Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunday Salon November 25

Up late and I haven't picked up a book yet. I've been reading Sunday Salon posts though. Would that count? Clare's got a good one, on "Virus Hunter".

I've got "Saxons, Vikings, and Celts" on the bedside table and I'm still not finished it. The fact is that I stay up too late and by the time I pick up the book I'm too tired to read, so I have a tendency to read about three pages and then re-read while moving my legs about or shaking my head to ward off sleep. It seldom works.

I picked up a new book last night - Sea Room by Adam Nicolson. (He's the fellow who wrote "God's Secretaries", another book on my TBR shelves that I haven't got to yet.) In Sea Room Nicolson writes of his love for a group of islands in the Hebrides which his father had bought as a young man. I haven't got very far yet, just a couple of chapters and a 'cheat' read toward the end of the book. He writes well and he seems the embodiment of Kipling's ideal man - "walks with kings nor loses the common touch" - I like him. I don't know whether the information came from the beginning of the book or my cheat read, but I see that he has some mixed emotions about ownership of the Shiants (pronounced Shants). He tells us he owns them, but acknowledges that no one can truly own a wonderful piece of nature. He wants others to share the wonder and simultaneously takes umbrage when a conservancy agency attempts to intrude on the area. I sympathize with Nicolson. Here is a remarkably decent man who feels himself steward of a natural treasure but in fact he does own the islands and is rightly offended by the cheekiness of some approaches.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sunday Salon, Third Post, November 18

Saxons, Vikings, and Celts is nicely paced narrative, unpretentious and written for the general reader. The author is likeable and has a quiet humour which is appealing. His book is peppered with entertaining anecdotes and is certainly holding my attention.

We are told that very often oral 'myths' of a region are closer to the truth subsequently revealed by genetic testing than are conclusions based solely on archaeological evidence. Somewhat disconcertingly, Sykes also reminds us of the dangerous myths that have caused so much damage - most notably the "Aryan myth" (must read more on Max Muller who is given credit/blame as the originator of that one).

I'm reading chapter four at the moment, an overview of the Celt versus the Saxon. Robert Knox, who wrote "The Races of Men" (published 1850) didn't think much of the Celts! I suspect they didn't think much of him either. The viciousness of his diatribes against the Celts is really quite laughable. It makes me think - surely that should be the favoured way to handle all racial hatred - laugh at it! Hatred shouldn't blanket an entire population. I think we need to choose the objects of our own particular revulsion very carefully in order to be sure that they are truly worthy.

I'm finding so much interesting material in this book! This is why I seldom read fiction.

Sunday Salon, Second Post, November 18

A direct quote from "Saxons, Vikings, and Celts" will give you a taste of the book. It certainly whets my interest:

(Referring to Cheddar Man)

"While his bones were gradually entombed by the drip, drip, drip of limestone water in the silence of his cave, the ancestors of the ancient Celts have arrived in Wales and Ireland, the ground has trembled under the marching feet of Roman legions, the shingle beaches of Kent have yielded to the keels of Saxon warships, and the blood-curdling cries of Viking raiders have echoed from the defenceless monasteries of Northumbria and the Scottish islands. While he endured 12,000 years of solitude, the world outside pulsed with life - and death. His DNA stayed where it was, but outside the cave it had another life in the generations of descendants whose stories we can now begin to unfold. "

This is pretty good writing! I'm enjoying the book.

Sunday Salon, November 18

Today I'm reading Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, the Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland, by Bryan Sykes (published in the U.K. under the title "Blood of the Isles")

This is the first book on the genetic history of the British Isles which utilizes DNA as a main source. The author, Brian Sykes, is a professor of human genetics at Oxford University and is well known for research on the nine thousand year old remains of 'Cheddar Man' and comparisons of Cheddar Man's DNA with that of the modern residents of Somerset. (You'll probably remember the media excitement when it was announced that testing had confirmed a kinship match with a man living in the area today.)

I'm quite interested in this book. The subject matter is fascinating of course and the writing is directed at the layman (me). Sykes tells of his chance introduction to Robert Hedges, an archaeologist at Oxford and their discussion on the possibility of extracting more from ancient bones than simply a carbon dating. Imagine! The first lab in the world to do this kind of testing, Sykes' team has tested Neanderthals, Oetzi (the Iceman of the Alps) and the people of Polynesia.

In 1995 Sykes published a paper disproving the Thor Heyerdahl theory of Polynesian migration by tracing migration routes from an origin in South-east Asia out into the Pacific Ocean. He collected DNA samples from dozens of Pacific islands and extrapolated the progress through the Pacific. Spurred by the success of the Polynesian study, Sykes then sought to investigate the origin of modern Europeans. I'll 'skip to the chase' and tell you that he seems to have concluded that the ancestors of modern Europeans were hunter-gatherers and not the previously-accepted farmers from the Middle East. Tests on skeletons from the Cheddar Cave lent some weight to the theory because Cheddar Man and an older skeleton also studied were hunter-gatherers who lived at least six thousand years before farming arrived on the Isles and their DNA is identical to modern Europeans'.

The first known Homo Sapiens in the British Isles date to twenty-six thousand years ago, then there's a fourteen thousand year gap in the fossil records (due to the Ice Age). As temperatures gradually fell from year to year, the people living in what are now the British Isles retreated to the south - to France, Italy and Spain. When the climate improved, they followed the herds back North. Twelve thousand years ago the British Isles were still connected to Europe by land and the people crossed an area called Doggerland that now lies under the North Sea.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sunday Salon - Third Post

I like this book. I can understand the characters. By page two hundred, twenty-six we've had a series of intriguing vignettes from the author's youth. "These are stories" Munro has told us in her foreward. I guess. If that is true, the stories are very well done.

The View from Castle Rock doesn't disappoint and yet I'm just a little disappointed. The framework is historical, but the flesh around the bones largely ignores history. There are certainly some excellent, timeless character studies though.

Sunday Salon - Second Post

I stopped to do a little housework, then came back and set a kitchen timer for thirty minutes' more reading. By page eighty-eight I was too enthralled to pay any attention to the timer, so I kept reading to page one hundred, forty-three. I wonder if 'old James', the driving force behind the family's emigration, was really the chronic malcontent he's portrayed to be. I have to remind myself that this is a story and not true history!

Sunday Salon by Stealth

I was drawn to The View from Castle Rock by Alison Munro because the book, a fictionalized account of Munro's family history, seems to parallel my own family's story. Her people came to Canada in 1818, the same year my own great-great grandfather brought his family to Canada. I have a fair amount of information on my Hobson ancestors and I'm interested to see how Munro's story compares to my own.

The book opens with a visit to the Ettrick Valley of Scotland where the author finds the headstone of her direct ancestor, William Laidlaw, in the churchyard at Ettrick. William is known locally as Will O'Phaup (Phaup being the local version of the name of his farm - "Far Hope"). Will appears to have acquired quite a mythology built around his life and experiences.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Sunday Salon on the Sly

The Sunday

Debra Hamel and Clare Dudman have suggested that readers/bloggers spend a part of each Sunday reading and periodically blogging comments on the books they've chosen. They've named this highbrow enterprise The Sunday Salon. I'm not sure how successful I'll be at this because my family still doesn't know that I'm blogging. I've been at this for a year and a half now, right under their noses, and they still haven't caught on. (...Yes, we're a rather stupid lot.) Debra coaxed me to participate "on the sly" and I'll try to do so. Of course, it's difficult to be sly when there are time constraints to consider, so I think I'll need to come up with some creative solutions to the problem. It's no use trying to read when my husband is around anyway. There's no ignoring Peter. He'll stand beside me, talking, demanding responses. That's just too frustrating. So, this time I won't attempt to do periodic updates. I'll just tell you what I'm reading at the moment.

I've got two books on my bedside table: "Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert and "44 Scotland Street" by Alexander McCall Smith.

Daniel Gilbert is someone you'd like to have over to the house. His book is interesting and cleverly written. He's a university lecturer and you know that his classes will be well attended because he has the witty approach appreciated by young people. His book discusses why it is that we seldom know what we really want or what will truly make us happy. I've already used his advice to advantage. He illustrated how we are apt to make purchasing decisions based on the wrong criteria. Stores will display a variety of products and frequently convince the consumer to choose enhanced features or capabilities which are neither wanted nor desirable. We are routinely influenced to turn our backs on what we actually want in favour of another item which may in fact not suit us as well. A variant of the same kind of thinking can be applied to relationships too. A worthy book.

"44 Scotland Street" is something of a disappointment. The title quite possibly is a reference to the long-running British soap-opera "Coronation Street". It would make sense, because the book is very much like a soap opera. Originally published in "The Scotsman" (newspaper) in serial form, this book - the first of a series - has one hundred, ten abbreviated chapters.

Alexander McCall Smith is a likeable, very accessible writer but he's no Clare Dudman. I find his characters relatively unbelievable and lacking dimension. Really, the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series is where he shines. I think that's because his respect and affection for the African people is so evident in his books. Perhaps my own lack of familiarity with Africa allows me to more readily accept the lack of nuance too... While it may not be 'great' writing, McCall Smith produces a pleasant, highly marketable product and if he isn't rich as Croesus now, he soon will be. There's a lesson to be had here: It needn't be exquisite writing to be commercially successful. In fact, I think really good writing may actually limit commercial success. After all, most of us (the reading public) are ignorant clods who don't want to be bothered with reading anything too demanding.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Forget about all that highbrow stuff - this is the best book ever! It's such juvenile fun! Page ten, "Ear Wiggling Made Easy" tells how to use adhesive bandages to attach a string to the back of the ears. Then, tie another string to the middle of the first one. Let it dangle down through the back of your shirt. Pull on the string behind your back and wow 'em! This is definitely my simple-minded cup of tea.

Page twelve has "the nastiest activity in this book" How to Fake a Sneeze. It involves first wetting your hand under a faucet, then faking the most disgusting sounding sneeze possible while simultaneously shaking the water from your hand onto the back of someone's neck.

I ask you, is there anything in the world better than remaining childish at heart?