Friday, December 15, 2017

The Story of English in 100 Words

The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal

I've been listening to an excellent podcast, the History of English, which I highly recommend to language nerds.  It starts with a whole series on Indo-European roots and language.  I'm only in the early 20s of the episodes (so far about 100), and we haven't gotten to Old English yet.  It's a lot of fun.

So I thought it would be a good time to take this book off my TBR shelf and indulge in a little fun etymology.  And indeed it was fun!  Crystal goes chronologically, which is nice, starting about 1500 years ago with a runic inscription.  His words are chosen not just for their individual interest, but also for what they illustrate about the English language, so "street" talks about Latin loan-words generally, and "gaggle" is about the fun of collective nouns.*

The last ten or so words are from my lifetime and include app, LOL, and sudoku, so not quite as interesting to my mind.  But the title "word of the 20th century" goes to jazz, which I think is a good choice!

 This is a fun, casual read that is still packed with good information.  It's making the rounds among my family members, so I guess my daughter gets it next!

*a rash of dermatologists!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Lady of Quality

Lady of Quality, by Georgette Heyer

Everybody needs a little Georgette Heyer in their lives now and then!  This one had been sitting around on my shelves for...probably a year or so, and I picked it up in a fit of "I'm going to read easy books that I can then put in the Little Free Library and clear up some space."  I wound up having a lot of fun with it.

Because guess what, this novel is set in Bath!  And now I have been to Bath, and I know much better what the Pump Room and Milsom Street look like, and I can have a lot more fun imagining the story.

Miss Annis Wychwood is wealthy and independent, and at 29 has never thought it worth her while to marry.  Tired of living with her overbearing (if well-meaning) brother, she has set up her own very respectable household in Bath, complete with irritating elderly cousin as chaperone.  Accident brings the sweet but headstrong heiress Lucilla Carleton into Annis' household, and the ensuing chaos -- along with a lot of opinionated relatives -- turns her life upside-down.

Just as much fun as Heyer's Regency stories always are.

A Riffle of Winter Reviews

I've been posting about recent books instead of dealing with my backlog, and now it's time to do some end-of-year cleanup around here (and on my desk!).

Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown, by Marvin Kaye -- I read a bunch of the stories featured in this book for RIP.  There are some great classics in here, some really spooky stuff!  I ran out of steam and did not finish the collection (which is huge), but I really liked a lot of what I read.

The Mutabilitie Cantos of the Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser -- OK, it is way too late for me to be posting about these, but I did read them!  I want credit, darn it.  They were pretty interesting actually, being entirely different from the other cantos, set in Ireland (in Spenser's neighborhood, probably), and involving a judicial hearing with Nature as judge.

The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet, by Emily Stimpson Chapman -- I'm not Catholic, and lately I'm not much of a cook either, but I follow Chapman's blog and I really wanted to read her book.  It's good stuff.  Perhaps her perspective would not be as surprising and refreshing to her fellow Catholics (though maybe it would!), but I really appreciated the new-to-me angle she brought to her literary table, and I got a lot out of it.  Her book is part memoir (of her progress through and out the other side of an eating disorder), part meditation brought on by those experiences, and part tour through scripture and Catholic theology.  I'm glad I was able to get a copy.

You Just Don't Understand! Women and Men in Conversation, by Deborah Tannen -- I picked this up at random from our neighborhood Little Free Library, where I will shortly return it.  I wasn't necessarily going to read it; I'd never heard of Tannen, but I started it one day and then couldn't put it down.  I'm always a sucker for this kind of book anyway, but Tannen's writing is absorbing and nuanced, all about the broad differences in communication styles between men and women and how common it is for breakdowns in understanding to occur.  She points out that people have different, but equally valid, styles of talking based on differing goals.  We're often focusing on completely disparate aspects of a conversation and thus confused when the other person does not react as we'd expect.  I read a revised edition from 2007, and I bet many of us would get a lot out of this book.

 There is so much end-of-year blogging to do!  But at least I got these off my desk.  Wish me luck with the rest!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Something on Sunday: 12/10

I missed last week, even though I meant to write; I mean to write a Sunday post and then the next thing I know it's 7:30pm and I'm tired! Anyway, this is Jenny's weekly event where we list things that got us through the week.

I had a pretty tiring week, really, because I tackled my annual chocolate project.  I've downsized it considerably, because I'm too tired to do more, but I did dip a lot of almonds and marshmallows.  I felt hugely short on sleep all week, but today (after something resembling a decent night's sleep) I feel much better.  And I do love chocolates.  Just the scent is something else!

We are slowly but steadily getting ready for Christmas.  We don't put up a tree until later, but I did get the Advent calendar out on the first.  One Danish thing I just have to do every year is an Advent candle, where you burn a bit every day.  But I couldn't find the brass candlestick I set it in!  I think I must have packed it into a Christmas box instead of putting it with the candles.  But I just HAD to find something to use as a candlestick...and that, my friends, is why my cute Advent candle is set into a gargoyle candleholder.  So Christmassy, isn't it?

Friday night I took my kids to a holiday concert, put on by the local symphony and a college choir.  It took place at the local Episcopalian church, which is a familiar spot for my kids as we have friends there and they did Vacation Bible School there for years (featuring science projects, because why not?).  My 17yo daughter had spotted the ad for the concert; otherwise I would not have known it was even happening, and I'm so glad we went.  The music was fabulous and ranged from cantatas and oratorios to kind of random classical selections to familiar carols.  It ended with probably the best carol sing-along I've ever been to in my whole life.  We're going to have to do that again!

The conductor told us a funny story, though.  Last month the symphony performed Stravinsky's Firebird -- in fact the 17yo and I went -- and he video-recorded one session (the one we weren't at).  The resulting video went viral:

Some poor lady was startled out of her wits, I guess!

Yesterday I took a friend of mine, who hasn't lived here long, on a tour of our town founder's mansion.  It was really fun.  I've been there lots of times, but I haven't been on the whole tour in several years, and the guide really knew her stuff.  She grew up here and actually saw the renovations being done when she was a kid.  The mansion was used as a college dorm and teaching hall for many years, and was just falling apart when people got together to purchase the house and preserve it as a historical monument.  We had a great time and then went out for sandwiches and plotted more local sight-seeing.

Another really nice thing happened yesterday too.  My older kid's glasses broke a few weeks ago, and we had to fix them with a sort of blob of Sugru, this moldable glue, until we could get her a new prescription and order new glasses.  Our friend, an ophthalmologist, squeezed her into a Saturday morning before his surgeries started, and now her new glasses are on the way.  It was just such a kind thing for him to do!  And now we will order a back-up pair...

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Nordic Theory of Everything

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, by Anu Partanen

Remember how a few years ago, Finland was everybody's idea of a perfect country?  Finnish education was the best!  Scandinavian government was the tops!  Right about then, Anu Partanen was moving from Finland to the US, because she'd fallen for an American and it seemed to make the most sense for her to move.  She was surprised to see Americans holding up Finland as an ideal, because Finns are notoriously pessimistic and find this puzzling at best, but as she got used to living in the US, dealt with culture shock, and found many things to love about both countries, she thought she might share a few ideas about what works (or not) in Scandinavia.  Buckle up, people; I have THOUGHTS.

Now, I spent over a year living in Denmark, so I'm pretty familiar with a lot of the stuff people talk about when they laud the Nordic lands.  And while I love DK, I've also got some of their attitude about the glorification thereof; as my host sister once said, "Det er ikke nogen eventyrland."*  I find hygge-hype weird and silly (and nobody can pronounce it either).  I'm also hugely skeptical about the logistics of putting Nordic ideas into practice in a country of over 300 million people.  I live in California; the SF Bay Area alone has more people in it than Denmark does.  How is universal health care supposed to scale up to that, even if we go by state?**

But I dived in anyway.  I took a break about halfway through because it was so depressing.  Man, life in Finland sounds pretty good in a lot of ways.  Easy taxes, preschool and old folks' homes for all, schools that are all funded at similar levels (and yet have teachers with a lot of autonomy), and medical care for everybody.  This is not to say that it's all perfect and Partanen thinks the US is terrible -- she is in fact now a US citizen, and spends a lot of book-time pointing out American strengths. 

What Partanen mostly does is talk about "the Nordic theory of love,"  how that translates into societal values, and how it's really not very different from American ideas.  Her claim is that the Nordic theory of love is that love is really only possible between fairly independent and autonomous parties who can choose freely to enter into a relationship.  Imbalances of power mess with relationships and limit freedom.  This turns into a belief that every kid ought to have about the same opportunities for education, that it shouldn't matter what your family's income is.  (Well, Americans think that too, don't we?  But we've wound up with this bizarre system where our property taxes go to the local schools (CA says: it's complicated), so some schools are rich and some are poor, so we spend a ton of money to get a house in the right district, and it keeps getting worse and more expensive.) Patanen's claim is that the Nordic system is very much in line with American values, while the American system frequently works out in a way that doesn't support the values we hold.

Partanen correctly points out that the Scandinavian governments are not, in fact, socialist.  They are capitalist countries that put a lot of resources into social welfare programs.  Nordic countries have put a lot of effort into being business-friendly; it's quite easy to start a business in, say, Denmark, and tech is big there.  Businesses don't have to spend any resources managing their employees' health insurance or medical/family leave, and nobody has to stay in a job they hate because they need the benefits (plus, think of all the medical money that goes to insurance paperwork and billing complexities).  Entrepreneurs can start businesses without worrying about health insurance.  It is entirely possible to get rich in Scandinavia, though getting mega-rich is not so easy.  And paid leave, as well as many other benefits, are scaled to income, which is an incentive to get an education and a good job in the first place.

She also nixes the idea that Scandinavians go for a social welfare society because they are particularly charitable.  No, Nordics like the system because they see it as working in their own interests and to their direct personal benefit.***  They pay about the same amount as we do, but they feel that they see more bang for their kroner.

Which is pretty much where I think the disconnect is for Americans.  Americans do not see the US government as beneficial to themselves, and they are skeptical that the government is capable of running social programs without massive waste and incompetency.  Maybe Finland is small enough that it is less full of pork?  Partanen even says that the Finnish government had a long period of trimming and reform; they also have strict rules about staying under budget.  That sounds like a fairy-tale to an American.

And here's another thing: at no point does Patanen mention American military spending.  Our federal budget does put a lot of money into Medicare, Social Security, and other things (not much into education, which is largely a state concern).  But it also puts about 16% (of total 2015 spending) into the military, which is much, much larger than any Nordic country does.  And while we get beaten up a lot for this, we also can't easily stop or get out of our role as the world's police officer.  Russia and China are both looking to expand, and while we may be bunglers at best, they're worse.  (And just the other day I heard a guy on NPR say he couldn't understand why the West isn't going after ISIS properly.)  Perhaps those European countries could step up their contributions?

So that's some of the governmental stuff she talks about that I wanted to address.  In a different direction, Patanen also talks about cultural standards and what she thinks are the pros and cons of each.  What I was particularly interested in was Janteloven; I have yet to see any Nordic commentator refrain from talking about Janteloven!  It's actually a set of 'rules' from an old novel that all Nordics recognize as putting a finger on a particular strain of their cultural character.  You'll have to look up the whole thing, but the first rule is "Du skal ikke tro, at du er noget."  "Don't think you're somebody."  You have no idea how snotty that can sound in Danish.  This is not really something that they consider to be a positive trait.  I'm always interested in reading about it, so I liked that.

America is in a mess.  Our costs for higher education and medical care have spiraled so high that it's perfectly possible to be financially ruined by them.  I think most of us are worried about money most of the time, and a lot of us have real and ongoing fears about it.  The middle class can no longer afford these costs.  Nordic countries have taken those worries out of the equation, which sounds like a beautiful, impossible dream to any American.  Personally, I'm ready to sign up, but I can't see how it could happen in our giant system.

And there are some trade-offs.  I didn't talk about higher education, which is free in Scandinavia (and comes with a student stipend, so that parents have no expectation of supporting their children financially after 18).  But the schools also have tracking, which Americans hate. The pragmatic, streamlined, job-focused Nordic system is very much at odds with the patchy but romantic American vision.

Oh well, maybe I could just brush up my Danish and move.  I've already got Christmas down!  I can make julejherter with the best, believe me.

Danish Christmas trees have flags, as do birthday cakes and summer days.


*It's not some fairy-tale land.

**  That said, 2017 was, medically speaking, very expensive for our family, and not that much even happened.  We have huge problems with medical care here and I for one am entirely ready to move to Finland.  I just don't see how to do it in the US.

***  I agree that it's wrong-headed to claim that, say, universal health care should be brought in because it's the Christian or charitable thing to do; opponents then correctly counter that it is not charitable to use tax money for social programs.  Charity involves opening your own wallet.  However, you can make a perfectly good argument that doesn't involve charity.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Down and Out in Paris and London

 Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell

This slightly fictionalized memoir is also Orwell's first published book.  It chronicles events in the late 1920's, after Orwell had left service in Burma; he did some tramping around England to collect material for an essay he was writing.  Later, he lived in Paris for a while and spent some time in destitution and working as a dishwasher.  These experiences, somewhat edited, evolved from essays into a complete book, published in 1933.

The first half is the Paris story and starts with Orwell losing his money and the work he had been doing.  For some weeks, he and a Russian friend look for restaurant work, finally finding jobs in a large hotel and then in a smaller restaurant.  The inexperienced Orwell works as a dishwasher, lowest of the low, while Boris has already been a waiter and thus gets a better job, but has to hide his disqualifying limp.

Once this palls enough, Orwell wangles a job from a friend in England and gets passage home, only to find that the job won't start for over a month.  Reluctant to ask for money, he becomes a tramp and lives on the circuit of "spikes," homeless shelters run by parish workhouses, until the job starts.

It's a fascinating memoir that everybody ought to read...but don't read it over lunch.  It's also quite disgusting.  Orwell is chronicling a kind of poverty that few in the developed world can experience any more, and he's doing it with a lot of attention to horrible detail in order to drive his message home.  His Paris room, just like most lower-class rooms, is infested with millions of bugs.  (He doesn't say what they are; bedbugs maybe?  Cockroaches appear elsewhere and are specifically named.  Maybe he just means several species at once.)  There is no running water or electricity, so washing requires extra money and they go weeks or months without it; at one point he mentions that he brushes his teeth for the first time in two weeks.   He goes without food for days when he can't afford any, and lives on bread and wine most of the time.

Reading about the hotel and restaurant work would put you off eating out for life if it weren't for modern health codes.  Orwell is a dishwasher, which is the worst job of the lot.  I've been a dishwasher myself, in a college dorm food hall, and I've never been more grateful for hot sprayers and those rubber mats in my life.  It's not much fun to scrape plates at any time, but it's a million times easier and cleaner now.

England is a different brand of poverty, as Orwell is homeless, whereas in Paris he had a room.  In those days, homeless men went from one spike to another on a sort of circuit; they couldn't visit the same place frequently, so they had to move daily.  They live entirely on tea and bread with margarine, the standard basic diet of the poor, and they pick up discarded cigarette ends from the streets to smoke.  Begging doesn't seem to be legal, but Orwell does meet people from the next level up, especially a screever (pavement artist -- like Bert in Mary Poppins, if somewhat less cheery).  It's also interesting to see him describe a vanished London.

It's a great book, though almost entirely horrible.  Read it sometime.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Black Count

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss

This book is fascinating!  I've never been all that interested in French history, but I'd heard great things about this book, and it was sitting there on my TBR shelf when I started reading The Man in the Iron Mask.  I thought they'd be good to read together, and indeed it was; The Black Count more than lived up to expectations.  It's a Pulitzer Prize winner too, so you don't have to take my word for it.

Alex Dumas died when his little boy was only four, and that boy spent the rest of his life idolizing his father.  You could hardly find a more heroic father even without the rose-colored glasses, and Alexandre Dumas wrote his father's experiences into many of his stories, eventually turning Alex into Edmond Dantes to imaginatively take revenge on the enemies who brought him low and then made sure that France forgot him.

Reiss starts with the sugar cane plantations of Saint-Domingue (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), which ran on a particularly savage form of slavery; it was actually part of the business model to work people to death and then replace them with fresh captives.  Sugar was hugely profitable, and a major source of French wealth.  Alex Dumas' father was a ne'er-do-well minor nobleman who married Marie-Cessette Dumas, a black woman, but then later sold her and their children (including Alex, but with a caveat that he could be bought back).  Alex ended up free and a young dandy in France, where he was a social hit, but after disagreements with his father, he joined the army as a common soldier and changed his name to Dumas after his mother.

There is a lot of amazing information in here about the complexities of race in France before and after the Revolution.  Alex Dumas was not the only mixed-race person in France, and for a while there things were looking really good for black rights and the abolition of slavery.  The Black Count is worth reading just for that.

It was quite lucky for Dumas that he did enlist as a common soldier, because the Revolution came along and nobles were no longer popular, but Dumas' incredible physical prowess earned him fame and promotion.  He married a French girl -- theirs was a very loving and happy relationship -- but he was mostly gone soldiering.  Dumas was a thoroughly committed Republican, and he also spent a lot of his time and energy protecting ordinary people.  (Really, this guy was improbably wonderful.  His son didn't need to rose-tint his glasses very much at all.)  Put in the worst military situations, even in the Alps, he pulled off some remarkable maneuvers.

Unfortunately, there was another rising officer in the French military, and he didn't like Dumas at all.  Napoleon didn't care much about this Republican nonsense and was annoyed by Dumas' resistance to his cult of personality.  He didn't exactly torpedo Dumas' career, but he seems to have made sure that Dumas was neglected.  Then Napoleon wanted to invade Egypt, so he sent a huge force out, and that was mostly a disaster.  Alex Dumas was captured on his way home and imprisoned for two years; he did get home, but his health was broken and he was given no pension.  Napoleon made sure that Dumas was forgotten.

This biography combines the story of a truly amazing man with plenty of good information about the French Revolution, so I learned a lot about that too (like I said, I've never been all that into French history).  It was a great read, and if you haven't read it, put it on your list; you won't be sorry.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Nonfiction November Wrapup: TBR List!

I saw several posts that combined the Top Ten and the November wrapup, so I like that idea, and here is my Top Ten of nonfiction books I'm excited to read as soon as I can!  I don't think I can manage all of them this winter, but I can give it a good try...

10. Individualism and Economic Order, by F. A. Hayek -- I have no less than three Hayek works on my TBR.  They make me nervous.

9. The Story of Western Science, by Susan Wise Bauer -- My guru has written a book I have not yet read!  This must be rectified.

8. Memoirs of the Crusades -- I want to read more medieval literature!  I've had this a long time!

7. Lectures on Russian Literature, by Vladimir Nabokov -- A few years ago, I read Nabokov's lectures on various English classic works, and it was really fun.  I put off reading the Russian stuff until I'd read a reasonable amount of the books he talks about.  I've been looking forward to this for a while.

6. Tales of the Narts, ed. by John Colarusso -- Huge book of Ossetian myths and tales, so extremely cool.  Plus they're called Narts, which is fun.

5. Early Christian Writings (a Penguin collection) -- I've been meaning to read this for a long time, and now seems right.  I'm particularly interested in it right now, and I'm tired of not knowing just what is actually in the Didache.

4. The Glatstein Chronicles, by Jacob Glatstein -- This has been on my wishlist since I read Outwitting History (which added several titles to my TBR pile!). 

3. Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, by Norman Ohler -- I just picked this up at work, where my co-workers have been passing it around.  I mean, who could resist?  Here's something I didn't know: the Nazis kind of invented meth and made it an everyday household thing.  Thanks a lot, Nazis.

2. The Christ Who Heals, by Fiona and Terryl Givens -- I heard an interview with one of the authors a couple of weeks ago and had to get this as soon as possible.  This is the third book the Givens have written together and they've been wonderful so far.  Luckily for me, my friend found it in a bookstore and brought it home for me!

1. Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys Into the Medieval World, by Christopher de Hamel -- I am so excited about this one.  It's just stuffed with fabulous photos and details of special medieval books!  Zowie!!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Something on Sunday: 11/26

 Something on Sunday is a weekly event hosted by Jenny, in which we talk about what got us through the week.

This week is Leaf-Raking Week in my neighborhood, as all the trees dump at once.  I really like raking leaves, and plan to do it some more tomorrow.  We cleared a lot yesterday, but that only lasted a few hours, and the lawn is covered again.  Those mountain ash trees hold an incredible amount.  We are pretty lucky in that we have to pile all the leaves in the street, in a nice neat bank, and every couple of weeks a truck shows up to scoop them up and take them off to be ground up and added to a giant compost heap of doom.  I feel that this is a much better system than bagging, like what my brother has to do.

I feel weird talking about Thanksgiving, since it involves a bunch of family members who didn't sign up to be featured in a blog post.  It was a nice day and my daughter and I got to tromp around the riverbank a bit.  The cranberry relish and pecan pie were great.

My friend invited me to go with her to this annual Christmas show put on by a family.  It's a local tradition thing.  It's also much too early to start Christmas stuff in my opinion, but neither of us had ever been and we thought it would be a fun new thing to try.  Indeed, much of it was very good, and there was an impressive amount of handbell expertise.  Other bits were on the inexplicable or odd side, but they were at least entertaining.  Mostly I liked doing a new thing with my friend.

Today my husband and I found a beautiful new thing to love on Facebook: the Vault of Retro Sci-Fi.  There's nothing I love more than a good dose of unhinged sci-fi!

I have seen this movie, and it is awesome.

Blogging the Spirit: November: As Iron Sharpens Iron

I love this cover but it needs a microscope
As Iron Sharpens Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture, ed. Julie M. Smith

Laurie at Relevant Obscurity hosts this monthly event!

 I've been reading this intriguing little book that is unlike religion books I've read before.  The editor, Julie M. Smith, explains that she was reading a book on how to make sense of the cultures described in the Old Testament (which is now on my wishlist) and it included a fictional dialogue between Ruth and Ezra about marriage outside the covenant, something Ruth did and Ezra fought against.

They both advocate for their positions with clarity and charity.  There is no "winner" here -- just a wrestle with the complexities...
Smith goes on to wonder if the differing points of view and ideas we find in scripture, and sometimes outright contradictions, are "not a bug but a feature?"  Modern Christians often try to reconcile different accounts to find one 'accurate' story, but maybe that's not the point.  Maybe we should be exploring these differences to find out what they're trying to tell us.  A slightly different example:

In Mark, Jesus and the disciples celebrate Passover and Jesus dies the next day.  In John, Jesus dies at the time when the Passover lambs are being slaughtered.  ...Despite two thousand years of clever attempts to reconcile these accounts, it is simply not possible to do so.  And attempts to ignore, minimize, or deny the difference can cause problems for readers who are left unprepared for future attacks on their faith based on the 'unreliability' of the gospels.  But once it is recognized that the gospel writers had a higher priority than chronology (namely: theology), the differences between the two accounts become not a problem to be solved but an opportunity to be explored.

Smith then invokes Jewish tradition, in which scholars have spent centuries arguing points, arriving at differing and often contradictory conclusions, and then just leaving them all there for future readers to investigate and add to.  She thought she would like to read more of these dialogues between scriptural figures, and so she asked a bunch of people to write some.  The result is this book, a collection of fictional conversations, based on what each person actually wrote.

Job and Abraham discuss the meaning of suffering, sacrifice, and obedience.    Moses and Paul debate the law, while Tamar and King David talk over questions of morality.  Abraham and Thomas talk about doubt, and in Smith's own contribution, Mark and Luke discuss women's portrayals in the gospels and their roles.  Since this is also an LDS book, there are a lot of dialogues featuring voices from LDS scripture and history as well.

It's a neat book to read, and I really like Smith's goal of not forcing things into agreement when we'd be a lot better off realizing that scripture (and life) can be messy, and that's on purpose, and we can learn from it.