Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Corfu Trilogy

Posted by nliakos on December 3, 2019

by Gerald Durrell

  • My Family and Other Animals (Penguin 1956)
    • This was one of my mother’s books, and I read it myself many years ago. Recently, my interest has been reawakened by the delightful TV series The Durrells in Corfu, which my family gathered to watch on Sunday nights for four seasons of laughter-inducing episodes about the eccentric Durrell family’s life on the Greek Island of Corfu (Kerkira). The day after the Season 4 finale, I started re-reading the first of the so-called Corfu Trilogy. It introduces us to the main characters: mom Louisa Durrell and her young adult children, Larry (the Lawrence Durrell of Alexandria Quartet fame); Leslie; Margo; and the narrator of the entire trilogy, ten-year-old Gerry, whose later books about animal collecting and his special zoo on the Isle of Jersey (the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust) made him at least as famous as Larry. We also meet Spiros Halikiopoulos (son of a pebble?), a Corfiot who immediately befriends the family and sticks by them through thick and thin; Lugaretzia, who is hired as household help; and Dr. Theodore Stephanides, who became Gerry’s friend and mentor. Twenty years later, a grown-up Gerry remembered the details of his life on the island: not only the animals, which he observed with intense fascination, captured, and brought home as pets (to the horror of his family), but also the plant life, the sea, the weather, and of course the people. Gerry seems to have learned enough Greek to communicate fluently with the neighbors (something the TV series ignored; even in Season 4, all five Durrells can barely get a sentence out in Greek).  He describes the process in Chapter Two: “As the days passed, I came gradually to understand them. What had at first been a confused babble became a series of recognizable separate sounds. Then, suddenly, these took on meaning, and slowly and haltingly I started to use them myself; then I took my newly acquired words and strung them into ungrammatical and stumbling sentences. Our neighbours were delighted, as though I had conferred some delicate compliment by trying to learn their language. They would lean over the hedge, their faces screwed up with concentration, as I groped my way through a greeting or a simple remark, and when I had successfully concluded they would beam at me, nodding and smiling, and clap their hands.” He narrates his adventures both in his own garden and farther afield on the island and includes some very funny episodes about the people he lives with and the people he meets, such as the various tutors his mother engages to educate him. The funniest parts always include his ever-expanding menagerie: Ulysses the Scops owl, Achilles the tortoise, Alecko the black-backed gull, the “Magenpies”, Geronimo the gecko, the dogs Roger, Widdle, and Puke, and many more, some too tiny to name. The first book concludes with the family traveling to England where Gerry was supposed to go to school, whereas in reality, it was because of the impending Second World War that the family were forced to leave Corfu in 1939. (11/09/19)
  • Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (Viking 1969)
    • The second in the Corfu series continues in the same vein. Durrell describes in simile-laden prose the plants and animals he observed and sometimes captured. His similes help the reader envision what he was experiencing. For example: “…tiny crabs or beadlet anemones like little scarlet-and-blue jewelled pincushions”; “…a delicate growth of acetabularia mediterranea with slender threadlike stalks, and perched on the top of each stalk something that looked like a small green parasol turned inside out by some submarine wind”; and “a great black lump of sponge covered with gaping, protruberant mouths like miniature volcanoes.” (The above three examples were all in a single paragraph described shore life in a tiny bay.) My favorite similes, however, are the ones that anthropomorphize the wildlife, like this one: “… [the mantises’] bulbous straw-coloured eyes turning this way and that, missing nothing, like angular, embittered spinsters at a cocktail party.” And “[the tarantula] was standing half-way up a blue thistle, waving his front legs and peering about him, reminding me irresistibly of a hunter who had climbed up a tree in order to see if there is any game about.” I assume that the breath-taking detail with which he describes his island world can be attributed to the habit, already instilled in him at that young age by his mentor, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, of keeping a detailed journal of his discoveries and observations, in which he not only described things in words but also sketched them.  Gerry’s adventures narrated in this volume include night-fishing with Taki, acquiring a young donkey as a birthday present, Katerina’s wedding and childbirth, Sven (who never dates Gerry’s mother Louisa, as he does in the TV series) and Captain Creech (who is, if possible, even more irritating than he is in his TV portrayal), fishing for cuttlefish with love, dissecting a rotting turtle carcass on the front veranda, Leslie bribing a judge with postage stamps when Roger is falsely accused to stealing and eating five turkeys, a trip to London to retrieve Margo (Aunt Fan, Cousin Prue, some Bedlington terrier puppies, and a seance), Donald and Max’s visit, Gerry’s lunch with Countess Mavrodaki, the acquisition and loss of four baby hedgehogs, the wreck of Larry’s yacht, Gerry dancing with Pavlo the bear, and a family outing to Mr. Stavrodakis’ vineyard/winery. This last one constitutes the final chapter of the book and is the only chapter that isn’t particularly funny. The whole day is described with such love and longing, as if it were Gerry’s most important memory of the place he loved so much. He ends the chapter, and the book, thus: Lulled by the wine and the throbbing heart of the boat’s engine, lulled by the warm night and the singing, I fell asleep while the boat carried us back across the warm, smooth waters to our island and the brilliant days that were not to be
  • The Garden of the Gods/Fauna and Family: An Account of the Durrell Family of Corfu (Touchstone/Simon and Schuster 1978)
    • I had a hard time finding this one because it wasn’t obvious that one book had been published under two titles. Once I figured that out, I realized I already owned a copy. The narratives continue, looking at the island, the family, their friends and peculiar guests through young Gerry’s eyes. (The Durrells spent four or five years in Corfu, so Gerry might have been ten when they first arrived, but he was fourteen or fifteen when they departed. It’s never clear in the books how old he is in a particular chapter. The books don’t seem to be organized chronologically. I suppose he wrote about what he remembered best, and he didn’t plan it as a trilogy, but just kept adding volumes because of all of his books, these were the best sellers and thus earned his Wildlife Preservation Trust the most money (Writing was how Gerald Durrell financed his Jersey zoo devoted to saving endangered species). I was curious to see if the final volume mentioned anything about Gerry’s mother falling in love with the taxi-driver, Spiro. It didn’t. Nor did it have any mention of Spiro’s wife or children, if indeed he was married. So that juicy little romance was a fiction invented by the TV folks (not surprisingly). Also, in the books, Spiro is described as barrel-shaped, usually scowling, and ugly–not at all the handsome, charming man of the series, though he was able to find/make/buy/produce anything the family needed, which included some pretty weird stuff. There were some extremely funny moments, like Gerry’s bull horns (not bullhorns) falling on Leslie’s head and nearly knocking him out; King George’s visit to Corfu (also embroidered rather fancifully by the TV series director or scriptwriter); the time Margo brought home a besotted Turk with his two veiled wives, who was prepared to take on Margo as Number Three; the visit of the gentle American homosexuals, Lumy and Harry, who did make it into the TV series; and finally, Prince Jeejeebuoy’s birthday, in honor of which the whole family throws an elaborate India-themed party which takes days to prepare and naturally does not go completely as planned. . . . In sum, I enjoyed the TV series, but I am glad that it inspired me to go back to the books, because, as is almost always true, they are much better than the series!

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Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators

Posted by nliakos on November 3, 2019

by Ronan Farrow (Little, Brown 2019)

Reading Catch and Kill immediately after She Said was interesting. Most of the book details Farrow’s pursuit of the same story that Twohey and Kantor were chasing in She Said–Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuse of hundreds of women over many years. Naturally, both books share many of the same characters: victims/witnesses/sources, predators, and enablers. In Catch and Kill, there is also a whole new cast of characters from NBC News, where he worked when he began investigating Weinstein, and The New Yorker, which eventually published the finished piece (and several follow-ups) after NBC ordered Farrow and his collaborator, Rich McHugh, to stop work on the story, as well as people at The National Enquirer and its parent company, AMI, who took it upon themselves to buy the rights to stories concerning the misbehavior of people like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump and then consign them to a vault so that they would never see the light of day (the “catch-and-kill” of the title).

Yes, it’s true: NBC was complicit in the coverup (and guilty of tolerating a similar culture of sexual abuse and coverup in the person of Matt Lauer, host of the Today show). Yet another shocker (I guess I am pretty naive). I don’t watch NBC, but I used to consider it part of the “mainstream media” which can be (more or less) trusted. No more. If I did watch it, I would stop. At least in the case of NBC, they did not attempt to stop Farrow from publishing his results in The New Yorker–in fact, Noah Oppenheim, one of Farrow’s superiors at NBC) actually suggested it.

The sheer number of people in the book is breath-taking, and I found it hard to keep them all straight. The chapter titles are weird, and in most cases I could not discern their relationship to the chapter they named: “Button”, “Quidditch”, “Syzygy”, “Spike”. I don’t know why he even bothered to name them. I suppose there is a connection, but it would have taken time and mental energy to figure out what it was, so I didn’t bother. Ditto for the Part titles: “Poison Valley”, “White Whale”, “Army of Spies”, “Sleeper”, and “Severance”.

Farrow includes enough personal details and reconstructed conversations in the story to keep the reader interested and to pave the way for a film based on the book I think it would make a good movie, if only they limit the number of characters in it. But now I think I will read something entirely different. Enough sleaze. (As of this writing, Harvey Weinstein is still a free man, still rich, awaiting his trial in New York and planning his comeback in the movie business. The creep.)

 

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She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement

Posted by nliakos on October 24, 2019

by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (Penguin 2019)

This book is actually two books in one. The first, the longer one, is the one referred to in the subtitle: the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment case that ultimately brought down not only Mr. Weinstein but also his entire company, The Weinstein Company (TWC). The second, only 62 pages, which tells the story of Christine Blasey Ford and the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation, seems like more of an after-thought. Kantor and Twohey did not break that story, although Blasey Ford did attend a gathering they organized in 2019 to interview a disparate group of women who had come forward to accuse their harassers in order to learn how going public had impacted their lives.

As I had read in a review somewhere, Kantor and Twohey’s book helps the reader understand the journalistic process and the ethics which guide journalists’ work. We read about the editors and higher-ups in the New York Times who make the crucial decisions about what to print, when to print, whether to print, to continue pursuing a story or not, how much time to allow reporters to work on a story that seems to be going nowhere, and so on. There are references to others pursuing the same story (e.g., Ronan Farrow, whose book Catch and Kill I will read next) and the pressure to be the first to break the story rather than to write a “follow” (a summary of another person’s original article), which the authors say is “humbling to write”.

As for the actual story itself, Harvey Weinstein was a sleazy old guy with a lot of power and influence who (with the cooperation and assistance of his underlings) trapped young women in hotel rooms and tried to get them to disrobe, give and accept “massages”, take showers with him, and watch him masturbate. He occasionally raped them, but in general his modus operandi seems to have been “persuasion”, keeping in mind his dominance over them professionally–both the women who worked for him and young actors hoping for parts in his films. Some of them submitted; some escaped, but all, it seems, were harmed by the experience. Some of the harm was professional; e.g., a staffer unable to continue working in the film industry because she was prevented by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) from explaining why she had left Miramax, Weinstein’s company at the time. Other harm was in the recriminations and self-doubts that continued to plague these women, who were prevented from discussing what had happened to them by the NDAs they had signed, thereby consigning them to living with the events and the feelings connected to them unresolved.

Kantor and Twohey show how the NDAs provided the victims with cash settlements far larger than they would have gotten had they complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the government agency charged with enforcing the laws against sexual harassment, and won–which, given the atmosphere at the time, was far from certain. Blaming the victim was common, and the EEOC was not even allowed to make public the information it had about serial harassers. “Such agencies would gather crucial information with taxpayer dollars and then, for the most part, were required to lock it away where almost no one could see it,” report the authors. Thus did the federal and state governments enable sexual harassers to continue to victimize people for years–in Weinstein’s case, over forty years before he was finally held accountable.

Once having signed an NDA, however, victims of sexual harassment or assault were muzzled for life. In effect, the NDAs prostituted the victims after the fact: after they were groped, fondled, “massaged”, forced to engage in oral sex, or raped, they were paid to remain silent about what had happened. While many victims wanted only to forget what had happened, the inability to reconsider that decision would haunt them for years and made Kantor and Twohey’s investigation much more challenging, because they were unable to persuade people to talk to them. These agreements should be illegal, in my view.

Definitely worth reading.

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The Fifth of March: A Story of the Boston Massacre

Posted by nliakos on October 17, 2019

by Ann Rinaldi (Harcourt 1993)

This is the story of young Rachel Marsh, an indentured servant working as a nanny in the home of John and Abigail Adams in 1768-70. Well-researched, with most of its characters based on actual people, The Fifth of March provides a front-row seat to the events leading up to and following the Boston “Massacre”, which is widely seen as a crucial factor in the beginning of the Revolutionary War. As Rachel narrates the story, we gain an understanding of how some of the colonists began to see themselves as just plain “Americans” rather than subjects of the British Crown, as the concept of individual liberty began to take root.   Along with her friends, her employers, and her employers’ friends and associates, Rachel must decide whether to cast her lot with “the rabble” or with the soldiers sent to keep the peace in a turbulent time. We come to appreciate the British side of the story: how the British Captain Preston tried valiantly to avert violence while the Americans insulted, cursed, lobbed objects at, and otherwise provoked the young British soldiers.

Rachel’s choice is complicated by the fact that she has befriended one of the soldiers, Matthew Kilroy (also a historical figure), thereby jeopardizing her relationship with the Adamses. This is the fictional story woven into the historical events. Even Rachel Marsh’s fictional character is based on an actual person of that name whom the Adamses employed. Rinaldi takes this character, about whom essentially nothing is known, and creates her protagonist.

I found this to be a balanced description of what it might have felt like to live in Boston during this period a few years before the Revolutionary War.

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction, History | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Educated: A Memoir

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Tara Westover (Random House, 2018)

Reading the story of Tara Westover, who was raised by fundamentalist Mormon parents on an Idaho mountain but who managed to earn a PhD. in history from Cambridge, was for me similar to reading a good mystery or thriller: once I got started, I couldn’t stop.  Her life on the mountain was so alien, the neglect she suffered from her father and the abuse inflicted on her by one of her brothers so unbelievable, and the way she internalized their misogyny so complete, I was driven to read on to find out how she escaped her destiny as an uneducated wife, mother, herbalist, and midwife.

She was aided and abetted in her escape by members of her family, like the brother who first made it to college, and to some extent her mother, a weak woman whose will bent to that of her (apparently mentally deranged) husband, but who at crucial times gave Tara the support she needed to break away.

Her experiences in college, after spending most of her childhood unschooled and then studying an ACT prep book on her own, were surreal. Think of an alien plopped down in a classroom, expected to know what to do. She did not understand that she was expected to read her textbooks, how to write a paper, how to prepare for a test. The surrealism increases when she travels to Cambridge University, first with a group of fellow Brigham Young University students and later as a graduate student. She was fortunate to find professors at BYU and at Cambridge who recognized her extraordinary ability and who went out of their way to mentor her.

But it was not easy to break away from the pull of her family and her religion. In the end, she managed it, but the story of how she did it is what makes the book so compelling.

Interesting quote, from Westover’s undergraduate days at BYU:

A few days before finals, I sat for an hour with my friend Josh in an empty classroom. He was reviewing his applications for law school. I was choosing my courses for the next semester,

“If you were a woman,” I asked, “Would you still study law?”

Josh didn’t look up. “If I were a woman,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to study it.”

But you’ve talked of nothing except law school for as long as I’ve known you,” I said. “It’s your dream, isn’t it?” 

“It is,” he admitted. “But it wouldn’t be if I were a woman. Women are made differently. They don’t have this ambition. Their ambition is for children.” He smiled at me as if I knew what he was talking about. And I did. I smiled, and for a few seconds we were in agreement.

Then: “But what if you were a woman, and somehow you felt exactly as you do now?”

Josh’s eyes fixed on the wall for a moment. He was really thinking about it. Then he said, “I’d know something was wrong with me.”

I’d been wondering whether something was wrong with me since the beginning of the semester, when I’d attended my first lecture on world affairs. I’d been wondering how I could be a woman and yet be drawn to unwomanly things.

To find out how she was able to break out of this misogynistic Mormon mold and reach for the sky, you have to read the book.

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21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Yuval Noah Harari (Spiegel & Grau, 2018) (I read the randomhousebooks.com electronic version)

As Yuval Noah Harari explains in his Introduction to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “In this book I want to zoom in on the here and now. My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of human societies. What is happening right now? What are today’s greatest challenges and most important choices? What should we teach our kids?”

Although I was spellbound by Harari’s Coursera MOOC “A Brief History of Humankind” in 2013, this is the first of his books I have actually read (though Sapiens has been on my to-read list since I took the MOOC, and Homo Deus is already in my Nook library). I remember Dr. Harari’s video presentations. He always sat in the same armchair with a floor lamp beside it. There was a video screen next to him, but he rarely used it. Instead, he kept us enthralled with his words, sitting there with no notes, just talking into the camera. It was amazing. 21 Lessons reminds me of that, a little. While I was not enthralled (more like depressed) as I read it, he constantly got me to look at things in a fresh new way, just as he did in the course.

I was expecting something more along the lines of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, but 21 Lessons is more like the reworking of previously published articles, supplemented by responses to reader questions. That said, there is plenty here to learn and think about, written succinctly and clearly, with relevant examples taken from numerous countries around the globe as well as from Harari’s personal experiences (something he did not talk about at all in the MOOC).

Order of chapter topics:

Part I: The Technological Challenge (Ch. 1: Disillusionment; Ch. 2: Work; Ch. 3: Liberty; Ch. 4: Equality)

Part II: The Political Challenge (Ch. 5: Community; Ch. 6: Civilization; Ch. 7: Nationalism; Ch. 8: Religion; Ch. 9: Immigration)

Part III: Despair and Hope (Ch. 10: Terrorism; Ch. 11: War; Ch. 12: Humility; Ch. 13: God; Ch. 14: Secularism)

Part IV: Truth (Ch. 15: Ignorance; Ch. 16: Justice; Ch. 17: Post-Truth; Ch. 18: Science Fiction)

Part VI: Resilience (Ch. 19: Education; Ch. 20: Meaning; Ch. 21: Meditation)

Some of the main take-aways:

  • People think in stories. Most of them are fictional. The one my friends and I prefer is “the liberal story”. But it’s not the only one out there. (A related thought: “from a political perspective, a good science fiction movie is worth far more than an article in Science or Nature.)
  • In the future, most people could become irrelevant (“a massive new ‘useless class'”) as powerful elites use bio-technology to turn themselves into a kind of super-human. “It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.” We might even split into two separate species. The crucial difference is “who owns the data”. But how do we regulate data?
  • The Artificial Intelligence Revolution will transform the future job market.  “No job will remain absolutely safe from automation.”
  • Humans make most of their decisions based on emotion, not rational thought. Emotions are “biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to quickly calculate probabilities of survival and reproduction”. In other words, “feelings. . . embody evolutionary rationality.”
  • Human communities have always been characterized by inequality. Equality gained ground in the 20th century, but inequality is now growing again.
  • All humans today share a global civilization which recognizes nation states, money, and shared scientific, medical, and technological knowledge.
  • The success of Homo Sapiens is due in large part to our propensity to think in groups and to cooperate.
  • People don’t like too many facts. “The world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brains.”
  • The three main challenges facing humankind are the nuclear challenge, the ecological challenge, and the technological challenge, which together “add up to an unprecedented existential crisis.” Four questions for any candidate for office:
    • If elected, how will you reduce the risk of nuclear war?
    • How will you fight climate change?
    • How would you regulate technologies such as AI and bioengineering?
    • How do you see the world of 2040?
  • There are three kinds of problems: technical problems, policy problems, and identity problems. Religion is relevant only to identity problems.
  • Immigration is a deal with three basic conditions.
    • Term 1: The host country allows the immigrants in.
    • Term 2: The immigrants embrace at least the core norms and values of the host country.
    • Term 3: If the immigrants assimilate enough, over time they become equal and full members of the host country.
    • We need to have a consensus on the meaning of the three terms before we can have a debate on immigration.
  • Terrorism is a military strategy used by groups that are too weak to really damage their enemy materially. Don’t panic over terrorist actions because in the end their effect is usually very small. “There is an astounding disproportion between the actual strength of the terrorists and the fear they manage to inspire.”
  • Jews are less important in world history than either they or their detractors think.
  • Monotheism made people less tolerant of others.
  • A moral person is one who reduces the suffering of others.
  • Two rules of thumb:
    • If you want reliable information, you should be prepared to pay for it.
    • If an issue is really important to you, read the relevant scientific literature about it.
  • Students don’t need more information (facts). They need to know how to make sense of the information they have.

Favorite quotes:

  • Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech. Either democracy will successfully reinvent itself in a radically new form or humans will come to live in “digital dictatorships.”
  • Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love, and anger.
  • The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentive to expand and diversify my compassion.
  • If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.
  • We are all members of a single rowdy global civilization.
  • Xenophobia is in our DNA.
  • Identities are a crucial historical force. . . . All mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities.
  • Terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. 
  • Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
  • Home sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.
  • When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion. . . .
  • Humans have a remarkable ability to know and not know at the same time. Or, more correctly, they can know something when they really think about it, but most of the time they don’t think about it, so they don’t know it.
  • Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.
  • As a species, humans prefer power to truth.
  • A ritual is a magical acts that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real.
  • If by “free will” you mean the freedom to do what you desire, then yes, humans have free will. But if by “free will” you mean the freedom to choose what to desire, then no, humans have no free will.

One thing I really enjoyed in particular was how Harari explains his points with reference to art (Hamlet, Inside Out, Brave New World, The Lion King…).

 

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics, Religion, Philosophy, Culture, Science | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Over the Hills and Far Away: The Life of Beatrix Potter

Posted by nliakos on September 30, 2019

by Matthew Dennison (Pegasus 2017)

When my daughter was young, I bought her a stack of Beatrix Potter’s “little books” on sale at Borders. Later, we supplemented them with books on tape (replaced later by CDs) and videos. At 27, she is still enamored of these quirky little tales, as am I, and we both loved the movie Miss Potter, a dramatization of the author/illustrator’s life. I always wondered how much of that was fictionalized and how much was based on fact, so when I saw this book on the biography shelves of my local library, I took it out. It did not disappoint! I learned that the movie was largely accurate; however, Norman Warne’s illness and death were apparently embellished. Warne died of leukemia, not of an illness contracted because he saw Beatrix off on her forced vacation in the rain, as was implied in the film. Beatrix’s girlhood acquaintance with William Heelis, whom she would later marry, is not mentioned in the book and was probably invented by the director. But no matter. The film is wonderful, the book is wonderful, Beatrix Potter’s creations are wonderful. I loved the way Dennison illustrates his book with Potter’s drawings and refers constantly to the various animal characters in the “little books”, relating the stories to the places where she lived and the events in her life. Having read almost all of her oeuvre (I somehow managed to miss The Fairy Caravan–must look for it in the library), these references greatly added to my enjoyment of the biography.

Posted in Biography, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Fool’s Girl

Posted by nliakos on August 30, 2019

by Celia Rees ( Scholastic, 2010)

Celia Rees has taken Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night and written a new chapter of the saga of Viola and Sebastian, the shipwrecked twins who emerged from the sea to wed royalty in the Adriatic dukedom of Illyria (in present-day Croatia). In Rees’s imaginings, Violetta, the daughter of Viola and Duke Orsin, flees a conquered Illyria with her mother’s fool, Feste, and her father’s young page, Guido. They eventually come to London in search of Illyria’s greatest treasure, a holy relic stolen by the evil Malvolio, and appeal to a youngish Will Shakespeare to help them.  (Rees writes in the Author Note, “I wanted to write about Shakespeare before he was Shakespeare, when he was just Will from Warwickshire, trying to make a living in the competitive and precarious world of Elizabethan theatre.”)

Stubborn, brave Violetta; bawdy, multi-talented Feste; cruel, deranged Malvolio; faithful Maria; handsome but mysterious Stephano; clever Will Shakespeare, walking a political tightrope, trying to do his duty without compromising his friends or his company of players; Will’s wise and patient wife Anne; the Lord and Lady of the Wood; and more are some of the characters that Rees builds into believable people in this tale of romance, adventure, and intrigue. There is plenty of action and excitement before we reach the inevitable happy ending. I think Shakespeare would have been pleased.

 

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My Beloved World

Posted by nliakos on August 30, 2019

by Sonia Sotomayor (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor calls this a memoir rather than an autobiography, but I think autobiography is more apt. Although it does not talk about her time as a federal judge or on the high court, her life story leading up to her first appointment to the federal bench (the accomplishment of her lifelong goal, to be a judge) is told with great honesty and completeness. Her judicial career being still in progress, she chose not to describe it.

I had only the vaguest notion of who Sonia Sotomayor was before I read the book; having read it, I now hold her in the highest regard. She has faced adversity (a diagnosis of Type I diabetes as a young child; poverty; parents who did not get along, and a father who eventually left) but prevailed due to her own hard work and her open, probing mind. She could be the poster child for the Encyclopedia Britannica, having educated herself far beyond what she was taught in school by reading the home set her mother scrimped and saved to purchase for Sonia and her brother. She is a role model for every struggling student who overcomes linguistic differences to learn to write clearly and forcefully and who learns to think critically and argue a point, rather than just to regurgitate memorized facts. She writes candidly of her marriage and divorce to her childhood sweetheart, and of her acceptance of her single state and childlessness. Having succeeded in a legal career as a Latina woman “from the projects”, she has experienced discrimination and prejudice but has never allowed them to stand in the way of her desire to seek justice for others. Her story is truly an inspiration. I loved this book.

 

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Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein–Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists that Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe

Posted by nliakos on August 25, 2019

by Mario Livio (Simon & Schuster 2013)

I’m a little confused by the title of this book. It is about mistakes made by great scientists, but it was the scientists who were brilliant, not the mistakes. And I don’t see how the mistakes changed our understanding of anything. They were just mistakes. Scientists are human beings, after all; they do make mistakes. Isn’t that how the scientific method works? Scientists learn from their mistakes. In some cases, maybe they didn’t, because they died before the knowledge they would have needed not to make the mistake became available.

Anyway, that’s just the title. The book is pretty clear that it’s about mistaken ideas of various scientific heroes:

  • Charles Darwin, who failed to take into account Gregor Mendel’s ideas about heredity (of which he was apparently unaware, and according to Livio, incapable of understanding the mathematics involved in any case). He “made do” with the wrong concept of “blending heredity”, even though he was not satisfied with it.
  • Sir Charles Thomson (Lord Kelvin), who believed that the Earth could not possibly be as old as geologists of the time claimed it was, and he stuck to that story until the end of his life, even though his own calculations were pretty effectively disproved by then.
  • Linus Pauling, whose faith in his “alpha-helix” model of DNA led him to reject the double-helix model of Francis Crick and James Watson, which turned out to be the correct one. One reason for this was that he never saw Rosalind Franklin’s “photograph 51”, which revealed the double-helix quite clearly. Also, he stubbornly ignore the fact that his nucleic acid molecule wasn’t even an acid, revealing a “disregard for some of the basic rules of chemistry”.
  • Fred Hoyle, who supported the concept of a steady state universe over the Big Bang Theory which is now I think universally accepted. Again, a lack of exposure to the thinking of another scientist, in this case the Belgian cosmologist Georges Lemaître, who had the misfortune to publish a seminal paper in an obscure Belgian journal. Had Hoyle been aware of Lemaître’s paper, he ostensibly would not have made the error that he made. Again, a lack of crucial knowledge resulted in a mistake.
  • Albert Einstein, who added a “cosmological constant” (Λ) to his Theory of General Relativity, then rejected it as unnecessary, while physicists around the world refused to allow it to die a natural death.

What struck me the most while reading the stories of these scientists and their mistaken ideas was how little scientists work in a vacuum. Rather, they are constantly in touch with one another, using the ideas and calculations of others to inform their own. I knew this in the abstract, but Livio’s book provides countless examples of interactions among scientists without which fundamental scientific ideas would likely never have been conceived, and several of the “blunders” were caused by a missed interaction: a paper not read, a photograph not viewed.

Livio makes a valiant attempt to explain the science to a lay person, but I still found a lot of it incomprehensible. This is not the author’s fault; the concepts (in biology, chemistry, physics, cosmology, and geology) are difficult, and I don’t have even a basic grounding in them. (Well, I took high school biology and an introductory geology class in college, so I understood those a bit better, but the physics, astrophysics, and chemistry had me flummoxed.)

He also speculates about why these brilliant scientists made the mistakes they made, whether due to denial, lack of information, over-confidence, reluctance to embrace something new, or sheer stubbornness.

The book is well-researched and interesting (to the extent that I could understand it), although not a page-turner.

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