Wednesday 19 August 2015

The Serpent of Venice

Finished August 18
The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore, performed by Euan Morton

This satire pulls from three classic works, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare's Othello, and Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado. As he says in the afterward, he chose the two Shakespeare works partly due to their setting of Venice. He draws characters from all three of these tales, having some characters take on multiple roles.
He has adjusted the setting to the late 13th century, around the time of the long war between Venice and Genoa. His main character is the fool, aka Fortunato, aka Pocket, a diminutive man sent to Venice as an emissary from England. With the death of his queen and lover, Cordelia, he finds himself a place at court, a favourite of the Doge.
When our hero is led into a trap in the cellars of a Venetian estate, he finds himself the object of interest of a strange creature that he only gradually identifies. His quest to revenge himself against his would-be murderers, and save Venice from a dastardly plot leads him to Corsica, where the general Othello and his new wife are, and on to Genoa to rescue his sidekick Drool and monkey Jeff, back to Corsica to try to save Othello from a plot, and back to Venice to enact his revenge. At his side is an unlikely partner, an adventurous young Jewish woman, intent on her own escape from domesticity. They are joined by the adventurer Marco Polo, who plays a key role. There is also a ghost. As Moore says repeatedly "There's always a bloody ghost."
The plot involves more than just plots and revenge. It also includes love, jealousy, murder (lots of it), betrayal, a chorus with personality, and humour (lots of it). Moore's sly jests are wonderfully done, and Morton's reading makes it all come alive. I haven't yet read the earlier book Fool, but will definitely seek it out.

The Taxidermist's Daughter

Finished August 17
The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse

This novel is set in the spring of 1912, in the village of Fishbourne and the nearby town of Chichester. The taxidermist, Gifford, and his daughter Connie, live in Blackthorn House, just outside the village. Ten years earlier Connie fell and hit her head badly and cannot remember anything that happened before that time. She is beginning to have flashes of memories that she thinks are from earlier, but her father doesn't wish to discuss it. Gifford drinks a lot and the taxidermy jobs are much fewer than they used to be, and Connie does most of them herself, although the clients don't know that.
As the book opens, Connie has followed her father to a churchyard nearby, worried about him wandering when drunk. She witnesses a strange gathering, and a surprising occurrence. Several days later, Harry Woolston, a young man in Chichester with artistic ambitions follows his father after he overhears a strange conversation between his father and another man. He loses sight of his father, but finds that his destination seemed to be Fishbourne.
When Connie's maid finds a dead body in the marshes near Blackthorn House, Harry comes to help. He finds himself drawn to her and returns the following day to check on her. When the two compare notes, they find that their stories are strangely linked and they resolve to work together to find out what is going on between their fathers.
Interspersed with the story are two other texts. One is excerpts from one of the earliest books on the methods of taxidermy and the other is the jottings of the person behind some of the odd things going on, revealing the backstory to the current events gradually.
This is a story of revenge for a past crime, a story of a cover-up and a deception, and the story of rebirth from destruction.
Not as strong as her other books, but still enjoyable and interesting.

Tuesday 11 August 2015

The Sculptor

Finished August 11
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

This is one of the best graphic novels I've read this year. I loved everything about it, the story, the characters, the drawing, the underlying message.
As the book begins David Smith, the main character is depressed and feeling sorry for himself. He's had a lot of loss in his life and his only dream is to be a successful sculptor. He knows that he has talent, but he doesn't seem to have been given the opportunity to show it. His best friend has tried to do that in the gallery he works for, but hasn't been able to give David the exposure he needs to get noticed.
David has issues, he is too outspoken at times, not understanding the art of diplomacy. But he also is a good reader of people and a noticer, who looks at the details of people and what is important to them. His losses have marked him, and left him open for the opportunity that is offered to him. An opportunity that he knows has a cost.
As David meets a girl and falls for her, his story changes. He is torn between his creative dream and his feelings, and he must learn from her what is important.
I really liked the explanation at the end of the book of the origin of the story, and the significance of parts of it to the author's own life.
A winner.

Successful Social Networking in Public Libraries

Finished August 9
Successful Social Networking in Public Libraries by Walt Crawford.

This book examines the use of social networking sites by public libraries, mostly in the United States, and is based on research and surveys. Crawford examines the definition of success in this context looking at reach, frequency of posts, currency of content, interaction with the community and republishing of posts by community members. As he says, "it's working if you think it is". He groups libraries into categories by the size of their community.
Most of the libraries used either Facebook or Twitter, or both of these social networking tools. While he makes mention of other social networking communities, the focus is on these two platforms. For each of Facebook and Twitter, he looks at what successful posts look like, and how to strategically aim for similar successes for your library. He talks about the importance of each individual library examining what their purpose is in using a social media platform, and examining whether it is the best use of that platform.
He has a nice section on best practices. These include: have a personality, ask questions and interact, act like a person, make your followers feel like the in-crowd, keep an eye on what the most people interact with, and expand to other platforms.
Crawford talked about the challenges of his research, and how he went about gathering information. There is a chapter that goes through his research results for each state he has data from (38), giving a snapshot of the statistics and sample posts.
He ends with a chapter looking to the future. As he says, this book is a snapshot in time, with posts over approximately a four month period in 2011. Things change a lot in a short time, and he foresees the increase in use of social media as well as talking about the measure of success for libraries in terms of effort versus output.

Sunday 9 August 2015

The Arsonist

Finished August 9
The Arsonist by Sue Miller

Frankie has worked as an aid worker in east Africa for fifteen years, and come home regularly during that time. This time is different. She isn't sure when she'll be going back, or even if she'll go back at all. She's come to stay with her parents in Pomeroy, New Hampshire. Her parents recently retired to the vacation home that has been in her mother's family for generations.
The first night there, Frankie wakes in the night, still on a different time zone, exhausted but unable to sleep. Instead she gets up and takes a walk.
Later that night a fire call goes out. A house up the street from Frankie's parents has burnt down, the fire call going out too late to save the house. When more houses go up in flames, the concern in the community mounts, and talks of arson escalate.
Frankie moves into her sister's unfinished cabin down the hill from her parent's place, the thought being that having it occupied will reduce the likelihood of it being a target for whoever is setting the fires. With all the targets being homes owned by summer people, there is talk of resentment by a local being at the root of the crimes.
At one of the first summer parties Frankie attended, she met the local newspaper editor, Bud, and the two connected. As she begins a relationship with him, she still holds back, unsure of what she wants, or what is next in her life. Bud wants something with Frankie, but is afraid of pushing too hard, and his work with the paper keeps him busy, especially with all the fires.
Meanwhile Frankie's father Alfie is having episodes where his memory seems to be failing. He mother Sylvia is both worried and resentful, and unsure what the future holds for her. As Frankie tries to help, a crisis with Alfie will change everything.
This is a story about a community, about the complex nature of relationships, about how taking a chance means risking heartbreak.

Saturday 8 August 2015

Uncertain Soldier

Finished August 8
Uncertain Soldier by Karen Bass

This book is set mostly in the Peace River region of Alberta during World War II. The main character is Erich Hofmeyer, a young German soldier, who was captured when his ship was destroyed. He suffered burns, was treated, and then ended up in a POW camp near Lethbridge.
Erich speaks English fluently as his mother's parents live in England. He was visiting them just before war broke out and reflects sometimes on this timing. Erich's father forced him to enlist after he graduated from high school at sixteen, and he is now seventeen.
Erich is bullied by other POWs who have Nazi sympathies and, when they are aware of his English skills, want him to spy for them. When an incident occurs, Erich is giving a chance to join a work gang as a lumberjack in the Peace region, and jumps at it. Being a city boy, he finds the lack of amenities difficult to get used to, but the environment is pleasant, and the man who owns the land is fair. Erich gets to know the other men he works with, both Canadians and prisoners, and finds good and bad in both. He also finds Henry, the man he works for a fatherly figure. Their hired girl Cora is not disposed to look on Germans kindly, but their similarity in age begins to bridge their differences.
Erich also befriends Max, a younger boy who lives in the area. Max is being bullied because of his father being German, and feels increasingly isolated. His contact with Erich gives him not only camaraderie, but also a confidant for some of his issues.
Another young man, Christmas, is also isolated, as a native who doesn't talk much, but works hard. Christmas is fond of Max, and the boy becomes a bridge between the two young men who care about him.
This is a story of prejudice, of bullying behaviour, of people being able to change their views based on experience and knowledge rather than generalizations. This is a story of friendship and coming of age for Erich. Good characters with depth and insight.

Thursday 6 August 2015

The Road is How

Finished August 6
The Road is How: A Prairie Pilgrimage through Nature, Desire, and Soul by Trevor Herriot

This book is the story of a journey, both physical and mental. It all starts with Herriot falling from a ladder doing home repairs. Reading a book during his recovery, he is convinced that he needs to do a journey in the form of a long walk. A native friend of his tells him that walking is a good idea, but that he needs to first go sit on a hill while fasting and figure out why he wants to go for a walk.
Herriot does this, and comes out of it with a few things. One is his imbalance in terms of personal relationships. He wants to understand his high level of desire, finding meaning in the relationship between a man and a woman in his own life, and grow up in terms of relationships. Second is that he wants to reawaken his spiritual side, and go with purpose toward what comes next in his life. Third is that he needed to look inside himself to things that needed changing. After thinking about it, and recognizing his strong connection with nature, especially with birdlife, he determines to walk from his home in Regina to his cabin about forty miles east of the city.
He knows he will have a make a few detours from a straight path, but he will go as straight as he can, along roads, road allowances, and fence lines. Along the way he notices his surroundings, the subtle changes in landscape, the animals, birds, and people he encounters. He also reflects, on his relationship with his wife Karen, on his strong sexual desires, on his feelings toward women generally, on the birds and their environment that he has advocated for, on his male bonding experiences, on his connections with nature.
At times I found his musings too nebulous to be meaningful to me as a reader, but this is his story, and he needs to express himself in the way that makes sense to him. His journey is interesting, and he does seem to get something from it, and that is what really matters.

On Looking

Finished July 31
On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz

This book began with the author realizing that she wasn't seeing her surroundings in many ways when she took walks in her neighbourhood. She began thinking about what she was missing, and sought out different people with different backgrounds, expertise, and interests to help her see her surroundings in different ways. She wanted to know what she was missing.
First she deliberately took a walk in her neighbourhood, taking notes on what she was noticing and her insights about those things. Some of the subsequent walks are in her own city of New York, but others are in the other cities, more convenient to the experts that she walked with.
Her first walk was with her toddler son, as she tried to let him guide the walk as much as possible and took note of what captured his interest, sometimes asking him questions to draw out what he was feeling or what appealed to him. She found, of course, that his perspective was different than hers, being closer to the ground and thus seeing things at that level more immediately. He was attracted to colours, shapes, and textures, wanting to experience his surroundings with fingers, feet, and sometimes his tongue.He noticed sounds and looked for their origins. He is fascinated with the new, things that weren't there on his last walk. He greeted and talked to objects along the route as if they were living creatures. He points, he stares, especially at people who seem unusual to him. He used a lot of nonverbal communication, gesturing and facial expressions. He was fascinated with his own shadow and the shadows of other things.
Her next walk was with a geologist, a man who often environmental outings within the city. She learns to recognize the different stones in the city, both those used in buildings and those in natural elements. She sees the fossil history in the stones and learns to recognize the signs of tools that were used in shaping the stones.
Next up is a typographer, a man who knows his fonts and the history of signage. This noticing looks at form and function, and seeing not only what signs look good, but why. Noticing the details of signage and recognizing mass-produced as opposed to hand-done. To see letters done artfully with thought to their purpose and placement and those done without.
She then walks with a friend who is an illustrator. They venture into open doors, stood on street corners, sat on benches. Her friend is a collector of the ordinary, drawing pictures of objects that take the ordinary and make them unique. They interacted with other people they encountered. Instead of just looking, they interacted with objects and people along their route, veering off when something caught their interest.
The next series of walks concentrated more on the animate. First, with a field naturalist specializing in insects and other invertebrates. Horowitz learned to recognize the signs of insect presence, to identify the traces that insects leave behind. This was another walk that veered off when something caught their interest nearby, on walls, in tree pits, on the leaves of trees and bushes, in dumpsters.
She then walks with a wildlife scientist, looking for signs of urban wildlife. From raccoons, rats, and squirrels to starlings, pigeons, and other birds, many animals live in cities. They adjust themselves to their environment, using tall buildings like cliff-faces, becoming active at night when humans are less active, finding paths between areas, and developing nooks and crannies as homes. Once they start looking they notice more signs of animal presence.
Her next walk is with a man who specializes in the use of urban space. He watches how people behave in spaces, how things like street furniture, sidewalk vendors and shop windows can slow people down. To him a good urban experience is one that encourages you to slow down and loiter. He studies the movement of people, how they move in groups, how people move when they meet others as they walk, the subtle dance of movement between strangers. She learns that there are three simple rules most of use abide by: avoid bumping into others, while staying comfortably close; follow whoever is in front of you; and keep up with those next to you. The rules boil down to avoidance, alignment and attraction, and explain the movement of groups not just in people but also other creatures. Without consciously realizing it, we all watch others and react to their movements. We slip and slide as we move past others coming towards us, we notice where others are moving towards and move to avoid their path, The advent of mobile devices has had an impact on this and they notice that too. People concentrating on devices don't participate in this dance, and create disruptions in movement. They notice divisions on the street, sidewalks, curbs, and other visible differences that influence how people move through an environment.
Her next companion is a doctor skilled in the practice of diagnosis by visual inspection. As they walk, he notes the slight differences in how people carry themselves, how they move, that are signs as to illnesses or physical injuries. He has worked with medical students, teaching them to really look at their patients to get clues as to who they are and what is important to them. They look at gait, the way clothing hangs, physical characteristics, smell, and sound.
She takes a walk with a blind woman, learning how she uses her other senses to help tell her what is around her. She can sense the movement of air to tell when she reaches an open space such as a street corner, and uses objects that she touches to orient herself in her surroundings. She uses her cane to tell her something about the tactile nature of the surface she is moving towards, and the sound of the taps to determine all surrounding surfaces.
Walking with a sound designer, she notes the difference between sound and noise. He talks about the differences between small sounds like tire noise that tell you whether the pavement is wet or dry. She learns how echoes reinforce sounds, and how different environments affect sounds in different ways. She learns how she physically feels some sounds, especially deeper rumbles.
She takes a walk with a dog to observe how it explores its environment, much of it based on smell. She noticed how the dog licked its nose to better sense upcoming smells, and how it started at the edge of smells, working inward.
For all of her walks she does additional research into the subject speciality, into the history of different inputs, into the science of it all.
This is a book that will change the way you take your own walks, at least for a while, as you open yourself up to new experiences.

The Education of Augie Merasty

Finished July 31
The Education of Augie Merasty: a Residential School Memoir by Joseph Auguste Merasty with David Carpenter

This short memoir offers a first-hand account of the residential school experience. Merasty wrote this at the age of 86, looking back on his experience as well as others he was close to, but who are no longer around to tell their own stories. He helped many of those others with their testimony for the Working Group on Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Exploratory Dialogues, which was the first stage of the Commission.
Merasty attended St. Therese Residential School in Sturgeon Lake, Saskatchewan from 1935 to 1944. His experiences, while awful, were not the worst of residential school abuse. He did have contact with his family, and they even attended some school functions, which many students did not have.
Merasty wrote a letter to the University of Saskatchewan asking for help in writing this memoir and was connected with Carpenter. It took several years before the project came to completion, partly due to David's other commitments, and partly to Merasty's availability.
Merasty own personality shows strongly, with his strong sense of self, and a great sense of humour.
An important story in our country's history.

The Sense of Style

Finished July 30
The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker

This book had a lot more grammar in it than I expected. The audiobook included a pdf of the glossary of terms, and the grammar trees that Pinker discusses, but if you're familiar with grammar and sentence parsing, it isn't strictly necessary to view them.
Pinker talks about the dangers of writers forgetting that their readers don't have the same knowledge that they do, one that occurs for all nonfiction writers, but more so for academics. There is a lot about coherency in writing, and he uses lots of examples to illustrate how changes can be made to make sentences more coherent for the reader without losing the intent of the writer.
When discussing grammar, Pinker addresses rules that really aren't rules, those that have become widely quoted, yet have no basis in reality in terms of language. Many of these came about through rules in other languages such as Latin, or hypercorrections such as the use of I when combined with another person as object.
Pinker's aim is towards greater clarify for the reader, and writing that flows gracefully rather than sounding stilted and awkward. He has lots of examples of both good and bad, and shows how to improve a sentence through simple changes to structure, wording, or punctuation.
Near the end he includes two lists: one of common rules that should be disregarded, and one of rules he feels are important to apply. He includes comments for both that are useful in understanding.
I like his sense of humour that often surprises, and his focus on the reader.
A useful and interesting guide.