Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A bunch of books...

Do books come in bunches?  Or are they in piles?  Groups?  Heaps?  Anyway, here is a couple of short reviews of books I have read in the last couple of months, from the great to the not so great.  So, the best first.

Tracy Chevalier: Remarkable Creatures.  What a great novel!  It is in the early half of the 1800s and a poor girl gets her living from discovering and selling fossils from the beach by her home village along England's southern coast.  An unmarried woman and her sisters move to town, mostly because it is a cheaper place to live than London, and she befriends the girl and learns about and collects fossil.

They discovered the most amazing fossils of the time, fossils that were bought and transported to natural history museums in London, Paris, Oxford, and so on.  These fossils were fodder for a lot of discussion in this pre-Darwin era, and fueled scientific thinking.  Plesiosaurs, ichtyosaurs...  However, the women didn't get proper credit, since they were women and fossil collecting and science were unwomanly activities. A few of the contemporary paleontologists gave them proper respect and credit, but the divide was enourmous, especially for Mary who started out illiterate and extremely poor.  For example, women were not allowed even into the meetings of the British Geological Society.

The young woman's name was Mary Anning, and her older friend was Elizabeth Philpot, who specialized in fish fossils.  This book tells the story from their viewpoint.  The general story is true, but it is a novel so gaps have been filled in with possible scenarios.  It is a great book that not only describes natural history and its discoveries in historical context, but also highlights and make the inequality come to life. And that inequality is not just between genders but also between classes and religious groups. I highly recommend this book. So, 5 stars.
Sandra Newman: The Western Lit Survival Kit.  This book is fantastic! Well, near fantastic, because sometimes she goes overboard. I read the whole thing straight through, laughed, smiled and took note on which classics that I wanted to read and which ones I never need to open. Actually, I don't feel the need to read any of the classics after reading this book, I have too many books already here at home waiting to be opened.  Probably around a 100 unread books... and only a few of them are classics.  Like Marco Polo... I want to read that one, but I digress. 

Her style is out of this world funny and knowledgeable. Ah, we need to let high school students have a look in this book! The book is exactly what the subtitle says "An irreverent guide to the classics, from Homer to Faulkner". Each classic book is graded on Importance, Difficulty, and Fun, and she of course admits that that is a very subjective scale she has graded these on. She is not always trying to be dead serious, which is what I like, but some other bibliophiles that have reviewed this book have a problem with that. 4 stars.

Jill Ker Conway has written three memoirs about her life as a child in Australia, student, emigrant to the US to study history at Harvard, her scholarly work on women in history, her years as a Dean at a Canadian university, and then as the President of the small all-female Smith College in Massachusetts.  I reviewed the two first books here on this blog, and they are fantastic and refreshing. 

The writing is exquisite, intellectually so rewarding, and she makes you think.  There was much more anti-woman stuff going on in academia going on back then, but some things are still the same.  And many things that we struggle with today have not changed at all, and they are not based on gender.  People unwilling to change, people that want too much change, the will to look beyond what you have learned in the class, the willingness to discuss without arguing, and so on.

I read her third book recently, A Woman's Education, which is smaller and less strictly a memoir in a way.  It describes her years at Smith College, and goes in depth into how it was to administer a small independent school.  It wasn't all easy, not at all.  What infuses the book is her caring about students and their education, on a very deep, serious level. 

I admire her, she has been a big inspiration in my recent work.  She tries to change the view of some older professors, make reformations in educational thinking, and is seen as a rebellion, but it is how things have to be done.  The world changes and so do we and so do how we do things.  This book I am keeping! 5 stars.

Last book in the pile.... Daniel Beard's The Field and Forest Handy Book. This is a reprint of a 1912 book about camping, scouting, outdoor recreation, hiking, etc., and includes great illustrations, which I think were made by the author as well. Daniel Beard was a co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, and boy, is this a boyish book.  Girls do not exist.  At least not outside any house.  The book is really a time capsule of how things were back then.

There are many useful skills described in here, how to make a raised platform for a place to sleep in a swamp, how to make a logomaran so you can drift down a river (never ever use fresh wood, or you might sink), how to make fire without matches, how to make a play house, what to eat in camp, and that you should bring a flour sack to make into a pillow case.  He even have instructions on how to build a fire engine. Oh, and even how to make a herbarium is in here.

This book is not really about true survival based on old traditional knowledge like the book Wildwood Wisdom (reviewed on this blog), but about fun wild stuff boys can do outside.  Some certainly has survival tones to it, but some is more silly, like How to Play Pirate and How to Make an Aquarium.  Under Novel Food Used in Camp, he writes: "...Wolf meat is said to be sticky and disagreeable.".  Times were different back then.

Grade?  I am not sure.  Maybe 2-3 stars, but it has certainly historic interest and I would have loved this book when I was 12-14 years old. I learned a lot of useful information that I probably won't have much use for in my life, but that is OK. One day it might come in very handy.

OK, that is it for this batch.  If you read all the way to down here, good for you!  Now you know more than before :)

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