Thursday, January 07, 2010

Don't Make Me Say It.

My Thursday evenings on the reference desk mostly involve looking sternly at patrons until they shush. I need more good patrons. I'm pretty sure my most interesting reference question of the night was asked by guys looking for chemistry information for no-good plans. I'm thinking either things that change your consciousness or things that explode.

The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett. The cover art is quite terrible! I'm surprised the author became so popular, with such awful covers so early in his popularity. I wouldn't randomly pick this up. The writing is good, settling in to the style we have come to love in the author's later works. I always think he could use a few more commas-- it's not like they come dear-- but the spaces where I think they would help are largely more a question of style.

Death by Sudoku, by Kaye Morgan. I should have learned my lesson with that crossword mystery, but I'm slow that way, I guess. In fact, aspects of the books are so similar that I'm going to save myself time and effort and just quote myself: "Unfortunately, it follows the same pattern as so many other mysteries that have put me off mysteries: a poor writer with an interesting idea, combined with esoteric knowledge and an ignorance of how real people talk and act." I did feel good about myself, because the puzzle in chapter 2, which the characters are given 45 minutes to solve, only took me about 20. I then found the thing, though, that made me stop reading the book: the writer walks her character through solving the puzzle; "It was hard to miss the combination of 7s in the top tier of boxes. These numbers appeared in the first row of the first box and in the third row of the third box. That meant there had to be a 7 in the middle row of the middle box. Only two of the three spaces were available-- an 8 occupied the center space. Four spaces down from the left-hand space was a 7, eliminating that open cell as a candidate. So there was only one solution. Liza picked up her pen and entered a 7 to the puzzle" (p. 22). There are diagrams of the puzzle, and a few of the puzzle with some extra numbers filled in as the character works on it. I didn't bother to see how many more times the author would waste 3+ pages on explanations. I would think the sort of readers who pick up a Sudoku-themed mystery already know and enjoy puzzles, and don't need them explained to them.  

The Emperor's Embrace: Reflections on Animal Families and Fatherhood, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Wow. Now, I know we all have a bias, an angle we're working, a pet theory. But let's at least be honest about it. I picked up the book because it has the cutest picture of a baby penguin on the front, and I was in the mood for a less-strenuous readable nonfiction title. I made my way through the whole thing, but I totally don't recommend it, and for these reasons: 1. While the author talks about the mating and parenting habits of a number of animals, it's perfectly clear that his aim during this part of the book is to argue that animals are (near) sentient beings capable of the same levels of feelings as people, and, if not truly capable of thought, at least capable of choice. I don't fault him for thinking this way; it isn't my opinion, but reading would be really boring if everyone had the same views as me. I fault him for slowly building up to his points, for sticking in a few innocuous ideas at first and taking a long time to actually say what he thinks. Don't make your theory sneak up on me. 2. It's the epilogue, which I admit I didn't finish, where this loser really shines. He breaks out the italics all over the place and finally comes out clearly on how he feels about parenting-- and flops. He has a number of points about child rearing. All these points being with "we evolved to" do x with our babies. While most make use of examples from the animal kingdom, I'm not clear on what impact the frequency of a cottontail rabbit feeding its young should have on how often we feed our children. The examples the author uses are often tenuous at best, and sometimes nonexistent: on the point "Fathers evolved to stay with their children throughout their entire childhoods, eighteen years or longer" the entirety of his argument is "[s]taying is good for the baby, good for the mother, good for the father, and provides essential emotional nutrients that give the child a feeling of self-worth and self-value that can never be replaced by any achievement or recognition in later life" (p. 205-206). Emotional nutrients? What are you smoking? Nor does this have anything at all to do with penguins or wolves or any other animals we are supposed to take as examples. Good? In what way? Good is vague! Most of his points in this section are anti-established medicine. He uses intimate details from the lives of his wives and children to illustrate that x is the best way to raise children. Just because a 4-year-old is still sleeping with his parents and he hasn't taken a hatchet to his preschool classmates yet doesn't mean that's the right thing for every child in every family. There is no one right way to do things. In short, well-researched information on animals? Yes! Looney theories and poor presentation of thesis? Also Yes!

Lords of the North, by Bernard Cornwell. This kind of let me down a little, actually. A portion of the book (mini-spoiler!) follows the main character after he has been betrayed by the man he helped make a king, who sends him away in slavery. He spends 2 or 3 years working as a slave, but we don't get the same detail for that part of his life as we usually do. No one really wants to read about the horrors of slavery, but by leaving out the historical detail for which his work is known, the author makes it seem like that part of the character's life wasn't a big deal, really. Nothing much happened: they rowed, they were cold a lot, the shackles didn't feel to nice, but meh. The book really lost me here, because I didn't feel for the character. And it's difficult for the book to pick up again afterwards, because, since we don't really feel for the character while enslaved, we can't identify with his anger at the person who enslaved him. It wasn't that bad, so why is he enraged? Other than that, good, as usual.

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