• A.Word.A.Day

    Check out my favorite daily treat, A.Word.A.Day : The magic and music of words.

West Texas bicycle adventures 2014

As you know, gentle reader, I occasionally digress from books to write about bicycles, travel, or other causes for personal celebration. Today is one of those days. If you just want the books, c’mon back tomorrow.

Last week Husband and I left town with a group of friends, as we try to do every February, headed for the Big Bend area of southwest Texas. Unfortunately I have missed the last two years: in 2012 I had just had knee surgery and couldn’t ride, and in 2013 I chose to go to Australia to see friends instead. So I last wrote about Terlingua and Lajitas back in 2011. It was so very good to be back in the big desert: big land, big sky, amazing great mountain bike trails, some of our very closest friends, and not much to do except slow down and enjoy ourselves. I thought I’d share a quick synopsis here with you, accompanied by some great photos. These were all taken by either me or my friends who I trust won’t mind. Thanks, friends. (As always, click to enlarge.)

On day 1, we arrived in Terlingua, checked into the cabins our team rents each year, and started packing up. Four of us (Husband, Holt, Damian and myself) were off for an overnight bikepack – camping out and self-supported, in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

fully loaded

fully loaded

Day 1′s riding was pretty consistently up, up, up; we did a lot of hike-a-bike:

a rare moment in which I simultaneously push my bike and SMILE.

a rare moment in which I simultaneously push my bike and SMILE.

there was a lot of this.

there was a lot of this.

Just a little wildlife:

1601985_10201951626289293_773588372_o

Although not as much as one could wish. We saw bobcat prints, and I think I heard the guys say they heard coyotes yipping at night. (I am a good sleeper.) One year Husband and I saw a mule deer; not this year.

I had some issues with my rack, which afforded us the chance for this dusky repair job at a fortuitously placed picnic table up in the middle of the high nowhere:

lovely view, no?

lovely view, no?

Resulting in this repair (shot taken in the light of day 2):

1658240_10201951674410496_1469053492_o

But it all worked out fine. And what a sunset!!

beautiful picture by my handsome Husband. (recommended: click to enlarge.)

beautiful picture by my handsome Husband. (recommended: click to enlarge.)

Settling in for the night…

1656295_10202001525931983_325802480_n

We ate, had a few sips of whiskey, and fell asleep under the mixed blessing of a very bright full moon that obscured the outrageous stars visible out there where the light pollution is minimal.

The next morning we got a leisurely start on a much more leisurely ride, generally downhill and starring views like this one.

1017647_10203113192019575_850379393_n

Although day 1 had been challenging, I think we were all very pleased with our self-sufficient journey and solitude. I especially had a difficult time with all the hike-a-bike, which aggravated both my feet and my bad knee (and all that pushing of the very heavy bike bothered my lower back) – but I was with a small group of good friends & good people. They helped me out and encouraged me, and never made me feel like I was a bother. Thanks, guys.

what a crew.

what a crew.

On day 3, we did a much lighter-weight ride, with more friends, from the cabin – no gear required.

Husband conquers the ruins

Husband conquers the ruins

And at night, the whole pack of us enjoyed each other’s company.

1620356_10203113196619690_1638051300_n

I mean, really. Look at these views from the porch of the cabin complex.

1601793_10203113195779669_346094371_o

photo 2

It was another great trip, and our love of these parts is confirmed and strengthened once again.

1798901_10203049876315944_1176066982_o

Valentine’s Day in book history

As I’ve done before, I figured I’d note today’s (consumerist, contrived) holiday with some book history, courtesy of A Reader’s Book of Days.reader's book of days

Born today:

Frank Harris (My Live and Loves), Galway, Ireland, 1856. I do not know this man. But I have been to Galway.

Carl Bernstein (All the President’s Men), Washington, D.C., 1944. I know of this one, of course, though I haven’t read the book. Interesting to know he was (is?) a D.C. native.

Died today:

1975: P.G. Wodehouse (The Code of the Woosters and lots of wonderful others, of course), Southampton, NY, at age 93. More’s the pity; would that he had lived to write more and more of those funny books.

2010: Dick Francis (Dead Cert, all those horse racing mysteries), Grand Cayman Island, at age 89. I’ve read none of his books, but I know his fans; I was working in a library where his books were popular at the time of his death, and I remember.

Additionally, I find it amusing that Nabokov features again on Valentine’s Day, since he came up on New Year’s as well!

In 1932, Vladimir Nabokov, in goal as always, played his first match with a new Russian émigré soccer team in Berlin. A few weeks later, after he was knocked unconscious by a team of factory workers, his wife, Vera, put an end to his soccer career.

[Oops.] I am a soccer fan and former player – and Nabokov fan, naturally – so I enjoy this factoid.

And,

1935: Samuel Beckett wrote to Tom McGreevy on Jane Austen, “Now I am reading the divine Jane. I think she has much to teach me.”

Well done, Beckett!

And finally, today in Julia’s personal history: we are typically in the desert wonderland of Big Bend National & State Parks & surrounding locales on this day, and this year follows that pattern. Husband and I are playing on our mountain bikes today, but I’ll check in on you upon my return.

I’m glad I picked today for a historical review in miniature; I learned some things. You?

the best of scientific nonfiction

In yesterday’s post, Pops shared with me a list of good fiction-about-science, as presented by author Kirk Smith. As part of that same conversation, Pops asked for my favorite scientific fiction – with “good” science being part of the criteria. Well, unsurprisingly, I didn’t have a lot to offer in that regard. I haven’t tended towards scientific fiction much (nor traditional sci fi); my fiction tends to be mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, or increasingly, fantasy; there is always a variety, but I’ve been short on science. I did come up with a few. But I did far better in recommending some really great nonfiction that is scientific in nature: both “good” science, and well written, enjoyable, accessible, good reading. He asked for those two lists, so I’m happy to share them here.

Some great fiction about science:

By Lisa Genova: Love Anthony and Left Neglected, but especially Still Alice. Genova has degrees in biopsychology and neuroscience (the latter a PhD from Harvard, ahem), so one expects that her novels about women and families, in which someone in the family (usually the woman) suffers a neurological disorder or disease, are scientifically accurate. I love that they are scientifically detailed and yet extraordinarily enjoyable novels, too.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: you can read my review, and also note that Kirk Smith and I both recommend this one; in a nutshell, Kingsolver teaches science in the most charmingly accessible of packages, the one and only Dr. Ovid Byron. You must read this; or better, you must hear the audio, because the accents are amazing. (Read by the author, a woman of many talents.)

Madeline L’Engle’s series: A Wrinkle In Time, A Wind in the Door, etc. I hesitate here, because the science begins in reality and then moves outside it (see: farandolae), so I’m not sure it qualifies. But kids’ books – about science – with a female protagonist. Good stuff.

Some great nonfiction about science:

My review hasn’t published yet, but it will any day now, and I’ll come back and edit this post: A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger is an outstanding, fun, and informative look at the history of botany, really from the birth of botany as a science (relatively recent, since we didn’t think plants were all that important as a subject of study for many centuries). It’s extremely accessible and well written, even funny. One of my recent favorites!

On a Farther Shore, William Souder’s recent biography of Rachel Carson, is for me a classic example of science made reader-friendly and socially important. It doesn’t hurt that I find Carson a fascinating & important figure, and admittedly, this is more biography than science; but I think it qualifies for this list, especially considering Pops’s comments yesterday about the representation of women in literature & science (and literature about science).

Einstein, the biography by Walter Isaacson, was mentioned in Kirk Smith’s talk apparently as being “challenging,” and I wouldn’t disagree entirely, but no knowledge of physics is prerequisite – and I didn’t get all the physics Isaacson described, either, but that was no requirement for enjoying Einstein’s story.

Unfortunately, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot before I really began blogging. (I made a few posts on it early on: here, here, and here, but none qualify as a review.) So I can only say, looking back, that as with On a Farther Shore, science is made not only comprehensible, but oh so important and relevant for our past, present and future; not to mention the glaring & compelling social commentary. This is a great book (and one I gave away for World Book Night a few years ago).

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (my review in parts one and two) is fascinating, varied, lyrical, fun, and whimsical. Both poetry and science. And the oddest chunks of science, too. Do check out some here and here.

River in Ruin by Ray A. March is a loving, informed but readable discussion of exactly what the title says.

Also pre-blog, I read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, and it made a major impact on me. I had only recently recovered from a brain injury (from a bike wreck and yes I was wearing my helmet), and reading this book by a neuroanatomist about her stroke & recovery helped me understand my own brain better. She’s a scientist, so she has the “good” science, but she’s also a human being with a personal story to tell, and she tells it well.

When we talk about science writing, though, **the grand prize** has to go to Hali Felt for Soundings. How did I rate that book only a 9? In my memory, it should be a 10. Again with the added benefit of handling women in science and the special challenges they face, Felt tells the story of Marie Tharp’s life and scientific breakthroughs with sensitivity, insight, and yes, science.

Bonus: just the other day this review posted at Shelf Awareness (by my friend Katie at Cakes, Tea and Dreams). I haven’t read the book, but I think it sounds delightful: Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything, by Amanda Gefter.


That’s all I have today, Pops, but it ought to get you started! I’m pretty sure you’d put McKibben on this list; any others to share? Anybody?

the best of scientific fiction, from Pops

Not to be confused with traditional science fiction (although I have something for you on that topic, as well) – today’s is a quasi-guest post from Pops, who is excited to share about a recent author talk event he attended. The presenter was Kirk Smith, speaking on Lab Lit: Putting Real Science Into Fiction. Pops’s report:

I attended the Lab Lit program tonight. And I signed you up to review a book. Well, sorta. We should talk.

So, to review: Kirk Smith is an old-guy Seattle author with a passion for fiction about “realistic scientists doing realistic science” – ideally where the science is the central story, not ancillary. He has high standards for credibility and likes writers who can really “get inside the head” of scientist-protagonists. Eventually he became frustrated that satisfying examples were so rare, and resolved to write his own version.

This is sort of a special interest of my father’s. He’s been interested in several scientific issues over the last few years, and often disappointed in their presentation by the finest minds in the field – scientific minds being, unfortunately, often unable to communicate what they know clearly to the rest of us. The big exception being Bill McKibben (who I reviewed recently: Oil and Honey). This is a paraphrase of my father – hope I got that about right, Pops.

It was interesting; simply an avid, insightful reader sharing a niche passion; nothing topical like climate change & how to communicate science, though I would have enjoyed that too.

He spent 45 minutes talking knowledgeably about all the books on the attached handout [see below], and 15 minutes reading from & talking about his book (an ode to Einstein, with a female character). He lauded Isaacson’s Einstein, the only overlap I detect with your reviews (you get credit for enjoying a “challenging read!”). He recommends Einstein in Love.

Not true, Pops! I reviewed not only Einstein but also Flight Behavior, which I loved.

[His passion for this niche reminds me of my own for running fiction; of course he reads other forms! I get it.]

You are onto something here. As you said in your first paragraph, Smith “likes writers who can really ‘get inside the head’ of scientist-protagonists,” and I think that’s exactly what you like about running books: sharing an experience with the protagonist, recognizing the unique and awesome thing that is being a runner – or a scientist. Or (to digress), I suspect that Susan Vreeland gets accurately inside the head of an artist, in her Clara and Mr. Tiffany or The Forest Lover, both of which I loved. However, not being much of an artist, I can’t entirely attest.

You’ll see he covered non-fiction and biographies as well as other forms; he also has his own web site where he blogs & reviews, and recommends the LabLit site (by one of the authors) that inspired the terminology. He has corresponded with several of the authors on the list.

I came home with a free UK-only-available copy of The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. One of us is committed to reviewing it by Feb 15, before its spring USA release. Call me.

Of course by the time I called, he had already started reading this book, which is fine because I have plenty of deadlines in the next two weeks without this one (!), which would require cross-country shipping to get to me, too! But I’m next in line for it when he’s done (so I have a more relaxed schedule to read it on), and his review will be cross-posted here when complete. Hooray! Guest reviews!

And for those who are curious about Smith’s reading list – I know I was! I’m sharing here the handout he shared at this book event, with Pops’s annotations on it (how lucky we are), and hoping that the wise and magnanimous Kirk Smith will not consider this a copyright violation too egregious. :-/ Seriously, thank you Kirk for the info; and readers, do check out his website here.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)



An addendum from Pops:

First, I noticed his top three fictions are all by female authors with female protagonists; then he eventually acknowledged the fact himself, in passing; then his reading (of his own novel) revealed the female protagonist in his own novel; and in response to a question explained (superficially I thought) why she is his stand-in for a fictional Einstein; and with a follow up question, finally spoke briefly but incisively about the challenge for girls & women in math & science fields to gain grudging credibility & respect.

So, one wonders: are the women appearing in his list (authors & characters both) a factor of his own selection, or if one did an “objective” survey of the landscape, would we see the same? An outbreak of women expressing a new voice? (In literature, or science, or both?)

Such fodder for future expression!

Such fodder indeed! I have no idea how to answer your questions, of course – possibly Smith could speak to these? (It would have been a great line of questioning to pursue on the spot with the audience! It sounds like he wasn’t anxious to head in this direction – of social commentary – on his own. But I understand how it took a day or two to get these thoughts, and thus this line of questioning, straightened out in your own head.) The pessimist (or realist?) in me doubts that there is a general and widespread trend toward a women’s majority in science & literature! Although for the most part we are increasingly represented, hm? That’s just a guess from me, though.

New Year’s Day in book history

A review of the *book in question is yet to come, but for a quick teaser today…

Born today: in 1879; E.M. Forster, and in 1919, J.D. Salinger. A big birthday for people who go by two leading initials and are well known for their classic works!! And died today: in 2002, Julia Phillips (You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again) and in 2007, Tillie Olsen (Tell Me a Riddle, Silences).

Of the other literary notes assigned to January 1st I am choosing my favorite to share with you:

1947: In a Guide to Your Child’s Development she has purchased for the purpose, Charlotte Haze notes on the twelfth birthday of her daughter, Dolores, that the girl is fifty-seven inches tall and possesses an IQ of 121. She also completes an inventory of the child’s qualities: “aggressive, boisterous, critical, distrustful, impatient, irritable, inquisitive, listless, negativistic (underlined twice) and obstinate.”

(Negativistic, indeed!)

…For Charlotte’s new husband, Humbert Humbert, this list of epithets is “maddening” in its viciousness toward the girl he calls Lolita and claims to love. But he has his own reasons to revolt at the child’s birthdays: after just a few more of them she’ll no longer be a “nymphet,” and soon after that she’ll be – “horror of horrors” – “a ‘college girl.’”

What fun!

reader's book of days*The book in question is A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year, by Tom Nissley, and was a gift from my parents on my most recent visit to see them in the chilly north. I have only flipped through it so far (which is what it’s designed for, obviously), but I will be giving it a closer inspection and writing up a proper review for you at some point this year.

The other thing I will be doing with it is keeping it handy for those few days when I’m scrambling for a blog post! (rubs hands together) Thanks, Mom and Pops, for helping out!

Kingsolver on Knitting and The Interconnectedness of Life

Barbara Kingsolver has captured my heart with The Lacuna and Flight Behavior. Only fitting, then, that she should make such a charming, truthful, and lyrical submission as this to Orion magazine: “Where It Begins”. I can’t decide which is more valuable and valued: her lovely message, which I won’t sully by summarizing, or her lovely writing, for example:

…banish all possibilities, the winter and the summer, the bare feet under the table, the shattered day undone and dregs of old regard and bitter unsettled tea leaves and the words forever jostling ahead of each other in line, queuing up to be written. Especially those. Words that drub, drub, drub at the skull’s concave inner wall. Words that are birds in a linear flock, pelting themselves in ruined fury all night long against the windowpane.

I am so very happy to hear that words are still drub, drub, drubbing at her skull’s inner wall, because I want them out here.

Enjoy. (Thanks, Pops.)

happy holidays

We’re taking the day off. Enjoy.
377546_10100447555506998_1046785753_n

(shamelessly stolen from a friend of mine at a nearby library. great job again, Kate.)

poems & booze

Randomly – or less randomly, following the subject of yesterday’s review – I have something to share with you on this Tuesday morning. At my very favorite bar, there is a poem scrawled in chalk on the wall behind the taps & bottles. This is a fairly literary bar – they have open mic poetry nights and, I believe, book talks as well. One of my favorite things about this bar is how easy it is to show up after work and sit at the bar alone with a very fine beer and a book, and not be bothered – as a woman, not a ubiquitous experience. The bartenders are friendly – or to be clearer, I consider them friends – and other than their occasional company I’m left alone. So today I’ll pass on to you the poem featured at Mongoose vs. Cobra: At The Quinte Hotel by Al Purdy. (I accessed it here, and would note that there are a few slightly different versions floating around out there.)

I am drinking
I am drinking beer with yellow flowers
in underground sunlight
and you can see that I am a sensitive man
and I notice that the bartender is a sensitive man
so I tell him about his beer
I tell him the beer he draws
is half fart and half horse piss
and all wonderful yellow flowers
But the bartender is not quite
so sensitive as I supposed he was
the way he looks at me now
and does not appreciate my exquisite analogy
Over in one corner two guys
are quietly making love
in the brief prelude to infinity
Opposite them a peculiar fight
enables the drinkers to lay aside
their comic books and watch with interest
as I watch with interest
a wiry little man slugs another guy
then tracks him bleeding into the toilet
and slugs him to the floor again
with ugly red flowers on the tile
three minutes later he roosters over
to the table where his drunk friend sits
with another friend and slugs both
of em ass-over-electric-kettle
so I have to walk around
on my way for a piss
Now I am a sensitive man
so I say to him mildly as hell
“You shouldn’ta knocked over that good beer
with them beautiful flowers in it”
So he says “Come on”
So I Come On
like a rabbit with weak kidneys I guess
like a yellow streak charging
on flower power I suppose
& knock the shit outa him & sit on him
(he is just a little guy)
and say reprovingly
“Violence will get you nowhere this time chum
Now you take me
I am a sensitive man
and would you believe I write poems?”
But I could see the doubt in his upside down face
in fact in all the faces
“What kind of poems?”
“Flower poems”
“So tell us a poem”
I got off the little guy reluctantly
for he was comfortable
and told them this poem
They crowded around me with tears
in their eyes and wrung my hands feelingly
for my pockets for
it was a heart-warming moment for Literature
and moved by the demonstrable effect
of great Art and the brotherhood of people I remarked
“-the poem oughta be worth some beer”
It was a mistake of terminology
for silence came
and it was brought home to me in the tavern
that poems will not really buy beer or flowers
or a goddam thing
and I was sad
for I am a sensitive man.

From his book “Poems For All The Annettes.”

beer and books

Well. This is about as easy as it gets: 13 of the Best Literary Quotes About Beer were clearly compiled with me specifically in mind. From beer brewed by “noble twins… in their divine alevats, cunning as the sons of deathless Leda,” to “a great pot, filled with some very fragrant compound, which sent forth a grateful steam,” these lines will make you… thirsty.

I can’t quite decide about Ray Bradbury’s statement that “Beer’s intellectual. What a shame so many idiots drink it.” (Maybe I’m afraid he’s talking about me?) And I rather disagree, respectfully, with Haruki Murakami’s preferences as to temperature, although I concur with his feelings about the progression of temperature as one drinks.

Edgar Allen Poe’s lines are among my very favorite:

Fill with mingled cream and amber,
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber
Through the chambers of my brain.
Quaintest thoughts — queerest fancies,
Come to life and fade away:
What care I how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.

I am a little saddened by Hemingway’s lines. On the one hand they are a fine example of what I love about his writing: Papa’s descriptions of food and drink are in fact some of the best things he does, and I can’t read those passages without watering mouth. But that this example comes from an ad cheapens it.

And as for the best final line… it had to be the Bard: “a quart of Ale is a dish for a king.” Indeed, sir.

Here’s a tip: ale will make a fine accompaniment to your reading pleasure, too.

from Liz: Sean Hemingway interview on alternative endings to A Farewell to Arms

She does it every time, you guys, because she a) knows me and my tastes quite well and b) scours the internet and the podcasts and whatnot constantly.

Liz sent me this: an interview with Ernest Hemingway’s nephew, Sean, on a radio show called “To the Best of Our Knowledge” (acronym TTBOOK, which is cute). It opens with a movie clip (from a movie I’ve never heard of, which is a reflection on me, not the movie) about Hemingway’s very well-regarded World War I novel, A Farewell to Arms: the movie’s protagonist is upset about the ending, as many of us have been and will be. Sean Hemingway has recently released a new edited version, A Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library Edition, which includes all the alternative endings that Hemingway wrote before settling on the one we know. There were 47 of them.

Click the above link to listen to, or read, the interview, which includes a few of the alternate endings. (I started by listening – which was good, for the movie clip, and for hearing Sean’s voice; but then I got impatient and read through the rest.) Um, this should be clear, but if you haven’t read the book, beware of spoilers in the interview!

I was intrigued because, as interviewer Steve Paulson says, these alternate endings give us a real window into Hemingway’s process and his difficulty, himself, with the ending. And as Sean points out, most of us have lost a loved one, and the difficulties Hemingway had working out how to end this book are analogous, at least, to the difficulties we have in letting go.

Do I want this new edition? Do I want to reread the novel, or just the 47 endings? I’m not sure; my appetite is certainly whetted by this interview, but I don’t think I’m up for a full reread. For one thing, although much-lauded, A Farewell to Arms is far from being among my favorite Hemingway works. I’d reread it before I reread Death in the Afternoon, but that’s about it. And I still haven’t read everything he wrote, either, so it would be hard to justify. I could run through those endings, though… we shall see.

Thanks, Liz, for another great reference. Go check out the interview – it’s short.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 306 other followers

%d bloggers like this: