Tony Hillerman writes a predictably solid mystery. With a world that lives and breathes and is very different from the green, moist Pacific Northwest that I consider home. A month or so ago I started at the beginning of the Navajo series with The Blessing Way and am now up to Coyote Waits a little more than half way through. These are my chocolate chip cookies of the moment. I read an hour or so in the evening. (Sadly these are not available as audiobooks.)
Speaking of audiobooks. Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age is accompanying me and the dog on our morning walks. Not my favorite Stephenson. It moves too slowly. Which is an odd thing to say about a Stephenson, considering that he is the master of the extended expository aside. But here we’re not talking about asides we’re talking about pieces of the narrative that bog along without much happening. I don’t feel much for the little girl Nell which isn’t helping the story hold my attention. I find Miranda and the other adults much more interesting. Nonetheless a fine bit of a story to accompany me on the daily ramble as the weather grows increasingly crisp (or lately foggy.)
Speaking of dogs. I’ve just finished Cat Warren’s What the Dog Knows. All of the scent training and nosework people I know are reading this right now.
This is a clear-eyed look into the world of working dogs. Not sugar-coated or filtered through a need to make the dog, Solo, a hero. Warren is honest about the sometimes difficult nature of the highly driven working dogs and about the possibilities, limitations and unknowns of the use of scent detection dogs. Her account of their early training sessions will make anyone who is honest enough to remember their first couple of sessions with any sort of scenting dog wince in empathy. (I still struggle to keep my damned hands from fidgeting.)
There are stories of both their successes and failures. Solidly academic — which may make you a little crazy as she fact checks some of the most cherished myths about dogs’ noses and their ability to discriminate scents. But you’ll also learn about dogs’ roles in the death rites of ancient civilizations, an attempt to train vultures to search for cadavers, and some odd moments from the history of military dogs. There are extensive notes at the end of the book if you want to dig into the back ground information for yourself.
Ordinary Genius Kim Addonizio who is best known perhaps for her poem What do Women Want. This book is a guide to making poetry. So what? There are dozens of books about making poetry, why should you read this book rather than one of the other poetry books out there?
Because there are lots of sharp edges in this particular knife drawer. And not many lace doilies. Lots of exercises that explore words, phrases, and meanings that are revealing not just for poets but for anyone who works with words. The exercises that prompt you to dissect and repurpose clichés are worth the price of entry.
Three from much earlier this year.
In non-fiction, Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from Data. Professor does stats for dummies. Lots of baseball. I kind of like baseball and there are some amazing things being done with numbers in baseball. But mostly it’s the old standbys, drug research and the large scale health surveys with a little terrorist tracking, some SATs and grades, and a soupcon of beer. Yeah, the beer and brewing stuff is interesting. All in all, dull. So I’m still looking for something that’s interesting enough to make the basics stick in my head for more than 20 minutes.
I had much better luck with The Best Science Writing Online 2012. edited by Jennifer Ouellette. A curated collection of the best of a year’s worth of blogs, columns, and essays published on-line. We’re incredibly lucky to have so much good writing on science available to us. There isn’t a field of pursuit in which there aren’t at east two or three well written sources for the enthusiastic amateur to follow along. Open sources science is at it’s best in the new science journalism.
No matter what your favorite field there’s bound to be something in here for you. Maryn McKenna talks about public health, Rob Dunn about insects, and Ann Finkbeiner about science itself. Better yet you’re probably going to find something here that you’ve never seen before — like the church forests of Ethiopia described by T. Delene Beeland. Tens of thousands of islands of Afromontane forests protecting and protected by churches. Some may be as many as 16 centuries old. They are a thing I’d never heard of, and that I’m grateful to know about now.
In fiction, Six-Gun Snow White. Catheryn Valente revisits an old tale in a novella set in the wild west (and mid-west) Rewriting fairy tales is dangerous territory. It goes wrong more often than not. I can’t say that this goes wrong. It just doesn’t quite go right. Nearly, almost, so very close that you can forgive the off notes and leaps and judders but… not quite right. Not because she doesn’t have a very firm grasp on the tale in question. There’s not a fairy tale that Ms. V can’t dissect and rebuild, This time it’s a matter of caring too much that the message be right. And then there’s the matter of not having a grasp on the setting. She doesn’t want to live there, not like she has in all her other retold tales. She did her research, there are silver mines and enslaved miners; misogynistic, slightly stupid cowboys; desolate, paranoid (rightfully) Indians; and a perfectly, morally ambiguous robber baron with a (cliche alert) down trodden wife/step-mother to the child Snow White. Whose real name is neither Snow nor White. But it fails… it falls on its white is not better, step-mothers may be victims themselves, let’s turn all the tropes on their heads sword. Sadly, because it has the best fairy tale mirror ever. One with no magic, only reflections. Note that this is a novella — but the kindle cover price was $5. The hardcover, if you can find it, is fetching $40. I should have such a fan base.