Monday, June 30, 2008

Camilla (1951)

I just finished reading Camilla by Madeleine L'Engle (originally published in 1951 as Camilla Dickinson), because how on earth could I resist it after Choo's description. I'm sad to say I wasn't re-reading it because for some reason the only L'Engle I read as a kid was the Wrinkle in Time series. The whole time I was reading this book it was like there were two me's in me -- the junior high me who would have lovedlovedloved this book and its complicated and endearing characters and dramas, and the grown up me who loved the characters, but sometimes found the dialogue a little goofy and the philosophies a little heavy handed.

Camilla is the story of Camilla Dickinson, a 15 year old from a wealthy New York City family. She is an only child and has lived a relatively sheltered life until one day she comes home to find her beautiful and fragile mother kissing a man who isn't her strong and silent father. Camilla is great because she keeps almost everything inside (I can relate) and doesn't talk about how all this makes her feel, even to her best friend Luisa whose parents often have screaming matches that wake up the neighbors, drink too much, and break things. Instead Camilla finds herself falling into a first romance with Luisa's older brother, Frank, and that little bit of distance is enough to pull her away from her parents and make her see herself as an individual, her parents as human, and her friends as fallible.

There are the kinds of young-romance / coming-of-age plot points that you might expect in this kind of novel, but L'Engle handles them all in such a unique, real, and dark way that this book is miles away from the usual young adult fare. It treats the reader like they are smart and grown up enough to read about war, death, drinking problems, suicide, amputation, depression, unhappy endings, and failed love. There are light and happy points too, and L'Engle's description of New York City is truly wonderful.

If you read this as a kid and loved it, go read it again right now. And if you know a kid who is an adventurous reader, put this book in their hands. For me, it transported me back to the intensely dramatic and weird world of growing up -- I'm usually not too sad that I'm past that point in my life, but sometimes something like this book makes me miss all the newness and craziness of fifteen.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Are you ready?

Have you ever wondered what is inside one of those Meals-Ready-to-Eat? Well, now is your chance to find out! I picked the Chicken Tetrazzini because it sounded the least appetizing, and I figured our experiment should probably turn out as gross as possible for maximum effect. In the end we found that it had the texture of spaghetti-o's and canned tuna, the instructions were a little confusing when you have been drinking all night, and the heating element can get really really hot.

Don't worry, we have 11 more flavors of MRE left. Dinner party at our house during the apocalypse! Full experiment documentation here.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Art of the Infinite : The Pleasures of Mathematics (2003)

I worked for over four years as the archivist for a mathematics collection, even though the last math class I took was pre-calculus as a junior in high school and I did not consider myself mathy in the least. But something strange happened as I got further enmeshed in my work. As I browsed through higher-level mathematical journals and attended annual mathematics conferences and wrote articles for mathematics newsletters and helped mathematical historians do their research I began to relax into the idea of mathematics. Not the actual math itself, but the ideas behind the math. Why it was interesting and creative. What it was good for. All that stuff.

And I began to really like it -- although every time I told someone where I worked I still felt like I had to defend it. "It's not that bad!" "It's not as boring as it sounds!" (I actually still have to do that with my current job archiving a religious collection...) Still, very few people really seemed to understand that these mathematicians and the work that they do were different than the drudgery of high-school algebra. If I could make all those mathematics-doubters read The Art of the Infinite : The Pleasures of Mathematics by Robert Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan (2003), I think they could start to see my point.

Of course, I could also get you doubters to start with Robert Kaplan's actually pretty popular (for math writing) book, The Nothing that Is: A Natural History of Zero (1999), which I have also read and which is really excellent. It is much shorter than The Art of the Infinite and involves less equations, so it might be a little more approachable as a first dip into popular mathematics reading.

Yes, The Art of the Infinite has a lot of equations, schematics, graphs, and geometric projections (although the really intricate ones are kindly set aside in the Appendix). But don't let that scare you. Remember, we are relaxing into the idea of really understanding how cool upper-level mathematics is -- don't tense up at all those Greek symbols and acute angles, just let them wash over you and the Kaplan's will lead you through some pretty amazing mathematical concepts one step at a time. Along the way, you will get a taste of the major mathematical figures: from Pythagoras to Cantor -- all nicely illustrated by Ellen Kaplan, who also hand-draws all the mathematical figures in the book.

I wouldn't claim to have understood (or really thought out) every proof in this book, but I feel like I got enough of a taste to understand what was going on every step of the way and why it was interesting. I feel like I really understand the definitions and distinctions between Real, Natural, Rational and Imaginary numbers. I have a huge appreciation for the imagination and creativity of mathematicians who attack the mind-blowing complications of infinite numbers and come up with something that can be wrangled into an equation and applied to any number at all. This isn't the kind of thing I usually read about, especially since I left the math archives behind nearly two years ago, and it got me a little pumped up to dip back into that world again.

Okay, here is just one of the mind-blowing things the book got me thinking of: think about all the counting numbers. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.... They are infinite, right? Just pick the highest one you can think of, and you can always add one more. But then think about the rationals (which are basically fractions). Between 1 and 2 on the number line, there are an infinite number of rational numbers. You can always divide the piece of pie one more time, add another number to a decimal, etc. But if there are an infinite number of rationals between each pair of natural numbers (which are also infinite), the infinity of the rationals is more infinite than the infinity of the naturals.

Just think on the awesomeness of that for awhile. No wonder some mathematicians go crazy and try to prove the existence of God. This is some heady and cool stuff...

Thursday, June 26, 2008


I am apparently fascinated by websites that generate interesting word-related graphics right now. I just spent twenty minutes entering words into Visuwords, an online dictionary with a completely addictive graphics system. I love how the words all bounce up and then sort of float around all alive-like. I think verbs work best....

Friday, June 20, 2008

In the clouds

Check out the wonderful Wordle word cloud I made of all my Spacebeer posts from 2007 (click to go to the full page). Apparently I write a lot about "book" and "books" and use the word really way more than I thought. Really.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Trembling Earth Contract (1969)

I bought this copy of The Trembling Earth Contract by Philip Atlee (1969) mainly for the cover, but also because I was curious to see just how far the author would go while putting his (white) secret agent character, Joe Gall, undercover as a member of a black militia group. Well, folks, he goes pretty far.

Our rich, tough, smart, heroic, and ultra-manly hero is a secret agent under contract to "The Agency." After a really weird and long interlude where Gall goes hunting with a friend who makes a fake lake to attract geese, Gall is attacked on his way back to his hidden palatial home. He naturally outsmarts the attackers, who turn out to be two black guys, one the son of a sheriff and the other recently discharged from active duty in Vietnam. When he finally makes it to his door he is surprised by a shadowy figure which he attacks first and realizes is a sexy lady later. Sexy lady is a lawyer that is trying to sign him to a contract working for her corporation. Gall invites her in, shows her around the ritzy pad (including the sauna hidden behind the waterfall), cooks her a giant dinner, and then shows off the pair of white tigers he has roaming the property (?). After all of that he says yes she says no, then later she says yes. The sex scene is very oddly written, and Atlee has a tendency to throw in technical terms for body parts at very awkward moments (gonads? pudendum? Not sexy words.).

After all of that, we finally get to the story: the two guys who tried to kill Gall were after him because he was the agent most likely to be sent to overthrow their group: a highly organized militia of black veterans (The Republic of New Africa) who are planning to take over the South by force and eject all the whites. Naturally Gall must infiltrate them from the inside so he takes pills to make his skin dark and glues an Afro wig to his head. Then he gets himself thrown in jail, where he is recruited into the organization.

Gall is a pretty right-wing dude and really shows very little interest, sympathy, or understanding for the black group and there is a lot of casual racism in the book that should make any modern and/or normal reader a little uncomfortable. Of course, there isn't always that much time for careful consideration of political positions and racial attitudes between the explosions, assassinations, secret meetings, more weird sex scenes, and half-developed characters and plot-lines.

This is actually the tenth book in the Joe Gall series of spy novels, written by former CIA agent David Atlee Phillips under the pseudonym of Philip Atlee. It was a fast read, and occasionally entertaining, but mostly inconsistent and not a great representative of the genre.

[Back cover is right here, dear.]

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Spice girl

Through a wacky series of events involving a drunken husband and a funnel, my nice bottle of tequila was accidentally spiked with Tabasco sauce. As probably too many of you know, I am easily charmed into taking tequila shots, so I was sort of sad that my tequila experience would now be a Russian Roulette game of spicy or not spicy, at least until we work our way through this bottle. Never one to be turned away from a bottle of alcohol, I have invented an awesome new drink that harnesses the power of the unpredictable spiciness: lemonade, tequila and an uncertain amount of Tabasco sauce. Its good with a little, its good with a lot, and its good with none. Now it just needs a good name...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Lonesome Dove (1985)

I first read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985) when I was in junior high, shortly after the mini-series came out. The mini-series was a huge deal -- my family watched it, all my friends watched it, the teachers at school watched it, and everyone was talking about it. Maybe it just seemed more pervasive since I was 13, but I can't think of a recent television "event" that was really talked about the way Lonesome Dove was back in 1989.

And after everyone I knew watched the mini-series, it seemed like everyone I knew went out and read the book. Have you read it? It seriously seems like it must be one of the most-read books of all time, at least among people who were of reading-age in 1989. I loved it then because it was really long, there was some sex in it, and part of it took place in Nebraska. I love it now because it is really long, they say "dern" so much that I started inserting it in all my thoughts, and it takes place in Texas and Nebraska, the two states that I've called home.

In case you don't know, Lonesome Dove is the story of Captain Augustus McCrae and Captain Woodrow F. Call, two former Texas Rangers who run the Hat Creek Cattle Company in South Texas. When their former partner Jake Spoon comes through town on the run from the law, he gives Call the idea of rustling up a bunch of cattle from Mexico and driving them up to Montana -- a practically unsettled frontier compared to the Texas they helped tame as Rangers. The bulk of the book follows the cattle drive from Texas to Montana, and McMurtry is at his best when describing the day-to-day life of the drive. He gives us details of the food, the weather, and the hard and monotonous work broken up by lots of card playing and the occasional unexpected death. Tons of people, both large and small characters, die in this book. Come to think of it, that's another reason I loved it in junior high. I like some tragedy mixed in with my adventure...

Mixed in with the cattle drive are stories of unrequited love in Ogallala, a whore with a heart of gold, a runaway wife, a bumbling deputy, a sheriff unprepared for his duty, and a young man growing up on the cattle drive. McMurtry weaves the stories in and out of each other nicely, changing perspectives and letting the reader into every character's head without losing the central thread of the story or the movement of the drive.

The last 150 pages or so drag a bit at times, particularly after the most entertaining and likable of all the characters meets his end, but overall this book is a really fun read that is worth revisiting.

[And for an archival connection, check out the on-line Lonesome Dove exhibit from the Southwestern Writer's Collection at Texas State University (they also have an in-person exhibit that is pretty cool), as well as their finding aid for the Lonesome Dove Television Mini-series Archive].

Thursday, June 12, 2008

There was a cat that really was gone

I can't think of anything to write because this song is in my head:

And yet it makes me feel strangely productive! Listen to it a few times and you will see what I mean.

Also, I'm reading Lonesome Dove, which is 1000 pages long and enthralling and time consuming. Kind of like Rasputin.... Go figure.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


So, I went with a nice hour long roast in the oven at 300 degrees with a bit of salt and pepper and a dash of sugar. That should kill any beasties, right? So far I've eaten them chopped up and mixed with pasta, italian sausage and fresh parmesan, and on a spinach salad with chopped zucchini, rice vinegar, and goat cheese, with no ill effects. Makes me wonder why I don't roast tomatoes more often, really....

Friday, June 06, 2008

Calculated Risk?

So Dr. M bought me a couple full-sized tomatoes from the HEB on Tuesday. Should I eat them? They look so damn tasty....

Thursday, June 05, 2008


I'd write something, but I can't seem to stop sneezing long enough to think. Or breathe. I think I'll take a nap instead...

Monday, June 02, 2008

Men, Martians and Machines (1955)

I picked up Men, Martians and Machines by Eric Frank Russell (1955) at Half Price Books a few months ago because I liked the crazy space knight on the cover, it was only a dollar, and it looked like it needed rescuing. What a pleasant surprise to find out that it is also a pretty great book.

Men, Martians and Machines is a collection of four inter-connected stories of the adventures of the crew of the Marathon, a new-fangled super-spaceship that thanks to some hastily explained science is able to explore further out than ever before. Our unnamed narrator is the Sergeant at Arms for the ship, and the crew is made up of a fun mix of Earthlings and a handful of Martians (very large octopus-like beings who are obsessed with space chess, like low gravity, and need very little air -- making them perfect for external ship repairs. They also love making jokes about how bad humans smell.)

Our narrator guides us through the ship's near collision with the sun, a trip to a planet of killer machines (well they mostly just want to dissect you to figure out what makes your individualistic mind run, but that tends to involve killing), a world filled with surprisingly defensive plants, and a planet of hypnotic beings that can make you see whatever they want, but when threatened actually look like a bundle of writhing snakes.

These stories are light on science and heavy on adventure, with a playful almost pulpy-detective-story edge to the narrator's voice. Here's a couple awesome sample sentences for your reading pleasure:

On the left a tall, idiotic gadget faintly resembling a drunken surrealist's notion of a sober giraffe was running away with McNulty.

The Martians frequently tried to imitate the Terrestrial habit of significantly closing one eye; they kept on trying despite the dismal fact that it can't be done without eyelids.

There are some fun anachronisms (like a set of on-going gags between our narrator and the ship photographer who is constantly worried about his boxes of heavy and fragile photographic plates breaking -- although, [nerd alert!] to be fair, photographic plates were used in astronomical photography until fairly recently, which I know since I had to rehouse and describe a bunch of them in my last archives job. They are very heavy.) And some unsurprising but cringe-worthy anachronisms like the fact that the alien life forms are almost always compared to Asians (it seriously seems like half of all old sci-fi books do this), a lot of talk about how black the black doctor is, and no women are mentioned at all.

Still, anachronisms aside, this really is a fun book. The aliens are interesting and surprising and and the other planets are creative and nicely described. Add to that some very good action sequences and the occasional bit of snappy dialogue and you have a nice little read on your hands.

[Back cover is here, fools. Check it out to see the cutest little spaceship of all time!]