Saturday, March 12, 2011

Library Saturday Addenda, 3/12/2011

Had a writing group meeting in a library today. The library happened to have a copy of Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, so, based on recommendations, I grabbed it. That will be my food ethics book for next week.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday Review, 3/11/2011

Andrew Lane - The Death Cloud

This is the first of Lane's Young Sherlock Holmes books. The series is approved by the Doyle family, which adds a little something to the experience, perhaps. At any rate, Lane set out to piece together Holmes' adolescence from the hints that Doyle had presented. He writes about the exercise here, and concludes that, for the most part, Holmes' childhood cannot have been a pleasant or comfortable one. Given that, I had expected that this book would be rather more dreadful than it was.

Lane has set himself an interesting challenge - we know, of course, how Holmes turns out; more importantly, we know what skills he has. Doyle, of course, presents us with a preternaturally competent man with a wide array of interests and abilities. Lane has to do two things. First, he has to show us a young Holmes gaining those skills and interests, and second, he has to tell a story worth reading at the same time. I think he succeeds entirely at the first part, and does a pretty good job at the second part, although there are some places where the whole exercise goes somewhat off the rails. Mostly, Holmes inserts himself into situations that he (as an adolescent) has no place inserting himself into. This is, of course, the meat and potatoes of the adolescent detective novel; the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, the various books of Enid Blyton (The Secret Seven, The Famous Five, and the Adventure books), even Encyclopedia Brown; all hinge on children and teens inserting themselves into matters which are entirely beyond the scope of the average young person. I have no idea why it bothers me here, but it does, a little.

The story turns around the summer that young Sherlock spends with his uncle, since his father has been sent to India with his regiment. Sherlock's brother, Mycroft, newly hired by the British Government, ensures that Sherlock has a tutor for the summer. The tutor, as might be expected, is somewhat non-traditional in his approaches. Against the better judgement of the tutor, Sherlock solves a mystery involving the defense of the realm.

In the end, the whole thing was fun, but not particularly deep.

Grace Pundyk - The Honey Trail

Here's the food ethics book for the week. Pundyk, an Australian free lance writer, sets out to explore the world of honey. Starting in Yemen, she travels to Australia, New Zealand, Borneo, Russia, The United Kingdom, Italy, Turkey, the United States, and China. In each country, she seeks out honey producers and honey sellers. She reveals the twisted history of honey. Honey bees of one sort of another exist natively on every continent except North and South America (the honey produced in the Americas is made by transplanted European bees.) - despite this, Argentina is one of the world's biggest honey producers (only China produces more). Each country makes a slightly, or indeed wildly, different type of honey, depending on the flowers the bees visit, and the species of bees being kept.

The book is fascinating. Honey is deeply complicated. The plant life needed to keep bees is under pressure all over the world - bees are kept in some of the most sensitive ecosystems, from the leatherwood forests of Tasmania (under threat of logging) to the wetlands of Borneo (under threat of being converted into palm oil plantations) to the midwest of the United States (where drought and agricultural monocultures are having a significant and negative impact on bees and honey.) In Australia, Pundyk finds bee keepers who argue that the government is not doing enough to protect forests - and other bee keepers who argue that the government is doing too much. By keeping them out of national parks, the government has significantly impacted the territory of some Australian bee keepers, who must keep moving around the country in order to expose their bees to new flora on a regular basis. In Borneo, she works through a local NGO devoted to turning bee keeping into a viable business in order to keep plantations out of the sensitive land - the NGO works to teach traditional honey hunters more modern techniques, so that fewer bees are killed in the process of harvesting the honey.

Honey is also big business. Pundyk talks a little about the fact that honey has been shipped all over the world since the very earliest of civilizations - there are reports, for instance, of Chinese traders acquiring honey from Borneo, and there are temple paintings of honey trading in Egypt. Honey is, in addition to being a relatively easy to acquire sweetener, highly valued as a medicine. Different honeys are often attributed with different medicinal qualities, and so trade across national borders makes sense.

In modern times, honey remains an important commodity.  Pundyk discusses the struggle that smaller producers have in maintaining their local product.  For instance, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and the United States have all raised significant tariff walls against Chinese honey, both because it is much cheaper than locally produced honey, and because there have been some serious problems with chloramphenicol - an antibiotic. Australia and New Zealand both have very stringent import laws - Pundyk is concerned that her honey will be confiscated as she enters these countries (although, actually, it is only as she arrives in Sweden, en route to the UK, that her honey is confiscated. Not, as she feared, because of import laws, but rather as a part of the prohibition against liquids on planes.) Despite this, Australian honey has been found with high levels of nitrofurans - a different antibiotic, used in Argentina, but not in Australia - keeping honey "pure" is harder than it looks. The ban on Chinese honey resulted in the near collapse of one of the major honey producers in the UK - the honey they had been selling was largely Chinese. Other honey companies capitalized.

Argentina ships a vast amount of honey to the US - most of the honey sold in the US is a blend of honey from the US, Canada, and Argentina - but how much of each sort of honey is in the blend is hard to tell. Bee keepers in the US chapter complain about the competition from Argentina - and yet, Pundyk has a surprisingly hard time finding honey, either domestic or imported, in the stores she visits in the US. This leads to a short discussion of food deserts - as she drives across the American South, she is amazed that she sees so little fresh produce on grocery shelves.

In addition to writing about bees, Pundyk writes about herself, about travelling, about finding a home, about falling in love, and blues music, among a great deal else. The books rambles all over the map, just as Pundyk does. At times, this is a little distracting; at other times, it is endearing. In the end, the book is a fascinating meander through a vastly interesting topic, and a nice way to end the Honey Month.

Terry Pratchett - I Shall Wear Midnight

This is the fourth of Pratchett's Tiffany Aching novels.  This series is a young adult series, and serves, perhaps, as an independent introduction to Pratchett's Discworld. Tiffany, a young witch, wanders through environments which will be familiar with existing fans of the Discworld novels, but which are presented in a new and fresh way in these books. The books are delightful, regardless of whether you've read any of the rest of Pratchett's work or not - but, there are some grace notes which will enhance the books if you are already a fan. This novel features a cameo appearance by a very old character - Eskarina Smith, the central character of Pratchett's much earlier novel, Equal Rites. If you haven't read the earlier novel, it doesn't matter, but if you have, there's a strong Aha! moment when you recognize Miss Smith, which is nice.

Pratchett plays with metaphors in all of his writing.  Here, Pratchett is writing about inclusiveness and interpersonal relations. He is also writing about witch hunts, both literal and figurative - it wouldn't be hard to see this as a novel about the way in which, people of, say, Middle Eastern extraction are treated in Western society. Despite that, the novel is not at all preachy. Instead, it is a romp; entirely delightful. If you are already a fan, this is a must read. If not, I'd say start with The Wee Free Men. My wife contends that the Tiffany Aching books are not necessarily a good place to enter into the Discworld, because Pratchett writes them much differently. Notably, the Tiffany Aching books have chapters, and a relatively small cast of highly developed characters, while the rest of the novels have no chapters, and have vast hordes of characters with somewhat differing levels of development. Pratchett novels are a cumulative thing - the character of, for instance, the witches, evolves quite a lot between Equal Rites (the first appearance of Granny Weatherwax) and Carpe Jugulum (which I reviewed earlier, as part of the vampire thing). The same is true of the members of Ankh Morpork's Night Watch. I think Tiffany Aching is as good a place to start any any other, probably - if you like these, you'll probably find a great deal that you like in the rest of the books.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lent, and the guy who reads

Last year, as an experiment, I engaged in minimal periodic fasting during Lent (the 40 [edit - Mike is an idiot who should know that Lent has 40 days, not 30. Thanks for the catch, cjmr!] days before Easter; in the Christian calendar (and especially the Catholic calendar), these days are set aside for some form of personal privation. Traditionally, this means no meat, but many modern Christians practice some other form of specific self-denial.). Specifically, I did not eat until sundown on Mondays. (Weak, I know, but it was symbolic more than anything else.) I coupled this with a selection of readings on food and food ethics. I would like to do the same this year, and so will be posting weekly reviews of food ethics type books. As always, I would love recommendations - I've read Michael Pollen's Omnivore's Dilemma, but anything outside of that would be great. I will also be posting general musings on food at my other blog, here, and I invite you to join in as you feel inclined to do so.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Library Tuesday, 3/8/2011

A very quick trip to the library today, got in just before it closed. Two book today:

Lauren Willig - The Mischief of the Mistletoe

I am a total sucker for Willig's Pink Carnation books. At least partly because I am totally jealous - she's about my age, she has my degree (more or less) and she writes fantastically successful regency romance novels. The sex is pretty minimal, incidentally, but the characters are compellingly quirky. The books are fluffy, but they're fun.

Tamora Pierce - Tortall and Other Lands: A Collection of Tales

Pierce is another favorite. This is a collection of stories which, perhaps, fill in some of the gaps in her other novels. Additionally, there are some unrelated gems in here. My wife gets it first, though.


was a snow day. We got socked with a foot or so of snow, and all the local streets and government offices were closed. So, unable to go to the library, which may or may not have been open, library day was postponed until today.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Something away from the regular

My students have a problem. Why am I mentioning it here? Because the problem is that they have trouble with reading. It's not entirely their fault - they've never been taught how to read. Specifically, they have never learned to read a primary source document.

Primary source documents, of course, are the bread and butter of the historian. The letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, speeches, posters, maps, and all of the various scraps of writing and such that humans use to document their day to day lives - without them, historians would have no material on which to practice our discipline. As a key part of my syllabus, I give my students a piece of primary source material each week. Currently, I'm teaching the "1st half" of US History - roughly, Columbus to the Civil War - so I've been giving them speeches and chapters of novels; a sermon, later, some thing from the Federalist Papers, perhaps. Possibly the Gettysburg Address, or one of Lincoln's inaugural addresses.

The goal is to have them discuss the material once a week, but this turns into a lengthy period of explanation of the material. Part of this is certainly because the 18th century prose is quite dense; filled with clauses and classical references, and written in a high rhetorical style that assumes a certain body of education. Perhaps it is unfair of me to expect them to be able to cut their way through this jungle of verbiage unguided, but I do try to provide them with some landmarks.  Each reading comes with a short note about the author, where needed, and some comment about context as well. I present each reading with a couple of sentences of lecture on the reading - why I have assigned it, perhaps a few words on how it was received at the time. Further, only part of the problem is the prose - they had trouble with a reading from Swallow Barn by John Pendleton Kennedy. (That link goes to a free version of the work, which was published in 1832, and is thus firmly in the public domain) Kennedy, who pioneered the "plantation novel" genre, wrote with as clear a prose as you could want. My students complained because the reading "didn't go anywhere."

Swallow Barn is an excellent example of what I'm trying to talk about, actually. It's a novel about plantation life in a romanticized version of historical Virginia. It was written by a resident of Baltimore, at a time when the cultural centre of the US South was in Charleston, South Carolina. There are slaves in the novel, because you can't have a plantation novel without slaves. I challenged my students to "find the slaves" in the first chapter. It took them several minutes to locate a quiet reference to slaves in the midst of the discussion of the plantation goods and animals. It took them another several minutes to twig to what that meant; both that the slaves were "hidden" and that they were listed as part of the plantation fixings. I asked them to compare the Kennedy work to a chapter from Uncle Tom's Cabin, the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe (also in the public domain, and well worth reading), a book clearly written by a Northern author (and about 20 years after Kennedy). They had trouble with the exercise, I had to walk them through it.

I'd like to stress something here. These students are not stupid. In fact, they are some of the brightest students I've had in some time, which is why I'm mildly disturbed by their inability to interact with primary sources on the most basic level - comparing them to one another, extracting simple information from them, answering questions based on the reading, that sort of thing. The only thing I can attribute this to (besides the denseness of the prose) is that they have not been taught to do these things for themselves. James Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me (that one isn't in the public domain yet, but it's also worth reading) concludes something similar. Loewen's book is somewhat poorly named, in that it is not an indictment of teachers. Rather, it attacks the history textbook industry, which produces the general texts students are given as a key element of their early historical education. Loewen has many problems with the history textbooks in American schools, but one of the elements he brings up is the practice of describing historical documents rather than providing the document for the students to address.* This, combined with the bland, anti-controversial style of writing which  dominates history texts, results in a population of high school students who are a) convinced that history is boring and who b) cannot read a primary source text.

So, what difference does this make? Well, it makes a lots of differences, actually. First, it means that these students are primed to accept the word of "experts" about what a text means. That's dangerous. Second, it means that they are unable to read critically, which is, perhaps, a subset of the first problem, and certainly no less dangerous. Third, it means that they are cut off, almost irrevocably, from their own past, which is sad, but also dangerous, as indicated in Jill Lepore's By The Whites of Their Eyes (that link goes to my review of the Lepore) - people who do not understand their own past can be mislead by charlatans who know how to manipulate their perception of the record.

I'm not really sure what to do about this, beyond what I'm already doing. Perhaps you have some ideas?

* mmy triggered this musing in her discussion of North American news reporting of the uprisings in the Mid East and North Africa. She commented that North American news channels tend to place a commentator (at best - a talking head at worst) between their audiences and the story. Specifically, she points out that the BBC and Al Jazeera irectly broadcast Colonel Gaddafi's speeches, which North American channels told their audiences about what they thought that Gaddafi's speeches meant.

x-posted here.