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Posts Tagged ‘books’

We’ve had some tough times, lately, so when I looked at my TBR pile (composed primarily of history, science, and literature), I sighed. I just didn’t have the verve to crack one of those. I needed something fun, something fresh, something…easier. So, when a friend recommended Emily Arsenault’s The Broken Teaglass as a fun, engaging read, I jumped at the chance.

I’m glad I did.

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Last week, I made the mistake of going to a bookstore. I avoid bookstores, as a rule. I always leave them with books. More books. Books I want to read. Books that sit on the shelf and taunt me.

This last trip had an interesting twist: I left with all non-fiction.

One of these non-fiction books was Gifts of the Crow, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell. It is dissertation on the nature of corvids–crows, ravens, jays, magpies, etc.–and through the use of anecdotes and field studies, it illustrates how intelligent these birds are, and how many analogues exist between their behavior and ours.

Marzluff is a veteran ornithological biologist and Professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington, here in Seattle. Angell is an illustrator whose line drawings accompany the text, and whose schematics of the corvid brain and anatomy fill the appendices. Let’s face it: these guys know their stuff.

It’s an intriguing subject for me. Ravens and crows are strong spiritual icons both here in the Pacific Northwest, and throughout the Native American cultures I studied for the novels of my Fallen Cloud Saga. Personally, blue jays (like the Steller’s jays that come to my deck and jeer at me until I give them some peanuts) are among my favorite birds. I’ve often noted how adaptable, how intelligent these birds seem to be. Their behavior always seemed to be a step more advanced than the other birds that frequent our back garden. In short, when I regarded the crows and jays that live around me, I often felt that there was someone in those birds, regarding me in return.

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Bath Abbey Fan VaultingSometimes, the word “interesting” isn’t enough.

This weekend past, as well as being sad, stressful, productive, lazy, and maddening, was also interesting.

It was the 31st anniversary of my wedding. It was the yahrzeit of the death of my wife’s mother. It was a weekend of plans, and of disrupted plans. It was a weekend with three reservations to the same restaurant, each one made and canceled in daily succession. It was a weekend of editing, rereading and rewriting my latest short story (“The Book of Solomon”), proofing it, polishing it, and then sending it off to a paying market.

It was also the weekend when I got an email from the Senior Librarian in Sumner, WA, asking if I’d be interested in participating in a panel, this October.

Yeah, “interesting” doesn’t really cover it.

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Captive SlavesI’m going to kick the poo-pile here, so stand back.

I’m not even going to start with a caveat or a disclaimer.

“Trigger warnings” are ridiculous.

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Back in the late ’70s, James Burke introduced me to interdisciplinary thinking. His book and documentary series, Connections, showed how (for example) the use of lateen sails in the 14th century led to the discovery of electricity. The process was far from linear, but Burke made the connections along the way clear and irrefutable.

Mark Forsyth, in his book, The Etymologicon, has done much the same thing with words. (more…)

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London is built upon its dead.

On our last visit to London, during an unseasonably warm April, we opted to flee from the Holy Week/Royal Wedding crowds that thronged the city center and seek a quiet, shaded walk. We found it in Kensal Green, one of the six great Victorian cemeteries that ring London. It was a spontaneous choice, our walk amongst the tombs, but it piqued my curiosity enough that I wanted to learn more about these somber, beautiful places of death.

Thus, when a friend told me about Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead, I snapped it up.

It’s difficult for Americans to comprehend, sometimes, how young our nation is when compared to the rest of the civilized world. Though the native populations of the Americas had been here for thousands of years, they left the continent virtually unmarked by their presence. Seattle, where I live, was not here 150 years ago. Our streets were built on land uncut, our city laid out on land that had never known one stone stacked upon another. This is true of all American cities. There are no ruins of empires past beneath our feet. When we dig in the earth, we do not find coins of Rome or remnants of a Norseman’s armor. Thus, when we travel abroad and visit cities that have been in existence for centuries, for millennia, it is often difficult for us to grasp what that really means.

In the case of London, it means that the city is not only built upon the ruins of its past but that it is, quite literally, built upon the bodies of its dead.

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I grew up in a black-and-white world. Not exactly like the way Calvin’s dad explained it, but pretty much.

When I was very young, television broadcast in black-and-white, and my life was filled with television. Soon, even though technology advanced and broadcasts switched to color, in our house we still only had a black-and-white television.

In fact, we didn’t have a color television until I was a teenager, when my grandfather passed away and we inherited his old massive oak-wood RCA Color TV console, with the remote control that sighed like a sulking teenager when you pressed down one of its three buttons. Thus, all my childhood TV viewing was black-and-white, never in color.

So how, then did I know that Captain Kirk’s tunic was tan, Spock’s blue, and Scotty’s red? Sure, I suppose my viewing might have been “enhanced” by color pictures in TV Guide, but if that’s so, then why do I also remember To Kill A Mockingbird in color?

When I watch the film, naturally I see it in black-and-white, but when I remember scenes, especially scenes from the book that didn’t make it into the movie, I remember them in color. I remember Scout’s red flannel shirt, her dark indigo overalls. Tom’s overalls were faded, as was the blue of his work shirt. Atticus wore suits of pale linen, grey pinstripe, and solid slate grey. Mayella had pink flowers on her dress, while the ones on Calpurnia’s chintz were blue.

Perhaps it is because so many things in that story were objects familiar to my youth. The bark of trees we climbed, the denim of our jeans, the thin cotton of our shirts, it was all as it was in the book. Or perhaps it’s because Harper Lee’s words were so simple and direct, so mesmerizing, that I couldn’t help but see the world she created in its entirety, vibrant with color.

To Kill a Mockingbird–in both book and film–was important to me when I was young, and it remains so today. Through its story, I discovered fiction that told of kids who were real, not the fantastical wunderkinder that I found in all the other books I was given. It was an adult story told simply, clearly, and with ultimate honesty. Within its pages, I learned that the world is not black and white, right and wrong, but filled with immeasurable greys  in which justice can be evil, and wrong-doing can be justice. I learned of the fallibility of mankind, and of the failures in our shared society when we forget that we are not alone in this world.

I remember Harper Lee’s classic in color, because it taught me about black and white, because it taught me about grey.

k

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