Monthly Archives: December 2014

2014 in review – written by a monkey!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,300 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 22 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


“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.

Short stories?! “Space Dreadnoughts” edited by David Drake

I don’t usually read short stories. It’s too disappointing to like a character or situation and be cut short, when further development has so much appeal.

I also read very little science fiction, and suffer from the feeling that I’m just not finding the right science fiction. In my 18 months or so of blogging, I’ve read and discussed maybe five works of sci fi.

How did I even get this book? I think one of my sons picked it up at a used bookstore, or it may have been in the spare bedroom all along.

So… why did I dive into Space Dreadnoughts, edited by David Drake (1990) with so much enthusiasm? It’s a collection of stories about battles in space. Original dates of publication range from 1940 to 1977. There’s one story each from Issac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, both now deceased. The other authors are unfamiliar to me.

These stories have a certain anachronistic charm. Conquering space with a slide rule! They also deal as much with human nature as with technology. And that’s what appeals to me

The only familiar story was “Superiority” by Arthur C Clarke. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangerous appeal of going overboard for new technology. It should be required reading for all students of computer science!

I checked Amazon out of curiosity. Yes, you can buy a copy of Space Dreadnoughts, new or used, but it is not available for the Kindle.

Read and enjoy!

Two holiday novels by Janet Evanovich – “Thanksgiving” and “Visions of Sugar Plums”

Janet Evanovich feels like a friend. She’s not the same kind of Jersey Girl as me, but I’ve lived in this state since age 25. I AM a Jersey Girl, though often I don’t realize it until I get out of state. I have a long, intermittent relationship with Trenton, one of America’s really messed up, suffering cities. And I have been to dinner in Chambersburg, the Trenton neighborhood that is home to Stephanie Plum, Evanovich’s most popular heroine.

I downloaded Thanksgiving to keep me company on my way to and from a family Turkey Day gathering. It’s a fluffy romance, not a Stephanie Plum crime novel. You know from the beginning that the two appealing young protagonists are going to get together, and you can laugh at the mischances and misunderstandings along the way. Thanksgiving is softer and more romantic than most of Evanovich’s books. But if you just want to relax and ignore your surroundings for a little while, this book is perfect.

My family, bless them, was relatively sane over the holiday. I couldn’t believe the tales I heard at the office on Monday!

If you really want to laugh out loud, get Evanovich’s Christmas book, Visions of Sugar Plums, originally published in 2002. I loved it! I re-read it several times, then gave it (as a Christmas gift) to someone who needed a good laugh. It provided my first introduction to Diesel, Stephanie’s third, “slightly” supernatural boyfriend. It is fast paced (like all the Stephanie Plum novels) and hilarious. Pure fun!

Thanks, Janet Evanovich, for keeping me entertained so many times over the past 20 years. Keep writing, and I will keep on reading!

“Ceremonial Time” by John Hanson Mitchell

I don’t often read two works by the same author back to back. After reading Living at the End of Time, I wondered why John Mitchell’s earlier book Ceremonial Time (1984) was described as a “cult classic”. It didn’t take me long to figure it out.

At its most obvious, Mitchell’s description of his Native American friends and their ritual dance was intriguing and, to me, unexpected. He develops a definition of “ceremonial time” as a condition when people or things from different eras can in some fashion coincide or overlap, and discusses his experiences of this.

In more prosaic historical terms, Mitchell describes the ecological and human conditions on his chosen square mile of Massachusetts from the end of the last Ice Age to the present. Although he resists much of the contemporary change he describes (highways, shopping malls, businesses and the loss of farmland), he gradually accepts them as a small glitch in a long pattern.

It’s when Mitchell discusses “the future” that I really accepted that this book is thirty years old. Much of “the future” he spoke of has arrived. And no doubt Mitchell has adapted to the internet, cell phones and social media.

Mitchell posits several fates for his beloved neighborhood of Scratch Flats – nuclear annihilation (odd that we don’t think about that much in 2014), the asphalt apocalypse (my term, not his), tribalism with a modern twist, and the return of the Ice Age. After all, geologic history suggests that this in an interglacial era. In 1984, he had not apprehended the threat of global warming.

Would he have considered global warming if he had written in 1994? In 2004? I don’t know. When did I “pick up” on it? I often claim foreknowledge based on having watched the movie “Our Mister Sun” in 1960. I studied atmospheric chemistry in the 1970s, but that was oriented towards protecting the ozone layer and understanding photochemical smog. The climate impact of carbon dioxide was not on our agenda.

When did I BELIEVE that global warming would hit hard in my lifetime? Some time between five and ten years ago. And I am, after a fashion, both a scientist and an environmentalist.

Mitchell is an environmentalist and a story teller. He has important things to say in either idiom.