The Dig

The Dig by John Preston is a character driven gem of a novel. Here’s what I said about it on my Goodreads page:

In the summer of 1939, on the eve of WWII, an astonishing archaeological find is made on a farm in Suffolk, England. This is a fictional recreation of the Sutton Hoo dig, and my personal archaeologist assures me that the details Preston uses to describe the dig are credible. But really, the book is a character study, the story being told thru different viewpoints and it is done very, very well. Not for those who want a thrilling, fast-moving plot, but I loved this one.

I was aware that the Sutton Hoo dig and ship burial was a real thing, but this book didn’t leave me feeling like I knew any more facts after reading it than before. I actually wasn’t even curious about it until I started writing this post. I checked it out on google and Wikipedia, mostly just to see if the characters in the book were real people. Not only were the people real, but the author is the nephew of Peggy Piggott, one of the archaeologists on the dig and one of the “voices” of the book. Wikipedia was a far better source of information about Sutton Hoo than The Dig.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet, photo from Wikipedia.

Here’s the thing. I can only assume that Preston wasn’t trying to write a Wikipedia entry on the Sutton Hoo ship burial, that he was trying to write about people. And what an interesting group of people! Basil Brown was a local, self-taught archaeologist who first undertook the excavations on the property of Edith Pretty. Pretty was a widow with a young son named Robert. She and her late husband had often wondered about the mounds on their property, but it was the threat of war that made Edith decide to hire someone to investigate. When word of the findings got out, a more professional team of archaeologists was brought in, including Stuart Piggott and his new wife. Peggy Piggott was trying to prove herself in a profession dominated by men and well as embracing her life as a woman and wife.

The book wasn’t a lot of things. It wasn’t a scholarly work about the Sutton Hoo ship burial. It wasn’t a biography. It didn’t even really read as historical fiction. It wasn’t an adventure or a mystery or anything more than a simple story. Still, if you don’t ask this book to be all those things that it isn’t, it is sure to exceed your expectations. What can I say? This is my kind of book and I gave it 5 stars.

Revelation Space

Hey loyal Tftb readers – remember last April when I asked y’all to help make me a reading challenge? Hopefully you forgot because it’s kind of embarrassing that I’ve let it slide so long. But I didn’t forget, it’s always nagging at me, usually in a really snarky tone with something like, “geez, you can’t even follow thru with ONE challenge you set for yourself that involves something you genuinely enjoy, WHATSAMATTERWIDYOU?!” (My nagging is really annoying, sometimes I feel bad for the husband.)

On May 9 (2016) I posted these seven reading challenge tasks:

  1. Read a book written by a friend.
  2. Read a book written under a pseudonym or where the author uses initials to obscure their gender.
  3. Read a book which an image of a bird on the cover.
  4. Read The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power.
  5. Read Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
  6. Read an inspiration. Choose something you’ve always wanted to do and then read a book about someone who does it.
  7. Read a novel by Pat Conroy.

On June 17, I completed task 2 by reading Silas Marner by George Eliot.

On September 7, I completed task 3 by reading H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

On November 13, I completed task 6 by reading Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.

And on May 24 2017, while sitting on the couch and accomplishing nothing else, I completed task 5.

The task came from the s-i-l who is an avid reader and all-around science fiction geek. Revelation Space is described as an epic, space opera. I agree. It’s like a soap opera set in space with multiple storylines and characters and it goes on and on and on, for 585 pages. I applaud his task for stretching me out of my reading comfort zone, BUT… it’s a bit like challenging someone who rarely reads international authors by giving them War and Peace.

I tend to steer away from Science Fiction because it just doesn’t really interest me. This book was filled with descriptions and details that didn’t add to the plot and also weren’t able to suck me into the places or the characters. Maybe if I was more comfortable with immersing myself into sci-fi scenarios they would have added something. Often the plot twists/advancements consisted of a character saying, “Oh, I get this connection, I understand this now,” and then going on and explaining it to the reader. It just felt like cheating by the author, but heavens knows, he did need to find ways to get to the end of this damn thing.

In the last TWO months, while slogging thru Revelation Space, the to-read pile has continued to grow. But be assured, I have not forgotten about my crowd-sourced reading challenging and I WILL complete it…someday.

 

Out with the old

Now that’s a life philosophy, or maybe a four-word epitaph, eh? It certainly is a phrase that keeps coming around (and around and around) in life.

I could be thinking about this because my mother-in-law just made a move that involved considerable downsizing and her kids now have to deal with the rest of the stuff.

I could be thinking about this because we just updated our own wills which of course gets you thinking about all your stuff.

I could be thinking about this because of Marie Kondo and her tidying up philosophy or because I am firm believer in reduce, reuse, recycle or because I really need to dust all the stuff in my house or because I keep seeing articles aimed at baby boomers saying “your kids don’t want your stuff.”

But actually, I am thinking about this because of my volunteer gig.

One day a week I volunteer at a school library. I’ve helped out in school libraries on and off since the daughters were in elementary school, but this year the librarian asked me to do something I’d never done before. I weeded books from the collection.

Libraries are supposed to be great repositories of knowledge and culture. But at the same time, they are also supposed to be current and relevant. Guidelines for Texas school libraries say that the average age of a collection should be less than 11 years. That’s just a guideline, and I’m not even sure if it refers to copyright date or date of acquisition, but it still means that libraries need to constantly be adding and removing books.

The librarian I work with has only been at this school for two years and the library hadn’t had a good, thorough weeding for several years before she arrived. She didn’t do much weeding her first year because she was still learning how the library resources were used by both teachers and students. She’s spent a lot of time and money buying new books, especially fiction and graphic novels that the kids clamor for. It was time to start making some room on the shelves, so she asked me to make a first pass.

PRESSURE.

Actually, there wasn’t that much pressure because she was going to have to look at every book I pulled in order to officially take it out of the system, but still I had to look at a book and determine that it was UNWORTHY to remain in this library. Mind you, I am a person who goes into a used book store and buys yet another copy of one of my favorites because I think it deserves a home. And yes, there are reports that a librarian can generate to find old books, or books that haven’t been checked-out in years, but honestly, a visual perusal of shelves is a good way to start.

In fiction I was mostly looking for books that were in poor condition and books that had multiple copies, but were no longer considered “hot reads.” In non-fiction, I was looking at condition and also subject matter that was obviously dated. You don’t have to have a masters in library science to know that books on travel, sports, and careers date quickly. Chemistry hasn’t changed too much, but computer technology has. History is solid, but books on current cultures need to be fresh. And even if the information is good, books with pictures from the 80’s aren’t going to appeal to today’s 11-18 year olds.

I weeded out several hundred books. No regrets, mind you, but still I couldn’t help thinking about what was being lost.

It was only a few days later that I heard on the radio this segment of Engines of Our Ingenuity titled “Forgotten Lore.” You can read the transcript or listen to it from the link. (It’s short, check it out.)

Do you remember the second line of Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven?”

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. …

I don’t think my library will be missing any forgotten lore, but I’m glad for other libraries, librarians, and historians. To really understand our present, we must also understand how we got here.

H is for Hawk

hawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is the 22nd book I’ve read this year, towards my goal of 37. Goodreads tells me that this is 4 books behind schedule. (Thanks a lot, Goodreads) It also completes one of my Thoughts from the Back Reading Challenge tasks – read a book with a bird on the cover. Two down, five to go. Fortunately, I didn’t really set myself a schedule for the Reading Challenge.

I had heard a lot about this book before reading it. It is memoir, nature, history all rolled together and told by an excellent, descriptive writer. From childhood, Macdonald has been fascinated with the sport of falconry, both its history and the birds themselves, and in adulthood she becomes an experienced falconer. Grieving after the sudden, unexpected death of her father, she decides to throw herself into training the most difficult, fierce predator of them all, a goshawk.

H is for Hawk is the story of the training of the goshawk, Mabel. It is also the story of Macdonald working thru her grief, and finding her way again. It is also the story of the author T.H. White, best known for his books of the Arthurian Legend. White himself trained a goshawk and wrote a book about it. Macdonald entwines the two training experiences leaving the reader feeling that there was no way Macdonald’s story would be complete without White’s story as well.

I heard the author read an excerpt on a radio interview. I was left somewhat breathless. Actually reading the book never left me feeling quite that same way, but still I really enjoyed it. Macdonald herself is an introvert and somewhat of a loner, especially during this period in her life, and it feels like she is purposefully keeping the reader at arm’s length. Her writing is solid though perhaps too descriptive for some. I read it just before diving into an animal training adventure of my own, so I think it is speaking to me on that level as well as the fact that a nature and history combo is clearly a draw for me.

The history was about falconry and White, but it was also about the connection of humans to nature, and it is perhaps that aspect of the book that I loved the most.

When I trained my hawk I was having a quiet conversation, of sorts, with the deeds and works of a long-dead man (White) who was suspicious, morose, determined to despair. A man whose life disturbed me. But a man, too, who loved nature, who found it surprising, bewitching and endlessly novel. ‘A magpie flies like a frying pan!’ he could write, with the joy of discovering something new in the world. And it is that joy, that childish delight in the lives of creatures other than man, that I love most in White. He was a complicated man, and an unhappy one. But he knew also that the world was full of simple miracles.

White’s works are best known to most as the inspiration for Disney movies and Broadway musicals (Camelot). In The Sword in the Stone,  Merlin teaches young Wort to understand himself and his place in the world by understanding non-human animals and their places in nature. Macdonald learned some of those same lessons herself while training Mabel, and I’m pleased she wrote this book so she could teach me, as well.

Grapes of Wrath

grapesJohn Steinbeck, always and forever my favorite author. He observes and understands and writes so that I understand, so that I feel like I am observing his fictional and/or real world right along side of him. I think this was only the second time that I’ve read Grapes of Wrath; I remembered it as not one of my favorite Steinbeck books, but I absolutely loved it this time around.

It took me a long time to get thru it. I haven’t been in a big reading mood and this is a long and rather depressing book. I was most surprised by how relevant the book still is, it was not the escapist literature that I needed as a break from the current world news. It is the story of a family forced off of their Oklahoma farm who head west to California, but so many of the issues and the problems and injustices that Steinbeck illuminates are still central to the political discussions of today. The book alternates between telling the specific story of the Joad family and generalizing the situations in Oklahoma and California.

At its core, The Grapes of Wrath is the story of refugees forced off of their land and away from their homes. It is the story of these refugees migrating to a land where they assume they will be welcomed. It is the story of these migrants arriving and suddenly becoming a lesser class of humans. Wealth and power are concentrated in a small minority of individuals and large corporations and the law stands with them. The whole refugee crisis is ignited by an economic crisis, the Great Depression and compounded by an environmental/climate disaster, the Dustbowl. Banding together to survive, peaceful protesting and unifying movements too often are responded to with hate and fear and violence. Reading it was just like turning on the evening news.

In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry, Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.

And the latter was true, for how can a man without property know the ache of ownership? And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. How’d you like to have your sister go out with one of ’em?

The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them – armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t let these Okies get out of hand.

Written as a contemporary novel, it is now read as historical fiction. People who like to read a lot into things say that is a retelling of biblical stories. The title phrase comes from the Book of Revelations, by way of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. I don’t like to read that much into it, I think it was about current events at the time. Although considering how it could also be an allegory for what is happening in the world today, I guess we still are telling those same stories over and over. And no one tells them better than John Steinbeck.