Standage, Tom. The Turk: the Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess Playing Machine. New York: Walker & Company, 2002
Reason read: Wolfgang von Kempelen was born in January. Read in his memory.
Picture a bygone era ripe with new inventions. This was the industrial revolution. Everyone is coming up with something practical to make life easier or something clever to wow the public’s imagination. Wolfgang von Kempelen’s creativity was sparked when he attended a conjuring show at the court of Austria-Hungary’s empress, Maria Theresa. Kempelen felt he could impress the empress further with his own ingenuity. She gave him six months to prepare a show of his own and at the end of the six months a mechanical Turkish dressed chess player was born. Outfitted with a high turban and a long smoking pipe, the automaton appeared to be capable of thought as he singlehandedly beat even the most skilled chess player at his own game. Kempelen allowed his audience to peer into the machine’s inner workings and yet they still couldn’t figure it out. the automaton became even more lifelike and mysterious when his second owner, Johann Maezel, introduced speech. The Turk, as the mechanical chess player became known, could talk! Instead of nodding three times, the automaton could tell his opponents, “check” in French further adding to his mystique. Like the boy who came to life in Pinocchio, the Turk was pure magic.
For eighty-seven years the Turk wowed audiences all across Europe and the eastern United States (Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston primarily) before a raging fire extinguished his career. The mystery was not the how the automaton worked. Not really. The bigger and better mystery was how, for all those years and kept by multiple owners, the secret did not get out.
It is sad to think the Turk is not squirreled away in some fantastic museum. I fantasize about turning a corner, coming into a dusty room and standing face to face with the mechanical man in a turban who could say, “echec.”
Author fact: Standage also wrote a book called The Victorian Internet and even though it sounds fantastic, it is not on my list.
Book trivia: There are some interesting and revealing illustrations.
Nancy said: Pearl said Turk is “a most entertaining account of a marvelous invention” (Book Lust p 150).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Mechanical Men, Robots, Automatons, and Deep Blue” (p 150).
Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. Read by Scott Brick. Santa Ana, CA: Book on Tape, 2004.
Reason read: Asimov’s birth month is in January.
The premise of Foundation is thus: Hari Seldon is a psychohistorian (a person who uses a scientific way of predicting the future through history). His mathematical sociology tells him the Dark Ages are fast approaching. In order to curate humanity’s integrity he establishes two foundations, one at either end of the universe. Each foundation is comprised of creative and engineering people capable of preserving the characteristics of the current universe.
As an aside, Fred Pohl saved the Foundation series. Because of conversations with him, Asimov worked on the series for the next decade. It was only supposed to be a trilogy. Thirty years passed between the trilogy and subsequent novels. Asimov, according to his introduction to Foundation, said he needed to reread the series to really remember where he left off.
Author fact: “The Mule” is Asimov’s favorite part of the series (according to the introduction).
Book trivia: Foundation went up against The Lord of the Rings Trilogy for the Hugo award for best three connected novels and won.
Nancy said: Besides describing the plot, Pearl said the only “must-read” is Foundation (Book Lust p 214).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror” (p 213).
Burgess, Anthony. Any Old Iron. New York: Washington Square Press, 1989.
Reason read: the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December. We remember the event every December 7th.
If you are familiar with A Clockwork Orange please put that out of your head when you read Any Old Iron. This is a completely different style of book (and somewhat easier to read; less cringe-worthy). Having said all that, you will need to hang onto your seats because in Any Old Iron Burgess will take you on a fifty year journey through history at breakneck speed. Along this journey you will travel with two families, one Welsh-Russian (told in third person), the other Jewish (told in vague and ghostly first person). You will careen through World War I, the founding of Israel, the sinking of the Titanic, and World War II, just to name a few historic events. All the while you are submersed in the Welsh, Russian, and Jewish cultures of these two larger than life families.
The title comes from word play as King Arthur’s sword also factors into the plot (as an aside, there is an old British music hall song of the same name of which I admit, I was less familiar).
Maybe I am making a generalization, but the thing about multi-generational sagas than span fifty years is that you tend to get attached to certain characters as you watch them age. I know I did.
Confessional: I had a “Natalie” moment when the aunt says of some illustrations they were “pornography in the manner of Alma-Tadema” (p 96). Thanks to the poem “If No One Ever Marries Me” I knew exactly what family the aunt (and Burgess) was referencing. Although Burgess could have meant Pre-Raphaelite Lawrence or his second daughter, Anna, who was also an artist.
Lines I liked, “I am no metallurgist, merely a retired terrorist and teacher of philosophy” (p 3), “Perhaps everybody was mad and war was the great sanitizer” (p 96), and “None had been taught to look at a map as a picture of human pain” (p 188).
Author fact: Burgess is probably most famous for A Clockwork Orange. As an aside, I had to watch ACO for a film class. It haunted me for
weeks months. I couldn’t get the fear of not being able to close my eyes out of my psyche.
Book trivia: Any Old Iron has been categorized as historical fantasy.
Nancy said: Pearl said “there are some moving sections about World War II” in Any Old Iron (Book Lust p 253).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “World War II Fiction” (p 253).
Lovell, Jim, and Jeffrey Kluger. Lost Moon: The Perilous Journey of Apollo 13. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Reason read: On December 18th, 2018 NASA scheduled a rocket launch.
Lost Moon reads like a drama. The language isn’t bogged down by rocket science verbiage even through at the time of publication Jim Lovell was a famous astronaut and Jeffrey Kluger was an adjunct instructor (in other words, two really smart men). You pretty much know what is going on at all times. Lost Moon is suspenseful even though factually you know how it all turns out in the end. You should know, if not through the news (because you lived it), then because of the movie of the same name (because it starred Tom Hanks and won a whole bunch of awards). Here’s a ten second recap: On April 11th, 1970 Apollo Lucky 13 lifts off into space. By April Lucky 13th an oxygen tank explodes and the crew abandons the mission and Odyssey and moves into Aquarius. Two days later, on April 15th, a battery explodes in Aquarius. A day later a helium disk bursts. A day later, six days after liftoff, Aquarius splashes down in the Pacific ocean.
One of the most interesting facts I learned after reading Lost Moon was the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space. Article five of the document talks about ensuring the safe return of space travelers clause. In the event of an unplanned or off-target landing in hostile territories the space traveler would be safe and not be punished, imprisoned, or held responsible for the emergency landing in their territory.
Second interesting fact – astronauts are “star sailors.” I like that a lot.
Author fact: Jeffrey Kluger is a senior writer at Time magazine. Jim Lovell was also a Navy captain.
Book trivia: There is a great section of photographs in Lost Moon. The cover is of the blast off. “Because of the incredible speed of your rocket, your trip is short.” If you don’t know, don’t ask!
Nancy said: Pearl said “though you may have enjoyed the movie, don’t miss the book…it brings a new dimension to the now familiar account of heroism” (Book Lust p 158).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “The Moon’s My Destination” (p 157).
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. London: Orion Publishing, 2002.
Reason read: Le Guin died in January of this year. I just had to squeeze in one of her books in 2018 to honor her memory.
Shevek, a physicist, is researching something he calls his Ground Temporal Theory. He wants to unite his mother planet of Anarres with the sister planet, Urras. Anarres is an anarchist planet that has become isolated. Shevek’s people are in exile. With his invention of instantaneous communication, Shevek could potentially change society. Unfortunately, his own planet of Anarres is at war, making it impossible for him to progress on his Principle of Simultaniety. Hoping to find a more accepting atmosphere he travels to Urras where he is somewhat accepted. There he lectures, builds a relationship, and fathers a child while working on his theory, working towards free exchange between Urras and Anarres. Little does Shevek know but he has fallen into a trap.
As an aside, the range of different internal societies was interesting. For example, “propertarians” believe in the ownership of something whereas other societies don’t. On the planet Urras Shevek encounters a woman who enthralls him completely, but he can’t help but make feminism comparisons between her and the women on his planet of Anarres.
Probably my favorite part was when Shevek meets Takver. The attraction was instantaneous and Shevek came alive after meeting her. He has been awakened to a whole new life. This life leads him in interesting directions.
I always like it when I can play “six degrees of separation” between books. This time, in The Dispossessed there is a Dust with a capital D; a literal Dust that is consuming and controlling. Meanwhile in The Golden Compass the Dust, again with a capital D, is mysterious and confusing.
Line I liked, “It is hard, however, for people who have never paid money for anything to understand the psychology of cost, the argument of the marketplace (p 79).
Author fact: Le Guin has written fiction, science fiction, short stories, poetry, nonfiction, and has acted as editor on several projects.
Book trivia: The Dispossessed won a Hugo Award in 1975.
Nancy said: Pearl considers The Dispossessed a “great read” but she did not say anything more than that (Book Lust p 215). Additionally, Pearl makes no mention that The Dispossessed is part of a series (Hainish Cycle #6).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter “Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror” (p 213).
Pullman, Philip. The Subtle Knife. Scholastic UK, 2007.
Pullman, Philip. The Subtle Knife. New York: Listening Library, 2000.
Reason read: to continue the series started in November in honor of National Writing Month.
In The Golden Compass Pullman introduced his readers to the possibility of more than one universe. He hinted there were actually three – the one we were in currently, a completely different universe and a third being a combination of the two. In The Subtle Knife we experience those different worlds first hand as Lyra and her new friend, Will Parry, move between them to escape their enemies. In The Golden Compass readers were also introduced to daemons. Now, we learn that people without daemons are without free will. They lack fear and imagination so they make perfect soldiers for the evil Mrs. Coulter. In addition to Mrs. Coulter, the otherworld of Cittagazze hides other enemies. Soul-eating Specters haunt the streets while children run wild without daemons or parents and rule Lord-of-the-Flies style.
As Lyra and Will travel from world to world they discover the Subtle Knife, a blade that can cut through anything. It’s power has yet to be fully understood.
Author fact: Pullman helped perform the audio version of The Subtle Knife.
Book Audio trivia: The Subtle Knife won an Audie Award in 2000.
Nancy said: The Subtle Knife is an “epic battle btween good and evil” (Book Lust p 209).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Romans-Fleuves” (p 209).
Pullman, Philip. His Dark Materials Book One: The Golden Compass New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Reason read: November is National Writers Month and this month we are celebrating a writer of fantasy.
The Golden Compass seemingly takes place in Oxford, England, but there is an alternate universe at play. Young wild child Lyra Belacourt isn’t afraid of much, especially an alternate universe. But in the beginning of The Golden Compass all Lyra cares about is getting into the Retiring Room of Jordan College, a room where, if women are not allowed, then children definitely are not. Tell Lyra she can’t do something and of course, that’s all she wants to do. She lives in a world where shape-shifting spirit animals called daemon familiars are the norm. Every person has a daemon and when they die their daemon fades away like a wisp of smoke. Lyra’s daemon familiar is Pantalaimon, a fiercely protective companion who can be a moth, bird, mouse, ermine…whatever the situation requires. Pantalaimon won’t fix on a permanent shape until Lyra is older, closer to adulthood. But, I digress. Back to Lyra and the Retiring Room. She and Pantalaimon find a way to sneak into the room and eavesdrop on a secret meeting between her uncle and college officials. Uncle Asriel tells a tale of danger and mystique involving Dust in the North. Soon Lyra finds herself more than eavesdropping. Because of unknown talents she is pulled into a terrible world of evil scientists, kidnapped children, witch clans, and armored fighting bears. In The Golden Compass you will meet Gobblers, Tartars, Windsuckers, Breathless Ones, gyptians, Nalkainers, and many others, but it is Lyra and her daemon who will captivate you.
Author fact: Pullmann graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English. This is the third book in less than thirty days that mentions Oxford University.
Book trivia: Pullman took “His Dark Materials” from John Milton’s Paradise Lost in Book II. Also, The Golden Compass is the first book in a three volume set. The other two books are also on my list.
Nancy said: Nancy describes the overarching theme of Pullman’s His Dark Materials. She then goes on to say Pullman’s “finest invention was the daemon” (Book Lust p 209).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Romans-Fleuves” (p 208).