Category Archives: books for free!

The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton) 3*

age of innocenceI suppose The Age of Innocence has a nicer ring to it than The Age of Social Constipation.  This novel is a 200-page social anthropology of Old New York, a chronicle of “the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease,” so if masturbatory dithering about individual desires versus tribal norms is your thing, maybe this book deserves a place in the canon.  I read this while trapped in the middle seat of an airplane, which was very thematically appropriate, and if I ever yearn for that middle-seat feeling, I know I can always reach for this book.

Set in 1870 or so, the story centers on Newland Archer, a young man who has all the privileges and burdens of belonging to one of the best families in New York society.  Newland is such a bore that it took several chapters before I processed that he is, in fact, the main character.

Or is he?  The book opens when Ellen Olenska causes a stir by appearing in public, and Ellen is the breath of fresh air that threatens to awaken Newland.  And then there’s his betrothed, the fresh and innocent May Welland, whom Newland continually underestimates.  The book is really about these two women, both of whom are very interesting, but we only see them through Newland’s eyes, and Newland only thinks he’s a keen observer of human nature.

I can see what the conflicts and great thoughts are supposed to be (the pointlessness of Newland’s restraint when it turns out that everyone thinks Newland has been having an affair all along; all the people who thumb their noses at the rules and are totally invited to parties; May Welland as a skillful player and courageous person who achieves the life she wants while following the rules to a T), and Wharton’s text is peppered with goodies such as “fierce spinsters who said ‘No’ on principle before they knew what they were going to be asked” and random quotables such as “The worst of doing one’s duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else.”  On the whole, however, it’s (intentionally?) airless and the cast of characters is rather hard to keep straight.  I can track the families and cousinships in Gone With the Wind and A Game of Thrones, so I blame Wharton for writing characters who read as White Man #15 and Rich Matriarch #2  I tried to grade on a curve since it’s an older book, but upon fact-checking it turns out that this was published in 1920, so there’s no excuse for its lack of narrative pull.

In conclusion, I can see why the Scarlet Letter-toting set might like this book, but frankly I don’t give a damn.  On these themes, I’d throw this out of the canon and replace it with The Outsiders.

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Hollowland (Amanda Hocking) 4 out of 4

HollowlandFrom the first line onward, Hollowland is a surefooted summer blockbuster that hits every mark.  If I hadn’t known otherwise, I would have thought that Amanda Hocking was a professional screenwriter with 20 years of Hollywood experience, not a 26-year-old caregiver at an assisted living facility.  It’s hard to believe that Hollowland and My Blood Approves were written by the same person.  Hocking’s learning curve is something fierce.

The premise is very similar to 28 Days Later: An ultra-contagious pathogen transforms humans into rabid beasts, and the only hope is to quarantine the survivors until the zombies die off naturally.  The story begins as a quarantine zone is being breached, and 19-year-old Remy goes off in search of her little brother.  Along the way, she picks up some interesting companions on a roadtrip odyssey through the shattered United States.

This book is an action movie, and it is a perfect action movie.  The pacing is fantastic, the setting is otherworldly, the characters pack authenticity into very little dialogue, and the fight scenes are awesome.  Remy is one tough girl, and Hocking really gets the self-defense dictum that Everything is a weapon.  If a zombie is after you, and all you have is a bunk bed, then a bunk bed will have to be your weapon.  A can of olives might have to be your weapon.  A chair…dude, it’s your lucky day if you have a chair to throw.

By the way, this  book is free.

Rilla of Ingleside (L.M. Montgomery) 4*

This is an unusual book — a little piece of history, really. It’s one of the only contemporary accounts of World War I published by a woman.  In many ways, the story in and around this book is sad.

L.M. Montgomery’s real life was an unhappy one.  Like Anne, she was raised by old folks on a farm.  Unlike Anne, her life sucked (hence the escapism of her novels).  When Anne of Green Gables became an international hit in 1908, you’d think that Montgomery would have been on velvet forever, but she was an old maid for a good long time despite being rich and famous…and then marriage was even worse.  And then, there was a world war that consumed the lives of millions.

Not even Anne’s life could be untouched by the Great War.  Following the great narrative rule that Only Unmarried Girls Can Be Heroines, Rilla of Ingleside (full text) tells the family story from the perspective of Anne’s youngest child, Rilla.  The story starts on the day a newspaper carries the seemingly irrelevant news that Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated.

First one brother enlists, then another, then another.  This is a story about the home front, and there is nothing escapist about it.  The wheel of the year will turn 5 grueling times before Rilla comes out the other side.  Day after day, Rilla waits for news of Paris and Verdun, Sommes and mustard gas.  The war is as exhausting on the home front as it is in the trenches of Europe.  It’s just Canada, but able-bodied men who don’t enlist are sent white feathers in the mail.  Women knit socks for the soldiers and help bring in the harvest.  People have scathing things to say about Woodrow Wilson, sitting it out in the U.S. (“with its mixed population”).  There’s a political referendum on conscription, and although Canadian women do not yet have suffrage, every woman who has a husband or brother or son overseas can vote in the election.

Every day for 5 years, there is nothing but war.  It’s shaming to read about the intensity with which civilians committed to WWI, when we are in Iraq and Afghanistan and you’d never know the difference.

The truly sad part is that Montgomery lived to see the beginning of WWII.  She died in 1942, which one granddaughter described as suicide.  In Rilla, there is much discussion about why the war is happening.  In letters home, the boys say that they are fighting for Rilla and their own sweet childhoods — they are fighting to keep the future safe for innocence.  People talk about how everything that matters has always been paid for in blood, and that this generation is paying for a great gift in the next generation.  It must have cut to the core when Germany took Belgium a second time.

Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery) 5*

A September day on Prince Edward Island hills; a crisp wind blowing up over the sand dunes from the sea; a long red road, winding through fields and woods, now looping itself about a corner of thick set spruces, now threading a plantation of young maples with great feathery sheets of ferns beneath them, now dipping down into a hollow where a brook flashed out of the woods and into them again, now basking in open sunshine between ribbons of golden-rod and smoke-blue asters; air athrill with the pipings of myriads of crickets, those glad little pensioners of the summer hills; a plump brown pony ambling along the road; two girls behind him, full to the lips with the simple, priceless joy of youth and life.

“Oh, this is a day left over from Eden, isn’t it, Diana?” . . . and Anne sighed for sheer happiness. “The air has magic in it. Look at the purple in the cup of the harvest valley, Diana. And oh, do smell the dying fir! It’s coming up from that little sunny hollow where Mr. Eben Wright has been cutting fence poles. Bliss is it on such a day to be alive; but to smell dying fir is very heaven. That’s two thirds Wordsworth and one third Anne Shirley. It doesn’t seem possible that there should be dying fir in heaven, does it? And yet it doesn’t seem to me that heaven would be quite perfect if you couldn’t get a whiff of dead fir as you went through its woods. Perhaps we’ll have the odor there without the death. Yes, I think that will be the way. That delicious aroma must be the souls of the firs . . . and of course it will be just souls in heaven.”

Anne of Avonlea

What does dying fir smell like?  My skin wants to know.

The tale of Anne-with-an-“e” is so deeply rooted in Prince Edward Island that I’m sure I’ve been there in dreams.  It’s never “trees” in these books; it’s birches, poplars, fir, beech woods, cherries in bloom, maples on fire… Never flowers but mayflowers and violets.  The wheel of the year turns six times in Anne of Green Gables (full-text) and twice in Anne of Avonlea (full-text), and with each season Anne sees and touches rapturous beauty.  Even when she is in a “city” for college, Anne’s everyday life bursts with flowers and trees — and of course she knows the names of them all.

Anne and her rustic friends casually quote Tennyson and Whitman, as if having silver poetry at your fingertips is as natural as knowing how to bake biscuits from scratch.  They walk to each others’ farms, and sometimes they “drive” (meaning, a horse and buggy).  They sew their own dresses, though hats come readymade from the village milliner.  Some girls sing and some girls play, but Anne’s concert talent is reciting.

Come for the fairy tale, stay for the self-sufficiency.  Avonlea is more genuinely Walden than Thoreau ever managed.  Although central heating and jets and microwaves are so nice to have, dipping into Anne of Green Gables highlights the price we’ve paid — “an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms,” as Harper Lee said so eloquently.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Cory Doctorow) 3*

Entertaining for its worldbuilding, otherwise lightweight.  In the future, we’ve conquered death and scarcity, so the only currency is Whuffie.  Whuffie is respect.  If you have average Whuffie, you live in an average bungalow.  If people think you are worthless, you sleep in a pod and eat protein nuggets.  Whuffie-rich folks like Cory Doctorow have capes and flying palaces or something.

People do daily or weekly backups so they can always be restored to a clone.  Some people die and restore dozens of times a year.  Some people get 6 Ph.D.s because they’ve got the time.  Most people are kind of bored.

The e-book is free, btw.

Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air (David MacKay) 4*

Tasty crunchy numbers!  The Economist describes this book as “geek heaven“; the author says he’s just trying to cut UK’s emissions of twaddle.  David MacKay, a Cambridge physicist, wades into the data with a calculator and a touch of snark.

“Every big helps,” he says, and he takes the reader on a fact-based hunt to find the places where “big” can be implemented.  He takes all energy and converts it to kWhs so that we can compare cars and pets and trans-Atlantic flights and milk.  For the record, a cat consumes 2 kWh/day, each newspaper takes 2 kWh to produce and deliver, a 30-mile car ride averages 40 kWh, and an intercontinental flight averages 30 kWh/day for an entire year.

So my last flight to the US was the equivalent of driving 40 miles every day for a year (or keeping 15 cats).  Cold hard math says that not even my meat-avoiding, car-free lifestyle really redeems my jet-fueled vacations.  Damn.  And my philosophical aversion to hairdryers (0.06 kWh per use, based on my own calculations) isn’t worth a damn either.

You can fork over $35 for the paperback, or you can download the whole PDF for free from Prof. MacKay’s website.  Data-hungry readers of my nerdly blog, this book was written just for you.

Take a browse and tell me: Does the book work for you?  Which figures are most surprising?  Will you be doing anything differently now?

Figure 11.1 from the book.

Ellpie Awards 2008

Today I noticed that I never announced awards for my favorite media goodies of 2008.  Not an auspicious start to the inaugural awards ceremony, but we don’t exactly run a red-carpet production.  I will have to call these the Ellpie Awards for being Least Prestigious.

*drumroll*

Best Children’s Book: The Dark Is Rising (Susan Cooper)
Best Short Story (tie): “The Borders of Infinity” (Lois McMaster Bujold, full story available as Chapter 1 here) and
Sandkings” (George R.R. Martin)
Best Beach Read: Making Money (Terry Pratchett)
Best of the Ancient Canon: Idylls of the King (Tennyson, full text here)
Best High-Brow Literature: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon)
Best Art Book: Wall and Piece (Banksy)
Best TV Series: Green Wing (free on Hulu)
Best Play: Dealer’s Choice
Best Movie: Persepolis
Best Audiobook: The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman, as read by Neil Gaiman, first chapter available here with banjo action)

What’s the best stuff you’ve read, seen, or heard this year?