Monday, April 28, 2014

The Demon-Haunted World

The title: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
The author: Carl Sagan
Publication: Random House, 1995
Got it from: The library

So far in this blog, I haven't reviewed very many science books although they are a passion of mine (even more so since I started down my journey of critical thinking in my twenties).  When I take a science book out of the library, I tend to just tip my toes in it, reading over the parts that interest me.  So many books I've read in the past referenced this book as one of the canon in skepticism.  I think watching Neil deGrasse Tyson's wonderful Cosmos finally convinced me to read The Demon-Haunted World cover to cover.

This book is more than just a debunking of pseudoscience, it is a critical plea for scientific thinking in all aspects of our lives.  Sagan wrote this book just before he died in 1996 but he accurately foresaw the "dumbing down" of American culture and the move away from thoughtful analysis.  A large chunk of the beginning of the book deals with Sagan's interest in extraterrestrials and why there is so far no credible reports of alien abductions.  He got me thinking about it in a way I never have before, showing the similarities of "alien abductions" in the 20th century and witchcraft in the 17th century.  Back then our culture was steeped in stories of witches, much the same way that ours is now saturated with movies and TV shows about aliens.  How interesting, then, that there are few cases of witchcraft reported now (at least in the developed world) and how there were no alien reports before the birth of science fiction.     

The middle and latter part of the book are devoted to outlining the tools we need for our "baloney detection kits," and the need for a proper understanding of science in our culture.  There are some extremely powerful passages here, including one on the importance of basic literacy, as seen through the story of Frederick Douglass, a black slave who taught himself to read and thus freed himself and many of his fellow slaves from ignorance and captivity.  Even when some parts of this book depressed me (TV has only gotten worse since the 1990's in terms of ignorance and sensationalism),   there is also hope, such as one community raising the money to build a children's science centre.  Overall this book provides another important argument in favor of critical thinking being a necessary skill as members not just of democracy, but of the human race.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Serial Garden

The title: The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories
The author: Joan Aiken
Publication: Big Mouth House*, 2008
Got it from: MC

Before there was Harry Potter, there was his smarter predecessor, Joan Aiken's delightful Armitage family.  Back when Mr. and Mrs. Armitage were first married, Mrs. Armitage made a wish on a wishing-stone that their lives would never be boring.  Years later, young Harriet and Mark Armitage experience a life full of strange occurrences (usually on a Monday), which they take in stride with good humour.  A unicorn that shows up in the garden?  A governess ghost who is still trying to teach?  A doll sized family in the attic?  No big deal.  

Each of these short stories can be read as a self-contained treasure, but they are loosely linked and best read in chronological order.  (Joan Aiken wrote them starting in 1944 and continuing until, incredibly, her death in 2004.)  Each story is really a mystery to solve.  The formula runs like this: bizarre events happen, children uncover the reason why, unexpected resolution, things return to normal, Mr. Armitage makes a hilariously sarcastic comment, The End.  Toward the end of the book, the stories start taking on darker, deeper layers that I won't spoil.  Suffice to say that intelligent adults and children will be satisfied.

*Looking at the back of the book, I see the publisher has the following statement: "A new imprint devoted to fiction for readers of all ages.  We will publish one or two weird and great titles (short story collections and novels) per year. We expect to publish books for readers ages 10 and up."  How awesome is that???

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Ivy Tree

The title: The Ivy Tree 
The author: Mary Stewart
Publication: HarperCollins, 1961 
Got it from: Amazon

A few years ago I reviewed Mary Stewart's marvelous Touch Not the Cat, and hearing that The Ivy Tree was a similar story, I was eager to read this one.  Mary Grey is a young woman on vacation to the north of England, where she is mistaken for Annabel Winslow, another young woman who ran away from home eight years ago and was presumed dead.  Annabel's distant cousin Connor hatches a plan with Mary: she will impersonate Annabel in exchange for a share of the inheritance given by the dying Winslow grandfather.

Like Touch Not the Cat, this is a classic Gothic mystery, steeped in atmosphere and description.  But compared to that story, this one was a big meh for me.  There's a Big Secret at the heart of the plot which is fairly easy to guess if you know anything about this kind of novel.  Unlike in Cat, the revelation of the true hero at the end of the novel wasn't a happy surprise.  One of the reasons Cat worked for me was that the romantic revelation was a huge payoff for all the slow pacing beforehand.  In Ivy Tree, there's the slow pacing but no payoff.  I didn't dislike the book but I also wasn't rushing to read it.  I think it would much better suit someone looking for an old-fashioned Gothic story.