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review 2019-10-15 05:33
No One Is Too Small To Make a Difference
No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference - Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg is the bomb.


I first heard about Greta when she began school striking last year, but only, at first, as a curiosity (on the part of the press).  It wasn't until her speech before the UK parliament that she got enough press that I was able to understand her story. When I read the speech in the Guardian, I was laughing - in the best way - at the sheer audacity, bravery, and brilliance, of a 16 year old standing before the august (HA!) body of British lawmakers and telling them that:


The UK is, however, very special.  Not only for its mind-blowing historical carbon debt, but also for its current, very creative, carbon accounting.




This ongoing irresponsible behaviour will no doubt be remembered in history as one of the greatest failures of mankind.


and my favorite:


Did you just hear what I said? Is my English okay? Is the microphone on? Because I'm beginning to wonder.


I handed the speech to MT and said You HAVE TO read this. It's written by a 16 year old Swedish girl whose first language isn't even English! (We who have lived our lives isolated on single language land masses - and yes, yes, Spanish, but it wasn't widespread when I was a kid - are always in awe of those of you who juggle multiple languages with ease, never mind speak it better than us natives.)  I've been a following her in the news ever since and I just admire the hell out of her.  I found this little collection of all her speeches up to and including her UK Parliament speech, on the bookstore counter, and snapped it up.  


It's nothing fancy; just a small booklet containing all 11 of her speeches through 23 April 2019, and if read cover to cover (which I don't recommend), it's repetitive.  But the message is powerful, and like it or not, it's dead-on accurate: our house is on fire; what we would never do to our own lawn, we're doing with impunity to the rest of the planet, and we're collectively living like a magic, 23rd-hour solution that will make everything ok again is going to miraculously fly out our asses.  


Greta is making waves because she's 16 and she's the only one willing to stand in front of entire governments and actually say, with only a tiny bit more tact: you're all idiots and you're the generation that will always be known as those idiots who destroyed civilisation as we know it.


On a more first-world-problem note: this wonderful 16 year old was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and even though she didn't win (and should have), I am still thankful I'm not a teen today.  Life is hard enough as an adolescent, but now teens are nominated for Nobels; getting into Yale or Oxford suddenly isn't the acme of teen achievement any more.  Yikes.

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review 2019-09-12 00:44
Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London
Murder by the Book - Claire Harman

I picked this up while cruising through my new subscriptions with the Free Library of Philadelphia, and Orange County Library Systems, wallowing in their audiobook choices, and trying to find something to listen to while waiting for Kill The Farm Boy to come my way. 


I knew nothing about the book, save what I read in the summary.  In a nutshell, it's something like a forensic examination of the Courvoisier trial in 1840, for the murder of Lord William Russel.  Courvoisier was Russel's valet, and was accused of cutting his Lord's throat while he slept, a crime that was disturbingly close to the one committed in the newest prose sensation tearing through London, William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard.  A book the accused cited as a contributing factor when he confessed.


First of all, the narrator, Andy Secombe, was excellent; his accent was so very British, and though I have a Yank's tin ear for regional dialects, his variations of the many, many voices quoted in the book, accurate or not, made it easy to follow along and not get too bogged down or confused.  There were a few times I wondered if he was having just a bit of fun with some of the 'characters'; it was subtle and arguable, and it might just be I've watched too many old BBC comedies, but it did not in any way hurt the tone of the narrative.


To call the book fascinating would be stretching the point, I think, but it was an interesting read, and a very topical reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Our culture's current debate over 'do violent video games/music lyrics/movies corrupt our youth?' is merely the modern spin of the 1870's version of the same debate: 'do violent, sensationalist crime novels/theatre corrupt society?'  I also couldn't help but think of the parallels between the phenomenon that was Jack Sheppard and the mad rush to get it on stage, and the 50 Shades insanity just a few years back.  Neither book was lauded for its literary merit, merely it's scandalous and shocking content; both translated equally disastrously, though with the same raging popularity, to the stage/screen.


The author ends the book by pointing out the myriad of questions surrounding Courvoisier's guilt, in spite of the multitude of official confessions the man made.  Those multiple confessions are part of the reason questions remain - no two confessions tell the same tale - and the forensic information gleaned from the reports and accounts do not fit with any of Courvoisier's versions of the events.  In an age when the UK had public hangings and no appeal process, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say no man would have confessed had he not been guilty; there were easier ways to commit suicide.  Sometimes even shoddy investigations end up finding the culprit.


The single disappointment I had with the book also came at the end, when Harman is outlining possible motives; she hints at the possibility of a homosexual relationship between the Lord and his valet.  I found this in and of itself to be sensationalist for a couple of reasons: Harman readily admits that Lord William Russel was by all accounts a happily married man before his wife died and that he continued to remember her fondly; Courvoisier was known in the past to have had one or two female relationships, though he was unattached at the time of the murder; and Courvoisier had only been under Lord William Russel's employ a very short period before the murder - 6 weeks if I'm remembering correctly.  Given the prejudice and the laws of the time, a secret relationship was not impossible, but it was certainly improbable given the known facts.  Maybe the author felt like any objective consideration of the case would be incomplete without raising the possibility, but to me it just came across as hearing hoofbeats and screaming Zebras.


To be fair, Harman probably devoted fewer words to the possibility than I just did, or at least not many more, so it's a tiny blip in an otherwise interesting peek into the past.


I started reading this before I really knew what squares I had on my card, and I don't have the Truly Terrifying square for which this would be a perfect fit, but I'll use it for my Free Space square.

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text 2019-06-23 07:09
Essential Books - The supplemental non-fiction list.

Since non-fiction has been put on the table, I'm including my supplemental list of non-fiction books that I think are ... somewhat essential.  This one is harder, because, up front, I'm not an academic, and I have a low tolerance for edifying reads, if they are dry or boring.  So I went into this list asking myself what books have I read cover topics that I think are essential to developing a better understanding of the world.  This is what I came up with:


The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf:  This is the one essential book on this list.  Everyone should read this at some point in their life.  That Humboldt has become lost in the mists of history is a travesty, as he truly was a genius who recognised two centuries ago what we're just figuring out now.  


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain:  With diversity getting so much attention these days, I think it's important for everyone to understand what is arguably a fundamental level of difference; introversion transcends gender, race, and religion, and offers critical advantages to humanity's progress and neigh, survival.


Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World by Rachel Swaby:  Because it's essential to know that women have been getting it done and changing the world for far longer than history would like you to believe.


Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett:  because climate change isn't going to go away if we pretend it's not there, and as Noah found out millennia ago, water (or the lack of it) is nothing to sneeze at.


The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman:  We are an arrogant species and the world would be better off all around if we only knew and acknowledged that we are not necessarily the smartest species simply because we are the ultimate apex predator.


The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth:  In the era of social media, it would be refreshing if only those that spoke the loudest had any clue as to how to speak the most eloquently - or hell, even coherently.


The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston:  We, as book lovers, might appreciate an understanding of the book's history.  If so, this is an excellent and comprehensive history.


A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson:  Just think for a moment: even lacking as it is of any depth, imagine that every student had to read this book.  Now imagine how much smarter and better informed registered voters everywhere would be.  Baby steps are better than no steps.


Jambusters: The Story of the Women's Institute in the Second World War by Julie Summers and The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour by Andrei Cherny:  Creative problem solving is a perennially useful skill but never more so in times of greatest adversity - like war.  Learning how humanity gets into the messes it does is crucial, but so is learning how people get through those same messes.  Also, I'd argue that there's a larger message about sugar being a catalyst for peace, but I won't insist upon it.


Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends and Twilight of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Renault, Marie Curie, Gertrude Stein, and Their Friends Through the Great War by Mary McAuliffe:  Both of these books are an excellent way to 'side load' history into reluctant students of history.  Well written and incredibly informative not only about the artists the books purport to be about, but about the events in history that shaped them.


At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell:  Philosophy is non-negotiable for any critical thinker, but like anything that is essential, it's hard.  Sarah Bakewell has done the impossible here:  she's not only made existentialism understandable, but she's made it fascinating.  Ok, I lied above when I said there was only one book on this list I considered essential in and of itself.  This one is too.  Everybody should read this book.

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review 2019-06-02 09:35
The Norse Myths: A guide to the gods and heroes
Norse Myths A Guide to the Gods and Heroes - Carolyne Larrington

My first dip into Norse Mythology was Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythologywhich, to my mind, was the perfect introduction.  This book was an excellent next-step - a little bit more in-depth, a little more of an academic bent, without being dry or boring.


Larrington gets off to the best possible start by including, on the very first page, a pronunciation guide to Old Norse, covering the extra letters of 'eth (ð)' and 'thorn (þ)', as well as the various diphthongs, æ, ö and ø.  I immediately bookmarked this page, because I referred back to it a lot.  Having given the reader this guide, Larrington then proceeds to refer to the gods and heroes by their original Old Norse/Icelandic names/spellings, so Thor is þórr; Odin is Óðinn.  This authenticity might annoy some readers, but I appreciated the exercise - hopefully some of it will stick now that I've used it for 200+ pages.


The layout of the chapters is as close to chronological order as is possible.  Larrington uses the first chapter to discuss her main sources, and then goes on with the creation of the world, the order of the gods and giants, the heroes, ragnorök, and the rebirth of the world.  Interspersed throughout are the myths that Gaiman's readers will recognise, as well as a fair few more, with a bit of commentary as to the historical background, modern day evidence, and a nod to the possible motivations and bias of Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Prose Edda, the earliest known written form of the Norse myths.  


At only a little over 200 pages, this book is short on the commentary and long on the myths, so it's likely not aimed at someone with a-better-than-beginner knowledge of Norse mythology.  There are also a generous number of illustrations and photographs (b/w) sprinkled throughout the text, showing images through the ages that illustrate the various myths.


All in all a delightful resource for me, and an engrossing way to while away a cold and windy afternoon snuggled up on the couch with the cats.


(Read for Booklikes-opoly square #32, The Nordic Express)

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review 2019-01-10 10:19
That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means: The 150 Most Commonly Misused Words And Their Tangled Histories
That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means: The 150 Most Commonly Misused Words And Their Tangled Histories - Ross Petras,Kathryn Petras

My 'discovery' of this book is a perfect example for the argument of using a continuity of style on book covers.  A year or two ago, I bought and read You're Saying it Wrong, book about commonly mispronounced words, and loved it (I've been saying Turmeric and Van Gogh wrong all. my. life.)  I recognised the similar cover on this, the authors' newest, and immediately snatched it up.


I should really rate this 4.5 stars, because in retrospect, I can recall several typographical and at least 1 grammatical error in the text, which seems especially egregious in a book about grammar.  But I suppose perfection is an unreasonable expectation even for a grammar book.  Actually, I don't believe that, but I am too lazy to adjust my rating.


Other than that, it's an excellent reference for word pairs that are often confused with each other, including the obvious affect/effect as well as some I'd never thought about before but were obvious when I saw them, like trooper/trouper, flair/flare and flout/flaunt. Also included are words/terms that are just used wrong, like epicentre and ambivalent.  


Scattered throughout the list are a few spreads that cover when to use who/whom, the correct usage of lay/lie (I found their explanation for this the most useful I've ever read), and a general guide for latin and greek plurality: when to use 'i', 'a', 'ae', and 's'.  This one sort of cleared up a running debate MT and I have had concerning the plural of 'platypus' - while we both favoured 'platypi' on aesthetic grounds (it sounds better than 'platypuses', which is what the local sanctuary has settled on), it would seem logical to follow the same rule used for 'octopus', which is 'octopodes'.  I find this a happy compromise (MT is stubbornly sticking to the incorrect but more melodious platypi).


Each entry includes an example of the incorrect usage, the etymological history of the word/words, and most of the time, examples of correct usage for each word as well as basic definitions of each (nb: the author's state upfront that this is based on the North American dialect of English).  It's well written, not dry, and informative.  It will be a handy reference in the future when I'm unsure which word to use.


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