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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Book Review: THE MAPMAKER'S DAUGHTER


[For information on the upcoming May 9 book launch for Sarah Shoemaker's Mr. Rochester, click here.]

The protagonist Nurbanu, known also as Valide Sultan, begins her story on Monday, November 7, and finishes it a month later, on December 7. In between she gives us an account of her life, as we travel with her through the sixth century of the Common Era.

The eleven-year-old girl, Cecilia Baffo Veniero, first loses her mother in Venice in the year 1537 and following that trauma, nine weeks and three days later, is abducted by Barbarossa, Admiral of the Fleet for the Sulvan Sulieman of the Ottoman Empire and delivered, after a long sea voyage, to the sultan’s harem. Sulieman does not, however, take the girl for his concubine. He has other plans for Cecilia and begins by giving her a new name: Nurbanu. Her father’s aristocratic background and the girl’s own extensive education give her special status in the sultan’s eyes.

Both readers of history and of fiction will find this novel engrossing. For me it was a plunge into an exotic world of the past. Nurbanu herself makes major transitions -- from Europe to Asia Minor, from Christianity to Islam, from a protected girlhood to a womanhood charged with responsibilities and extreme challenges. An important theme in the novel is that of fratricide, imposed by law on the sultan’s family to create an unambiguous line of succession and obviate civil war.

Less problematic aspects of sixth-century Turkey are nevertheless also fascinating to a modern reader. These include the sultanate itself but also the state of science 1500 years ago. Cecilia’s mother, also highly educated, was a gifted mapmaker, and maps were an important part of science in those times. In the sphere of mechanics, clocks and navigational devices were wonders of the world. Books and libraries were uncommon and highly valued.

This is the author’s first novel, and it is an ambitious one that succeeds. A brief preface on “Historical Context” is helpful in setting the scene, and the Selected Genealogy of key characters was absolutely crucial to my understanding. I referred to it often, particularly in the early chapters when I was still finding my way around in the family generations.

I don’t read many historical novels but am glad this one came my way. It took me to a far distant era and foreign world, shedding light on a very different culture and its ways through compelling characters facing universal human problems: Who am I? Who is my family? What is my place in the world, whom can I trust, and what should I do?

The Mapmaker’s Daughter: The Confessions
       Of Nurbanu Sultan, 1525-1583
by Katherine Nouri Hughes
To be released August 2017
Paper, 368pp
$18

Saturday, April 22, 2017

MR. ROCHESTER Is Coming to Northport!


This coming May 9 may be the first book launch I’ve hosted on the official publisher’s release day. And in the case of Mr. Rochester, by Sarah Shoemaker, we’re launching a novel being simultaneously released in the United States, England, and Australia, so I think I have the right to call this one a world premiere book launch!

I’ve been dying to have this book for sale in my shop (no, it has not arrived yet and will not be for sale before the evening of May 9) ever since first reading it in manuscript three years ago, coming to the last page on June 1, 2014. Sarah, on the other hand, had the original idea for her book on March 28, 2012, so she has had a five-year journey. Is it any wonder we are excited?

We scheduled a 2-hour book signing and then recently decided to move the venue across the street from the bookstore, to Spice World Cafe, due to space considerations. Then, as I was arranging for the space with Angela Dhami of Spice World Cafe, Angela suggested she could do a dinner. Good idea! How about a Jamaican dinner, since Mr. Rochester spends several years – and a good chunk of Shoemaker’s novel – in Jamaica? Angela responded with “Sure!”



People can come to the book launch without coming an hour earlier for dinner, but the few people I’ve talked to already all want to come for dinner, too. Well, it was a mild winter, but it was long, and locals who escaped for a while are now returning, eager to reunite with friends. And Sarah is connected to Northport in many ways. So? Party time!

Sarah Shoemaker, Author

Launch is in only two and a half weeks, so I’m taking reservations for dinner now ($15 per person) to make sure we’re able to feed everyone who wants the dinner option, and I’m also taking prepayment for signed copies of Mr. Rochester ($28.62 with sales tax), though we should have sufficient copies of the book for everyone, including last-minute drop-ins.

Dinner will be served beginning at 6 p.m. on May 9. Then around 7 p.m. I’ll introduce Sarah Shoemaker with a few words, and she will give a short reading and answer a few quick questions before we sit her down to sign and sign and sign and sign. Punch and cake and brownies will be offered along with the book signing at no extra charge.

To make reservations for the 6 p.m. Jamaican dinner, call Dog Ears Books, (231) 386-7209. If you get the machine, please speak slowly and clearly when you leave your name and the number of people in your party. You’ll pay Spice World Cafe, not me, for dinner on the evening of May 9; I’m only taking reservations so Angela will have some idea how many people she’ll be serving.

To prepay for the book or to purchase it on May 9, please remember that Dog Ears Books does not accept plastic. Bring your checkbook (cash also accepted), and all will be well. Or stop by the bookshop when we’re open to prepay or mail a check in the amount of $28.62 (sales tax included), and I’ll put your name on a list of prepaid signed book reservations.

Remember, dinner and book launch both will be held at Spice World Cafe, on the corner of Waukazoo and Nagonaba, in downtown Northport.

There is precious little sleeping going on at our house lately, because after my May season opener extravaganza, we’ll go into high gear to get ready for another exciting Grath event in mid-June. Prepare for more excitement! But more of that anon. One day at a time. I keep reminding myself....



Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Very Quick Road Trip


What am I showing you?

We drove down to Kalamazoo on Saturday and back home on Sunday. A “flying visit,” David called it. The occasion was the first birthday of our twin great-grandsons, and fortunately we left the rain behind as we drove south, so the indoor-outdoor birthday open house took place on a beautifully sunny, felt-summery day. Those little boys were good as gold, as well as infinitely more precious!

Boys with their parents

With their mom and great-greandparents!

All the warm sun on Saturday and a little overnight rain meant that things were really starting to pop by Sunday morning. All over southwest Michigan, flowering bulbs and spring ephemerals were up and doing their thing, and trees too were starting to burst into bloom.




Trillium! Flowers not open yet, but still!

But of all the growing things I saw along the way down and back, nothing impressed me more than the pine trees I planted with my first husband about 40 years ago in Barry County. They were big the last time I saw them, but now they appear to my eye as giants! My opening photograph shows me showing them to you, but you need to step back to get the full effect:



We planted five hundred little trees back in the Seventies. I'd have to walk three sides of the 10-acre property to see how many survived and thrived, but how can they be so huge, i.e., how can I be so old?

House and barn look good, but I was disappointed to note that installation of new siding lost the old wide board under the roof overhang that served as an architectural clue to the age of the house, indicating that it was built before the Civil War. 

barn and garage

farmhouse

This might be the first trip, road or otherwise, that I’ve ever taken without bringing at least one book along, but I knew the hours away would be more than full and that I would be very tired come bedtime on Saturday. Back home Sunday I finished Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (was close to the end night before travel) and returned to an ARC (The Mapmaker's Daughter, by Katherine Nouri Hughes) I’d barely started before the trip, but my mind is also very full with ideas for our evening on May 9 with Sarah Shoemaker. Big plans are taking shape! Here's a hint: Think about showing up as early as 6 p.m. for the 7-9 book event. What's up? You'll hear all about it very soon!

Ah, spring! Exhausting but wonderful! And a very big season coming up, too.

A tired dog is a good dog!



Friday, April 14, 2017

Why Don't All Americans Trust Science?


The end of a robin's life -- why?


What Is Science?

The scare quotes around “science” are intentional, because – think about it – it’s such a vague term, isn’t it? What’s behind it, or, to use a different image, under its umbrella? I thought I’d start by doing a search for “what is science” and see what popped up, and this is the first site my search yielded: “Understanding How Science Really Works.”

The first screen begins with a broad statement: “Science is both a body of knowledge and a process.” Okay, good beginning. Facts and a way of gathering them? The site goes on to say that science is “exciting,” “useful,” “ongoing,” and “a global human endeavor,” but we could say that about many human activities, couldn’t we? We have to click to get to other screens and more specific answers to the original question. Pursuing the question, then, we are told that scientists seek explanations of phenomena in the natural world by means of observation, analysis of evidence, and the testing of hypotheses.

I appreciate the way this site lays out the limits of science, acknowledging that science cannot make moral or aesthetic judgments, cannot deal with the “supernatural” (not a big concern of mine), nor can it tell human beings how scientific knowledge should be used. The first and third limitations are ones I take very seriously. As philosophers say, “’Should’ implies ‘can,’ but ‘can’ does not imply ‘should.’” I.e., we are not obligated beyond what is possible for us; at the same time, a possible course of action isn’t necessarily one that’s good for us to follow. And while we may look to science for certain relevant facts, we can’t turn to it for decisions about how we should live.

For a shorter definition of science, look hereWhat do you think of the definition? Did you read what is included under “methodology”? I’ll come back to this shortly, but first there is the question of public fear and mistrust of science.


So What’s the Problem?

Is it only ignorance and superstition that explain so many people these days backing away from science like nervous, trailer-shy horses? Many scientific issues are so complex, it’s true, that only the most advanced practitioners in their very narrow fields even understand the questions posed. I once worked in an office that had a “Science for Citizens” program among its many projects, but there is a limit to how far such a program can go.

Does human irrationality come into the picture? Doubtless, on some issues it does. Give me statistics until the cows come home about how much safer I am in an airplane than in a car, and I’ll continue to approach commercial flight with trepidation that rarely assails me on the road.

The way we’ve always done things, what we’re used to, what we learned back in school, etc.—all these can get in the way of our accepting new scientific knowledge. But I can’t help thinking there’s a lot more than that going on and that “science” and its would-be defenders have made some very serious public relations problems for themselves. Claiming intellectual superiority over the whole world is not a way to win hearts and minds.

For some people, “science” has become a religion. Again I use scare quotes intentionally, because if there’s anything science should never be, it’s religion. When “science” is used to cut short inquiry rather than to respond to it respectfuly, it isn’t science at all. It’s dogma.

Science gives provisional truths, not eternal verities. Received scientific knowledge must always be open to question. But all too often doubts and arguments are dismissed if and when  they contradict “scientific research.” Please, tell me more! Who funded the research? Over what length of time was it conducted? Has it been replicated? What long-term consequences might we expect? People for whom “science” is a religion have a tendency to speak and behave as if anything coming out of a laboratory is above and beyond question. I repeat: this is not a scientific attitude.

And yet, the science-as-religion crowd (and they would never label themselves as such) take themselves to be defending rationality against ignorance and superstition. How’s that for a conversation stopper?

I want to go back now and pick up the Science Council’s definition of science, for which I only gave the link above. For those who didn’t follow the link, here's the definition:
Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.
Further down the screen, the first item included in scientific methodology is objective observation. Repetition, verification, testing, peer review and assessment are also included. (Follow the link for the entire list.)

It is no secret any longer that conflicts of interest rage in academic and medical circles and infect much that is published in the most respected journals. This is not trivial. Read about it if you haven’t already.

Conflicts of interest, fueled by financial considerations or career advancement or both, easily lead to bad “research.”  How can a researcher be objective if his or her income or career hangs in the balance? For example, what kind of studies would be necessary to demonstrate safety for human beings of a given drug (or herbicide or hormone or industrial process)? One corporate-funded study? Six weeks of unaffected health in a couple hundred mice?

Here’s something else that has become common knowledge: all human beings are prone to a host of irrational biases. Note that uneducated lay people are not the only human beings to be so afflicted. Scientists are human, too. Go down the list of biases and see how many might affect scientific research, not forgetting for a minute that big money is usually involved, too. Once you get started, it’s pretty easy to see where problems can arise. 

A surgeon naturally looks for surgical solutions. A researcher funded by a pharmaceutical company is going to see big benefits in prescription drugs, probably the ones the funding company makes. Engineers seek to solve problems within their realm of expertise; they don't look to other fields. Confirmation bias assures each expert of the superiority of her or his professional approach; ingroup bias strengthens that conviction; etc., etc.

When an established researcher writes a paper on how published research findings are more likely to be false than true, is it any wonder the public doubts the latest pronouncements of scientific truth?


Science in a World Where Everything Is For Sale

Oddly, perhaps, it was a book on economics that put the question of scientific objectivity in my head again this morning--that and (here I digress briefly) the fact that I posted a link on Facebook and got jumped on because not because of the information given (at least not directly) but because of the source of the information. The criticism was legitimate and prompted me to seek out better sources (which are easily found), but once again the question that emerged, for me, was: Who gets to wear the mantle of “science,” and who doesn’t? And the corollary question: How much respect should the mantle confer?

Joseph Schumpeter’s thesis back in 1942 was that capitalism was not headed for failure but that its very successes would be the death of it. I’m only about a third of the way through Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy but find it fascinating. Here, for instance, is a very strong, unqualified statement:
I have no hesitation in saying that all logic is derived from the pattern of the economic decision or, to use a pet phrase of mine, that the economic pattern is the matrix of logic.
Economic logic, he goes, beats magic in being both definite and quantitative, and due to its successes it readily spreads,
...spreads under the pedagogic influence of favorable experiences to other spheres and there also opens eyes to that amazing thing, the Fact.
Human beings were self-interested, even greedy, before capitalism, Schumpeter says, but capitalism exalted the unit of money, leading the way to cost-profit calculations (what we know as cost/benefit analysis), and that attitude, or method—well, let him tell you in his own words—
...this type of logic or attitude or method then starts upon its conqueror’s career, subjugating—rationalizing—man’s tools and philosophies, his medical practice, his picture of the cosmos, his outlook on life, everything in fact including his concepts of beauty and justice and his spiritual ambitions.

[Facts! I am reminded of the Gradgrinds in the novel by Charles Dickens, Hard Times. Wealth and poverty feature in most, if not all, of the Dickens oeuvre, but in Hard Times, Schumpeter’s “matrix of logic” really comes to the foreground.]

Schumpeter thinks capitalism destroys its own support system. As capitalism “chases away” metaphysical beliefs and all kinds of mystic and romantic ideas, and as the capitalist world becomes more and more depersonalized and automated (what would he say in 2017!), and nothing is any longer sacred, everything can be questioned and held up for criticism, including capitalism itself. Rationalism, then, capitalism's motive force, is also its undoing.

If he is right—and his argument stretches over 400-plus closely argued pages, to which I have by no means even begun to do justice—then science too, as a natural outgrowth of capitalistic logic, is a self-cannibalizing proposition. Teach people to reject undemonstrated truths, and they will have no truck with your new shibboleths. Tell them to question authority, and they will question yours. Start down this road, and there is no turning back. But it was--and here's the paradox--the only road along which science could develop!

What about the money that built the road? When the project of “science” seems to have become primarily, in far too many cases, only another avenue for seeking profit at the expense of truth, when it comes to be seen, along with politics, as simply a tool to deliver increased wealth to those at the top by denying self-determination* to those at the bottom, is it any wonder there is growing public mistrust? Science, like politics, has sold out too many times to expect universal unquestioning admiration.

[* "For mankind is not free to choose. ... Things economic and social move by their own momentum and the ensuing situations compel individuals and groups to behave in certain ways whatever they may wish to do—not indeed by destroying their freedom of choice but by shaping the choosing mentalities and by narrowing the list of possibilities from which to choose."]

Here I would close with the old saw, “Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas,” except that I consider it a terrible libel on the nature of dogs. Also, I probably need to say straight out that I am not taking an anti-science stance, nor am I opposing rationality. It's simply that I don’t regard scientists as gods, nor do I trust blindly in “scientific” pronouncements that come from behind locked doors of corporate secrecy. If you do, you are being neither “scientific” nor “rational.”

Returning to earth


Saturday, April 8, 2017

What’s on the Nightstand?




Even with cloud-white snowdrops and sunshiny winter aconite showing their beautiful cheery heads near the piles of last fall’s dead leaves, I find time for reading. After the yard work, of course--after all, as a friend remarked, the sun goes down each evening, giving the signal to pick up a book. Though it’s seldom I’m reading only one book at a time. More commonly, I have three, four, or five going at once, so the question is, which one to pick up when?

Among the recent selections, the one I finished first (because it was so hard to put down) was The Beautiful Struggle, a memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and much of the experience recounted in that book came back to me as David and I made our way through the HBO series “Treme.” I recommend both the book and the series (we just finished watching the first season on DVD), each with its joyful discoveries along with challenging tragedies.

Friday morning I came to the final, stirring page of A Tale of Two Cities, the Charles Dickens classic our reading circle chose for this month’s discussion. I found the novel’s characters underdeveloped, that is, not fully dimensional compared to today’s complex, nuanced fictional portraits, but perhaps it is fairer to call them romantic rather than realistic. But the descriptions! Dickens puts the reader right in the scene – toward the end of the book, in Chapter 13 of Book the Third, he does it directly and with tremendous impact.

I’m reading a 1993 anthology, Growing Up Native American, with contributions from twenty-two Native American writers. Most are nonfiction, and some from the distant past, but at least one piece so far has been fiction (a selection from Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich), and the variety and period of time covered allow for many different kinds of stories and personalities to emerge.




A volume that is slower going is Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlán Restudied, by Oscar Lewis. I am unclear on the distinction between anthropology and sociology, for starters. Why would a “complete, detailed picture and analysis of the culture and personality of” a people, detailing “their work, play, politics, quarrels, superstitions, economic life, marriage customs, male-female relationships, etc.” not be sociology? I guess I need to look that up somewhere. Okay, I did--and I still don’t see why the book I’m reading is anthropology, do you?

Then, dipping even further back into the academic archives, I found a book on economics by Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, first published in 1942. How’s this for a pithy truism? “Political criticisms cannot be met effectively by rational argument.” Meaning, I think, not that we should rush into craziness but that our appeals must touch people’s hearts if we are to move them at all.




And then an advance reading copy (ARC) arrives in the mail, another new novel that looks promising, so I’ll be starting that soon--doubtless before I finish the anthropology and economics tomes. Because after an hour of vigorous work in the yard, my brain and body are almost equally tired.


No, these were not blooming outdoors!