Monday, February 14, 2011

Inventors of ideas and machines

6. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Many are familiar with Vowell from her radio reporting, but unless you have read her books, you may  not know that she's totally smitten with American history! And she's one of those wonderful people who are so into a certain topic that they can immediately adjust their tone and the information they give you based on how much you already know, without never seeming condescending. I can imagine Vowell discussing Puritans with grade schoolers and with historians alike, with the same excitement in her voice.

Well, I'm imagining the excitement, but I read the book with Vowell's voice in my head, giddy with the chance of someone lending an ear to her favorite.topic.ever.

The Wordy Shipmates is about the origins of America, and what the heck the Puritans were up to in the first years of settling. Although a fluffy and funny read on the surface, it's easy to tell that Vowell has studied this subject a lot, from all the letters and journals of the shakers and movers of the era that she has so kindly condensed to the most important bits for us not-so-educated-on-matters-Puritanical readers--and then she throws in some comparisons to modern day America or her personal life to really drive the points home.

The book is about manifest destiny, the idea of God-given right to get lands and liberate people (who may not necessary require any liberating), and about the Puritan values in general and how they shaped the United States of today. The Puritan era has never interested me enough for me to go and read more about it than what I have had to, but Vowell makes it all a breeze. The highlight for me in her books are her road trips with her sister (because Vowell can't drive) and young nephew. In this one, they visit a Puritan museum where the nephew finds out to his horror that a couple of years after the supposed Thanksgiving, Puritans happily burned hundreds of Native Americans alive. The scene is hilarious, if it also wasn't quite so horrifying.

Still, despite all the atrocious events in the Puritan history, Vowell cannot but love them (she qualifies this with her not liking the people, but she utterly loves them as characters). Her book gives a much more meatier treatment to these people than any history textbook. Here, Puritans are presented with their all their marvel and all their flaws, and you can decide for yourself what you think of them.

Pints and Purls: Portable Projects for the Social Knitter by Karinda Collins and Libby Bruce
Saw this at the library and could not resist. The patterns in the book are not exactly inventive, but the premise for the book is a lot of fun. Not only does the book give you a rating for the projects based on how many sheets to the wind you can be and still knit a fine product (the hardest projects are for designated drivers only!), it also gives tips on how to set up a knitting corner at your favorite bar and how to choose a project based on the type of socializing you're doing.

The best pattern in this book is a six-pack carrier made out of yarn that can be felted easily. Quoth the authors from my memory: "You know how those cardboard carriers can get wet, bend and break? Knit and felt your own carrier and you need not worry about it!"

"Life-Line" by Robert A. Heinlein
An early short story (1939!) about what the dangers in finding out details about our future are. Excuse the fuzzy description, but I had a bit of fever and I was very tired while reading this (I read it in one sitting), so my memory of it is not so good when it comes to details. Anyway, a man invents this machine that can tell when a person is going to have his or her last day. The city goes wild: can this be allowed? And how do we even prove that this is not just a clairvoyant's hoax dressed up in science talk and machinery?

Very Heinleinian and to the point, with a dose of ominous "you don't need to mess with EVERYTHING, scientists" in it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Animal behavior

4. Selvästi juovuksissa by Juhani Seppänen (the title is a play on words, and can be interpreted either as "Clearly drunk" or "Soberly drunk.")

Doctor Juhani Seppänen's drinking has gotten out of hand: a six-pack an evening, of course a couple of bottles of wine during weekends, and then all that drinking that needs to be done at movie and book release parties, the one beer right after work at the usual bar for social reasons. And so on. He sits down with his publisher and proposes an idea: What if I won't take a sip of alcohol for a year and I'll write about that?

Seppänen chronicles his non-drinking for a year. None of the information is exactly surprising: if you're in Finland (or pretty much anywhere), it's fairly difficult to not drink alcohol. This pasta dish simply isn't as good without wine! Seppänen wonders why on Earth we have convinced ourselves that putting copious amounts of poison into our bodies is a good idea. Then he remembers that alcohol sales support the economy, at least in Finland. That's why there has not been a serious crackdown on under-aged drinking, who make up a very large percentage of active alcohol buyers and consumers.

Seppänen makes the decision not to tell his friends about his new resolution for fears that it might be seen as a challenge: by God, we'll get this man to drink alcohol, even if we have to fool him into drinking. He goes from party to party, sneakily pretending to raise toasts, ordering non-alcoholic beer so that he wouldn't be ousted immediately.

His personal journal entries are divided by facts about alcohol, alcoholism and alcohol marketing. His writing style is not the most engaging: his supposedly witty jokes and rhetorical questions that are meant to be insightful often just feel like the jokes one's uncle might tell at a wedding and everyone has to 'heh heh' to amuse him. The title is actually a fairly good example of this style: the word play makes no sense in the context of the book, but I guess he really needed to call the book that because it's such a fun pun!

Then again, his writing style is very accessible when it is not (personally to me) grating. It's a pretty good book on Finnish drinking habits, all in all.

5. 50 Games to Play with Your Cat by Jackie Strachan

One of those absolutely ridiculous-seeming books that I just grabbed from the library on my way out. Still, upon actually reading this book I was charmed by it: the games are actually designed with cat socialization and hunting skills in mind, and only a few of the "games" are questionable (building a Hacienda for your cat is not a game).

The book gives good instructions on how to make toys for your cat from everyday household items--yes, mostly from cat-beloved cardboard boxes--instead of spending a ridiculous amount of money on mass manufactured toys that the cat will cast aside as soon as she sees a piece of ribbon somewhere.