starlady: (revisionist historian)
To say nothing of my chosen career path, and avocations.

One might mock—one does mock—the mastery of what is, after all, mere mock history. But the fantasy readers’ learned habit of thinking historically is an acquisition as profound in its way as the old novelistic training in thinking about life as a series of moral lessons. Becoming an adult means learning a huge body of lore as much as it means learning to know right from wrong. We mostly learn that lore in the form of conventions: how you hold the knife, where you put it, that John was the witty Beatle, Paul the winning one, that the North once fought the South. Learning in symbolic form that the past can be mastered is as important as learning in dramatic form that your choices resonate; being brought up to speed is as important as being brought up to grade. Fantasy fiction tells you that history is available, that the past counts. As the boring old professor [Tolkien] knew, the backstory is the biggest one of all. That’s why he was scribbling old words on the blackboard, if only for his eyes alone.

--Adam Gopnik, "The Dragon's Egg"

I--yeah. It's no accident that I consider my interest in history to be strongly motivated by an interest in narrative.
starlady: An octopus solving a Rubik's cube.  (original of the species)
Gopnik, Adam. Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

This year marked the bicentennial of Darwin and Lincoln's birthdays (they were born in the same year, a coincidence upon which Adam Gopnik constructs an impressive edifice that is a gem of a book), and in celebration of these two figures--one a naturalist, the other a president--Gopnik offers a nuanced, persuasive, wonderfully well-read meditation on the impact on us of their actions and their ideas.

Gopnik has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for the past 23 years, and he succeeds quite well in keeping the tone of his book at about the level of an essay in that magazine (too well, really; I could have done with a more expansive bibliography, since I recognized Gopnik adapting material from more writers than he cited explicitly). Part of his skill is that he's read the right books, not only by and about Darwin and Lincoln but about literature and history in general. He has a genius for summing things up in a witty turn of phrase that gets right to the heart of the matter. It's a brief book, and I shall try to honor that by keeping this review short as well. I can only say that I'd recommend it to any one interested in either man, since Gopnik succeeds in explicating some bit of the meaning of life out of the life of each.
starlady: (through the trapdoor)
Happy Birthday, sparowhawk! At this point I have known her for about half of my life, which is scary when I think about it, but also speaks to the volumes of fun we continue to have. Many happy returns!

In other news, I have a quotation of the day to post before I go fill out my Starbucks application: 

Mrs. Pearson's eyes were like blue ice. Oliver could tell that she was struggling to contain her emotions. "You...find...yourself in a confrontation with absolute evil, and you...are...planning...not...to...think?"
    Oliver had never heard words said so slowly, with so much outrage.
    "Well...I..." Oliver stumbled.
    "Craft, strategy, cunning tactics: thought. That is all that allows good to triumph. Renounce reason and you're lost. Rely on your 'inner sense,' and you will make a mess of everything. Thinking is your only hope. Start thinking now and never stop. Outwit the evildoer! Learn to tell the difference between sound argument and slippery rhetoric. Discriminate between the Received Idea and the Enduring Truth; between the odd and the strange; the selfish and the self-centered; the childish and the childlike; between metaphors and ironies, riddles and paradoxes. Think, and if you can't think, read. And if you can't read--why, then think some more! Discriminate, adjudicate, split hairs, dispute priorities, but think, think! It is your only hope."

--Adam Gopnik, The King in the Window (New York: Miramax Books, 2005).

Later: I just finished this book, so I will append a brief review of it. In brief, it is excellent. I've been eyeing it ever since it came out while I was in college--indeed, I nearly bought the paperback at my college bookstore at several points--and I have to say that it's excellent overall. The hero is Oliver, a (bilingual!) American boy living with his parents in Paris: on Epiphany, he keeps his gold paper crown on too long and is mistaken by the window wraiths of Versailles for their new king, and adventures (and a battle for the soul of the multiverse) ensue. Gopnik lived with his family in Paris for a while, and his affection for the city shows through beautifully, though without condescension, and he manages to make gentle fun of both Parisians and Americans throughout the book, mostly through trenchant observations. The book is very elegantly constructed--its themes show through beautifully, but never become overbearing--and the characters are wittily sketched. It's also a contemporary update, in some respects, of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (indeed, Alice herself appears at one point!), and I appreciated that the book, though fantasy, very firmly embraces email, computers, iPods, quantum physics, and other trappings of modernity while trumpeting balloon swords and millennium-old stained glass windows. Like Oliver himself, it is something of a hybrid, and it thinks.

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