Wednesday, 31 August 2011

#56 The Book of the Duchess

I haven't read this dream/vision poem of Chaucer's for a long long time.  And to be honest I can't remember anything but the end, where Chaucer wakes up with his head in a book.  This book was about a woman who was pining away for her lost husband.  So Chaucer dreams of a man who has lost his woman and tries to console him.  The death of his lady is shrouded in a metaphor of chess, so is uncertain.  The imagery at the beginning of the dream is extremely idyllic, and may be the best moment of Chaucer writing something buccolic.  The poem was about 1330 lines long, but I imagine in about a year I will forget this poem again and have to re-read it.  It wasn't a bad poem, far from it.   As a dream poem it exceeds other poems of this genre by giving a Freudian clue as to why the dream was happening, his book he was reading.  I will always concede that Chaucer is a clever fellow.

Monday, 29 August 2011

#55 The Leafcutter Ants

127 pages.

This is just another book that contains the elements of sociobiology that E. O. Wilson has been carefully explaining for decades, and I am only now scraping the surface.

I enjoyed this book because on each page I was presented with something completely new to me.  This was a very fruitful learning experience, as it turns out I didn't really know much about ants to begin with.  I remember watching documentaries of ants carrying leaves to their anthill, but I just assumed they ate them, but it turns out it is much more complicated than that.  They are actively culturing fungi with bio detritas.  The harvesters carry the bits of leaves to smaller worker ants who chop the harvest into smaller chunks and then they take those chunks to a fungus garden chamber and then place a fecal drop on the leave with promotes the growth of a certain type of fungus enjoyed by the colony.  I had no idea ants harvested and grew their own food, it is quite amazing.  And the life cycle of the colony is also amazing.  There is but one queen, who can live over a decade and lay between 150-200 million eggs in her lifetime!  Move over Hecuba!  All of the workers are females and do all of the work.  The only thing the males are good for is inseminating the queen, who will store their sperm her entire life.  After impregnating the queen the male dies.  The male never works or does anything other than go on a nuptial flight and dies!

This book was a little frustrating though, but I guess it was in a good way.  This was a short book at just over a hundred pages, I wished it were at least three times as long.  Every page would open my mind to wonder and raised all sorts of questions that were left unspoken in this little book.  Another frustrating aspect was that the authors would occasionally mention that scientists do not have the answer to this or that.  I had all of these questions and most of them can't even be answered.  Like, how does the queen know if she needs more workers or supersoldiers?  Do ants have different pheremones for different types of communication?  Basically I wanted to know more about communication.  I wanted to know the social structure of the superorganism.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

#54 Honeybee Democracy

by Thomas D. Seeley, 235 pages.

After reading Mind of a Raven I have been on a sociobiology trip.  I discovered some new way to understand nature and superorganisms and this is the first book where I get to explore this relatively new science, both to me and the world.  Its intent is to study the social relationships of eusocial organisms through observing them and by biology.  E. O. Wilson posited the theory that societies can be explored partly from biology.  It is an interesting theory and makes for some very interesting reading.

In Honeybee Democracy, the author goes over the various stages that a swarm of honeybees moves, decides, and goes to a new hive site.  Seeley discusses each step and goes over his sometimes ingenious tests to determine how the swarm acts as a whole.  He basically compared the 3lb swarm to a primate brain and how it works.  It was a convincing comparison.  Though the book was over 200 pages, I felt it could have been at least twice as long.  It was a fairly comprehensive book, but so much of the life of honeybees was necessarily left out to avoid making a giant tome of a book.  I would have liked to see a larger book, but what I got was extremely readable in the way Bernd Heinrich is readable.  This book was an easy read for a layman, such as I am.

#53 Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today's World

by Karen Armstrong, 541 pages.

I love Karen Armstrong.  As far as I can tell there is no one writer today that I trust more to write about modern and medieval conceptions of religion than her. Her breadth of knowledge and her understanding of the three major religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) is amazing.  I am humbled when I read her books, and am always impressed.

I never really understood the Crusades, I just knew at some point in history a bunch of Europeans went to Jerusalem and started killing people, but having read this book my understanding is much more concrete.  I know the heroes and villains of the major crusades as well as the mindset of the participants.  I loved this book.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

#52 The Conquest of Constantinople

The Conquest of Constantinople by Geoffrey de Villehardouin

This is a chronicle of he 4th crusade, which was an epic failure.  The chronicler was an actual eyewitness and also a player in the whole crusade that went extremely off course.  Pope Innocent called for another crusade to the holy land, and all was set in motion.  THe gang showed up in Venice without the proper amount of travel fare so they had to pay their way by taking Zara, a Christian town.  Then they were about to go do some holy land crusading when they took a detour to Byzantium and sacked one of the most wonderful cities of the time.  Does it need to be mentioned that the Eastern church was also Christian?  Not a single crusader from the 4th crusade sets foot in the holy land.  So how does the writer not consider this crusade a total and complete failure?  Even though the original goals were not met, the updated goals of bringing the eastern church more in line with the western church were met.  This seems vaguely like the Iraq war and how the goals were always changing.

I remember hearing only a brief history of this crusade, but it really helps to actually know the whole reason for the crusade and how it became so sidetracked.  I feel a little more enlightened having learned of this rather stupid episode in history.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

#51 The Emperor Jones

by Eugene O'neill.

Here is my second entry by the great American playwright.  This is the second play of a book with four plays in it, so I will be making at least two more O'neill entries before October 10 (contract ends).

This was a short play that consisted of an African American from the south who has installed himself as an emperor in  the West Indies.  That is the part of the play that makes the most sense, the rest consists of a man paying for his crimes by witnessing his past sins paraded in front of him as a voodoo induced hallucination.  This was a supernatural play that I imagine would be fun to watch, either on stage or on the screen.  I enjoyed it for what it was, and once again the stage direction dwarfs the actual dialogue, which was written in the vernacular of the south and cockney.  And having read it I realized that no one in this play was either loveable, kind, decent, or honest.  What you got to see was a man get dethroned and then suffer in his own sin until he died.  It felt fairly close to a Greek tragedy!

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

#50 Ender's Game

imgres.jpeg324 pages.

This was apparently a YA book, but I couldn't tell.  This was one of the better SF novels I have read, and that includes some PKD.  This appeals to all those kids that played video games and enjoy strategizing.  So this child, Ender Wiggins, is recruited to play games and he is really good at them.  They keep promoting him and then he is really challenged with a realistic game machine...I would say more but I don't want to ruin the book.  Its a good book, an easy read, and nothing that is going to be very challenging.

This marks my halfway point in my 100 challenge for the year.  I'm not sure I will reach 100, but I think I can at least reach 90.

#49 The Legend of Good Women

This is my second Chaucer entry, and is a proper follow up to Troilus and Criseyde.  In the prologue Chaucer is visited by Alcestis who commands him to write a compilation of honest women, as opposed to the harlot Criseyde.  So as a good poet he gets to it, telling the stories of all the most famous women than anyone with a cursory knowledge of Ovid and Greek Mythology will immediately know.  The women are: Hippolyta, Medea, Dido, Cleopatra, Lucrece, Procne, Leander, and I am forgetting someone.  So he sets about in his task, and it becomes almost immediately clear he is not happy as a poet.  He constantly takes the women's words away with some flippant remark like, "It is too long to write, so I won't".  Watching him dredge through this ultimately incomplete work is rather funny.  Here the author has no creativity but to summarize and translate tales that are but common tales.  This is not Chaucer at his peak, except the prologue.  But at nearly 3,000 lines it is a rather lengthy work of trial.

#48 The Merchant of Venice

This is the second Shakespeare I have seen gratis thanks to the Montana Shakespeare Company.  Unfortunately it is one of the more ambivalent plays by Shakespeare.  I've never really been a fan of The Merchant of Venice, and reading it first and then watching this production only reaffirmed my attitude towards this play.  Am I the only one that tries to sympathize with Shylock and his treatment?  Does anyone else want to see him carve a chunk from the Jew-spitting and kicking Antonio?

Reading Harold Bloom, apparently this play is nearly impossible to perform in the way Shakespeare had intended in 16th century England except in Nazi Germany and Japan.  Bloom resigns himself to admitting that this is one of the moments when Shakespeare was writing in his own time.

Despite the play itself, it was a nice night out.  Performed in the lawn of Chico Hot Springs in Paradise Valley, Montana.  I'm glad I went for the outdoor experience alone.  A small stage next to a hot spring spa hedged in between to jagged and amazing mountain ranges.  Hopefully next summer they choose a better play.  I don't think many people laughed during this play, at least not like they did for Much Ado About Nothing, which I saw about a month ago.

Friday, 12 August 2011

#47 Sourcery

So I picked up an easy job for just 3 hours a week selling firewood.  I get to read nearly 2.5 hours on the job, while selling about 10 things of firewood.  Easy enough, so I'm reading light material for this job. and the first completed book on this job is Terry Pratchett's little book, Sourcery.  Like all Pratchett material, this is funny and reminds me a lot of Douglas Adams.  Or does Adams remind me of Pratchett?  In any case at 260 pages, this made for a few shifts of selling wood a quick read.

A note to future campers at YNP.  Bring a saw.  You can cut, shop, saw, break any fallen tree in the park and burn it at the campsites.  It helps clean the park of debris and you also won't have to spend $7.28 for a box of wood imported from Idaho.     Your welcome.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

#46 Troilus and Criseyde

I've finally gotten to my Riverside Chaucer with the hopes of completing the complete Chaucer this summer.  So I began by reading what is considered one of his finest works, with the exception of the Canterbury Tales.

Just over 8,000 lines of poetry, Troilus and Criseyde was long, but methinks it should have been longer.  I read this poem before, but this is the first time I read it in Chaucer's original english, and I was pleased.  The poem is broken into 5 books, and at the slow pace of storytelling there could easily have been 2 additional ones.  I felt the ending happened too suddenly, like Chaucer got bored and quickly finished it.  THe abrupt ending did not make Criseyde appear as bad as I remembered her as being.  Somehow I remembered her being even more fickle and that Dionedes Killed Troilus on the battlefield, both of which did not happen.  Maybe Shakespeare's play of the same name is confusing me.  By the way, Shakespeare's play seems like a Michael Bay adaptation of the poem.  "How many fight scenes can I have in this play?"

I enjoyed Chaucer's subtle humor whenever Pandarus was on the scene.  He was the best character, and his name shall live in infamy as a funny go-between.  His take on love is shallow, deceitful, and without emotion.  His advice to the two young lovers was anti-thetical to love.  At one point as he is wooing Criseyde on behalf of Troilus he tells her, in essence, "If you say no Troilus shall die of love, and I do love that man that I too shall die.  So you would be the cause of both of our deaths.  Don't be so wicked as to say no."  What a woo!

Of course this is a poem about love on this world set in the ancient times.  Chaucer reminds the reader at the end, in what made me laugh, that we are all Christian readers, so this isn't really a tragedy.  He has Troilus die, or was it Achilles?, go to heaven and look at how insignificant love on earth is.  So this poem I was reading for 8,000+ lines was insignificant.  I think this was Chaucer using some irony.  Who couldn't read this and laugh?  Though at the same time this small print was his way of getting around the church censers.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

#45 The Revenger's Tragedy

Author Unknown, but probably Thomas Middleton.

I decided to read a Jacobean revenge play at random and was well rewarded.  I have never before read a play where almost every character of importance wanted to kill all of the other characters.  It seemed like everyone in this play had a taste for blood for some reason or other, and they were all trying to fulfill their individual vendettas with murder.  I have to say this was a satisfying play for its wanton violence and no seeming moral drive.  None of the characters are honorable, decent, or virtuous, with the exception of Castiza and the venerable old Antonio who has maybe 25 lines.  Even those without revenge on the mind can easily be corrupted with either lust or gold.  now that I think about it, the overriding moral could be the very simple one of lust and gold, intertwined and individual, are corrupting influences on almost everyone.

Basically, this is a play where everyone dies and no one wins.  And throw in some gruesome scenes involving the Duke's corpse.  Also, the main character Vindice made a lot of sarcastic asides which were sometimes funny.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

#44 Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds

imgres.jpegby Bernd Heinrich, 356 pages.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly.  Every page was on ravens and the things that they do.  The writer, an animal behaviorist, describes and comes up with plausible explanations of these rather intelligent birds.  Going so far as to say they may even have a consciousness and that they are all individuals.  Nothing about their behavior seems programmed.  They learn most of what they do through experiments and opportunity.  Reading Heinrich's descriptions makes me want to be there with him watching the ravens do their thing.

Also in this book are the ravens in Yellowstone, which may explain why this book was on the visitor's center bookshelf for purchase.  Another explanation ma be that this is a well-written study n ravens without scientific jargon getting in the way of a good read.  One anecdote in the book is of a Yellowstone bison stuck in mud and a couple of enterprising ravens came along and ate his eyeballs.  Other stories are of ravens leading wolves to a carcass so that they can all feed together.  This is beneficial as ravens do not have he abilities to open a carcass and are naturally limited to the eyes and the tongue (the only exposed pieces of meat).

I must say that my admiration and awe of this bird has greatly increased since reading this book.  The reason I picked up this book in the first is after watching a raven swoop down and catch a whistlepig.  It placed its foot on the whistlepig and gave 4-5 sharp jabs with its beak until it was dead and then flew off with it.  I didn't know ravens ate whistlepigs, but apparently they eat almost anything, including bison eyeballs.

#43 The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

imgres.jpeg118 pages.

I borrowed this short book from a friend so I had to resist the urge to underline and highlight.  And there is always something to underline, but the margins were small, so my temptation to write notes and comments was at least smothered.

In July I had read volume one of Masks of God, and after starting this book one of my more immediate thoughts was, "oo soon."  I should have waited another month before starting another book by Campbell.  Some of the ideas in here are repeats from Primitive Mythology.  Not that that is bad, it is not, but it made my interest in the book wane slightly.  But it was an easy read, and a short one at that.  I don't much feel like going into the details of the book, so I won't.