Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book Review: The Case for the Psalms by N.T. Wright

This is a fine, unassuming little book on how to read the Psalms. Wright gives a good overview of the Psalms at hand and provides some higher-level ways to think about these songs, how they are at the crossroads of time and space, for example, that are helpful for guiding the thinking and can be applied to other books as well. Interesting to read this along with James Agee's A Death in the Family, showing that his ambiguous but meaningful take overlaps with some of the darker Psalms. Also, overall, Wright's book pulls off the trick of really being about the Psalms and pointing to them, not being about the author's ideas about the Psalms. A good, accessible (if small) piece of Wright's oeuvre.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: A Death in the Family

I cannot imagine a better book than this one that is about the effects of death on the living. James Agee's writing is devastatingly precise and clinical without being detached. His descriptions of the ways emotions ripple through to the surface are so accurate that this book by itself shows that it's true, the deepest things are not the most particular, but the most universal. It's even got a clever narrative structure that gives the reader the same shock as the characters in a certain way. He always seems to approach faith from the outside-in (like everything else, in fact) but it is there nonetheless and I'm not sure if there's a writer better at simultaneously conveying both faith and its opposite. His children have no precocious adult-sense about them, they are truly children. This is a hard book to get through simply because it spells out what death does to a family in inexcruciating detail. In other words, it's a hard book to get through because it is so good.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Quotes from Madness, Rack, and Honey

Haven't done one of these in a while, but there's a few moments from this latest book I want to keep and may as well share them with the Internet:

"I have flipped through books, reading hundreds of opening and closing lines, across ages, across cultures, across aesthetic schools, and I have discovered that first lines are remarkably similar, even repeated, and that last lines are remarkably similar, even repeated. ... in poem after poem I encountered words that mark the first something made out of language that we hear as children repeated night after night, like a refrain: I love you. I am here with you. Don't be afraid. Go to sleep now. And I encountered words that mark the last something made out of language that we hope to hear on earth: I love you. You are not alone. Don't be afraid. Go to sleep now." -- p. 8-9

"Like the aircraft used for the lunar launches, good books only look heavy and slow: their speed depends on their internal engines and where they are pointed." -- p.18

" ... like the monk who discovered champagne -- an accidental event that unexpectedly happened to his wine -- I have on occasion come running with open arms toward another with the news, 'Look! I am drinking the stars!'" -- p. 101

"When I was twenty-two I sent two postcards to two friends in Mexico, which they never received. The postcards were photographs from the American Civil War -- the dead bodies of soldiers strewn across a battlefield -- and though I no longer remember what the messages were, I have always thought twice about the fact that they ended up in the office of dead letters, that remote and obscure place of absolute silence, which for me is a more accurate description of hell than a writhing inferno of animated anguish." -- p. 200-201

"Irreverence usually hides an unnatural obsession with what is revered. He who doubts wants to be believed, he who hides wants to be found. He who curses with regularity uses God's name as often as one who prays." -- p.221

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Book Review: Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle

This collection of lectures on poetry is a fascinating, perceptive, and occasionally very funny reflection on words and what words can do. A lecture juxtaposing Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, and Anne Frank stands out in particular. Mary Ruefle's writing gambols about and sometimes the wheels seem like they're on the verge of coming off but then she reels it in and the whole lecture coheres better than you thought possible. As the collection wears on the lectures get shorter and seem to fragment into reflective but still connected shards. We don't need massive online courses as long as poetry professors see fit to publish their works in collections like this -- reading this book is like sitting in class with a brilliant, humane, slightly batty poet who talks about life as much as she talks about poetry. Recommended for anyone with an interest in words and writing.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review: The Mind's Eye by Oliver Sacks

It may be true that every author writes the same book over and over, but it may be especially true for Oliver Sacks. But just because his personality comes through in every book does not mean that all his books are equal. Take The Mind's Eye, for instance, and compare it to Hallucinations. Both overlap in subject area (processing of perception vs. perception of illusions), and both have case studies and both are told with Sacks's clinical, detached, humble voice. They even share some anecdotes. But I much prefer The Mind's Eye to Hallucinations. Looking back at it, it must be because while Hallucinations comes across as a jumble of random stories strung together, one thing after another, The Mind's Eye connects as a single story and tells a narrative about how the brain can compensate for loss of perception, a story with hope, the best kind. Also, each of these books has a personal story of Sacks's own experience, but while Hallucinations recounted Sacks's experience with a hallicinogen, The Mind's Eye pulls together his journals from when he was diagnosed with an eye tumor and had to adjust to radical changes in vision. A more harrowing story, but also more hopeful in the face of loss than the other one. I even found out about some fascinating studies about language that I may cite elsewhere, something that definitely didn't happen with Hallucinations. The Mind's Eye is Sacks at his best.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Heirloom Chemistry Set

If there's a word that's overused right now, it's "artisan." Its definition is so squishy it can be applied to any material, and if the material is shoddily made it may be considered more realistic and therefore more worthy of the label! But this item on Kickstarter is worthy of the word: an artisan's chemistry set.

Not only is the box sturdy and wooden, not only are the instruments and glassware simple, elegant, and thick, but each of the chemicals is homemade (ok, home-purified but you get the idea). The campaign was funded above and beyond the necessary, so now I'm caught outside the shop window wondering how I can get one of these for myself. What a great idea!

(The shop that the set-maker owns looks pretty incredible as well. I'll have to drop by if I'm in the area ... )

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Language Map of Europe

This map shows the languages of Europe, scaled by number of speakers and placed on the map by the "lexical distance" between each. English is close to German but it's actually closer to French, although from the way these clusters line up you can see at a glance why, despite that, English is still considered a Germanic language.

Notice how the language relationships fit the geography of Europe (or were made to fit, but hey, it works).

Genes can be clustered in the same way, and they tell similar stories. It's words all the way down.

I got the picture from here, and the original data is from K. Tyshchenko (1999), Metatheory of Linguistics.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Book Review: Under the Dome by Stephen King

My run of luck with reading Stephen King appears to have run out. Under the Dome is perfectly readable and reasonably surprising, but it surprised me most in a bad way. As in, the author really hates all those characters that much? At its heart Under the Dome is about unexplained suffering, and it has a nice dichotomy in two churches that form at the center of two rival camps which develop after a mysterious dome seals off the town Chester's Mill from the whole world. But the role of the churches completely disappears halfway through the story. Worst of all, I knew how it would end because the ending is way too telegraphed -- there's none of the "what will happen" suspense that was present in 11-22-63, and that was a novel that you knew the end from HISTORY, after all -- and what does happen causes me to lose faith, not in God, but in King's ability to empathize with his own characters. In the author's note King says the book has been in the works for decades and was edited way down, and I can't help but wonder if some of the removed material would have made the characters and events a little more real to me, but I also don't know if it would have been worth sitting through. It didn't help that there's a meth lab involved here and I was reading this while watching Breaking Bad, so, well, there's just no comparison, Breaking Bad is much better than Under the Dome. Insights into suffering require what feel like real people doing the suffering, and near the end King lost me in believing that these people were real. Perhaps the rule is, the more normal or historical the premise, the better the novel for King? This is a very abnormal and modern premise, then. There's some promising moments but without a decent resolution they don't add up to much.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Green Tea, Dark Chocolate, and Zinc Actually Work

This infographic showing evidence for supposedly "healthy" supplements has been around since 2010, but it's the first time I've seen it. I must be a glass-half-full type because, rather than get depressed about the large number of "not worth it" substances, I'm pleasantly surprised to see dark chocolate (for blood pressure), green tea (for cholesterol, not necessarily cancer), and zinc (for colds) supported by actual evidence. This fits my impressions but I'm glad to see someone's worked harder at gathering more than just impressions. Now, I really need to take some vitamin D, especially considering Seattle's lack of sun.