28 December, 2009

An Early Review!

A Marvelous Hundred Square Miles: Black Hills Tourism, 1880-1941

Suzanne Barta Julin

This is the one thousandth book i have read and recorded since i started writing these reviews almost eleven years ago. In some ways that is quite an impressive milestone; in others, it really doesn't seem to mean much at all, in that it is less than a hundred books a year, and i would have guessed i read more than that, and the writing is of a patchy quality and quantity; of course, it is designed to please no one but myself, and originally planned just to provide an aide-memoire since i kept on forgetting if i had read something previously. That being said, what about this book, which i must write a review for, as it was a gift from the publisher under Librarything’s Early Reviewers programme, and one of the (very loose) conditions for that is that a review be written.

The book has a very limited scope, being focussed solely on the Black Hills area of South Dakota before the USA’s entrance into the Second World War; with such a narrow focus it is curious that there is a simple assumption that the reader knows about the area of interest, many of the personalities, the specialised knowledge that ought to be explained before beginning the history. To that end, a map of the Black Hills would have been useful, locating them within the United States; there is a small and not terribly good map showing the location within South Dakota and Wyoming, and placing some of the points of interest within the Hills, the eponymous hundred square mile, but i found it curiously unuseful as a reference, being little more than blobs of colour with a few circles and squiggles as towns and roads. One may argue, saying that any map could be described that way; i merely point to the difference between these two and any production of the Ordnance Survey.

Unfortunately, the quality of writing seems to be of a similar calibre, giving the information promised in the subtitle, but with little of the flair or style which a skilled historical author might have brought to it. (Disclosure: The book may be suffering by comparison, as i am also currently reading Frank Stenton’s volume of the Oxford History of England, Anglo-Saxon England, which is brilliant.) The truth is that Julin gives information, and quite a lot of it, but seems to find it difficult to put that information into any context, other than that she went on holiday in the Black Hills as a child and vowed to write about them one day. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book to me was the recounting of Calvin Coolidge’s holiday in South Dakota in 1927; but that oughtn’t have been the case.

16 December, 2009

Children's book

How the Loon Lost her Voice

Anne Cameron

Funny. Had i been asked, i would have said that i had read this book, until i picked it up to enter it on the list of books we own and realised i hadn't. So i did. Short, a retelling of what appears to be a First Nations (to be Canadian PC) legend retold for children, it is sweet and friendly. I liked it; i have always been pleased with stories that hook into reality cleverly, and this does by explaining why ravens like shiny stuff, why loons are almost silent, why stags' antlers fall off annually. The artwork is lovely; reminiscent of West Coast Indian artwork, but not copied from it at all, it adds a dimension to the story nicely. And this must stop, or be longer than the book.

18 October, 2009

Odds & Evens...and Five.

Following on, then, from thinking about treven, trod, and trud numbers, i have been thinking about odd and even ones. And realised something a bit, well, odd.

An even number, of course, is a whole number that is divisible by two exactly, with no remainder. Obviously, an odd one is one of the rest, leaving a remainder of one. It is easy to tell an odd number from an even one, as they always end in 1, 3, 5, 7, or 9; in addition, any number which ends with one of those digits is also odd, which is not quite saying the same thing. The reverse is, of course, also true: All even numbers end in 0, 2, 4, 6, or 8.

Except...except this is only true for as long as we use base ten. Let's switch for a second to base five, that is we can use only the first five digits (counting from zero) to represent numbers. We count this way in base five: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 20 (that's zero to ten). In this system, while the same definition of odd and even apply (divisibility by two), the representation is different. The even numbers are 0, 2, 4, 11, 13, 20 (that's zero, two, four, six, eight, ten). Evidently, in base five, the sum of the digits can be used to tell if a number is odd or even. Or, to be more precise, because it's all i've really shown here, the sum of the last two digits of a base five number shows if the number is even.

What about treven numbers, then? Is there an easy way in base five representation to tell if a number is treven, trod or trud? Well, the three times table, base five, is 3, 11, 14, 22, 30, 33, 41, 44.... I may be mistaken, but i don't see an obvious method. Why not? What is it about base ten which makes it work for three, but not base five? What numbers might it work for, base five? And what about other bases? Oh, so many questions, and all of them beyond me.

14 October, 2009


Hmm, well tried watching a film recently that i had to give up on. Really annoying, too, because it was an excellent book, Children of Men  by P.D. James. Chenowyth talked about the film when she visited, so we rented it to watch with her. Goodness, what a waste of time.

What is wrong with directors who make films ~ and are apparently proud of it ~ which don’t entertain? Why in the world do they keep having money thrown at them by studios? And, for goodness sake, what am i missing, why do audiences continue to watch their films?

This man, Alfonso Cuarón, can obviously make good films, because he made the third of the Harry Potter series, which was perhaps the best of the bunch so far. Certainly he had a different vision of Hogwarts and the world of wizardry than the preceding director. It was, however, an acceptable vision, reasonably close to the books, and at least as well received, as i recall, as those of the “family friendly” director of the first two, Chris Columbus. What, then, went wrong with Children of Men?

Well, let's see. Part of it is my great frustration with directors who hide facts, especially plot details, forcing the audience to work hard at understanding what is going on. Another part is the fallacy that they can fall into of thinking that their primary purpose is to make great art, and using special tricks and techniques is an essential point on the path to art. A third part, though lesser and subject to a different complaint, is the changing of perfectly good books' plots and/or characters to make a film.

First, then, the hiding of plot details. There are valid reasons, i suppose, to keep certain things hidden ~ in a detective mystery, for example, you don't want to know before the point of revelation who the murderer is. In the average film, however, the audience needs to be able to follow the plot in order to understand what is happening, let alone why it is happening. In Children of Men there were too many scenes, too early in the film, when it was not clear what was happening, nor why. I felt lost and confused, which are not good feelings, not what i would expect a director to be aiming to induce in me.

Second, changing plots and characters, sometimes (though not in the case of Children of Men, i admit) so greatly that there is nothing in common with the original book except the title. If they enjoyed the book in the first place enough to want to make a film, for heaven’s sake, why not make a film of what they enjoyed?

Third, though perhaps first in terms of cause and effect, is the desire to make “art” and the (perceived) necessity to therefore be complicated and difficult to understand. In my opinion, admittedly an uninformed one, but i hold to my right to hold it, is that art develops out of the real that a creator produces, and the real comes from his (or her, remember 'his' is an inclusive word) desire to communicate something with his audience, viewer, reader. A true creator, maker, poet from the Greek ποιητης, is one whose first concern is making, and a long way second is to be an Artist. The problem then arises when you have a film director or a painter whose first desire is to make “Art”, because they lose the focus on communication, and thus lose touch with their prospective audience. And i find very little tolerance in myself for such pretensions, so looking at a crucifix in urine, for example, i see no attempt to communicate but simply pretension by the maker, and i am gone. The same is true with a film that has forgotten that i need to be brought into it, to be communicated with, to be, almost, wooed until i am hooked. Push pretentiousness at me before i'm committed, and i have no desire to stay. And won’t; i still neither know nor care how Children of Men ends.

08 October, 2009


So, i'd like to offer three new words ~ new to me, at any rate; probably someone has previously used and defined them ~ which the language seems to lack. They are formed along the lines of odd and even, as you'll see: They are treven (pronounced 'tree-vən), trod, and trud. I define them like this: A number which is perfectly divided by three (i.e., with no remainder) is treven; a number which, when divided by three leaves a remainder of one is trod; obviously, a number which divided by three gives a remainder of two is trud. (As a mnemonic, a trod number is one over a treven number, a trud number is one under.) As i say, these, or others with similar meanings, may well have been created and used for years, by mathematicians if no one else, but i have not come across them, and found the need for them in thinking about some ideas today.

Everyone knows that a number divisible by three has digits that add to three or to another number divisible by three. For example, 345 is evenly divisible by three because 3+4+5=12 and 12 is divisible by three because 1+2=3. Thus it is clear that a number is treven if its digits add to 3 or 6 or 9 or any other treven number.

So i wondered, is there a way to tell, if a number is not treven, is it trod or trud? Well, let's look at a few examples. 749÷3=249 remainder 2; it is trud, and 7+4+9=20, which is a trud number, and 2+0=2, which is also trud. 157942=52647 remainder 1; it is trod, and 1+5+7+9+4+2=28, a trod number, and 2+8=10, also a trod number. 6847004 is trud; 6+8+4+7+4=29, which is also trud; 2+9=11, trud again, and 1+1=2, also trud.

There are seven example numbers (749, 20, 157942, 28, 6847004, 29, 11) seeming to follow a pattern which suggests itself: Just as a treven number's digits add to a treven number, a trod number's digits will add to a trod number, and those of a trud number to a trud number. A lovely, clear pattern, something i love to find in numbers. But, along the lines of single swallows and summer, four numbers do not a law make. Therefore, i need someone clever to tell me, is this a known law? And, more importantly, why does it work?

15 August, 2009

'Nother Early Review

Blest Atheist
Elizabeth Mahlou

Difficult review to start writing. I wanted to like this book, for a couple of reasons: One, it was a freebie, an Early Reviewers copy through Librarything, and when i'm given something my tendency & desire is to like it; two, i like the theme, an atheist who ends up forced to accept God's existence and presence in the world. Trouble is, i found it hard to like it, though it has very definitely got good points.

One of my problems, to be perfectly fair, was of my own making. It has taken me several months ~ at least four ~ to finish the book, and that is because i lost it twice: “Tidied” and put away, i had no idea where to find it, and nor did anyone else apparently. That makes it a bit more difficult to keep focussed on a book, its characters, its themes. I am fairly confident, however, in mine ability to hold books in my mind for lengths of time exceeding that which i took here; Crime and Punishment, for example, i held as a whole, though it is much bigger and more complex, for the stretch it took me to complete it.

A second problem i found was a lack of focus in Mahlou: She uses one story in the first part, that of a Siberian boy she takes under her wing to bring to America for healing, as a framework for the whole of her life up until she left atheism, but it is, in some ways, an unfortunate choice, as too much has to be told outside the frame, and the effort to reënter it is rather more than i could easily manage. I felt as though i was being pulled and pushed to fit her narrative desire, and being bullied is almost never a good position to be a reader in. It was almost as though, once she had decided to use Shura's story, she was unwilling to let it go, even when it was not helping the narrative, hindered it, even. Admittedly, it was a good story for her purposes, in that is consists of a whole lot of coincidences, which Mahlou uses to imply the existence of God ~ often through a sly sarcasm which i found a little jarring. I have to confess, until the end of the first part, which is easily the majority of the book, i was completely unconvinced about Mahlou's conviction that God exists, as her proofs really seemed to be just the series of coincidences i already mentioned.

The second part is much more convincing and, to be completely honest, far more interesting; it's hard to see, really, why she gave it comparatively so little space in the book. In this section, Mahlou has a total, ongoing, and intimate experience of the presence of a personal God. This is the heart of the book; this is what is compelling about her story; this is what ought to have been the majority of the book, perhaps with her previous lifestory abbreviated to set the scene. All in all, then, i'm afraid that i found this an unsatisfying book.

28 July, 2009


How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World
by Francis Wheen

     Rather an annoying book, at times, this. Not, i fear, in the way that Wheen probably intended for it to be annoying to certain people (those at whom he is poking fun), but annoying in the way that he has written it. The design is to explore how people turn off their minds and fall for all sorts of evident nonsense for assorted reasons, especially because it makes them feel good or meets some ulterior motive.
    There are several problems with the book; one is that i don’t think Wheen is quite certain of what he wants to do ~ or, rather, he is certain of his ultimate goal, but not so sure of the means he ought to use to attain that goal. He would like to destroy the foolishness of other people’s minds and obsessions; he is not sure whether ’tis best done through humour or argument, and thus he uses both, and neither to its full effect. Jeremy Paxman has made his choice: On the cover his one word review is quoted, “Hilarious”; evidently he has been able to overlook the parts of the book which are not hilarity-provoking, which do not even approach the humorous, and focus on what amused him. I cannot. Interestingly, neither did the writer of the back cover blurb, who calls it both “hilarious and [a] gloriously impassioned polemic”.
    Another problem i have is that Wheen is not, in the passionately polemical sections, an especially good arguer. One simple example suffices: Wheen gives a quote often attributed to Chesterton which he then argues against. First, though something like the quote as he gives it is universally attributed to GKC (though no one seems to know from where), Wheen uses a form somewhat different from that usually given ~ “When a man ceases to believe in God he does not believe in nothing; he believes in anything” as opposed to something like “The danger when a man ceases to believe in God is not that he will believe nothing, but that he may believe anything” ~ now while with an untraceable quote one may be free to use any form, the fact that the one Wheen selects is different from and has a slightly different meaning to the usual form is significant. More significant is that he then equates anything and nothing which, even in the form he has quoted, clearly are not the same thing. He then suggests that the aphorism would be better phrased as, “If you believe in God, you’ll believe anything” which is stupid on so many levels that i find it hard even to start to criticise it.
    A third problem i found is that, despite my frustration with both Wheen’s style(s) and argumentative capacity, i agree strongly with what he wants to say. At the time, for example, i found the whole Princess Diana fiasco an embarrassing (even for a Briton in America) reflection on mindless emotionalism; much of the chapter entitled “Us and Them” which ponders the younger President Bush’s world-view as an example of much of America’s, is highly relevant to the way the nations and peoples of the world views themselves and each other. That is frustrating, a problem for me, because i agree with Wheen, and find myself asking why he couldn’t have done better on such important and interesting issues.

12 July, 2009

Early Review

Seth Bullock; Black Hills Lawman


David A. Wolff

A fascinating book about a minor character of American history. I suppose that he is of interest to most people because there is a character based on him in Deadwood, a television series of a few years ago; i dare say that is even the stimulous behind Wolff's writing of the book ~ that, and correcting the errors of the series' portrayal. Since i, however, had never heard of the programme, certainly never seen it, this book was my first (and only) introduction to Seth Bullock, and for that purpose it serves admirably.

Wolff has evidently done an immense amount of research; the notes are thirty pages of the two hundred page book, and the bibliography is another eight, and i have no fault to find with his scholarship. In fact, i'm not certain, at this point, that i find fault at all with the book, save perhaps, that the latter years of Bullock's life seem rather skimmed over, when compared with the detail given on the earlier, pre-Roosevelt shall we say, ones. This might be a reflection of the sources available, i suppose, though i suspect that if more was to be found on the man's earlier, less public life, that would be quite unusual in historiography. I would rather guess that it is the influence, perhaps without Wolff realising it, of the programme mentioned above, which i imagine focusses more on the Wild West aspects of the town of Deadwood and its leading citizens. Still, this is a minor complaint in a good book, and one i really didn't intend to focus upon.

The main point, as far as i am concerned, is that i have read a fascinating book about a man i never knew existed, about a time of history i really didn't (and don't) know very well, other than the basic “cowboys and indians” ideas that one obtains by osmosis from childhood, and now i have a slightly better feeling for the people of the Wild West. Not all of them came are portrayed by Wolff as real people, but there is enough life in the biography for the reader to grasp a flavour of it, and to be reminded that, yes they were actual people, the miners, the cowboys, the sheriffs, the hardware store owners, and all the rest, not just myths or characters on television and the silver screen. And that realisation of the reality of history is, in my opinion, sufficient justification for any history book to be called a success.

31 March, 2009

Another Early Review

Mother Teresa's Fire


Joseph Langford

A very interesting exploration of what it was that made Mother Teresa Mother Teresa. The short answer is that she had an encounter with God one day, in which she was given a new understanding of one of Jesus' words on the cross (“I thirst”), an understanding that she was able to keep with her, meditating on it almost continually it seems, for the rest of her life, such that she moved out of “regular” Christianity into the realm of becoming one of the (from our perspective) chosen saints. Very briefly, Sister Teresa was travelling for some religious or vocational purpose on a train in India, when God showed her that in Jesus statement he was not making a physical statement primarily (though surely it was also true), but was pointing out that the reason for his whole life and current suffering in crucifixion was that he thirsts for love. This is not a new insight; many of the saints, as well as theologians, have made it previously. The novelty in Sister Teresa's experience, that which influenced her entire life so completely as to make her Mother Teresa, was that she found a way to daily meditate on that statement, on the “thirst” of Jesus for people's love, her love specifically, that her character was transformed and deepened.

Langford, a priest who knew and worked on some level with Mother Teresa, has written this book with, i should guess, two purposes: First, he preserves her insight and experience, which is valuable in itself, for historical/biographical reasons; second, and surely more important, he wants to make that insight available to all Christians, in order that all may grasp Jesus' thirst for love and respond to it as she did. To that, latter, end two guided meditations are included, one on Jesus' thirst specifically, one based on the Woman at the Well episode from John 4 (curiously, the former is included twice: Once in the text, once as an appendix; i suppose its importance is such that it must not be missed or lost in the body of the book).

So, overall, was this a good effort, worth my reading time? To be sure. To be honest, it is a rare book i can't find some value in (three i can think of in the past ten years, out of a total of just under one thousand, that i haven't been able to finish), but not that “basic value” alone adheres to this book; i found the meditations useful, as an exploration of that love i need in my life at the moment, along with the explanation of Mother Teresa's powerful will and determination to daily recreate in herself the mystic experience she had. There were points i disliked, to be clear, about the book and Langford's writing: One is the tendency which he has, perhaps as a priest in the Roman Church, to beatify Mother Teresa and make everything that she said and did especially holy and valuable. This is another expression of the same behaviour as that of Benedict, who appears to be set on “fast-tracking” John Paul II into sainthood, and i find it cheapens, rather than enhances, the subject. A second feature of the book i found less valuable was the insistence, to the point of including a complete appendix (there are four) of quotations from saints, spiritual writers, and doctors of the Church, on the orthodoxy of the insight into Jesus' thirst; i fear that here Langford has allowed himself to be drawn aside into the question of whether Mother Teresa should be declared a Doctor of the Church, and it is clear on which side he falls. These caveats to one side, however, i enjoyed this book. Yes.

23 March, 2009

New Review

They Came to Baghdad


Agatha Christie

Rather a long review for a book that might be thought to be a bit of a light-weight.  Well, i enjoyed it.

Quite a strange experience here. I picked this volume up in the second-hand place recently assuming i had read it, because i think that i've read all of Christie's works ~ at least, all the fiction published under her real name. When i read the first paragraph, though, i didn't remember it, so i bought the thing, fully expecting to start remembering when i started reading. I didn't. In fact, i finished it this morning still not sure whether i have read it previously or not. There is one moment, one quick event, right towards the end of the book, which made me think that i had read it before, but even there, looking back at it, i'm not sure. What about it, then, so that i don't have this curious experience again?

It is a spy novel, of a sort, a thriller, rather than a murder mystery. There are none of Christie's regular or even semi-regular characters; the entire cast is new, though a number of the types are those she has used previously. The plot itself is the rather hackneyed Cold War standard of a world stumbling towards global catastrophe, urged by a group planning to use the disaster for their own nefarious purposes. This time, to be sure, the conspirators are ~ or think they are ~ the men of the future, the youth planning a better world, rather than the military-industrial complex so frequently used; they are, however, much of a part with the armaments crew, just as the good guys are fairly stock secret service types, and the protagonist a typical Christie heroine.

All this is not to say, however, that i didn't enjoy reading it; i did. Why? Partly from the joy of having worked out beforehand a portion of what was to follow, including the identity of one of the leaders of the plot ~ something that often doesn't happen with me and a Christie that i've forgotten (or not previously read). Partly, also, from the pleasure i took in the descriptions Christie gave of her villain: She calls him Lucifer, in what is the most explicit use of Biblical imagery and quotation that i remember in her works, and dwells rather nicely on the way that his pride appears on his visage for all (whose eyes have been opened) to see. She has taken things from the Bible in other books, i immediately remember a cat called Maher-shalal-hash-baz, and Miss Marple and other elderly ladies often speak of the divine in vague ways, but this is the only real reference i recall to the deep Biblical knowledge which all people of that generation, and several on either side of it, had, and i like it.

03 January, 2009

Couple of Reviews

It's been so long, perhaps i ought to simply give up; but, maybe while i think about that, here are a pair of reviews of fairly recently read books.

Sophie’s World
Jostein Gaarder
This is the first book i have read knowing that it was on the list out of 501Must-Read Books ~ in fact, i read it because it was on that list: It wasn't long after i had finished and written the review for the list that Lynne came home with a second-hand copy of Sophie's World, and i decided that at some point fairly soon i would have to read it. So i have. The question, then, for me is, Is it a must-read book? Regretfully, i have to answer, No, it is not. Clearly, for me, anyway, it is not a wish-i-hadn't book, either. No, i'm glad i've now read it; i'm just not certain i'd recommend it completely to most people. Certainly not, considering the age of the protagonists (they're just coming up to their fifteenth birthdays), to the probably target audience. What are my problems with it?

Well, it starts out very abruptly (an odd thing to say, because in some sense all books obviously do) with an almost immediate plunge into the purpose of philosophy and the thoughts of the pre-Socratics. We are really given no time to get to know, let alone to begin to like, the first of two protagonists, Sophie, a Norwegian teenager; and that is, maybe, best, because she is actually not very likeable at all, i found, functioning at first, and indeed most of the way through the book, merely as a peg to hang the philosophy lessons on ~ she is drawn into philosophy by a mysterious, unknown at first, teacher who would run the risk in today's society of being labelled (unfairly, i hasten to add) a possible pædophile. Sophie is disobedient, not especially kind, but like the proverbial sponge soaks up everything she is offered, and is able to remember and review all the philosophers and philosophies she has run across at a moment's notice, making surprising correlations as she does so ~ quite unlike most teenagers i have run into.

The story develops somewhat, as Sophie starts getting messages for a girl she doesn't know, and the mystery is apparently solved as we learn that Sophie and her teacher are characters in a book, written by her father for this unknown Hilde, the other protagonist. At this point the book starts playing the standard games of what is real and what is not that authors like to be clever about, and the whole primary story (Sophie's) degenerates into a party which reminds me of nothing so much as Petronius' Satyricon, as Sophie and her teacher attempt to escape from their book. The other story also turns absurd, and i have to confess that i lost a certain amount of interest ~ never overly strong. The strength of the book is that part which will be most uninteresting to the audience, the philosophy lessons given to Sophie; they are interesting, and clearly Gaarder put a great deal of effort into them; i wish he had also worked that much on the surrounding stories.

James Joyce's “Ulysses”; A Study
Stuart Gilbert
In a curious twist i bought my copy of this book at the same time and place as a copy of The Odyssey which i am now reading aloud with Chenowyth. I can’t remember now if the one purchase was influenced by the other or if, which is more likely, i saw both and wanted both. At any rate, whatever the cause, i bought this and read it over the next couple of weeks.

The problem, of course, is that i have not read Ulysses completely for twentyfive years, about, and none of it for three years, since it’s that long since i saw our copy, currently still boxed in the USA. Clearly, i will one day have to reread Joyce with this book sitting nearby, since it is painfully obvious just how much i either have forgotten or never understood in the first place ~ probably the former, since i did read it in a literature class during which, one would hope, the latter would not happen. I wonder, incidentally, how much Joycean scholarship has travelled on past Gilbert in the past seventy years (this is a 1960 reprint by Faber and Faber of a 1952 reissue of the 1930 edition); perhaps a long way but, then again, perhaps not, as Gilbert did have the benefit of Joyce himself in writing his Study.

So much is packed in here that it is hard to focus my memory on any one part and “review” it, recall it in writing, my reaction to it, as i try to do in these little snippets; one of the benefits, the points i enjoyed, about it is that that Gilbert does quote quite extensively from Joyce, so although i haven’t read it for so long, i am reminded of various parts of Ulysses, which is a definite plus. On the opposite side, however, Gilbert has the habit i know i have mentioned in other authors too of assuming that my Latin, Greek, French, and German are the equal of his; yes, it is a compliment, but not accurate now, if it ever was, and it causes a certain amount of loss to his argument, as one of his primary sources is a French examination of the Odyssey as an Hellenic interpretation of Phœnecian geography and stories. Bother.