Book 224: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

Finished reading on August 22nd, 2016

Rating: 8/10

What would happen if a 19th century industrious person from America were to travel back in time to 6th century England? Soon enough you’d have telegraph lines, newspapers etc. getting mixed up with characters from Arthurian legends.

This is another book that I’ve recently read, that I’ve picked up before, read maybe a chapter or two, and put down thinking it’s rather boring…. But that was about ten years ago.

My motivation in picking this book for reading was my project in getting through as many books based on Arthurian legends as possible (one book at a time), the previous one having been the enormous T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King” (which I sadly forgot to review here, all I can say is that I preferred Malory to White, and found the first book better and more interesting than the rest).

I think that I appreciated the story as told by Twain more knowing what Malory had written. And I certainly enjoyed reading about the quite ludicrous story. If you’re looking for something hilarious to read, then this novel would be a great pick (there are parts that might not be too funny, but just you wait….)

I loved how Twain had brought to life his own characters, that were in the foreground and the legendary people were mentioned, had tiny but important parts to play, but were essentially the same as anywhere else.

I liked how the protagonist is seen as a wonderful wizard and how he competes with Merlin; how he changes the world and people around him, and especially the part where he and King Arthur go for an adventure in peasant’s clothes, and Arthur keeps thinking of plans to conquer Gaul🙂.

So in general a nice easy read with a story that will get a lot funnier as you get into it.

Book 223: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

PIMG_3157A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Rating: 10/10

A great short introduction to some fascinating aspects of astrophysics, quantum mechanics, cosmology and relativity theory that is highly readable, doesn’t get into extraneous details and although it was first published in 1987, it is still accurate.

This has been a book that I’ve picked up and put down after reading a couple of pages several times in life – partly because of not being quite certain about what level of knowledge I should have to read it, and partly because I tend to choose books that have been published more recently over older, although classic books of nonfiction.

So if I’d ever have a chance of inventing a time machine in past to try and find out what I know about this book in present I’d say – the book is certainly easy enough reading if you’ve studied physics in high-school, you don’t need to go in search of an encyclopedia to understand what Hawking is writing about, because he mostly explains everything anyway. Also if you’re afraid that a famous scientist’s writing style might be awfully boring and just terrible – don’t fear, you’ll be through the book in no time and in search of another book written by Hawking.

In general I’d highly recommend it. Even if you’ve read a lot of nonfiction books about astronomy,cosmology and physics, this book is still a great and interesting little book to read.

Book 222: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Finished reading on July 31st, 2016

Today I woke up with the knowing that I have to go to the bookstore as soon as possible to get this book. I went there, and got back in less than twenty minutes, took this picture with my cup of very creamy coffee and got on the way to get to know my childhood heroes’ kids.

It’s been a very long time since I reread any of the books, so picking up this play, I didn’t really have much of a connection to the characters although I’d been quite obsessed with them as a teen. And ofcourse the new generation is something totally different.

In order to keep this post spoiler free I’m not going to go into much detail about anything except just random thoughts.

The plot was interesting and the twists were as unexpected as they have been before in Harry Potter series.

I liked the choice of characters that the play is mainly following. I wish I could see the play on stage though, because a play gives you more of just plain bones of the characters.

There are some interesting themes in the play, but mostly it’s about family relationships and friendship, a bit of teen angst and famous fathers.

 

 

Book 221: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Finished reading on July 8th, 2016
Rating: 8/10

This is the story of the young Lily Bart who is a bit naive and definitely a follower of the fashionable crowd, and gets in some trouble because of it.

From the beginning of the book I really liked Wharton’s style of writing.

In this book we follow Lily Bart, a young woman, whose only close relative is an aunt Mrs Peniston, whom she lives with.

Lily has grown up appreciating good and expensive things in life and her plan is to marry a rich man. She spends time with rich people and takes part in their entertainments, that also include playing bridge, which lands Lily in a bit of a trouble to begin with – her allowance isn’t big, and she gets into debt playing cards.

Lily also gets in trouble because she’s naive and believes what people tell her – so when the rich Mr Trenor says that he could help Lily by speculating with her money and making some profit for her, she believes him – and why shouldn’t she? I believed him too.

However it turns out that the married (and lousy) Mt Trenor is instead just giving Lily money, which is the main problem in the book – Lily is poor and once she realizes where the money is coming from, she sees that she’s in dept to Trenor.

And other problems ensue.

The book has a quite unsatisfying ending in my opinion, but there’s some forewarning to it, so the last few chapter I knew what was coming, I was just hoping that maybe I’d be wrong. The conclusion does solve everything, but it’s sad.

I think one of my favorite characters was Miss Gerty Farish, who lives in a small flat and helps out Lily on occasion. She seems o be independent, not rich, but also not out to find a rich guy to marry like Lily.

The book reminded me a bit of Dostoevsky’s writing by the end – a bit of a depressing character, debts, sickness, but not as harsh as Dostoevsky.

Have you read anything by Edith Wharton? What would you recommend?

Book 220: The Cosmic Web by J. Richard Gott

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The Cosmic Web by J. Richard Gott

Finished reading on July 7th, 2016

Rating: 9/10

“The Cosmic Web” is about the largest structures in the Universe, how it was discovered, who were behind it, what were some other competing ideas and how we see it all now.

In this book Gott tells the story of his and some other cosmologists’ part in discovering the structure of the universe that could be called a cosmic web, but has at other times been referred to as a cell-like structure etc.

In the book you can learn more about what were the early ideas of how the great structures in the Universe might look like, and what would be necessary for their formation, and we see that from two perspectives – from the US school, where the so-called meatball theory prevailed and also from the Soviet school where the ideas took more of a pancake shape that all lead to more of a Swiss cheese type of structure.

The book gives a lot of details and background information about the structure’s discovery and what led to it with a few detours to Gott’s own life in science, which makes for nice pauses between the more mathematical parts of the book.

As a book on a specific topic in cosmology, it’s interesting and illuminating, but definitely not an easy read, but you do go over some of the cosmic microwave background surveys, the accelerating inflation of the universe and the inflation theory and the possible end of the Universe as well, so you see the context of the main theme better.

It was really a great book, just it requires a bit of effort from the part of the reader.

Book 219: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

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We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Finished on July 6th, 2016

Rating: 6/10

I picked this book up on a whim after seeing that a friend had recommended it to me on Goodreads. The description of it seemed fine and rating on Goodreads was great, so I gave it a chance.

It was good for two days’ entertainment, although I didn’t expect to read a book like that. I’m not going to give any spoilers here, since that’s a major part of the book why anyone would have to read it.

The book is about a few summers in the lives of Cadence Sinclair Eastman and her extended family – you get very few details about the family and Cadence – just enough to know that they’re rich and they spend summers on a private island.

Then something unexpected happens – and for the longest time we get the impression that something only happened to Cadence – she has amnesia and migraines and has bits of memories that she can’t really put together.

And you start finding out more as Cadence gets back on the island for another summer just hanging out with her three friends – Gat, Mirren and Johnny.

It all starts out fine, but then it gets darker and darker until it all concludes in a flash of lightning and everything becomes clear.

I liked the style of writing – the glib descriptions of characters and the bits of fairy tales around the theme of three sisters. What I didn’t like were the actual characters, and how they don’t seem to ever do anything (besides eating, drinking and sleeping with the occasional swimming here and there), and I really didn’t like Cadence’s and Gat’s relationship – she’s obsessed with him in a way that to me seems unnatural.

We Were Liars was an interesting book, it does keep your attention, and it sucks you in until it’s too late to get out before you find out what has happened.

It was a good book to read, but I didn’t really like it…if it makes any sense.

 

Book 218: Astronomy for Amateurs by Camille Flammarion

24508458Finished reading on July 5th, 2016
Rating: 9/10

This book was first translated into English and published in about 1904, whilst it was originally published in French with a title that would translate to Astronomy for Women.

I started reading this book on a particularly hot and sunny day while showing the Sun to passers-by through a H-alpha telescope. I just really wanted something to do while there wasn’t anyone around, and I couldn’t really just stand in the scorching Sun and observe it for hours.

Astronomy for Amateurs talks about pretty much everything that you’d need to know when first dipping your toes into stargazing – what are constellations, how to find a specific one, how to find the planets, how do they look like, when to expect a meteor shower, what comets are, etc.

All of it is written (and translated) with a beautiful style that at first did seem a bit patronizing and strangely pointed – Flammarion starts out with a long tirade about female astronomers and their exploits and with telling how the young mothers should guide their children’s interest towards astronomy and that there’s nothing difficult in it. – That was all quite baffling until I got to the note that said that the original work was titled Astronomy for Women.

Well it was the beginning of 20th century, so it’s quite an achievement in itself that there was a book aimed towards women.

As for the actual information that you can get from the book – there are obviously some things that are outdated, but it’s not the majority of the work, but rather just bits and pieces – the basics (distances to planets and their sized for example) are mostly correct, although there’s the occasional bit where he writes that the largest object between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter is just about 100km in circumference, whilst Ceres in reality is about ten times that.

I liked the experience of reading it, even though some things were just plain funny – like Flammarion’s description of Lunar craters as volcanic craters (there are some volcanic features on the Moon, but most of the craters are impact craters from meteorite collisions), and how the Sun gets its energy.

If you’re interested in the level of knowledge and the style of a popular science guide book of ca 1900, it’s a good choice for reading. But if you’re just wanting to know more about astronomy – choose something a bit more current.

You can finf Astronomy for Amateurs on Project Gutenberg.

Book 217: Le Morte D’Arthur, Volume II by Sir Thomas Malory

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Le Morte D’Arthur, Volume II by Sir Thomas Malory

Finished reading on June 17th, 2016

Rating: 8/10

It took me almost exactly two months to finish reading the second volume after finishing first one. I didn’t start reading it right after, and had time to finish six other books in-between.

So I’m almost certain that anyone who’d read this review would already know quite a bit about Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur”, so I wouldn’t really need to write what it is about.

Still – it’s about King Arthur and his “Knights of the Table Round” – of Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawain and others, their jousts and quarrels and saving damosels in distress, their search for the Holy Grail and other adventures perilous. (You’ll end up using strange words by the end of it.)

I found that in this volume the most interesting part was the one about the Holy Grail – it felt like the pace of it was a lot faster than in other parts. Also it was quite eyeopening, as I didn’t know much of Sangrail and of it’s details, so that was fun – how and when and to whom it would appear etc.

So what actually happens?

First off there are some characters with quite difficult family relations – Sir Mordred for example – King Arthur is his father and his uncle, and their relationship is not passing good at all. And then there’s Galahad and Sir Launcelot, the latter names Galahad a knight, whilst neither yet knows that Galahad is Launcelot’s son.

Then we have the women – not many in all of it, but they’re not really sensible people at all (although maybe a knight in shining armor riding on a white horse is simply irresistible?) and always end up in some kind of trouble – take for example Queen Guenever who hosts a dinner for 24 knights after she’s told Sir Launcelot to leave Camelot. A knight is poisoned and although her reason for holding the dinner was to show that she’s just as friendly with other knights, it backfires, no-one likes her and Sir Launcelot has to rush in to save her (or otherwise King Arthur had asked Sir Bors to fight for her honor, so that might have worked too).

The things I found surprising – how much religion, fainting and weeping is in Le Morte D’Arthur. Also that you can find a hermit pretty much wherever you go…

I like the idea of the Arthurian Legends, but the characters all have some kind of mortal flaw.

My favorite quote comes from King Arthur:

“Wit you well my heart was never so heavy as it is now, and much more I am sorrier for my good knights’ loss than for the loss of my fair queen; for queens I might have enow, but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company.

… because he just likes to hang out and watch sports with his buddies…

I am slightly worried that having read this and not having had enough of chivalry and knights I might get too much into medieval literature and Arthurian legends… I did enjoy reading it although the characters lacked something.

Whilst reading the second volume of Malory’s book I found myself thinking back on the time when I was learning about medieval literature at school (was it 8th and 10th grade maybe?) and I remember thinking that that time period in literature was the most boring of all – I just liked literature from the beginning of 19th century up to 20th century and stopping just before the Second World War – later and earlier writing was not to my taste.

I think maybe even when I did read some excerpts from some medieval literature in class, maybe I just couldn’t have appreciated it anyway? Or maybe had I had enough motivation I would have found it fascinating as I do now?

I’m starting to see all literature as something that I want to get better acquainted with and not just stick to my comfort zone.

Another thing I realized while reading this, second volume (hadn’t thought of it while reading first volume at all), was that I want to find out more about the history and any other related literature (which I certainly will do at some point), that’s quite different from having watched BBC’s Merlin on Netflix and thinking “oh it would be cool to read something that the characters are based on or inspired from”.

I would recommend reading all of it, if you feel like it would be something interesting for you, otherwise some chapters would be sufficient.

Not much of a review, but I’m just glad I wasn’t forced to read it, I can see how that would have made reading it awful.

Book 216: Vulcan’s Fury by Alwyn Scarth

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Vulcan’s Fury: Man Against The Volcano by Alwyn Scarth

Finished reading on June 15th, 2016

Rating: 10/10

Volcano eruptions to someone who lives quite far away from any active (or non-active for that matter), seem like a distant and not too great of a threat – you might hear of them in the news or hear them mentioned in some context, but I guess they’re really relevant when you live right next to one.

I’ve never had to really think of the dangers of volcano eruptions and the hundreds of ways that a “fire mountain” can kill someone, but this book brought some of the deadliest eruptions right to me in very vivid graphic descriptions that also included ones from eyewitnesses.

Scarth doesn’t go into great depths about volcanoes in general, but gives the basics and then dives into some of the most famous (and some that seemed quite obscure) eruptions, what the people living in and near the danger-zone saw and felt and how it disturbed life elsewhere.

As you get to the eruption events you also get more specific information about the volcano at hand – Vesuvius, Stromboli, Laki, Pinatubo etc, to name just a few. The events are at a chronological order, so you can also feel how times change and living conditions change, and how that influences how people act etc.

The descriptions were very interesting, but what was most fascinating to me was how many times darkness was mentioned – that’s a detail that I wouldn’t have thought of; and also psychology – why would people who know of something is going to happen soon, wouldn’t leave their homes.

Great book, well illustrated, not technical at all.

I read this book for work purposes, but I imagine it would be fascinating for any intelligent person🙂

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The closest I’ve been to volcanoes has been on my trips to Italy and to Iceland. In case of Italy I didn’t actually see any, but that’s still closer than normally, when they’re about 1500 km away. In case of Iceland I could see several in the distance on a Golden Circle tour and also when flying over Iceland.

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Hekla in the distance, one of many Icelandic volcanoes not in the book, but you can’t have them all, right? Photo from my 2015 trip.

Book 215: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

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Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

Finished reading on May 31st, 2016
Rating: 10/10

A small village near Granada, Spain around the year 1500. A Muslim family living happily in peace with everything despite some secrets in their past. Now their peace and for some of them, their lives are at an end. Although several years before the setting of the book, there was a understanding between the Catholics and the Muslims about their future – the Muslims could keep their religion, their feasts and traditions, but now Cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros has arrived and deals with the problem of Moors swiftly and cruelly, having Arabic books burnt, keeping only some dealing with medicine, converting some, but having many of the Moors killed.

The first book in Tariq Ali’s Islamic Quintet follows a family is it is torn apart, you can follow the short love-story of the eldest daughter Hind, the beginning of the eldest son’s “political” career etc. The family is fascinating and characters are very vivid, and the events in this book remind me ultimately of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” – without magic to be sure, but all the other components are there – lovely characters and awful ones, food and other pleasures, heads on pikes and books and villages on fire.

The book took me about three days to finish and I’ll be starting the next book in the quintet soon enough.

I think it would be beneficial for many people to read this book.

The book’s author is a British Pakistani writer. Go watch an interesting talk by him on youtube, where he talks about Cervantes and don Quixote and Spain of the time of Cervantes (and of his own Islamic Quintet) .