An Edible History of Humanity – Tom Standage

I found this a fascinating bit of history. Well, not a bit. It’s the history of the world really, but it’s a new perspective; world history as influenced and shaped by food, which makes total sense. We not only eat to survive but we like to eat. Food is a strong motivator. It should be a major factor in human history. Tom Standage recalibrates our view of food, taking it from taking if for granted to the future of our race. So folks, let’s learn from the past.

That’s not an unusual perspective for a history teacher to take. I want to learn about and from the past; I enjoy history. But I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. I usually enjoy it when I do, but it takes a non-fiction book a lot of work to get me to read it. (Which is sort of odd because it’s not like I’ve had bad experiences reading non-fiction because I am rather fussy about it… ah, maybe that’s the answer.) It has to catch my attention, resonate with something in my life, grip my interest, nag away at me, and finally not take no for an answer; then I read it. Well, it’s maybe not quite that bad but it needs to take some of the responsibility for getting me through.

I’m very glad An Edible History of Humanity caught my attention. It might be the pictures standing in for letters on the cover, or the covers’ oldish appearance, or the chapter titles (“Follow the Food,” “Seeds of Empire,” “The Steam Engine and the Potato”) or the fact that the author also apparently wrote A History of the World in 6 Glasses, which is much lauded on the back cover (which six? I’m sure coffee and tea are on the list). It promised to resonate with things I was thinking about at the time. I was teaching ancient history and the first chapter is the “Invention of Farming.” But, I think it was the introduction that got me in the end. It was so clear! I could see exactly what kind of journey I was about to go on as it outlined why the history of food was important (quote: “The fate of nations hangs upon their choice of food.” Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin) and whetted my appetite with brief overviews of examples examined in the book. Ultimately, it convinced me this was a book I needed to read. It also convinces me now that introductions in non-fiction are essential. I don’t know if everyone reads them but I do.

I enjoy non-fiction, especially with my interest in history, and while it isn’t my main genre of reading, the rewards for reading non-fiction are great: a feeling of accomplishment; maps, diagrams, and images to look at (hopefully!); new perspectives and ideas, as well as new vocabulary; new topics of conversation; and, a deeper understanding of the world. I will never look at pineapples in the same way again.

Book Intimidation

I haven’t posted in awhile and the only reason I can is… well, no, two reasons… (1) the Olympics – figure skating had me a little wrapped up there for awhile – and (2) book intimidation. I don’t know if anyone else uses this term but it is a very real thing that reader’s experience, and this is what I, at least, call it. It is the feeling one gets when thinking about tackling a big or challenging book. You feel intimidated by the size or weight of it, in a physical but also mental and emotional sense. You don’t know if you’re up to it.

I have experienced this before with Treasure Island no less. I wanted to read it as a teen and pick up a second hand copy. But I found the language in the first few pages challenging and I have never gone back, more’s the pity. I think I associate it with a feeling of trepidation. This time around it was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel that got me.

I read a bit of news about the new stage production of Wolf Hall based on the book. I saw it was about the Tudors and Thomas Cromwell and reportedly very good. I looked up the book and put it on hold and before you know it, it arrived at the library. I didn’t know much about this book going in but when it arrived and I realized it was 650 large pages, I wasn’t sure where I was going to find the time. I’m not a particularly fast reader.  And there on the cover was a stamp saying it was short listed for the Booker Prize. Things started to look a whole lot more serious; not light reading experience here.

Now I had to think, do I want to read this book this much. Do I want to take on the the commitment of time and energy. I know enough about the Tudors and Cromwell to know there probably isn’t going to be a happy ending for pretty much anyone involved. I expected my emotions might take a beating and I may cry. (The cover probably didn’t help. It looks a little torturous.) So I delayed and then the task, for it started to feel like a task, began to feel more daunting. During most of January my reading had been made up of mysteries and children’s books. I had been on an Agatha Christie kick and it seemed like to big a leap to now take on literature that might demand something from me. 

Why do some book intimidate and not others? It’s not just a size thing or no one would read anything by Kenneth Follett, and yet people do, willingly. I think it depends on a personal circumstances – mood, personal experience, reading level, interests, background, time of year. Interestingly, my summer reading is often the more serious. I have often picked up large books and completed them and felt satisfied in the summer. I have read The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad in the summer, and it probably has a page for each of the siege, maybe more; I have read A Short History of Nearly Everything and Anna Karenina in the summer. Is this because reading feels less like work in the summer? I have also read a lot of total crap in the summer, so perhaps this theory won’t stand up to too much scrutiny.

Maybe books just have a time, a right time, when you are ready for them. I certainly wasn’t ready for Wuthering Heights in grade 12 but it was perfect timing just out of university. But this book intimidation was more than that. I was deliberately avoiding the book – I hadn’t even opened it, given it a try. At first I told myself I would read the books I had borrowed earlier first. But then I found myself by-passing it and reading book I had borrowed since. I didn’t know what I was going to get into and wasn’t sure if I wanted to – I was intimidated by a book.

How did I get passed it? Two things – (1) I finally read a bad mystery. I didn’t enjoy it and I knew I needed something more. I was better than this. (2) I just picked up the book and opened it. I told myself that I had better take it back to the library the next day if I wasn’t going to read it, but first I would just read a little bit and than I would feel more justified in my action. I probably wouldn’t enjoy it and then I could be excused for being so craven and running from a book. But turns out I liked the first few pages, a lot, and I didn’t want to take it back after all. Maybe it was the right time or maybe I got past the appearance or maybe I just faced the book bully, and like most bullies, it back off.

I’m not done Wolf Hall yet. It is going to take me awhile but I’m really liking it. I’m glad I opened it, tried it out. Not only have I got past the mental block, the book intimidation, but it’s probably the best reading experience I have had since Blackout and All Clear (although I do think Agatha Christie’s Murder in Retrospect is a great novel). And I don’t mean to say that big books should be read just so one can say you’ve read them and feel superior. I just want to say that book intimidation is a real thing. You may experience it from time to time and that’s okay. It may not be the right time for you and the book. Just don’t let the books win. Don’t let them make you feel badly about yourself and them – that they are a burden and mean. That’s just how they look from the outside, but on the inside they really are good.

Medieval Mouse Literature

Besides mysteries, my other reading this month has been mouse stories with medieval settings: Redwall by Brain Jacques and Mouse Guard by David Peterson. It’s definitely an interesting genre. It’s world-building.You have to develop a whole mouse culture!

Mouse Guard

mouse guard fall

I’ve read the first two full graphic novels. Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 and Mouse Guard: Winter 1152. The images are beautiful and evocative. They communicate a lot and I am very thankful because it means the graphic novel does not suffer from clutter. Usually, I don’t like graphic novels because they are so busy and I hardly stand it. One thing that I think Mouse Guard has on Redwall is that the mouse world is perfectly pictured. Everything is in proportion to a mouse.

I’ve also really enjoyed the story which I think improves through the second book. I thought the first story had a few holes. For example, I thought it was odd that an attack that depended on having a stolen axe proceeded without it, although I still enjoyed it. In the second book the story became more intriguing, especially as Lieam emerges as the main character. I also really enjoyed the interaction with other creatures – weasels (in abstentia), bats, hares, and owls. I am excited to read the next installment, Mouse Guard: The Black Axe.

Here is a trailer for Mouse Guard

Redwall

redwall

It took me some time to get into Redwall but in the end I found it very satisfying. My initial problem was the incongruent pictures the story created in my head. I am a very visual reader, I picture everything I read and I notice if something doesn’t seem in the right place or does something that seems impossible in the space. And here was the problem with Redwall – I couldn’t figure out if it was a mouse-sized or human sized abbey! There is certainly no mention of humans and how could mice build an abbey of human proportions? However, the rats climb trees to try to get over the walls – so the walls are as tall as trees? Are these people sized animals or are the animals regular sized and everything else much smaller? I kept coming up against problems like this, so it was not a seemless reading experience. (How can a cat and owl walk paw in wing? Is the cat walking on its hind legs?) In the end, I abandoned trying to figure it out how this world actually worked. I still don’t know.

However, I still really liked RedwallI don’t know if I will continue on with the series because I like this story as a stand alone but it was a good adventure. I liked the characters and I like the progression of the plot. I particularly enjoyed seeing Cluny the Scourge thwarted. I liked the dialects and accents. I like the anthropomorphication (is that a word?) of sparrows and shrews and foxes and other animals. It was lively and rich. It certainly kept the animal in the animal kingdom – while not as graphic (pun intended) as Mouse Guard it still had it’s fair share of injury and death. I can certainly see boys especially enjoying both these series, although females are equally represented in the characters in both. 

It looks like Redwall has been made into an animated series – this might help solve my problems… or not. Here is part one of episode one. Just from the first few minutes, they seem to have changed the story slightly. I like it though. 

Medieval Mouse Literature Themes

It’s interesting how the mouse often equates to a child in literature. The mouse is small and vulnerable; it must face dislike of others; and in its own way cute and somewhat civilized; it does sometimes live in houses. Other animals are more savage by comparison. And in these stories, the young reader (the intended audience) clearly is meant to identify with the young  mouse protaganists. Who wouldn’t want to be a mouse-warrior, learning about bravery and what it truly means, facing snakes and other enemies, coming of age, developing the wisdom of how to use their skills, going out on their own, leading others. Maybe the representation of mice in literature could be a topic for discussion sometime?  

Other books with mice (although most are not medieval):

  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Robert C. O’Brien
  • Stuart Little, E. B. White
  • The Tale of Desperaux, Kate DiCamillo
  • The Dark Portal, Robin Jarvis
  • Poppy, Avi
  • Mouse with a Question Mark Tail and Secrets at Sea, Richard Peck
  • The Church Mouse, Graham Oakley
  • The Tale of Two Bad Mice, Beatrix Potter
  • A Cricket in Times Square, Robert Selden
  • The Rescuers, Margery Sharpe
  • The Mouse Wife, Rumer Godden
  • The Mouse and His Child, Russell Hoban
  • Doctor DeSoto and Abel’s Island and The Real Thief, William Steig
  • Bless This Mouse, Lois Lowry
  • The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Beverly Clearly
  • The Cheshire Cheese Cat, Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis
  • The Witches, Roald Dahl
  • Basil of Baker Street, Eve Titus

And that’s enough to be going on with.

The Novels and Stories of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

January seems to be mystery month for me. And not only that, Sherlock returns. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one looking forward to third season. So, in honour of the great detective and his return, lets talk about the stories. A few summers ago I read them all.

There are the well known ones: The Hound of the Baskervilles, Scandal in Bohemia, The Final Problem (season two in fact). And while I enjoyed them all, and enjoyed the short story format, one of the novels, The Valley of Fear, sort of blew me away. It was very vivid in my mind as I read. It was intense and suspenseful; there was truly as feeling of evil that must be overcome. And, not being (as) well known, it was a total surprise to me.

Sherlock Holmes is so very well known as a character he has become almost a caricature in some places (not Sherlock, thank goodness). So I think it is very refreshing to get back to the written word, the original stories and discover this eccentric, dogged, relentless, sometimes infuriating, detective. Holmes is the original flawed detective and I think that is what he really has going for him. He has a brilliant mind but he still needs other people, and we enjoy not just his successes but his interactions as follow his development as a human being keenly. The stories are really quite redeeming, for in the end, it really isn’t about proving his abilities, it is about using his abilities for others.

And of course, we can’t forget Watson, because of course, it is through his perspective and his words that we see and learn everything. Without him there is no Sherlock Holmes.

I should note that the collected stories and novels that I have come in two volumes. The Valley of Fear is in the second volume, along with The Hound of the Baskervilles and His Last Bow and Casebook, but it is in rather poor shape. I picked it up second hand and just now has broken into two pieces in my hand (time for some tape!). The first volume, containing A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, among short story Adventures, Memoirs, and Return of Sherlock Holmes, is in much better shape. I owned the first volume for years before I actually read it. I got it as a gift and quite ungratefully didn’t really pay it attention, although I should confess that I tried to read it a little starting with A Study in Scarlet and found it quite tough going at the time (I think I was in high school). I am so glad though that I did get it as a gift and that I gave it a second try or I might never have gotten into them!

Agatha Christie and Co.

I did some reader’s advisory at the library recently for a patron who was looking for something like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries, so I thought I would share it here, especially since I’ve been on an Agatha Christie kick lately. I’ve been trying to figure out what I have read and what I haven’t, which involves reading a lot of Agatha Christies, sometimes unknowingly (at first) for the second time.

The patron was looking for something set in an English village (she really enjoyed books set in England – setting was very important); a cozy mystery, not graphic or racy; something light in tone, humourous. She mentioned the Miss Marple mysteries by Agatha Christie specifically. I did some research and this is what I came up with. They are all set in rural England and English villages. They are such blood-thirsty places! I haven’t read many of these authors, but I think I might give them a try.

  • Ann Granger – Writes several series, two of which are set in rural England, the Mitchell and Markby series (first title: Say It With Poison) and the Campbell and Carter series, set in the Cotswolds (first title: Mud, Muck, and Dead Things).
  • Hazel Holt – Her sleuth is the Mrs. Shelia Malory, a reluctant amateur sleuth. (First title: Mrs. Malory Investigates).
  • Robert Barnard – Series features Detective Charlie Peace in West Yorkshire. (First title: Death and the Chaste Apprentice).
  • Catherine Aird – Writes a series set in rural England featuring C. D. Sloan, who finds himself investigating crimes among interesting groups. (First title: The Religious Body).
  • M. C. Beaton – Writes two series, one set in the Cotswolds featuring Agatha Raisin (first title: The Quiche of Death), and the other set in Scotland, with Hamish MacBeth (first title: Death of a Gossip).
  • Caroline Graham – Her mysteries follow C. I. Barnaby (first title: The Killings at Badger’s Drift).
  • Charles Hampton/Hamilton Crane/Heron Carvic – All three authors contributed to the series about Miss Seeton, a retired art teacher, who is a bit like Miss Marple. (First title: Picture Miss Seeton).
  • G. M. Galliet – Her mysteries feature Max Tudor, who thought he left crime behind in the city but finds that is not the case (first title: Wicked Autumn).
  • John Sherwood – Write the Celia Grant series. Celia is a horticulturalist. (First title: Green Thumb Trigger.)
  • Nancy Atherton – Her Aunt Dimity series is little more on the kooky side. One of the detectives, Aunt Dimity, is a ghost. (First title: Aunt Dimity’s Death).

I haven’t provided a tonne of information but hopefully it’s enough for people to find books and give them a try. You can glean some information from the descriptions though. Is the title humourous? Is it serious? What type of detective is it – amateur or police? Is the detectives name quirky or down-to-earth? All these things give us little clues to the author’s intentions. We could categorize books according to detective:

Police – Campbell and Carter (Granger), Charlie Peace (Barnard), Sloan (Aird), Hamish MacBeth (Beaton) and Barnaby (Graham).

Amateurs – Shelia Malory (Holt), Agatha Raisin (Beaton), Miss Seeton (Carvic, etc.), Celia Grant (Sherwood), and Aunt Dimity (Atherton).

Professional/Amateur mix – Mitchell and Markby (Granger) and Max Tudor (retired MI5).

I have to say, when it comes to names, I like Granger’s use of alliteration but I still think Hamish MacBeth is the best name, followed closely by Aunt DImity.

Anyway, some cozy-ish mysteries to consider!

 

Reading Highlights of 2013

I thought it was about time to make a list (since lists are so fun) and what better topic than a year review? It’s been a good reading year. Despite the heavy course load, and luckily even because of it, I have read some great books, discovered authors, and generally enjoyed my reading experiences. Someone told me this year that reading a book is a gift you give yourself. I have been very kind to myself this year.

I have realized that it’s hard to remember everything you’ve read in a year and the books that I remember most are the books that I read near the end of the year, so they may feature here the most (it’s a little like that Oscars in that way). But I’ve done my best to jog my memory and I think I’ve covered the important ground.

1. Connie Willis

say nothing of dog   blackout     all clear

This is a writer that I have just discovered this year but I have to say that her books have gone right to the top of my reading experiences. These are very intricately plotted books. I enjoy her characters and the historical detail. I love the literary allusions that abound. The stories are humourous and thoughtful. I find my time travel such a difficult idea to get my mind around – it and its implications certainly takes quite a bit of thinking. I appreciate that she just doesn’t present the idea as fair accompli. These are quite the genre bending books – science fiction and historical fiction and something else all rolled into one. I found each of the three books I read, To Say Nothing of the DogBlackout, and All Clear, to be compulsive reads despite the heft and detail of the books. (Although, readers should be forewarned that one should consider Blackout and All Clear one book and read together, in order. One should not attempt reading one alone or read them in the incorrect order. This will simply lead to frustration.)

2. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber

crimson petal

This is quite an astonishing book. I have to confess that I came to this book in a roundabout way. I saw a clip on Youtube and my interest was piqued. I ordered and watched the mini-series. I discovered it was a book and read it. It is quite a dark take on the Victorian novel, a dark kind of Dickens, with its numerous characters and intricate plot, exposing everything the VIctorians wanted to hide or deny. And at the centre of it all, Sugar, so complex and fascinating – angel, prostitute, governess, avenging author, secretary, muse, thief.  I think the size of the book would be enough to intimidate anyone but I was surprised at the speed in which I went through it. This was probably my biggest, most serious read of the year but I felt like it had quite the payoff.

3. The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia & A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

thief

queen of attoliaking of attoliaconspiracy of kings

I actually read The Thief, a Newbery Honour Book, last-last year but it led to me reading the rest of the books in the series, so it gets to be included. I picked it up as a bargain, purely out of curiosity; I had never heard of it, the author, or series before, but I have a good idea what I like and I was right! Again, these books feature intricate plots and strong characterization… Think I’m seeing an appeal trend emerging here. The target audience is probably children/YA readers but I still really enjoyed these books. The Thief is a real adventure, and certainly that is present in all the books. But there is also political intrigue and battles of both wits and will. These books are clever, suspenseful, and thoughtful too. Every protagonist is faced with the question: what kind of person are they really? How can they remain true to themselves or become the person they want to be? The setting of the series is also quite intriguing. It feels part history, part fantasy, part myth. I feel like there are still more books to come, so I am keeping my eye out. So far I think my favourite has been The King of Attolia. I do feel that one thing is missing though – I would really like a map of the kingdoms!

4. The Jane Eyre Affair Reading Map 

I put a lot of time and thought into “The Jane Eyre Affair” but it was a pure delight for me. What could be better than really thinking about a book you have enjoyed and extending that experience though similar reading material, films and video, and going more in depth into the author, book, time period – anything – connected to the book? Clearly, you know how I feel about it. Most of all it was incredibly interesting to see just how influential this one book is in our culture. I knew that I loved Jane Eyre. I just didn’t realize just how many other people also did. I found the process of creating the reading map very enjoyable. I sort of want to make reading maps my job. I don’t know if that will happen but I I am definitely tackle another one in the future. If you have a book suggestions, let me know!

5. Goodreads

I just discovered Goodreads this year, and with my love of books and lists, its really a perfect match. What I like most is the ability I have now to really efficiently keep track of what I have read. I’ve tried making lists before but I end up writing things down more than once and scratching things out and then it becomes less aesthetically pleasing and I want to start all over again. Or I lose the list. I also like that I’ve been able to discover more books by authors I enjoy and books in series. I don’t review, I just keep track. But it is a resource that has definitely helped me out and added some delight to my reading experience.

Other highlights:

  • I’ve made my way through all the library’s Angela Thirkell novels but I still have a lot more to go. I am going to have to do some searching but I am determined to read them all! I love touring around Barsetshire and keeping up with all the residents, and I love the consistency. Edith always manages to get a little above herself despite her best intentions.
  • Eva Ibbotson is definitely a writer for me. She is a new discovery this year. As far as I can tell the best way to describe her books is “historical romances in 1930s Austria and England which involve a lot of family background and where every character makes an impression.”
  • E-readers – I learned to use one. I still don’t know how I feel about them. They may be a conspiracy of the publishing industry to shut down public libraries but they are handy when you’ve finished a book (Blackout) that has a sequel (All Clear) that you didn’t really know about and you need to get hold or and read immediately!

Reading Resolutions for 2014

  • Finish the books that I started and have not finished (but want to).
  • Read books I got for Christmas.
  • Catch up on my Alexander McCall Smith.
  • Create a reading map.
  • Find more Angela Thirkells.
  • Update blog regularly.
  • Visit the Book Depot.
  • Explore some genres I neglect more – Fantasy? Western? Literary Fiction?
  • Find out what all the James Patterson fuss is about.

And that’s enough to be going on with.

The Mole Family’s Christmas – Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban

So, I’m not quite done with Christmas yet. Equal to but perhaps not as well known as Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, is another Christmas story by Russell Hoban, The Mole Family’s Christmas. 

BKS 86 small

The Mole Family, of course, live under the ground, in the dark. One morning when Delver Mole tunnels up to the surface and a mouse tells him Christmas is coming. But none of the family knows what that is. They say, “Perhaps it is a people thing.” But Delver just can’t let it go and not only that, he then has to find out what stars are too. That is the start of the Mole Family’s first Christmas.

I love the humour in this little story. This is the Mole Family’s letter to Santa Claus: To the man in a red suit and fat we would like a telescope we are nearsighted Thank you love the Mole Family. And I think I like the pictures in this even better than Emmet Otter. The owl is quite wonderful.

My copy has a bit of family history. A least, the ownership is not quite clear. The cover says Katie, the title page says Amy, and the first page of the story says Katie May. I’m not sure if that means she won. Curiously, the letter to Santa is always handwritten in in a blank space where the letter would have or should have been printed. So maybe my version isn’t right, but I think it fits. I wonder what happened there?

I think I am going to turn this into a Christmas concert play.

I hope you wrote your letter to the fat man in the red suit! Merry Christmas!