Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What I'm Reading: Death Comes For the Archbishop

This is a selection from the TIME Top 100 list I intentionally put off. I read Willa Cather's O Pioneers! in high school, begrudgingly. I thought the prose dull and sparse, the story needlessly depressing. A title like Death Comes For the Archbishop doesn't do much to promise anything better.

It's hard to tell, then, if my tastes have changed dramatically, or if Death... is that much different. The writing is simple, still, but not dull. Death... comes much later in life than O Pioneers! so it might well be the polished work of a more experienced writer. According to Wikipedia, by the time Death..was published (1927) Cather was beginning to see the fall of her literary star. By the 1930s her propensity for historical settings branded her, in some eyes, a "romantic, nostalgic writer who could not cope with the present"; by that point the trend in writing and the arts at large was political and social activism (eg The Grapes of Wrath).

Despite being written 85 years ago and being historical fiction even then, Death... still manages to be timeless in a way similar to The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Perhaps there's just something eternal and ageless about the desert of the American southwest where Death... is set. Father Latour, sent from the comforts of his Ohio parish to the relatively unknown wilds of New Mexico in the 1850s, is at once sympathetic to the modern reader, but also totally believable as a Catholic priest from 150 years prior. Death... chronicles his life in his new foreign diocese: the people he meets, encounters he has, challenges he faces.  It's a novel not only about Father Latour, but the land and its native people as well.

I'm not sure I'll add this one to my permanent library, but I am certainly enjoying it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

101 in 1001

Not a productive week, I'm afraid.



In Progress:

Currently reading Death Comes For The Archbishop.  (3 - 3)

Comments and posts, as usual. (1 - 3) (7 - 4)

I watched another Star Trek episode. (5 - 12)



Rest of the list after the jump.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Science Saturday: Bat Speak

My day job when I'm not making jewelry is working in a cave. One of the issues we (along with other caves, the National Cave Association, the National Speleological Society, and even the US Geological Survey) have been concerned about over the past few years is the spread of White Nose Syndrome (WNS). It appeared in Howe Caverns in 2006, and has since spread like wildfire across the US. WNS is essentially a death sentence for bats, as the mortality rate is something like 95%. Nearby Durham Mine, home to the second-largest little brown bat population in Pennsylvania, saw its population plummet from around 10,000 to just a couple dozen.

The sickness disturbs bats' sleeping and hibernation habits. Instead of resting, they go out and hunt—but often at times where there aren't many bugs to be had. The fat reserves they had stored up to help them hibernate get used up. Eventually they just tucker themselves out and starve to death. It's called "White Nose Syndrome" because of a white fungus that appears on the bats' muzzles as well as their wings. So far it's unknown if the fungus is what makes them ill, or if it sets in after the bat is already sick.

An alumna from my high school (who I know by name but that's about it) is conducting a study about the social calls of bats. Their social calls—defensive territory marking, distress signals, calls from mothers to pups—are different from their sonar calls, and not as well documented. The more we can learn about bats—including how they talk to each other—the better equipped we are to help save them. If you've got a spare $10, chip in so Ms. Brokaw can reach her $3000 goal. The link is below.

Bat Speak: What Bats Say and Why We Should Listen

The little brown bat (myotis lucifugus), the species hit hardest by WNS.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What I Read: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

I could not have picked two more different books, I think, than what I picked at the library last week. If The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was hyperrealism and outdated political intrigue, then The Bridge of San Luis Rey was poetic license and universal themes. It also had an openness and simplicity that I enjoy, and that I've found much more often in Japanese writing than in anglophone. The opening line is one of the best I've read in a long while:

On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.

The temptation to quote the entire first paragraph is almost insurmountable, so I'll just leave it at that line. Overall, The Bridge of San Luis Rey was everything I wanted The Spy Who Came in From the Cold to be.

The five travelers are the Marquesa de Montemayor, her servant Pepita, a twin named Esteban, a vagabond theater coach called Uncle Pio and his newest protegé: Jaime, the son of his former student, Camila Perichole, now the Doña Micaela Villegas. The only person to witness the event is a monk, Brother Juniper. He decides to use the opportunity to meticulously and scientifically document the presence of God's will in the breaking of the bridge and the death of the five travelers. It's Brother Juniper's detailed inquiries into the lives of the five unlucky souls that forms the (obviously fictional) source material for the novel, which itself purports to be a summary and commentary on the work and fate of Brother Juniper.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is not long at all, yet it somehow ends up being dense (in the best possible way). I finished it over two or three days, even though this edition only clocks in at 102 pages (not including the Foreword or the Afterword). There's no pressing rush to find out what happens next; there's a lot to think about and to mull over. This is definitely one of the books on the list that warrants a re-reading. I'll be adding it to my permanent library collection as soon as the Boy and I get settled into a proper apartment.

The rest of Time Top 100 Novels list is behind the jump.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

101 in 1001

And again, I've been busy. At least I've accomplished a couple of things...?



In Progress:

I finished two books off the TIME Top 100 Novels list: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  (3 - 3)

Comments and posts, as usual. (1 - 3) (7 - 4)



Rest of the list after the jump.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What I Read: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Long time no blog. Oops! I've been busy, though.

Lawyer Mom and I went to the library last night. She returned some trashy political thrillers in exchange for new trashy political thrillers; I got my expired library card sorted and grabbed two more books from the TIME Top 100 list. I finished The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in one sitting, something I haven't accomplished since I read The Painted Bird right around Christmas.

The Spy... was okay, I guess. It was (surprise!) a spy novel, a genre I don't normally read. I didn't find it any kind of outstanding or insightful piece of literature; its presence on the list confuses me. The more I work my way through the TIME Top 100 Novels list, the more books I find that seem to be included not because they're good but because they were just really popular. Insert an exasperated hipster sigh about "the mainstream" here.

(Slow down there, Hipsterina!)

This is another book that seems dated in a bad way, like Brideshead Revisited. East-West German political intrigue is just not interesting or relevant to people who didn't grow up under the specter of Communism. Wikipedia assures me that The Spy... made a great splash at the time of publication, as an intense realist counterpoint to the romantic jet-setting adventures of James Bond and the like, but now it just reads like so many of Lawyer Mom's trashy political thriller novels that to put it in the same category as Infinite Jest is a bit embarrassing.

Le Carré's writing is competent in that it doesn't get in the way of his story, but it's rather pedestrian at the end of the day. Nor does he have any great, heart-breaking characters, nuanced insights into life or "the human condition," or even truly masterful plotting. (Uncomfortably anti-Semitic as it is, Appointment in Samarra takes the plot cake so far on the list.) Nor does it touch on anything really universal or timeless or relevant, like race relations or gender roles.

I don't know what the term for a parlor scene is in political thrillers, but the one here felt forced and awkward, even though I appreciated the plot clarity it provided. On the downside, the clarity revealed that the entire story hinges on a pretty ridiculous deus ex machina that reminded me a lot of Oldboy, except in Oldboy it was actually plausible.

Ultimately, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is just an inexplicably mediocre find on the list that should have never been included in the first place.

This brings me to 67 out of the 100 TIME Top Novels list. That means I'm at the two-thirds mark! The whole list is after the jump: