Category Archives: Books and Literature

A Circle of Salt – A Novel Märchen

Review: A Circle of Salt by E J Weaver

The original title for this piece ended “A Novel Fairy-Tale” but I have an intense dislike for that term, and “folk-tale” doesn’t convey to me the same genre of fiction. Feeling the English language is selling short a much-belovèd form of story, hence my use of the German “Märchen.” (Britannica advises me that is the term by folklorists, so I’m obviously not alone in looking for a suitable term.)

There are certain conventions that I tend to expect in Märchen, such as the Power of Three, Anglo-Western European context, and a third-person narrative. In a Circle of Salt, @Joi_the_Artist uses some of these conventions (Power of Three,) but uses a Russian-analogue setting, and borrows from Russian mythos (eg: Baba Yaga.) Most surprising to me is the use of first-person narrative, and with a twist – the protagonist is an amoral non-human, who doesn’t understand humans. As with my taste in visual art, I am drawn to those who buck the trend; in this book, @Joi_the_Artist does just that, making the work very much HERS, as opposed to an “in the style of” generic.

The body of the tale is a set of linked scenes, each a story in itself. Some scenes are of the “and they all lived happily ever after,” but some anything but. An early review of The Lord of the Rings mentioned “By turns comic and homely, epic and diabolic…” – A Circle of Salt made me think of that quote. Whilst the Power of Three often gives a hint at what happens next, sometimes what happens next can be a shocker. The ending is – different. I won’t say any more, because I wouldn’t have wanted to know before I got there. I hope I haven’t given too much away as it is – this is a work to be read, and enjoyed, without spoilers. This is a work that delights through ongoing change, and revelation.

All in all, whilst this beautiful work includes many familiar conventions from traditional Märchen, there is nothing clichéd about the overall effect. A Circle of Salt is an original addition to a classic genre, and I a look forward to seeing more work from this author.

Thank you, Joi, for bringing back some of the magic of my childhood. It is a long time since a story moved me as much as this.

A Circle of Salt on Amazon.com

Book Review: The Short Bus

Blogging Against Disablism Day

Preamble

I was contacted by Jonathan Mooney a little while ago and asked if I would be interested in writing a review of his book ‘The Short Bus’, subtitled ‘A Journey Beyond Normal’. It seemed to me that it would be very fitting if I were to write this review and publish it as part of the proceedings of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2008.

Jonathan is one of those people who was badly let down by the education system – badly dyslexic, a ne’er-do-well who would quite obviously never get anywhere in life. So thought the education system. Although Jonathan almost lost hope himself, he proved the doubters wrong (don’t you just love it when that happens?), graduating from Brown University – with honours. Jonathan is now an author, speaker, and consultant, helping students, parents and educators; for details of what he gets up to nowadays (and how he may be able to help you), have a look at Jonathan’s web site.

The Short Bus

What is a short bus? Before I first picked up the book, I had no idea what a short bus was, so an explanation for those who share my ingnorance is probably in order. A short bus is just that – a shorter version of the American school bus that we see on the movies (and Americans doubtless see on the streets), generally used to transport students with various disabilities to educational facilities where their needs might best be met. I say this with a certain amount of sarcasm as Jonathan’s book suggests to me that both the assessment and meeting of needs falls short of what might be desirable.

Jonathan’s plan, as an adult, was to acquire a short bus, the symbol of his experiences with Special Education, convert it into an RV (Recreational Vehicle) and tour the USA for a couple of months, meeting people like himself who were considered ‘not normal’ by the educational establishment and had been let down by that same establishment but had then gone on to succeed in their own way – for their own given value of ‘normal’.

An Eye-Opener

With my mother having worked as a dyslexia consultant for some time, I was well aware of how students could be let down by the system. Reading Jonathan’s accounts is a real eye-opener, if not shocking in what it reveals. The inhumanity of the system and the educational ‘experts’ is brought into sharp relief by the humanity of Jonathan’s writing.

The book is also an eye-opener in a more positive way and allows me to trot out my much-use phrase, “for a given value of normal” when we see how supposedly not-normal people can succeed and prosper, despite the best efforts of the education system to break their spirits.

I could waffle on for ages and give you a potted summary of the book, but what would be the point? To really do this book justice I have just to present this advice: go out and buy/read it. Jonathan’s style is very engaging, very humane and – above all – very readable. Not bad for someone who was supposed not to be able to read and write.

The Short Bus by Jonathan Mooney is published by Henry Holt and is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other good booksellers.

This book contains occasional coarse language.

Reading Difficulties – Not Getting the Points

A couple of days before I left England for the last time, on my way to Australia, I "did the rounds" of the local town, saying goodbye to various shopkeepers I had known.  In the bookshop, the proprietor insisted that I should buy a copy of "The Fatal Shore" by Robert Hughes.  I had actually seen a television programme related to the book and had been quite impressed – I fully expected to enjoy the book.  8 years later I have, despite a few attempts, not made it past the first few pages.  Something that I couldn’t quite identify really bugged me about that book.

Skipping ahead to the present, I have a stack of 3 books beside my chair in the living room.  They are: "The Selfish Gene" and "The God Delusion", both by Richard Dawkins.  The third (a little more esoteric) is "Dæmonologie" by the man I think of as "Loony King Jimmy Stuart", more formally known as King James I of England.  (Anyone wondering at the disrespectful epiphet should read the book and draw their own conclusions.

I can rarely sit and read a non-fiction text at one sitting (unlike sci-fi and fantasy) but am getting on quite happily with "The God Delusion" and "Dæmonologie".  "The Selfish Gene", however is giving me some trouble – I really struggle to read it.

Why do I find two books by the same author so different to read?  I don’t think that Dawkins’ writing style is so much different between the 2 books.  The language of "Dæmonologie" (especially the spelling) should certainly make it a more challenging read than something written just under 400 years later.

Yesterday, I looked at all 3 books and realised where my problem lies.  "Dæmonologie" is printed in a font which I guess to be about 13 point. (A point, for those unaware, is a printers’ measure – 1 point being equal to 1/72 of an inch.)  "The God Delusion" appears to be about 12 point, with a line spacing of 1.5.  "The Selfish Gene" and – now I look at it – "The Fatal Shore" are both printed at about 10 points.  I do believe that my problem is simply that the offending books are printed too small.

As I suffer from diabetes and have high risk of glaucoma, I have thorough eye checks every 6 months.  I know for a fact that my vision is "perfect", despite having one eye stronger than the other.  I have spectacles for when my eyes are tired – generally from sitting too long in front of a computer.  Why then, do I have trouble reading books with small font sizes – even when wearing my spectacles? Am I looking at an issue of inaccessible print content?  At least when viewing a web page with a font that is too small, I can always (and frequently do) increase the size to something that I find comfortable – not something that I can do with a paper-and-ink book.

Now that I appear to have identified my problem, I would like to conclude this article with a solution. Unfortunately, I do not have one. I will certainly bring this issue up the next time I see the optometrist and will check any books that I might buy in a bookshop before purchase. This helps me little though as the majority of the books that I purchase come from quickest and cheapest source – Amazon.com.

Georges Prosper Remi – 100 Years On

Tintin, badly drawn by Smiffy

Hergé 100

It was 100 years ago today, on the 22 May 1907, that one Georges Prosper Remi was born to the world in Etterbeek (Bruxelles), Belgium. Better known to the world as Hergé, Remi was the creator of The Adventures of Tintin. After his death in 1983, Remi left a legacy of two dozen Tintin books and several other works, which continue to delight readers to this day.

The badly-drawn Tintin (see my entry on Flickr for technical details) was done to illustrate this post. I hope that others can come up with something more appropriate – read a Tintin book, have a Tintin party, blog about Tintin/Hergé, making this special centenary something to remember.

One thing that I have learned from this is that I can’t draw a free-hand oval, even with the aid of a computer.

Update: after exploring the GIMP a little more, I found out not only how to draw an oval, but how to create construction lines on a separate layer. The result is somewhat better.

Here’s some real artwork, from Adam Koford.

Other Happenings

Please mail me (address at bottom of page) if you know of any other relevant material that should be linked from here.

Caveman Chemistry

Whilst Google’ing for information on brewing mead for a friend, I chanced upon Caveman Chemistry, by chemistry professor, Kevin Dunn.

The site mostly promotes Dunn’s "Cave Book", available in paper and e-book formats. Although I have only just flicked through it, this "science is fun" book really is quite excellent and I find Dunn’s idiosyncratic style highly engaging.

If you are interested in making anything from mead to paper to soap to plastics, this book should be amongst your reading matter. A lover of back-to-basics, I will be having a go at mead, soap and ceramics, at the very least.

At 15 USD, I regard the e-book which I have just purchased as money well spent. (Aussies: PayPal worked this out at 20 AUD.)

Also, for those interested in electrostatic machines, there is a section of the site devoted to robust and easy to build Dirod machines. (For which I find there is no Wikipedia entry.)

Something for every geek.

Pains au Chocolat

pains au chocolat
Photograph of cover of 'Comment Faire Son Pain'

My wife and I love pain au chocolat, and I eat it despite my dairy allergy (pre-dosing with antihistamine required!). However, it's been a long time since we've been able to get hold of any and France is 10000 miles away.

Having just obtained a copy of 'Comment faire son pain' (how one makes bread) through Amazon's French site, I thought I would give this a go myself. Some twenty hours from start to finish (much of that rising and resting time), the finished product was well worth the effort.

To those who claim that the preparation of Viennoise type breads is difficult, I will borrow a phrase from my IT background and say "Read That Fine Manual". Follow instructions and all should be OK.

Regarding the book, if you can read French, I would recommend it to any aspiring "Artisan Boulangers". When 55 flour is called for, I use Allied Mills Superb Bakers Flour. (I get this in 10kg sacks at a very good price from Gaganis Brothers in Hindmarsh.)

The Jagged Orbit

Jagged Orbit: book cover

I was slightly surprised to find this book still in print – my copy is about 30 years old and in remarkably good condition for a paperback. Extrapolating from the state of the world in the late 1960s, Brunner paints a picture of a paranoid world, fomented by weapons manufacturers, the Mafia-like Gottschalks, forever trying to increase sales.

Without trying to give away too much of the plot, unlike some of Brunner's darker works (The Sheep Look Up), this book has a relatively happy ending and left me feeling good, despite tensions from current events in my personal world.

For those with an interest in Artificial Intelligence, Brunner's concept of the "Desketary" draws to my mind Alicebot. One can speculate that Brunner was thinking of theEliza which, created in 1966, would have been around when he was writing this story. (I was playing around with Alicebot last year when thinking about software interfaces useable by people with learning disabilities; if I had a lot of time and nothing better to do, I might even try to create a "Desketary" interface.)

Conclusion: a classic piece of early-1970s British SciFi, or possibly ScoFi (social fiction) and a good introduction to Brunner before tackling larger, darker works like The Sheep Look Up.

Footfall

Cover of current edition of Footfall

My copy of Footfall was originally acquired by my father back in September 1988 – a time when this novel could have been regarded as “happening now”. The fall of the Soviet Union and the demise of the space shuttle, Challenger, place it in the past but then, hey, so was H. G. Wells.

How come there was a twist in one of Saturn’s rings? Aliens! And they aren’t coming in peace… Although the authorship of this novel is given as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, from having read pure Niven (the various “Tales of Known Space”) and pure Pournelle (Future History), I do wonder who the main author is here; the aliens, I feel, are very much Niven’s creations, but I sense (quite possibly incorrectly) a heavier Pournelle influence than in other of their joint ventures..

In this tale, some unlikely heroes emerge – especially the team of science-fiction writers who become special presidential advisers and alien “experts”. Nearly all the characters are in some way connected with the others – something that I found confusing initially, especially as I get confused with names; perhaps I should have Xeroxed the Dramatis Personae from the beginning of the book and referred to it whilst reading. I could have even used it as a bookmark rather than the extremely dog-eared Adelaide Metro ticket that has been marking my place for the last couple of months.

Whilst Footfall lacks some of the sparkle of their other books, I’d still recommend it, especially to Niven & Pournelle fans.

Now to turn to the bookshelves and see what next takes my fancy.

The Mote in God's Eye

Front cover of The Mote in Gods Eye

It's a long time since I last read "The Mote In God's Eye" which is good – I had forgotten much of it and took great delight in re-discovering one of my all-time SciFi favourites. Niven and Pournelle handle the old issue – first contact with aliens – in an original and credible manner.

Sadly, my old paperback copy is disintegrating and now has to be read in five unbound chunks; a book of this length is probably best in hardback, assuming that one is going to keep re-reading it as much as I do with my books. I'm fairly certain that a sequel was written, although I have, as yet, been unable to track it down. If anyone can tell me the title, please post a comment!

Staying in the Niven/Pournelle vein for a while, I have now started on Footfall – another book I can't recall in detail, having only read it the once before. I will report back when I've finished.

Update: thanks to Phil for enlightening me on the sequel (see comments).