The Turk

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).


Female Eunuch

Greer, Germain. The Female Eunuch. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1971.

Reason read: Women’s Suffrage Law was passed in December.

In the 1970s this was a landmark book supporting feminist ideals. While the statistical data might be a little out of date, the rest of the narrative is sharp, funny, and in some cases, spot on. Even today. Through her seminal work Greer will take you through a sometimes sarcastic, sometimes sad, and always intelligent journey regarding every aspect of a woman’s world in the 1970s. She begins with the obvious, the female body and moves onto soul, love and hate. She ends with a powerful chapter on rebellion and revolution.

There were lots and lots of quotations to chose from. Here are some of my favorites, “In any case brain weight is irrelevant, as was swiftly admitted when it was found to operate to male disadvantage” (p 93), “Most likely a sued Other Woman would have to ask her husband undertake payments for her” (p 118), and “Genuine chaos is more fruitful than the chaos of conflicting systems which are mutually destructive” (p 234).

Author fact: Greer is extremely funny. However, when she admitted to being groped in Female Eunuch it prompted me to do a little more digging about her life. I was a little surprised by her 2018 thoughts regarding punishment for convicted rapists. It’s an example of how Greer thinks, always pushing boundaries.

Book trivia: Female Eunuch is chock full of various quotations, the most being from Mary Wollstonecraft’s oft-quoted work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (also on my list).

Nancy said: Pearl called The Female Eunuch an influential political book from the early ’70’s” (p More Book Lust p 121).

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “I am Woman – Hear Me Roar” (p 121).


This Blinding Absence of Light

Ben Jelloun, Tahar. This Blinding Absence of Light. Translated by Linda Coverdale. New York: New Press, 2002.

Reason read: This one was chosen a little off schedule. I needed something for the Portland Public Library 2018 Reading Challenge for the category of a book that has won an International Dublin Literary Award.

This book was a hard, hard , hard read. Based upon true events, it is the story of an inmate of the Tazmamart Prison. Aziz was a soldier who took part in a failed assassination attempt on King Hassan II of Morocco. Hassan ordered his political enemies to be held in an underground desert concentration camp where they were kept in 6 x 3′ cells devoid of light or proper ventilation. Aziz and twenty-one other prisoners locked away without proper food or sanitary conditions. Many men went insane or died from uncontrolled illnesses and starvation. After nearly two decades in captivity, only four survived their experience. Because Ben Jelloun takes Aziz’s experiences and fictionalizes it with a first person narrative the story becomes even more intimate and heartbreaking.
If you are ever wallowing in your own pathetic cesspool of pity, try barricading yourself in a darkened room with only a hole to piss and crap in, a ceiling less than five feet from the floor, no heat or air conditioning with only a bucket of water too filthy to drink and starchy food too filled with maggots to eat. Or, if you are short on time just read this book. Your little life can’t be as bad.
Here is the heart of the story, “The hardest, most unbearable silence was that of light” (p 51).

Lines that stopped me short (and there were a lot of them), “What does a man think when the blood of other men runs down his face?” (p 6), “I felt death making itself at home in his eyes” (p 12), “Strangely enough, becoming time’s slave had set him free” (p 29), “It was a question of chance: you tell yourself you have plenty of time, you save a few books for later…and forget to read them” (p 68), “That night I tried again to sleep on the bed. It was just too comfortable for me” (p 181).

Author fact: Ben Jelloun has also won the Prix Maghreb award in 1994.

Book trivia: This Blinding Absence of Light won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2004.

Nancy said: Pearl said This Blinding Absence of Light is “a difficult, soul-destroying read” (p 162). Interestingly enough, someone on Wikipedia said prisoners were not “actively” tortured. I find this really interesting. The decision to withhold light and food IS a form of active torture. True, these people were not tortured with acts resulting in pain but they faced starvation to the point of eminent death. I’m guessing the author of the Wiki page has never been hungry to the point of starvation; has never gone without light; has never experienced confining and unsanitary conditions for an extended period of time or faced the threat of scorpions stinging them in the dark. As Ben Jelloun said, “the entire body had to suffer, every part, without exception” (p 3).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “North African Notes: Morocco” (p 162).


Lost Moon

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).


January Come Lately

I try not to think about white rabbits running around with time pieces muttering about being late. Whenever I do I am reminded this is being written three days behind schedule. Nevertheless, here are the books:

Fiction:

  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov – in honor of Asimov’s birth month.
  • Lamb in Love by Carrie Brown – this is a stretch…All Creatures Great and Small first aired as a television show in January and there is a creature in the title.
  • The Good Times are Killing Me by Lynda Barry – in honor of Barry’s birth month.
  • A Cold Blooded Business by Dana Stabenow – in honor of Alaska becoming a state in January.

Nonfiction:

  • Daisy Bates in the Desert by Julia Blackburn – in honor of Australia’s National Day on January 26th.
  • The Turk by Tom Standage in honor of Wolfgang Von Klempelen’s birth month.
  • Freedom in Meditation by Patricia Carrington – in honor of January being National Yoga month.
  • Sibley’s Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by David Allen Sibley – in honor of Adopt a Bird Month. I read that somewhere…

Series continuations:

  • To Lie with Lions by Dorothy Dunnett – to continue the series started in August in honor of Dunnett’s birth month.
  • Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman – to continue the series started in November in honor of National Writing Month (Fantasy).

Early Review for LibraryThing:

  • Well-Read Black Girl by Glory Edim – I know what you are thinking. I am neither black nor a girl. I am a middle-aged white woman who barely remembers being a girl. I requested this book because I work in an extremely diverse environment and let’s face it, I want to be known as well-read, regardless of color.

For fun:

  • Sharp by Michelle Dean – my sister gave this to me as a Christmas gift. I wonder if she is trying to tell me something.

December Didn’t Disappoint

I may not be happy with my personal life in regards to fitness, health, and so on, but I am definitely satisfied with the number of books I was able to check off my Challenge list for the month of December. Special thanks to my kisa who did all the driving up and back and around the great state of Maine.

Fiction:

  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (EB/print).
  • Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess.
  • Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund.
  • This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun.
  • Time Machines: the Best Time Travel Stories Ever Written edited by Bill Adler, Jr.

Nonfiction:

  • The Black Tents of Arabia: (My Life Among the Bedouins by Carl Raswan.
  • Lost Moon: the Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger.
  • The Female Eunuch by Germain Greer.
  • Stet: a Memoir by Diana Athill (EB and print).
  • Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens (EB and print).

Series continuations:

  • Unicorn Hunt by Dorothy Dunnett. Confessional: I did not finish this.
  • The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (EB/print/AB).

Black Tents of Arabia

Raswan, Carl R. The Black Tents of Arabia: My Life Among the Bedouins. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1935.

Reason read: The movie, Lawrence of Arabia, was released in December of 1962.

Raswan spent more than twenty years with different Bedouin tribes of Arabia. He went along with them hunting, raiding, battling and surviving as they migrated across the unforgiving arid desert. He submersed himself in the Ruala tribe, learning their customs and traditions on an intimate level. This intimacy and his passion for Arabian horses helped him escape enemy clutches when they were ambushed more than once. How he managed to avoid certain death was beyond me.
Raswan’s language has the ability to take the reader on his adventurous journey. In Black Tents of Arabia he had a way of describing sights and sounds that brought his wild experiences to life. Here’s one of my favorites, “In our tumble-down car there were now no less that seven men: Ibrahim, Ali, two Bedouin rafiqs, two soldiers, and myself; also a gazelle, a greyhound, and two hens. We were packed like sardines: we had to hold on to anything that we could and change grips when the hand threatened to go to sleep. But with thirteen arms interlaced (Ibrahim’s free arm controlled the steering-wheel) we prevented the car from falling apart, nor could any passenger fall out without the knowledge of the others” (p 122).

Quote I needed to quote: Here’s an example of romance in the desert. Faris says to his love, “The blade of my dagger reminds me that I shall never be at peace until the slender blossom bends before the storm of my love” (p 61).

Author fact: Raswan took all of the photographs featured in Black Tents of Arabia.

Book trivia: There are a generous number of photographs in Black Tents of Arabia. I counted over 65 photographs and they are remarkable.

Nancy said: Pearl said Black Tents of Arabia is “a hymn of joy and affection for the nomadic life” (p 25).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called Arabia Deserta” (p 23).