Reading Journal Entry: The Anvil of the World, Kage Baker

I've loved Kage Baker's time travel books - original and enjoyable.

The Anvil of the World is her first fantasy novel, and it holds to the same level of quality work. It's not exactly heavyweight, but it's complex in its way (a deeply detailed and original world) and at times is laugh-out-loud funny.

I think Kage Baker is going to go onto that exclusive list of writers whose works I will buy, in order to a) support them monetarily, and b) have them always on hand. So far there's just three people on the list: Bujold, Watt-Evans, and her.

Highly reccommend.

The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams

This was a completely worthwhile book.

It's considered one of the greatest autobiographies, and I can well see why. Above and beyond the fascinating events Adams witnessed, he delivers a humourously self-deprecating and humble portrait of himself with all the wisdom a 70-year-old man writing about his younger self could hope to employ. His focus is constantly on the forces that shaped his life and his mind - and he doesn't think much of them.

It's obscurely reassuring to read about a man who is so self-evidently of genius calibre who took so much time to find his path, and spent so much time blundering about in life without a clear direction.

It's hard to supply a short list of great things about this book. Adams delivers an unlimited supply of insightful one-liners; portraits from life of four Presidents (John Quincy Adams, Lincoln, Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt), Lord Palmerston, and Garibaldi; an account of the immense changes in the world from his birth in 1838 to 1905 - i.e. the Civil War, the war of 1870, Darwin, the spread of steam power and the automobile, the discovery of radiation, etc.; and a vast array of musings from a wide-ranging and deeply thoughtful mind.

Adams as a young man studied at Harvard, then in Germany; served as his father's personal secretary while Charles Adams was the US Ambassador to Great Britain during the war; worked as a journalist in Washington DC; and finally settled down rather unwillingly as a historian at Harvard College in his mid-thirties.

He evinces a surprising amount of bitterness about politics. His portrait of President Grant is scathing; Grant's failings are blamed for a derailment of his life and destruction of any remaining optimism. Over and over again he repeats the phrase 'A Friend in power is a friend lost', which he seems to regard as one of the few valid lessons gained from his early 'education'. He denigrates the holding of political power and talks about Congress in a way that even the most disillusioned stakeholder wouldn't today (I wonder if that's because we stopped expecting it to work?). To borrow a phrase from later on in the work, "the outlook is without hope".

In the second half of the autobiography, covering the years from 1892 onward, Adams describes a number of thought-processes that engaged his attention after his departure from Harvard. Some of them I admit I tuned out - or maybe they just went over my head. A few were surprisingly evocative. His analysis of Russia, for example, was right on the mark, and almost prescient in its predictions.

In an analysis of social forces, he applies the principles of mathematics to social progress in calculating the 'force' of attraction of technology. Using various differing measures, he estimates a rate of increase (which he extends back to the 13th century) of a doubling every ten years. Since I'm pretty sure Moore wasn't alive in 1905, that means Adams' exponential law predates his by quite a bit.

The recording I listened to was excellent. Jonathan Reese made a great reader. He sounded just right. And he gave exactly the right emphasis to every sentence. It was a pleasure listening to him

I'll sign off with this quote. Listening to it was more than a bit surreal.

"At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power. He would think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind. He would deal with problems altogether beyond the range of earlier society. To him the nineteenth century would stand on the same plane with the fourth--equally childlike--and he would only wonder how both of them, knowing so little, and so weak in force, should have done so much."

Reading Journal Entry: The Grand Tour, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermere

This volume is the sequel to Sorcery and Cecilia, by the same authors, which has been often reccommended to me. I put both books on reserve at the library and this one came back first - so I read it, because I have no self-discipline.

Very fun light fantasy, with just enough romance in it.

I look forward to reading the first one.

Reading Journal Entry: The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones

Another fun book, I know, I know. It's not like I'm goofing off totally, folks, I'm halfway through a huge memoir by Dean Acheson and The Education of Henry Adams. I need something a little lighter at breakfast, that's all. The Spellcoats is another of the bunch of fantasy books I picked up 50% off two weeks ago, and another Diana Wynne Jones also. This is the 3rd stand-alone novel of, I think, 4, set in the country of Dalemark. Good stuff! Light, funny at time, and a novel convention. Instead of an epistolary novel or a diary, the story is being woven into a coat by one of 5 siblings who just happen to be descended from The Undying. The setting is well done - you really get a sense of the geography and local culture, and it's so refreshing to read a fantasy novel not set in generic-medieval-fantasy-world.

Reading Journal Entry: 1652 by Eric Flint

West Virginia coal-mining town from the year 2000 is transported to the central German state of Thuringia, year 1652 (surprisingly, Thuringia is a real place. It sounds made up, doesn't it?). American know-how and can-do attitude transform 6 square miles into a bastion of freedom & democratic principles while kicking ass. Mildly amusing, but not well written, even for mediocre time-travel fluff.

The Letters of Abelard & Heloise

After wading through the letters of Abelard and Heloise, I have a lot more sympathy for Carmela Soprano - in the episode Sentimental Education she is given this book by a lover and doesn't find it a hot read.

This thing is dull. D-U-L-L dull. The story itself is much more interesting than the correspondence.

Abelard is a famous philosopher, seduces and impregnates his student Heloise. That much we knew. What I didn't know is that her uncle only castrates him after they are married (and according to a note in the introduction, probably to prevent him from being ordained, as only 'whole' men could be priests). He forces Heloise to enter a nunnery and totally loses interest in her after he can no longer do the deed (she complains about being neglected).

Abelard is a total pompous ass who thinks he is God's gift to the world. If I had to read one more sentence about how brilliant he was and how persecuted he was by his jealous colleagues, I was going to throw the book against the wall.

Heloise is much more interesting...and manipulative. Her letters really show that they had a grand passion going (sex in the sacristy, naughty naughty!). And she is desparate to hear from him, doling out in equal amounts the guilt trip, the references to sex, and the appeals to vanity.

I have to wonder what the hell she saw in him, why she was so absorbed and devoted - to the extent that she didn't want to marry him, because it would ruin his career (one can't philosophize with rugrats around). Then again, maybe she felt that their love wouldn't survive domestic life any more than his genuis would.

I guess he must have been a really great lay.

This would make a great plot for a novel, but the letters not particularly suited to the modern reader. They mostly deal with religious concerns and the titillating bits are few and far between. If you're interested in how women first started serving as nuns they cast an interesting light on that, but as light reading, it's a no-go.