Monthly Archives: December 2014

“The Power of Light – Eight Stories for Hanukkah” by Isaac Bashevis Singer

I thought I might have a chance to read a story aloud at a holiday party, so I browsed my shelves and found The Power of Light, which was published as a children’s book. I picked out two stories. One (“The Parakeet Named Dreidel”) was relatively contemporary, placed in Brooklyn around 1960. The other (“Hershele and Hanukkah”) took place much earlier, in Poland or Russia.

Hanukkah is a time for stories about miracles. There’s no “miracle” in “The Parakeet Named Dreidel”, only what most of us would regard as happy coincidence. “Hershele and Hanukkah” has a different feel. A village woman longs for a child, and is told by a poor, wandering holy man that her child will be conceived after an animal (unspecified) enters her house. She is directed to name her child after the animal. During Hanukkah, a tiny fawn appears at her door, freezing cold and hungry. The family cares for it until spring, and later a healthy boy is born and named Hershele, the Yiddish word for “fawn”. The deer revisits the family year after year, but the wandering beggar is never seen again. The narrator identifies the wanderer as the prophet Elijah, who usually shows himself in the guise of a poor man.

I’ve read enough of Singer to know that not all his stories are warm and fuzzy, but this collection is a delight and I recommend it to all, especially those who have the opportunity to read to children.

Happy Holidays to all!

My New Kindle – not a rave review

A few months ago, I promised a review of my new Kindle, the previous device having met an unfortunate end (see June 11, 2014 blog entry).

My new Kindle is a Paperwhite, the kind that lights up. I love that feature! To read easily in the dark is a great amenity. The battery seems even better than in my old Kindle. I can read and read on a single charge.

Aside from those advantages, my new Kindle still feels awkward. For a time, I had trouble with downloads from Amazon. It’s harder for me to know whether or not I have the wi-fi turned on. I get “updates” without “accepting” them or knowing why I needed them, which makes me vaguely uneasy.

I have a whole suite of features and services I don’t completely understand and don’t use.

I got a durable case for my new Kindle. It’s small and I can tuck it into my purse. So I’m still a Kindle user, but soon I may figure out how to meet my reading needs using my phone or a tablet. Then the Kindle (like so many specialized devices) will be history.

“The Signature of All Things: A Novel” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yes, this is the book that threatened me with “literary flu” (see December 17 blog post.) I bravely fought off my burning desire to read instead of going to work. I even managed to make this wonderful, absorbing book last six days!

This book is the story of a American life, from birth in 1800 to very old age.

Some pluses… It’s about a woman’s life. Much of it takes place near Philadelphia. Although none of the characters is actually a Quaker, Quakerism is given its due as an aspect of Philadelphia society. Abolitionism also plays a part.

But fundamentally, this is a book about the study of nature, especially plants. Alma Whittaker was the daughter of a man who grew plants, sold plants and supported the study of plants, with the emphasis on their medicinal qualities. He became fabulously rich in the process. Alma grew up surrounded by scientists (they called themselves natural philosophers) and businessmen of all sorts. Female role models were in short supply, but Alma, perhaps because she had no brothers, was encouraged to be intellectually bold.

Elizabeth Gilbert creates a memorable protagonist in Alma Whittaker and then surrounds her with intense, surprising characters. There’s Prudence, who turns up one dark night and is adopted as Alma’s sister. She sheds her background of poverty and ignorance and grows up to be a dedicated abolitionist. There’s a man named Tomorrow Morning, who loses his entire family, selects a new father and builds a new, rich life. Gilbert even manages to make a dog named Roger into a memorable character. (I don’t usually pay much attention to dogs, in life or in fiction.) Not every character is benign. The peripheral Mr. Yancey is mysterious and very dangerous.

Another “plus” from my point of view is that several characters in this book are Dutch and some of the story takes place in Netherlands, a country I for which I have a decided soft spot.

This book celebrates the beauty of nature and the JOY of studying nature. Neither is sufficiently appreciated here and now. Other types of intellectual activity are also lifted up – the study of languages, for example. Our heroine speaks four languages, plus Greek which she regards as a special treat. She undertakes to learn an Asian language under challenging circumstances.

One criterion of an excellent book is that it encourages you to read more, and not just work by the same author. This book led me to think about reading Darwin, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man in particular. I tend to think of myself as well informed on the subject of evolution. I hang around with biologists and experts in related sciences, but no, I have not read Darwin, though his books and many commentaries thereon are around the house. I envision reading Darwin as a project that might take years! I wonder if that’s true.

I have intentionally written this post without looking at the reviews of others, or even checking on Ms. Gilbert’s other published works. A few years ago, I read her two non-fiction books, Eat, Pray, Love and Committed. The first was good enough, the second (to use a culinary turn of phrase) disagreed with me. I never expected The Signature of All Things to be so very marvelous.

Literary Flu

The highest compliment I can give a book is to say it gave me a case of “literary flu”. You know the ailment, right? You start reading a book, and its time to go to work, but you just don’t feel good. Something aches… or twitches. Getting dressed just seems like too much effort. You might be coming down with something! YOU don’t want to be the bad guy who brings Chicken flu or whatever to the office… Better stay home!

So you make tea, call out sick and nestle up with that book… And somehow, next day, you’re fine!

What books have had this kind of impact on me? Cold Mountain by Charles Frasier. Anathem by Neal Stephenson. A good friend succumbed to Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies. And the last book in the Harry Potter series.

I’m reading such a book right now. Watch for details in a few days! And leave a comment if you want to recommend a book that gave you a case of LITERARY FLU!

“The Burning Wire: a Lincoln Rhyme Novel” by Jeffery Deaver

I picked up this crime novel at the beach house where we spent Thanksgiving, and couldn’t put it down. Not wanting to steal it, I made sure to note the author so I could find it for download onto my Kindle, and I finished it promptly after the trip.

This detective story focuses on the “grid”. Yes, the electric power grid, the vast network of wires, generators, appliances, towers, etc., that brings us our light, many conveniences, and sometimes also our heat. It also brings us the occasional blackout, brownout or glitch. Much speculation has been expended on the vulnerability of the grid. Major storms bring havoc, and the possibility of sabotage cannot be ignored.

One reason the grid fascinates me is that I play a tiny role in the “big picture” of electric power management. (We all do! Paid an electric bill lately??) I manage “curtailment” for the institution where I work. More formally, curtailment is called “demand side management”. When the grid is under strain (not enough electricity flowing where it is needed), my employer (and thousands of others) reduce load to get through the bad times, six hours maximum. The practice of utilities getting on the phone and begging customers to cut back is long obsolete. The ability and willingness to reduce (or curtail) is now a marketable commodity, and I manage it for my institution.

Enough about me! The Burning Wire is about sabotage. It starts with manipulation of the grid to produce an “arc flash” explosion, and gets crazier from there, with a smart, nasty bad guy taking lives and making threats. The lead detective is one Lincoln Rhyme, a quadriplegic genius with a devoted team of police and other agents who specialize in catching criminals who threaten public safety. The Burning Wire is one of a series of Lincoln Rhyme novels.

Deaver writes in a way that makes his characters extremely compelling. His descriptions are vivid, and when I was reading this book, I didn’t pay any attention to my immediate surroundings. Some of the plot twists took me entirely by surprise.

If you need a book to make time pass and keep you involved, read this! I am sure Deaver’s other books would also serve. I’m giving a selection of Lincoln Rhyme novels to a friend for Christmas.