Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bellwether by Connie Willis

no, i'm not wild about this cover, but it's what there is
Bellwether
by Connie Willis
Bantam Spectra, 1996
196 pages

Have you ever had that weird thing happen where something you've read or heard in one part of  your life connects randomly and neatly with something in a completely different part of your life? For example, I finished reading Bellwether and then CBC's The Current had a major piece on the ethics of corporate policies preventing the hiring of smokers the very next morning. It was startling. It was also very, very cool to see how prescient Willis in fact is. And it gave me a whole different perspective on the real-life issue. And hearing people discuss the real-life issue gave me a bit of a different perspective on the book, too.

I adore To Say Nothing of the Dog. I was therefore very keen to get to this book at some point, and I was kind of feeling stuck with my reading. Darla had reviewed it not long ago, so it was on my radar. And my local library had this available as an eBook and it wasn't on hold, either. And like To Say Nothing of the Dog, this book is an ideal combination for me: amusing and not totally serious about itself, but with some serious intellectual meat and chock-full of literary references. Even better, this book is steeped in the poetry of Robert Browning and science lore.

Sandra Foster, our first-person narrator, is a sociologist and statistician working for a company named HiTek. She researches fads, and is currently trying to find the source of the women's hair-bobbing fad of the 1920s, a task she likens to the historical task of trying to find the source of the Nile -- but more difficult. In addition to her research project, she is coping with a hopelessly awful interdepartmental assistant, attempting to discover the secret of a chaos theorist coworker who seems to be totally immune to fads, and trying to rescue classic novels and poetry from being discarded from the local library due to lack of popularity.

There is not a lot at stake here, except for perhaps Sandra's funding and therefore job, and the extreme long-shot odds of winning a Neibnitz Grant, the most prestigious and lucrative scientific award around. Sandra is an engaging narrator, taking us on wonderful, erudite tangents that circle around to the relevant; sharp, funny, and sarcastic. So it becomes quite important to us that she get her funding, that she find the source of the fad, that she is happy. It is impossible not to root for her, even when she is a bit clueless (very rare) or a bit prickly (not quite so rare). It's also hard not to root for her because the things she's up against are often totally ludicrous.

If I had one complaint, and it's not even really a complaint so much as an observation, I don't think this book is quite as subtle as To Say Nothing of the Dog. (I know, I know, I keep comparing, and it's not entirely fair.) It's a short book, and the things Sandra is up against are so over-the-top it becomes almost impossible to believe that she wouldn't be able to overcome them. Management at HiTek is an amalgam of all of the worst possible things about management in a large corporation. Dr. Alicia Turnbull is terribly one-dimensional. Flip, the interdepartmental assistant from Hell, is ... well, the interdepartmental assistant from Hell. She's so awful it's almost impossible to comprehend how she could even make it through a day, doing things like feeding herself and walking up and down stairs. On the other hand, she is not one-dimensional. She's actually a pretty interesting character. Awfully horrifying, but interesting.

The thing is, it's fun. It's smart fun. It's satirical fun. So I can forgive the unsubtle, larger-than-life ridiculousness of what Sandra ends up observing and coping with herself. I can forgive the dig at libraries discarding unused materials, even the really good ones, to save shelf space (because it is uncomfortably true) and I can agree that there is a disturbing analogy to be made between human behaviour and the behaviour of a flock of sheep. It's funny, and it's not, because it's true.

Suffice to say, I think you should read this. It's not long and it's totally, wonderfully worth it. I have purchased Blackout sight unseen (while I was purchasing Bellwether at the same time) and I don't do that often. But Connie Willis is turning out to be an author I want to have on my shelves. She re-reads well, if both To Say Nothing of the Dog and Bellwether are any indication -- I finished Bellwether the first time, and am already halfway through it again. I've read To Say Nothing of the Dog three times now, with a fourth coming up when I inflict it upon my long-suffering genre book club. With both there are new things to be discovered, and wonderful writing to be savoured. And you will come out the other end feeling just a little bit smarter, and maybe even a little bit wiser.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Princess of the Midnight Ball
by Jessica Day George
Bloomsbury, 2009
197 pages

Ha! How's that for reading quickly? Granted, this read is not really of the same density that Bird Sense was, not by a long shot, and shorter, but still. It proves to me that I can still read and read fast. I am not sure why speed is so important to me; I think it's that old feeling that there are a lot of books out there that I want to read, so I'd better get at it. My reading time is finite. The faster I go, the more I can read. Fast doesn't always translate to a good experience, though. Overall, I think Bird Sense was a better reading experience -- but this was a lot of fun, and that's a good thing too.

The key here is that I was looking for a book specifically like this. I wanted something light, something fantasy, something entertaining, with nothing terribly dark or dangerous to distress me. Sometimes that can translate into almost unbearable fluff. And this is a fairytale retelling, which can go horribly, horribly wrong. Happily, neither is the case here.

Galen is a soldier through and through. Born to a career soldier and an army laundress, he was fighting on the front lines from the time he was fifteen and his father was killed. Now he's nineteen and the war is over, and he's done with killing. His mother had family in the capital city, and he has come to search them out, hoping to find decent work and a place to live. He finds both with his aunt and uncle, and becomes a gardener in the extensive and elaborate gardens of the King of Westfalin.

Rose and her younger sisters are the twelve princesses of Westfalin, doomed to dance their shoes to tatters every third night to fulfill a bargain their mother made. They cannot speak of their curse to anyone, and their father is driven to distraction by their disobedience and their distress. In desperation he proclaims that the prince to discover where his daughters go to dance at night can choose a princess to marry and become heir to his kingdom.

Sound familiar? Yes, this is the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. It's been a peculiar favourite of mine for a long time, and I'm happy to say that this is quite a good, occasionally ingenious retelling; well-fleshed and convincing.

When I was a kid, there was a picture book that I believe took the tale pretty much straight from Grimm in one of its forms; I was always distressed by how the clever soldier chose the eldest princess despite the fact that it was one of the younger ones who twigged to the fact that he was following them and was obviously the smarter one. As I grew older, I came to the conclusion that the soldier and the haughty eldest princess deserved each other; he was clearly a dolt. Not the case here. Galen is clever, kind, and generous, humble and noble of heart. And he knits! (This, I thought, was a very nice, very historically accurate touch, and it ends up playing a central role in the plot.) He makes a very convincing fairytale hero. Perhaps even a little too convincing; next to the other men his age in the story, he looks practically superhuman.

Rose, as the eldest princess, is the best-drawn of that group. She is brave and practical, but also (and this is due to both the source material and the take George went with) in need of rescue. I am not always put off by this in a novel; sometimes a good rescue makes for a lovely and compelling story, and while Rose is relatively helpless, she is not constitutionally helpless. She's in a really crappy situation, she's exhausted, and she's a seventeen-year-old bearing the responsibility for eleven younger sisters, all of whom are as doomed as she and some of whom are less capable of dealing with it, mentally. She bears a lot of grief, too, and she does the best she can. I think I would have been far less convinced by this story if she'd been all warrior-princess, as fun as that might have been, and as much as I'm a fan of female characters not needing to be rescued.

I've been trying to decide why I enjoyed this book in a throwaway kind of way, but didn't love it. I think where this book fell a little short of what I would consider a stellar read was the flatness of some of the characterization. The villains, for example: there are two. The King Under Stone, the supernatural villain of the piece, was irredeemably evil, and actually fairly creepy. I thought this was quite impressive, because irredeemably evil villains are not my favourite sort. But he did creep me the hell out. It was the human villain of the piece, Bishop Angier, who didn't really do much for me. He was a strawman villain, and his vibe was less dangerous than irritating. This is a shame, because there could have been interesting, nuanced things to say with him, and there were hints of it, but we never got there. That storyline is resolved in a way that is somewhat empty, if satisfying and even a bit cathartic on the surface.

Many of the characters aside from Galen, and Rose to a certain extent, are very one-note. Unlike other books I've read where that would be a fatal flaw, it didn't destroy the whole story for me. George knows how to plot, and has added such engaging detail to the bare fairytale while keeping the heart and particular detail of the original intact (not always an easy thing to do, but beautifully done in this case) that I was happy to go along for the ride. Also, and this is possibly the overarching saving grace, it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's not trying to be something it's not.

In fact, it's such a well-done faithful fairytale retelling that I'll be on the lookout for her retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, which is my favourite fairytale of all time. I've yet to encounter a retelling of this one that I think does it justice, so I'm looking forward to seeing what she did with it. She has several other fairytale retellings that will be on my radar as well. I wouldn't suggest someone go out of their way to read this, perhaps, but if you're a fan of light fairytale retellings, you'll be in for a fun couple of hours with this one.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead

Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird
by Tim Birkhead
Bloomsbury, 2012
265 pages

I have absolutely no excuse for taking over a month to finish this book, because it's really fantastic. It should be no surprise to anyone that I might like this book; it's a popular science book about birds. Written by a scientist who really knows how to write in a way that makes the science intelligible to outsiders but not patronizing. Written by a man who really, really loves birds. This is the perfect kind of book for me.

The central question: how much do we know about a bird's senses? How do they see? Touch? Hear? Taste? Smell? How do they navigate using the earth's magnetic field? What role, if any, does emotion play in the life of a bird? Birkhead is basically giving us a sense-by-sense overview and synthesis of the research, from as far back as Aristotle to the most recent (as of publishing) fMRI studies of birds' brains. He does so in a fairly informal but also rigorous way, adding his own personal anecdotes and opinions where appropriate and necessary, but always (as any good scientist should) hedging his bets. It's essentially a massive literature review written with an eye to convincing and enlightening the layperson.

An example, though this is a fair bit more chatty than much of the book:

There is an apparent contradiction here: on one hand I'm saying that the bird's beak is much more sensitive than is generally supposed, but on the other you may be wondering about woodpeckers using their bills as an axe. How can a beak be simultaneously sensitive and insensitive? The answer is: our hands work in exactly the same way. Formed as fists, our hands become weapons, but opened flat they are capable of the most sophisticated sensitivity -- exemplified by Wilder Penfields' hugely handed homunculus. A woodpecker hacks wood using the sharp, insensitive tip of its beak; it doesn't use the much more sensitive inside of its mouth. My concern is for those wading birds like the woodcock and kiwi whose bill tip is relatively soft and incredibly sensitive. What happens if they inadvertently hit a rock by mistake when probing in the soil? Is this the human equivalent of banging your funny bone?

And there is a pleasant surprise here: Birkhead uses his opportunity to tell his audience how science works. His audience is likely fairly specific -- generally those already interested in birds, mostly, or zoology in general, or possibly psychology -- but they're not universally scientifically-minded, so he breaks down the scientific process, explicitly, in the introduction. We're also reminded constantly that scientific "truth" is, as he puts it, more accurately "truth-for-now" while we wait for someone to upset our current understanding of the world. This becomes abundantly clear as we move through examples; the chapters on birds' senses of taste, touch and smell are particularly full of "we thought this, then we thought this, and then someone did this and now we're starting to realize this..." All of this is, of course, as applicable to any other field of scientific study as it is to ornithology.

Even just applicable to ornithology, though, it's a wake-up call. I don't know how long I've been perpetuating the myth that birds, outside of a few exceptions, can't smell. Apparently this is quite far from the truth, at least for significant numbers of species. Birkhead even discusses the fact that some sea birds, like albatrosses and petrels, probably use a sort of "scent landscape" to help them find their prey -- meaning that those birds, at least, have a far better sense of smell than humans. Ravens and vultures have no problem finding fresh carcasses -- and knowing when they are past their delectable prime. Most birds likely have at least some rudimentary sense of smell, or are able to smell an extremely selective set of things. I can take some comfort in the fact that there are textbooks and field guides still published with the "birds can't smell" fallacy in them, but really. It's been known since the 1960s that birds can smell things. So there's a lesson in how long a particular piece of incorrect trivia can hang around.

Quite apart from carefully popping myths, Birkhead loves the history of ornithology. This is clearly a passion. He's written an entire book on the subject, The Wisdom of Birds, which I'll be on the lookout for. He knows an incredible amount about the historical research and attitudes, regularly bringing ornithologists from the 1800s or earlier into the discussion. Some of them are well-known -- Darwin, Audubon -- while others are more obscure but important. I was particularly taken with the story of Betsy Bang, the medical illustrator in the 1950s who started to really feel that we had the whole smell thing wrong, based on the drawings she was doing to accompany her husbands' scientific papers.

Anyway. I could keep going. The book isn't entirely perfect; though interesting, I felt that the final chapter, the one on bird emotions (if they have them; like Birkhead, I am inclined to think they do in some form or another) to be relatively weaker than the others largely due to less research and therefore less for Birkhead to discuss. While I understand the reason for the order of the chapters, it doesn't end the book well. The postscript goes some way to addressing that, because it's quite strong, but it's not long enough to satisfy. But really, other than that small nitpick, I loved this book. I'll be watching for other Birkhead books, and I'll be buying this one for my collection. I'm rather hoping he does a second edition in ten years, so we can find out what else we've been wrong -- or right -- about in the upcoming decade.

I'll leave you with a bit about guillemots, which I've always liked, but which may now be some of my favourite birds thanks to Birkhead (a hide, for those not versed in British birding terms, is also known as a blind):

While conducting my PhD on guillemots on Skomer Island I constructed hides at various colonies to be able to watch their behaviour at close range. One of my favourite hides was on the north side of the island where, after an uncomfortable hands and knees crawl, I could sit within a few metres of a group of guillemots. There were about twenty pairs breeding on this particular cliff edge, some of them facing out to sea as they incubated their single egg... On one occasion a guillemot that was incubating suddenly stood up and started to give the greeting call -- even though its partner was absent. I was puzzled by this behaviour, which seemed to be occurring completely out of context. I looked out to sea and visible, as little more than a dark blob, was a guillemot flying towards the colony. As I watched, the bird on the cliff continued to call and then, to my utter amazement, with a whirr of stalling wings, the incoming bird alighted beside it. The two birds proceeded to greet each other with evident enthusiasm. I could hardly believe that the incubating bird had apparently seen -- and recognised -- its partner several hundred metres away out at sea.

Birds? Amazing.