets slightly neglected in the depth of the telling -- is that the fate of all 'middles'? I ask as a middle child ;)

Still, this was a fabulous book -- complex, with a huge cast of characters who are all fully realized, even if not always likeable. The unsung star of the book is Uruguay itself, specifically Montevideo. I learned reams about the history and culture and landscape of Uruguay without even realizing it. The setting was so skillfully interwoven into the story, and such a key element in the events of all their lives, that it became just as important as the family dynamics. Of course, there are many, many dramatic events in the years that this book covers, so simply by living where they did, this family was in for some upheaval. From women's rights to civil war to gender identity and more, this story has it all. Yet it doesn't feel "issue-heavy". It feels like a sprawling family saga with lush surroundings, unfamiliar enough to me to be truly fascinating while reading. There is some movement between Uruguay and Argentina, Brazil and the US, but the primary setting is Uruguay and it is lovingly evoked.

There is too much going on over too long a period of time for a summary, but I'll try a brief explanation. Pajarita begins the book and the century, with her rural indigenous roots meshing with an Italian immigrant to Montevideo once she reaches adulthood. I think this was one of my favourite parts of the book, with the country so fresh and the magical experience of the travelling show that brought Pajarita's future spouse to her environs. Then bookish Eva, whose dreams are stifled when she has to drop out of school early to work to support the family -- and experiences much trauma and unhappiness doing so, until she finally finds love in late adulthood, in a very unexpected quarter. Salomé, faced with civil unrest in her youth, becomes an insurgent and spends years in prison (told in heartrending detail). All of these lives entwine to illuminate the tangled relationships between mothers and daughters, and between a country and its citizens.

What a book! Definitely a saga to ponder, and now to look up some history to fill in some gaps in my understanding... it's great when a novel sparks an interest in learning more about the place and events of the story. Even with more facts though, I'll always feel the characters in this book experiencing the things I'm reading about. They've defined this era for me, and will always colour anything else I learn. Definitely a great read for anyone who loves these kind of dense family stories.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Halfway to the East

Halfway to the East / Marusya Bociurkiw
Vancouver: Lazara Press, c1999.
90 p.

This is a collection of poems which takes the author's sense of disconnection, both as a child of Ukrainian immigrants and a lesbian in an unwelcoming setting, and transforms it into resonant art.

The first sections of the book "I Hear them Singing All the Time" and "Eternal Memory" deal mainly with issues of Ukrainian heritage. Her grandmother (Baba), born in Ukraine, is a dominating figure in these poems -- her wish to return to her homeland, her loss of her own family and her language play a part in the way the poems are shaped. Baba tries to hold on to traditions, making pysanky as a family activity, and baking Easter bread to be blessed at church. She recommends that the narrator stay home next year and make her own bread to take to church... "less trouble dat way".

Bociurkiw's own sense of loss of family and heritage is revealed in the next section of the book, "Strange Fruit", as some of these same themes are revisited in light of her identity as a lesbian. The shunning that occurs when Baba realizes what it means is sharp and painful; the few lines in which Bociurkiw's brother phones her to tell her not to come home for Easter were wrenching. Baba's helpful suggestion to 'stay home next year' begins to take on unintended meaning.

The last section of the book, "Anything to do with Roads", seems to be to tie everything together. In these poems, Ukrainian-ness and sexual identity seem to merge to become issues in one whole life. The image of roads and travel weave throughout this section, whether focusing on Ukrainian memory or on Bociurkiw's sense of always being at different points on a journey through life. There are poems relating long drives at Christmas, at the height of summer, across America or even walks down a city street, in which all of Bociurkiw's concerns seem to meld. The poetry is peppered with Ukrainian words, with Baba's own voice in stilted English, and it evokes a complex picture of a grandmother both known and unknown. Perhaps because of my own roots as a Prairie girl with Ukrainian background, I could clearly envision Baba and her surroundings. But the images are strong and yet multilayered enough to appeal to any reader, I think.

This was an unusual read, with similar themes to the novel I read by this author last year, The Children of Mary. The language is clear yet evocative of place, and I will close with just one example of an image that snagged my imagination:

Now sleep is the train you take back to the old country
a life flashing past in blurred window frames
sleep your rehearsal for death
your last immigration....

~from Eternal Memory


For this year's Canadian Book Challenge I've chosen as my theme "Small-Press-Palooza" Thus, for each book I'm including a link to the small press who has published it. Take a look -- there are wonderful small presses all over Canada!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Nothing Like a Real Book

This was all over Twitter today and it is so worth watching! In fact I've watched it *cough* a few times now... It was made in a Toronto bookshop, Type, and it is truly amazing. So delightful! Please watch and enjoy :)

Friday, January 06, 2012

Happy Ukrainian Christmas!

Happy Ukrainian Christmas!!

Enjoy yourself with some great Ukrainian singing and dancing to celebrate this wonderful holiday.

Then eat! If you're really going to celebrate Ukrainian Christmas, food is key :)
Meatless dishes are traditional for Ukrainian Christmas, especially for Holy Supper on Christmas Eve. You can imagine what a perfect holiday this is for a vegetarian Ukrainian like myself!

A Lively Dame

This makes me happy:

Penelope Lively made a Dame (that's the female equivalent of being knighted).

She is an amazing writer, a favourite of mine, one of the only authors who has her own tag on my blog ;)

She has a new book out, How It All Began. I can not wait to read it. I've been reading her steadily for a few years and only have one or two titles left unread so very delighted to know there is another.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

What the Bee Knows

What the Bee Knows: Reflections on myth, symbol and story / P.L. Travers
London: Penguin, 1993, c1989.
303 p.

This is a collection of spiritual essays by P.L. Travers, an author I only knew previously as the writer of Mary Poppins. This book was mentioned in passing in another book I was reading recently about labyrinths, as there is a wonderful essay included here on Travers' experience walking the labyrinth at Chartres, years before it became regularly accessible. She writes about the attraction she felt for it and is able to express her physical and spiritual reactions very vibrantly. If I didn't already have Chartres on my travel wish list, it would be there after reading this :)

Most of these essays were first published in Parabola: the magazine of myth and tradition. I wasn't even aware of this magazine before, either, but am now quite fascinated! Most of the essays are about the deeper themes in life, and if you have an interest in myth, world culture and the psychospiritual side of life you may find this intriguing.

I thought this was a fabulous read. The back of the book describes it as "a honeycomb of essays pointing to the truth-of-things handed down in the great popular stories of cultures around the world". And that is what it felt like, a honeycomb of brief essays covering a range of esoteric, myth-based and biographical themes. She shares tales of her friendships with literary types like Yeats and A.E. Russell, of her studies among many religions of the world, of her early experience with fairy tale and folklore which shaped her character. At times the writing gets a little ponderous and very "high Tolkien-ish" in tone, but that's only in bits... overall, it is quite accessible and idea-laden. I found if I only read a few at a time it was much more digestible, giving me time to reflect on the themes of the essays.

It provided a variety of thought-provoking quotes that I copied out to ponder later on. One of the early essays, "The World of the Hero", was about The Hero's Journey, and as my husband was reading the seasonally appropriate Gawain and the Green Knight at New Year's, we had a lot to discuss on this theme. I was struck by this quote:

Could it be...that the hero is one who is willing to set out, take the first step, shoulder something? Perhaps the hero is one who puts his foot upon a path not knowing what he may expect from life but in some way feeling in his bones that life expects something of him.
The title essay was also fascinating, with many facts about bees in world mythology and about their importance to our ecosystems. Travers shares many of the traditions followed among beekeepers, including the practice of telling the bees all the important news. This passage struck me as applicable to any situation in which someone in authority must communicate fully to those they are responsible for. It reads:

But this apprising of the bees, telling them, for all one knows, what they already know, is not the business merely of great ones. The bees are constantly being told. No beekeeper would fail to do it. For if they are not courteously kept informed of everything that happens, they will take umbrage, swarm, and fly away, or die of grief or resentment.

This was a really lovely, serendipitous discovery which I enjoyed greatly. Travers is so much more than "the Mary Poppins lady", and reading this gives a glimpse into her far-reaching interests and experiences.

To learn more, read a fabulous post about this book, with excerpts, by blogger Art Durkee