In Love and War and Laundry

All Dressed Up

Alice believes she should always look her best no matter what she is doing.

My photo prompt today was “all dressed up and nowhere to go.” This is what Alice decided to do to help me get the shot.

I haven’t taken the dog photo yet today, though we can’t blame Lucy Peanut. The dog prompt is “stepping out.” LP has been raring to go all day, but I’ve been in the laundry room with Alice. Lucy P will just have to wait her turn.

I did, however, manage to make my cranes for the day while waiting on the wash.

49-51

These are 49-51 of a planned 1000. When I look at those numbers, I think this is going very slowly, but then I remember that it’s still January, and this project is supposed to last me the whole year. I only have to do 83 per month to get to 1000, so I’m actually ahead of schedule. That’s a good thing. Research paper season is coming. I’m bound to fall behind at that point.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about this quote that I read.

In Love and War

I love this quote because it rings true. I came to a similar realization in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When disaster strikes, we find out who people are. They might be able to convince us up to that point that they are who they want to be, but when everything is falling apart, we find out.

Some people are better than they know, and others are a whole lot worse. We just don’t know until put to the test.

I’ve been reading the book The Nightingale, and so far it is very good. I found it on one of those “best of the year” lists at the end of 2015. It is the story of two sisters and their experiences in France during World War II. It is thought-provoking and compelling and beautifully written. If you are looking for something to read, you can’t go wrong here.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

81 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

This is the last book that I read in 2011. It’s January 8, 2012, and I am finally starting to wrap up 2011. That may be a little ahead of schedule for me.

I enjoyed What I Talk About When I Talk About Running quite a bit. This book is at least part of what has inspired me toward more exercise in 2012. I wanted to share in the mental and emotional benefits Murakami found in running as well as in the physical benefits.

The book also appeals to me because it is as much a book about how he writes as it is a book about how he runs. The inner spirit required to run a marathon is basically the same spirit required to write a novel. I loved his attention to the parallels.

I also appreciate the fact that he talks about his own most embarrassing times and his times when he’s felt the greatest sense of failure. This is one of Japan’s and even the world’s most celebrated writers, yet there was something remarkably humble in his talk about his accomplishments.

Read it if you need some inspiration for either physical or mental tasks. It’s an interesting story and fairly useful guidebook.

The Lady Emily Series by Tasha Alexander

76-80 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

I’ve now read all six of Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily mysteries, but I’m counting five of them in my 2011 challenge because the sixth one I actually read in 2012. I’ll include the sixth book in this post, though. It will just have to exist in a netherworld of books that count for neither 2011 nor 2012.

I started this series because I’d read the Lady Julia series by Deanna Raybourn, and I was looking for something similar. The Lady Emily books basically fit into the same category and subcategory as the Lady Julia books. They are romantic mysteries set in Victorian England. They are both based on the premise that a society lady starts to come into her own after the murder of her husband. Both Lady Julia and Lady Emily find they have a penchant for solving crimes as they investigate their husbands’ deaths. They both fall for their investigating partners, and they both struggle to balance their new relationships with their newly formed sense of independence.

These are definitely the same sorts of books — murder mysteries with a splash of romance and a splash of history. They are light reading and what I wanted in the way of comfort reading as I wound down from a stressful semester.

Other than fitting into the same category, though, the two aren’t really that much alike. They have very different tones and personalities.

I enjoyed the Lady Emily books, but it took me some time to warm up to them because I wanted them to be more like the Lady Julia books. The characters are so quirky and engaging in the Lady Julia books. I didn’t think the main characters had that much personality at first in the Lady Emily books. They had to grow on me. In the end, I liked them just fine, but I really wasn’t sure about them at first.

In particular, I thought Colin Hargreaves of the Lady Emily series was a fairly huge disappointment after Nicholas Brisbane of the Lady Julia books. I thought Colin had no personality and was basically a non-entity in the stories. I thought the romance was unconvincing in the Lady Emily books because we had seen no defining moments for Colin’s character. I just had to take Emily’s word for it that she had fallen for Colin. I didn’t see it happen.

We do learn more about Colin as the books progress, and I finally got to the point where I was more interested in seeing Emily make a go of it with her new husband than I was in seeing her run off with one of the bad guys who did have some personality. It took me some time, though, to warm up to Colin, and I never did think he was anything to compare to Brisbane.

Colin is like the grownups in the Nancy Drew books. They always manage to conveniently disappear while the good stuff is going on so that Nancy and her sidekicks can save the day all on their own. We never do really see Colin and Emily in action together. We only see them together for relationship scenes, not for life scenes or danger scenes. This is why the relationship isn’t as convincing to me as it might be, and it’s why Colin isn’t as convincing as a romantic hero. He’s just the grownup in the background.

That said, the Lady Emily books are well researched. The little tidbits of real history thrown in are charming and and even somewhat informative. Lady Emily develops an interest in antiquities when she learns that they were something of an obsession for her first husband. She learns this after his death, of course, since she really barely knew him. She also sets out to improve her mind by learning to read Homer in Greek and Virgil in Latin, but she still has a raging love for the most mindless sorts of novels of her day. Who couldn’t love her for that?

I wasn’t sure about Emily at first, but I came to love this combination of the serious the sublime and the silly in her mental pursuits. Truly, she’s just a typical English major born before her time. That, or much more likely, she’s the projection of a contemporary English major’s mentality onto a Victorian character. Either way, she won me over in the end.

The books in this series are as follows.

1. And Only to Deceive.

Emily was married only a short time before the husband she barely knew went off on a hunt never to return. She’s left with a fortune, an opportunity for a kind of independence she never thought possible, and a large sense of guilt that she’s the only person not experiencing genuine grief over her husband’s death. She sets out to learn more about him, and in the process stumbles across information to indicate he may have been murdered.

This sets her off on her new career as an amateur detective and sets up her reason for working closely with the man who will eventually become her next husband.

I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t think I was going to at first. I didn’t much care for Emily until after she started to discover that there was more to her than the society lady her mother had reared her to be.

This might not be my favorite of the series, but you’ve got to start here if you are going to read these books. This is where you are introduced to Emily’s world.

2. A Poisoned Season.

This one might be one of my favorites. Here we meet Sebastian, who is one of my favorite characters. He is a thief who claims to fall in love with Emily when he breaks into her house one night and sees her sleeping. He leaves romantic notes for her, and behaves outrageously. He isn’t exactly one of the good guys, but isn’t an outright bad guy either. I wanted her to run off with Sebastian in this book. It was clear by this time that she had a budding romance with Colin, but it was not clear by this time what it was about Colin we were supposed to like.

Of course, there is murder to investigate, and of course Emily and Colin solve it together. At least she solves part of it, and he solves part of it. They never seen to actually work together. Emily is just beginning to assert her independence, and presumably it would be too much of an infringement on her sense of self if a man helped her too much. Colin is the right man for her in that he manages to disappear at all the right times for her to work things out for herself.

Nonetheless, this one is a charmer, not because of Emily and Colin, but because of the other characters who are funny and engaging in ways the main two have not yet managed.

3. A Fatal Waltz.

I think this may have been my least favorite book of the series. I didn’t like it because people were cruel to Emily in it, and I thought I had signed on for something where I wasn’t going to have to feel sad or disturbed. I expected (and got) murder and intrigue, but I didn’t expect emotional cruelty. It hadn’t been that kind of series so far. It all worked out, though. The mean people were the ones who died.

Book 3 does serve the purpose of developing Colin’s character a little more by giving him some background. He seems like a much more interesting person by the end even though he wasn’t even around for most of the book. He and Emily are engaged by this time, and he did what he does best. He disappeared to do his own work long enough for Emily to solve the mystery.

4. Tears of Pearl.

This one I also saw as a weaker link. Emily and Colin are married now and on their honeymoon in Constantinople. The fact that it is their honeymoon doesn’t prevent a mysterious murder from landing in their path, though, nor does it prevent Colin from taking off in pursuit of his own investigations long enough to leave Emily to risk her life facing down the bad guy. All that seems to be the standard fare for the series, so that’s not my complaint for this book.

Mainly, I thought it attempted to address cultural differences that couldn’t possibly be dealt with sufficiently in this type of light romantic mystery. I would have preferred never venturing as far as Constantinople. Once we went there, of course, Emily had to investigate the crime inside a harem. While that might have been all very interesting, it also struck me as a little cartoonish and possibly even a little culturally insensitive. I wasn’t much convinced by the characters Emily meets in the harem. I basically thought it would have taken a longer book with a more serious tone to really show us the comparisons and contrasts of the life of an English lady and the life of a harem wife. I thought this book ended up imposing the tone and manners of English drawing rooms in places where they didn’t belong.

But that’s probably too much of a criticism. The series isn’t trying to be serious literature. It is what it is. It’s purpose is escapism, and that it accomplishes.

It’s an enjoyable enough book. It’s just not my favorite.

5. Dangerous to Know.

I thought this book got back on track in that the mystery itself was more interesting to me. Emily is very depressed, though, because she has lost a baby and isn’t sure she can get pregnant again, and Colin is sometimes likeable and sometimes not.

Emily finds a body right off the bat, and there are tales of ghosts as well as a series of characters all suffering from mental illnesses. They are in the French countryside now, staying with Colin’s mother while Emily recovers, and the whole thing is very Gothic. I’m sure the foray into the Gothic is what I like. This is what a good English lady investigating murders is supposed to encounter.

I don’t like that Emily’s injuries mean she might not be able to ever have children. There is a feminist tone running throughout the books. Each new episode provides a new way for Emily to learn more about what she’s capable of. I understand the impulse to avoid writing children into the story. It would be a little more awkward to confront murderers while pushing a baby in a pram (not that an English lady would push her own pram). I understand; I just don’t like it. I want to see her do it all. I want to see her juggling a family along with her investigations and her feminist ideals.

As for Colin, he comes across as both more assertive and more embarrassing in this book. He tries to intervene in Emily’s investigations for the first time. He suddenly decides it’s his job to protect her after she loses their baby and nearly dies in the process. That’s not where I see him as assertive, though. He apologizes for his decisions too many times to come across as a tough guy. I just found that embarrassing for him. Where I saw him as stronger and more likeable was when he defended Emily against his mother’s criticisms. That may have been the first time in the whole series that I really admired him. Sebastian was even back in this book, and I was okay with the fact that Emily didn’t throw Colin over to run off with a thief.

6. A Crimson Warning.

This latest book is probably my favorite. Emily and Colin are back home in London. The murder they are investigating is surrounded by political intrigue, and all of polite London society is threatened. This seems more appropriate grounds to me for a Victorian murder mystery. Plus, Emily’s butler is back in the story, and next to the thief Sebastian, Davis the butler is my favorite character. I don’t necessarily want Emily to run off with him, but it would please me if he took a more active part in the investigations in future books.

There was nothing about this book that outright annoyed me. It was just what I expected, an enjoyable light read. The relationship between Emily and Colin has settled into something that is more convincing to me in this book as well. I guess I didn’t realize until I sat down to write my responses just how much it bothered me that Colin didn’t come across as a strong male lead in these books. The romance is such a big part of the story in every book, but it isn’t until well into the series that I even care whether Emily stays with Colin or not. He just didn’t seem to be nearly as dashing as the book said he was.

I think this is because the path has been cleared for Emily to do most of the work, and Colin has just been written out of the way. He’s also been written as a man who is extraordinarily agreeable to a woman pursuing her own interests. That’s all well and good, but his utter lack of response to most of what happens to Emily through most of the books makes him come across as a weak character rather than a supportive partner. He is more interesting in the last couple of books than he was in the first few books, though. Maybe as this series continues, he will continue to develop.

So that’s basically my assessment of this series. They really are charming mysteries. They just happen to be threaded with what I saw as an annoyingly weak romance. Maybe I’m just not a Colin girl. Or maybe I was still just too enamored with Nicholas Brisbane of the Lady Julia series to give Colin much of a chance.

If we could pick teams here, and I could put on a T-shirt that said Brisbane, it would probably make me feel better about the whole thing. Meanwhile, I really do look forward to any possible future books from both Tasha Alexander and Deanna Raybourn. Regardless of my criticisms, I’ll probably pre-order the next Lady Emily book on the first day I hear about it.

As Lady Emily continually pointed out, just because a book isn’t great literature doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary.

The Time of Our Lives by Tom Brokaw

75 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

I’ve read several book lately about our current economic crisis, and I probably enjoyed Tom Brokaw’s book more than any of the others. I think Thomas Friedman’s was the most informative, and Tom Brokaw actually refers to it on a number of occasions. I just enjoyed this book more because it evokes a greater sense of nostalgia for the kind of country we all think we’ve grown up in.

I also like Brokaw’s book because he points out that we only feel like we have come so far down because we’ve been on an economic roller coaster that took us farther up than we’d ever been just before it brought us back down. We can’t make ends meet because we are trying to live in ways no one has lived before.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. As I struggle to make my mortgage payments, I think about how unusual it is, when considering the history of civilization as a whole, that a single woman would live alone in a three bedroom house to start with. Even in my own family, in the past, multiple generations lived in one house. Now, I live alone in a house that, while very modest by today’s standards, might still be bigger and nicer than some of the places my great-greats had whole sprawling families crammed into. It’s harder to live like this today than it was ten years ago. Still, it’s more possible for me to live like this today than it would have been at any point in history up to the past fifty years or so.

This is the kind of thing Brokaw reminds us of. A little perspective can be a very good thing.

His advice about how to go forward from here is not so terribly different from anyone else’s advice. I just finished this book feeling more optimistic than I have at the end of other books. I think because I spent so many years listening to Tom Brokaw tell me what was going on in the world, I feel a little more comforted listening to his voice tell me we’re still who we’ve always been.

We might have a lot of work to do yet to get back on track, and we might need some major attitude adjustments yet, but we haven’t lost all hope yet. This is good to imagine.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

74 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

That’s right. It’s 1/3/12, and I am posting blog entries today for my 2011 book challenge. I’m a little behind. I have several more books that I finished in 2011 but never blogged about, though. I’m going to try to finish them up today and see if maybe I can manage to move on to 2012 a few days late.

The Sense of an Ending won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, and this is a well deserved honor. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

The story itself is fairly ordinary. A man reflects on events from 40 years in his past. He broke up with a college girlfriend. She started seeing one of his closest school friends. There was a general falling out. His friend committed suicide. Years later he learned there was more to the story than he’d ever known.

That could be the plot of any garden variety thriller, yet it is transformed into a prize-winning piece of literature by the philosophical reflections on time, memory, and human motivations woven throughout the story. They are really quite extraordinary.

There is a mystery that unravels through the course of the narrative about the death of the friend, but the real mystery is the protagonist himself. To understand what happened in the past, he has to understand himself — or, conversely, he has to understand how very much there is he cannot understand about himself.

Lovely writing. Beautifully thoughtful prose. This one is a must read.

Catching up on Books

I’m going to do a three-for-one book blog with this entry as a way of catching up a little. One way or the other my 2011 book blogging challenge is coming to a close.

Originally, I said my goal was to read and blog about 52 books this year. That would have been an average of a book a week. I completed that goal in July. At that point, I changed my goal to 100 books. It seemed reasonable enough at the time, but I failed to take into consideration just how overwhelming the fall semester always is. I also failed to take into consideration the fact that I might get distracted with other projects along the way, which I have done with my recent genealogy research.

The books that I am posting today are numbers 71, 72, and 73. I’m a ways still from 100, and I don’t have much time left. I still think I could get there if I were willing to be rude enough to read straight through Christmas. I did consider this option, but in the end decided against it. Thus, I’m now changing my official goal to 78 books for the year. That makes for an average of 1.5 books per week.

I’m not sure whether to declare this success or failure. Either way, I press on.

#71

Back to Work by Bill Clinton

Clinton’s book about the jobs crisis is obviously a very partisan book. I did find his view of what we needed to do to create more jobs interesting, though. A number of his points corresponded with what Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum had to say in That Used to Be Us, but Clinton goes farther toward arguing for big government. He also defends some of his own policies that Friedman and Mandelbaum criticized in their book.

That said, what I got from the book was the idea that, along with the rise in income inequality in this country, we are also losing the kind of competitive edge that a strong middle class has given us in the past. This means that it is harder to attract even our own companies toward keeping jobs in the US. This is where he addresses the same flat world economics that Friedman has talked about in several books. What do we do to keep America working in a globalized market?

Clinton says we can’t do it with anti-government attitudes. He says that the globalized nature of the economy means that every country needs more infrastructure than ever in order to keep up. This, he says, can’t be accomplished as long as we have such strong anti-government sentiments in the US.

He says a lot more, but that’s my nutshell. I agree to an extent. We don’t live in the same world. We are competing with other countries now, not just for manufacturing jobs, but for highly skilled technical jobs as well. We do need more infrastructure in order to remain competitive in this case.

I was disappointed that Clinton didn’t do more to own up to mistakes made on both political sides, but I don’t know why I would have expected him to. I knew this was not a politically neutral book when I picked it up. As long as you are okay with that, you’ll find some fairly brilliant insights into the economy in this book, insights that have been repeated by a number of people with fewer political dogs in the fight.

The world has changed, and we have to change the way we do business in the world if we want to keep up. That’s a little tough to swallow at times, but it is nevertheless our reality.

#72

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

This is a great book. If you have any interest at all in psychology of neuroscience, you should read it.

Eagleman offers lots of examples of ways the brain does things we’re unaware of. What we think of as instinct, as things we’re able to do without thinking about them, are really just the result of unconscious levels of brain activity taking over. When baseball player hits a ball moving too fast to be seen, that’s an example of the power of the unconscious.

He also talks about brain tumors and such have changed people’s personalities and brought out tendencies in them that they would not have otherwise had. He uses these cases to challenge our thinking about who the “real” person is. We tend to think that what’s deeper inside is truer to the real person than what’s on the surface. Thus, when someone like Mel Gibson gets drunk and lets loose with offensive comments he wouldn’t make while sober, we think we are now seeing the true person.

This book challenges those notions and challenges us to reconsider our ways of understanding the unconscious and its relationship to the conscious.

Fascinating stuff.

#73

The Leftovers
by Tom Perrotta

I grew up traumatized by stories of The Rapture. Every time I found myself in a room alone I thought The Rapture had taken place. That’s why I’m the last person who should have read this book. I found it seriously creepy. It’s well done and deserving of the literary praise it’s received, but it is also seriously creepy.

The Leftovers is a novel about a Rapture-like event. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the world disappear into thin air all at once, but there doesn’t seem to be any religious rhyme or reason to it. The people who disappear are not followers of any particular religion. Atheists go at the same rate as Christians. Drug abusers go at the same rate as small children. The whole thing just seems random.

In the aftermath, a number of strange cults pop up, and Christians devote themselves to proving that what happened was not the actual Rapture.

This is a secular view of a religious concept. It follows the inhabitants of a small town in the aftermath of an event that no one quite understands. The reactions and behaviors of the characters show a very sophisticated understanding of human nature. The story is compelling.

It is also creepy, very creepy. If you are not prepared to deal with creepy, skip over it. If, on the other had, your sensibilities can handle a secular fantasy based on a Christian idea, go for it. It will certainly make you think.

That Used to Be Us by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum

70 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

Everyone should read That Used to Be Us. This is basically a book about our current economic crisis, why it happened, what we’re doing wrong in handling it, and what we can do to handle it better.

The crisis, they say, was brought about by a convergence of several things rather than any one single problem — Globalization, the IT revolution, rising debt, and deregulation. We’re handling it poorly in several ways as well. We aren’t recognizing that we’re undergoing a major transformation, and thus we aren’t doing enough to prepare for the future We have a broken down political climate that prevents any real progress on fixing issues like national debt. Instead of Democrats and Republicans working together to solve the crisis, they are working at cross purposes. As a result, what passes for compromise ends up being the worst of both worlds. We get Democratic social programs and Republican tax cuts all at once. This is unsustainable. We are surviving on credit, but there is a limit to how far credit will stretch even for the US government.

Friedman and Mandelbaum say we need to return to the values that saw us through other times of crisis. We need bi-partisan pragmatism rather than ideological warfare. We need investment in our future rather than turf battles over the present circumstances.

What we need is being impeded by several things — 24 hour news networks, social media, and lobbyists foremost among them. Politicians aren’t given the breathing room to set aside party politics long enough to just do what’s right for the country. Every little decision is subject to hyper-scrutiny and hyper-criticism.

Essentially, I think they are saying that we have lost sight of what’s important in our determination to always be right. We’ve turned everything into a dramatic and impassioned battle between two political sides, and this taking sides and fighting to the death for one side or the other has just absolutely crippled the chances for any actual governing that might take place.

Politicians have historically changed their minds on things like raising taxes or cutting programs when circumstances changed. Our current climate doesn’t leave any room for either side to back down, though. In that way, we have moved away from the values that made America great. We’ve moved away from a capacity to put the country ahead of political bickering.

Friedman and Mandelbaum still think we can turn this all around, but they think we’re going to have to undergo some serious changes first. They hope to see a third political party emerge to shake things up, one that is both more forward thinking and more fiscally responsible than either of the parties in power right now.

There’s more. There’s quite a bit more, and it’s all worth reading. I’ll leave you here for now, though.

If you believe there is plenty of fault to go around, and that it doesn’t all fall on one particular side of the political divide, this might be the book for you. If you believe we’re going to have to all work together, even to the point of all sharing tough sacrifices, in order to see the country through this crisis, this might be the book for you. If you believe we all need to apply a little more practical good sense and a little less finger pointing to the solutions, this might be the book for you.

It’s the book for me. I’m a believer.

Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski

69 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

I have mixed feelings about Under the Overpass. It’s an interesting story. I was absorbed in it and didn’t want to put it down. I’m just not sure what I think of the whole operation this story is based on.

Mike Yankoski and a friend decided to live on the streets for a few months in order to learn more about the homeless. They survived by panhandling. They played guitars and left the cases open, hoping that people would drop money in. Usually they got enough to eat. That’s about it.

These two young men did this to learn more about homelessness from a Christian perspective. They were (and are) Christians. When they panhandled, they played Christian praise music. They sometimes talked to people about their Christianity, but they didn’t go on the streets in an attempt to evangelize. They went to experience what it was like to be homeless so as to develop more compassion and understanding.

I can respect the motivation of developing more compassion, and I have to say I learned quite a bit from their story. I’m just hesitant over the whole idea because they were basically homeless under false pretenses. They had homes and families. They didn’t have to be out there. Their presence didn’t do anything to help the people they were there to observe. They were actually competing with these people for the charity of others, and they were accepting the help of others without them that they only had to call their parents if they wanted money for a hotel room and a plane ticket home.

I really didn’t like the idea that they were panhandling to feed themselves instead of getting out there to feed the real homeless people.

On the other hand, I did feel like their experiences on the streets gave them a unique perspective. I also felt like they had some very practical advice for how to respond to homelessness. I think this a book that people who want to help the homeless should read, especially if their motivation for helping is based on Christian faith.

I’ll just leave my comments there, but I will share one practical tip from the book. Many people are reluctant to give money to panhandlers because they are afraid the money will go to drugs and alcohol instead of food. This is a realistic concern. Lots of people on the streets are addicts. Yankoski recommends handling this in two ways.

First, stop and talk to the person you want to help. Don’t just toss money over and walk away. Many times what homeless people need is human contact. They need genuine compassion and caring, not just money.

Two, don’t give cash. Instead, keep gift cards to fast food places on hand so that you will have them to give out when you run across a person in need. This will help to assure that you are giving food, not alcohol.

Yankoski has plenty more advice and plenty more insights. Despite my misgivings about the methods of gathering information, the book is well worth the read. Like I said, it’s especially worth it for people who want to understand the issue of homelessness from a Christian viewpoint. Yankoski reminds us that Christianity is supposed to be about serving the neediest among us. It doesn’t get much more needy than homeless. All Christians should be thinking pretty hard about the issues raised in this book.

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

68 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

I’m a fan of Bill Bryson, and I wasn’t disappointed in this book. In a Sunburned Country is Bryson’s tale of traveling across Australia, looking at the country through the eyes of an American. It’s as funny and informative as his other books.

He reminds us that Americans mostly forget about Australia until something happens to remind us it exists. We don’t remember the names of their politicians. We don’t see much about them in our newspapers. Yet we’re still fascinated with this country that, to our imaginations, is much like the American Wild West of yesterday.

Australia, as it turns out, really is pretty wild. There are species there that don’t exist anywhere else. There are deadlier spiders and snakes and so forth than you are likely to find most anywhere. There are also more primitive species that still exist nearly the same as they did at the dawn of life on this planet. This is mainly due to the fact that Australia is a massive island that was mostly left alone by outside influences for most of the history of life on this planet.

This isolation means they have a greater variety of life than can be found most anywhere. They have lots of trees and plants and animals and bugs and so forth that don’t exist anywhere else. This fact, along with the continued isolation of many people living in the Outback, seems to make Australia a little harsher for human life than many other places. Bryson shares story after story of people who’ve discovered this in the most tragic manner. Yet, he also shares story after story of people who are resilient and hardy and good natured.

I feel like I’m running true to form regarding Americans who are vague on what Australia’s all about. I read this book a couple of weeks ago, and I’m already fuzzy on a lot of the details. I do know I enjoyed it, though, and I do know that it’s the kind of thing any American should read before traveling Down Under. If nothing else, the book should remind you to be be careful of sunburn. Byson had the most awful sunburn while he was there.

Good stuff. A quick and easy read that will teach you a few things without making you struggle too much to learn.

I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

67 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

I Am Half Sick of Shadows is just and cute and endearing as all of Alan Bradley’s other books in the Flavia de Luce series. I like this kid sleuth.

This is a Christmas themed book. This time Flavia’s perpetually struggling father has leased their ancestral home to a film crew, and everyone gets trapped in the mansion for Christmas. Of course there’s on Agatha Christie style murder, and of course young Flavia is the one to figure it out first. It doesn’t hurt that she’s simultaneously constructing traps for Father Christmas to prove to her older sisters that he is real. Her traps come in handy.

I think these books are really intended for adults who just want something safe to read, a good old-style murder mystery without the relentless violence of so many of today’s thrillers. They are absolutely kid-friendly, though. They are also educational, considering that Flavia has a fascination for chemistry, and her sister has a fascination for literature. I’d give them to teenage girls to read, and I’d consider that a far cry above Twilight and the like.

Overall, though, these are just light reading, purely simply indulgence. But go ahead. It’s okay. Indulge. You’ll be glad you did.