Possession by A. S. Byatt
Filed under: Book Reviews,General Reading — Ibis at 1:13 pm on Wednesday, April 14, 2010

From the publisher:
Possession, for which Byatt won England”s prestigious Booker Prize, was praised by critics on both sides of the Atlantic when it was first published in 1990. ‘On academic rivalry and obsession, Byatt is delicious. On the nature of possession–the lover by the beloved, the biographer by his subject–she is profound,’ said The Sunday Times (London). The New Yorker dubbed it ‘more fun to read than The Name of the Rose . . . Its prankish verve [and] monstrous richness of detail [make for] a one-woman variety show of literary styles and types.’ The novel traces a pair of young academics–Roland Michell and Maud Bailey–as they uncover a clandestine love affair between two long-dead Victorian poets. Interwoven in a mesmerizing pastiche are love letters and fairytales, extracts from biographies and scholarly accounts, creating a sensuous and utterly delightful novel of ideas and passions.”

My thoughts:
At first glance, this looked like exactly the type of book I love. It has all the right elements: a complex plot (actually multiple plots), partly in the past (Victorian England), partly in the more recent past (1986), somewhat interesting characters, academia and erudition, a collage of styles (including “quoted” Victorian poetry, journals, and letters), discussions of symbolism, and a mystery at the heart.

It’s not often that a book like that wins a Booker and gets glowing reviews, so I was prepared for a masterpiece. I was prepared for this one to make my all-time favourites list. Objectively speaking, it is undoubtedly the former, but sadly it didn’t achieve the latter. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps when it comes down to it, I didn’t really care for any of the characters. They all seemed so unlikeable and self-absorbed. I also found much of the poetry tedious and rather uninteresting. I did enjoy the narrative variety and the setup and revelation of the mystery (though I was left at the end still wondering about one specific part of the Victorian timeline story). So, in the end, I have to say I liked it but didn’t love it.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
Filed under: Book Reviews,General Reading — Ibis at 1:37 pm on Monday, April 5, 2010

From the publisher:
“In this provocative must-read, the preeminent scientist-and world’s most prominent atheist—Richard Dawkins—asserts the irrationality of belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to 9/11. The God Delusion makes a compelling case that belief in God is not just wrong, but potentially deadly. It also offers exhilarating insight on the advantages of atheism to the individual and society, not the least of which is a clearer, truer appreciation of the universe’s wonders than any faith could ever muster. With rigor and wit, Dawkins eviscerates the major arguments for religion and demonstrates the supreme improbability of a supreme being. He shows how religion fuels war, foments bigotry, and abuses children, buttressing his points with historical and contemporary evidence. This is a book that challenges all of us to test our beliefs, no matter what beliefs we hold.”

My thoughts:
When I first heard about all the hype surrounding this book (when it first came out), I was kind of turned off. It (along with Hitchens’ book) sounded, well, it sounded mean. I’ve never had belief in the Christian god, though in the past I’ve flirted with both a kind of philosophical/spiritual Platonism (you know, the one that says “God is real (and perfect and good) but religions aren’t factually true”) and spiritual pantheism/panentheism (“Nature/the Universe is divine and religions are just ways of communicating with that divinity, and some of those ways are morally & intellectually better* than others”). So I didn’t have a vested interest in protecting Christianity from condemnation. However, I still retained that very liberal attitude that Culture (including Religion) should be respected to the degree that it does no harm: if you want to believe that the execution of some Iron Age carpenter-cum-preacher somehow makes you a better person, well, okay, who am I to judge you? And why should I dismiss the possibility that supernatural things could happen (albeit perceptually filtered through different cultures’ mythologies)? It just seemed like Dawkins was going out of his way to rain on the parade, and to do so without having proof that there wasn’t something real lying behind all those trappings. I didn’t really care to read this book at that time.

But I did read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Which sparked in me a renewed interest in science. From there, I searched for other sources of scientific writing (both in print and online). One day, Carl Zimmer posted about Carl Sagan’s tv series Cosmos and I promptly watched the whole series from beginning to end. But I wanted more so I looked on YouTube for more vids about science and when The Greatest Show on Earth came out, I was quite keen to read it. It’s very difficult to learn what’s going on in scientific circles today without bumping up against the attack campaign of the Creationists.

All of which eventually led to my becoming quite acquainted with Dawkins, both as a biologist and as an advocate for Rationalism. So by the time I picked up this audiobook, I was pretty much so familiar with the contents from recorded lectures and interviews, nothing came as a surprise. Not only have I ventured to read The God Delusion, but I have to say that I agree with it for the most part. Under the banner “harm” I no longer include just physical harm, systemic discrimination (e.g. racism, misogyny, bigotry against homosexuals), an unhealthy attitude to the planet & its other inhabitants, and cultural genocide. Now I include violence to truth, obstruction of education, personal indoctrination of children, and the waste of (financial and human) resources sucked up by religion.

The problem with doing this review is that I don’t really recall much of the book! I finished listening to it back in February and because I was listening, the content has kind of blended into all the lectures and interviews I’ve watched and listened to over the past year or two. A few things do stand out though: discussions of agnosticism and Spinoza’s/Einstein’s pantheism; a discussion about morality without gods; and Dawkins’ appeal to quit saddling children with the religions (and corresponding labels) of their parents.

Oh, and one more thing: I didn’t find it mean at all. Though often caricatured as “strident” and “shrill” Dawkins is actually rather kind and rational (fancy that). He’s just passionate about scientific truth, and like all lovers wants everyone to share in his joy. Hmm. Yes, that and he can’t abide those people who knowingly and deliberately hide it, lie about it, and brainwash others about it. It’s well worth reading—even if you’re religious I doubt you’ll actually be offended by most of what Dawkins says and all of it is well worth considering.

*Many who are adherents of this general belief would say that no religion is inherently inferior, that we should all just accommodate each other’s religious without analysis or criticism. But I had early on formed a dislike of some aspects of Christian theology so I always discriminated between religions.

I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land by Karolyn Smardz Frost
Filed under: General Reading,Goveror General's Literary Award — Ibis at 11:10 am on Saturday, January 26, 2008

From the publisher:
“This epic story is the first entirely original biography of a fugitive slave couple since the 19th century.

I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land is the fascinating and absorbing story of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, two fugitive slaves from Kentucky who made a daring daylight escape from slavery in 1831. Smardz Frost has written an epic account of this couple’s extraordinary life and their struggle for freedom – the choices they made, the dangers they faced, and the courage they had to forge ahead and create new lives for themselves. It is both a devastating portrait of the conditions – and the politics – of slavery and an inspiring account of two intrepid fugitive slaves whose flight to freedom changed US and Canadian history.”

Other useful links:
site for I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land

My thoughts:

I was walking away from the computer here at the library the other day when I happened to see this Challenge book on the New Books shelf. I thought it would be a good choice as a palette cleanser after Not Wanted on the Voyage and The Subtle Knife. I thought it would be putdownable and so I’d be able to read just bits and pieces while I get my move completed. Yes on the first, no on the second. It was gripping and I read it all in about a day and a half.

This is a fantastic book! I recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in American or Canadian history.

In 1985, there was an archaeological dig under a school playground in the heart of Toronto. This had been the home of two fugitive slaves, a married couple, who had escaped from Kentucky, were the catalysts for the first “race riot” in Detroit, had settled in Toronto protected by the government of Upper Canada from several attempts at extradition, who had started the first cab company in Toronto (his colours, red & yellow, are still the colours of the TTC — the municipal transit commission), and became involved in Abolition efforts and helped other refugees from slavery to settle in western Ontario.

This book is a geneology and biography of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, a description of Kentucky, Detroit, western Ontario, and Toronto of the nineteenth century, a history of slavery and the abolitionist movement in the U.S. and Canada, a spotlight on U.S./Canada relations of the time, and a history of York/Toronto and the Black community there.

The author did almost 20 years of research to piece together all of the details scattered among newspapers, censuses, court documents, geneological and property records.

Great book (and well deserving of the GG award)!

Books Read 2005
Filed under: General Reading,Years in Review — Ibis at 11:27 pm on Friday, December 30, 2005

This is my list of books read in 2005 (well, since March or so when I joined BookCrossing and started keeping track.

1. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov
3. The Faerie Queene, Books I-III by Edmund Spenser
4. The World of Odysseus by M. I. Finley
5. Ulysses by James Joyce
6. The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds
7. Timaeus by Plato (re-read)
8. Critias by Plato (re-read)
9. The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler (re-read)
10. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (re-read)
11. The Seville Communion by Arturo Perez-Reverte
12. Taken at the Flood by Agatha Christie
13. Parmenides by Plato
14. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
15. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
16. The Tale of the Unknown Island by José Saramago
17. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
18. Theaetetus by Plato
19. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
20. The Sophist by Plato
21. The Geographer’s Library by Jon Fasman
22. What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin
23. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
24. The Statesman by Plato
25. Mount Appetite by Bill Gaston
26. Notable Historical Trials, Volume III edited by Justin Lovill
27. Philebus by Plato
28. Rescue Ferrets at Sea by Richard Bach
29. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
30. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
31. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
32. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
33. Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde
34. Déjà Dead by Kathy Reichs
35. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
36. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
37. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
38. Laws by Plato
39. The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat
40. Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan
41. The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde
42. Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde
43. Death Du Jour by Kathy Reichs
44. Categoriae (Categories) by Aristotle
45. Such is My Beloved by Morley Callaghan
46. Complete Short Stories, Volume 1 by Ernest Hemingway (on audio)
47. “A” is for Alibi by Sue Grafton (on audio/re-read)
48. De Interpretatione (On Interpretation) by Aristotle
49. Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy
50. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
51. The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
52. The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse (re-read)
53. Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood
54. The Hours by Michael Cunningham

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