Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Such was Archimedes

Doesn't this sound like Doyle's depiction of Watson describing his own response to Sherlock Holmes? This quote is Plutarch describing Archimedes.
Some ascribe this to his natural genius; while others think that incredible effort and toil produced these, to all appearances, easy and unlabored results. No amount of investigation of yours would succeed in attaining the proof, and yet, once seen, you immediately believe you would have discovered it - by so smooth and so rapid a path he leads you to the conclusion . . . Such was Archimedes.

At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances

At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances by Alexander McCall Smith

From the opening paragraph:
Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld's birthday fell on the first of May. He would not always have remembered it had the anniversary not occurred on May Day itself; as a small boy he had been convinced that the newspaper photographs of parades in Red Square, those intimidating displays of missiles, and the grim-faced line-up of Politburo officials, all had something to do with the fact that he was turning six or seven, or whatever birthday it was. Such is the complete confidence of childhood that we are each of us at the centre of the world - a conviction out of which not all of us grow, and those who do grow out of it sometimes do so only with difficulty. And this is so very understandable; as Auden remarked, how fascinating is that class of which I am the only member.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Feline Memoriam

She was just an American mutt cat. People hardly noticed at first, but she was a calico. White across most her body, she had a splash of black on the crown of her head, lapping up on one ear, a splash of gold on her cheek and a smudge of gold by her nose and then a beautiful gold and black tail. She had the tiniest, daintiest, and the most beautifully pink paw pads you could imagine.

She joined us as a kitten, in October 1994. At church, a semi-feral mother cat had had a litter of kittens which, for reasons unclear, she had nested in a trellis, twenty feet above ground. Daily, she would, one by one, carry the kittens down to the ground and then back up the trellis. Eventually, the church staff began capturing the kittens as they became old enough and found homes for them among the parishioners. We took one. But still there were more kittens. With a two and a half year old boy and a two month old girl, and two other cats at home, Sally did not feel like there was quite enough going on and thought that if one kitten was good then two would obviously be better.

The call came one week while I was away on business. Sally trekked down to church, children in tow and in hand. Another kitten was available. "She doesn't seem at all friendly, I don't think you will want her with small children in the house" she was told. Sally instructed our boy to sit down against the wall and to be quiet and still. He sat as infinitely flexible children sit: back straight up, legs straight out in front. "Open the cage. Let's see what happens." Bennett jumped out, trotted over to Price, lay down in his lap and started purring loudly. That was all that was required to secure a place in Sally's heart and a new home.

So she joined us. Late Friday, I returned home, digesting the week's events, writing reports in my mind, figuring out how to analyze a client's business problems. Washing up before joining the family for dinner, I registered that there was a cat litter box in our bathroom. Hmmm. Wonder why that's there? But I just registered it. Other more important things to think about.

At dinner, Price could hardly contain himself. Despite coaching from Sally to not say anything and to see how long it would take before I noticed that the cat population of the house had increased by fifty percent, after two or three bites of dinner he burst out, "Daddy, did you see what was in your bathroom?" I could only look at Sally, "You didn't."

But she had. And so Bennett joined us and became a part of our family adventures. Quiet, shy and self-effacing, she was hardly to be seen when visitors were about. But when we were on our own, she would find whoever was still, snuggle up to them and softly purr contentedly. She took to jumping into the crib with baby Sarah, always curling up in the crook of her arm, two little lives bound together from the beginning. It has been one of those cherished small pleasures in my life to come into a room and find one of the kids reading and there, no matter what posture they were in, would be Bennett. Lying in their lap, snuggled up by their face, on their back, crouched on their legs. Somewhere. And purring.

She was a well travelled cat, one of not too many that circumnavigated the globe. She moved with us from Atlanta to Australia. There in that wonderfully strange land, she stalked geckos and huntsman spiders in the house, chased mynah birds out of the kitchen and fended off Australian possums trying to climb through Price's louvered windows.

She came with us from Australia to England where she had to reside in quarantine for two or three months. Fortunately she was relatively close to us and Sally and the kids could visit her periodically. They would be shown down the hall of large cages, somehow squeeze all of themselves into her cage and then be left for an hour to commune and share their ham sandwiches. Never aggressive, Bennett could be forward when there was a whiff of ham in the air.

Then back to Atlanta. Around the globe and with a world full of experiences, she was back where she began, back to the familiar.

The family has grown. The two and a half year old is now sixteen, towering above Bennett's visual horizon. The baby girl is a lovely young woman with a tender heart. Another boy came along, noisy and energetic but capable of gentleness where an aging cat is concerned. There have been other pets, a magnificent Boxer dog, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, frogs, etc. They have come and they have gone but Bennett was the quiet mistress of the pet world in the house.

This last year, age crept up on her. She slowed down. Always petite, she lost weight. Always stalking, this past month, she was now being stalked. In the past week it was clear the time had come. And now she is gone.

She was just an American mutt cat, but she was loved. She was one of those small, gentle, quiet, ornaments of life. She brought her own measure of grace, beauty and contentment. Rest in Peace.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sometimes the solution is just waiting to be found.

One of the issues with which we have wrestled at Through the Magic Door is the incorporation of an appropriate rating system for books. One that is meaningful, descriptive, reliable and not subject to gaming. A rating system that addresses the world as we find it, rather than the world as we might want it to be.

In the next iteration of our advanced search database on the site, we will be incorporating a rating system that we hope meets these criteria.

There has, however, been one unresolved issue. We have Highly Recommended (HR) books (with appropriate descriptions and examples of what that means), Recommended (R) books and Suggested (S) books. We even have a category of books, Possible (P). P books are those that are pretty pedestrian or flawed in some way and are unlikely to appeal to the average reader but might be happily read by individuals with a strong interest in the topic or genre.

But what to do about those books towards which we as parents raise a skeptical eyebrow? Books which our children may enthusiastically want to read but of which we are deeply suspicious in terms of taste or values? Books about gastrically impaired canines (Walter the Farting Dog), sartorially challenged kids (The Adventures of Captain Underpants), trans-species (?) romance (Twilight), socially twisted mean girls (Baby-Sitters club), the linguistically challenged (Junie B. Jones), etc.

Books which under most circumstances we would definitely not recommend except that they are books which kids love to read at a certain age. Books that, in their own fashion, do help build the habit of reading despite their content or nature. Which is the greater good, more reading or reading fewer, "better" books? Of course that is a false dichotomy. In fact, the raison detre for Through the Magic Door is in part to make sure parents can easily find the really good books that are likely to appeal to their children in place of the aesthetically challenged fare being hawked so indiscriminately. None-the-less, no matter how many good books you may make available to your child, like as not, there will be a phase (or two or three) when your child wants to read something that is highly suspect in terms of either aesthetic quality or in terms of behavioral norms that are being advanced.

The problem is compounded by the fact that we only review books we believe are likely to be worthwhile to some child and parent. We don't invest time in reading or reviewing a book in order to trash it. De facto, if there is no review then we either haven't read the book or we have read it and it is not one we would recommend.

So how to deal with books that we have read and don't recommend but recognize that children will want to read anyway because it is the hot item on the publishing circuit and being heavily promoted or because their friends are reading it or because it touches on the inappropriate? "Eskimo", to use Mrs. Gilbraith's euphemism in the wonderful Cheaper By The Dozen.

We don't want to necessarily promote these books by drawing attention to them but it is not appropriate to stick one's head in the sand and just pretend that they don't exist and aren't effective in getting some children to keep reading? That is the problem we have been wrestling with.

In this quarter's ever delightful Slightly Foxed, (the literary magazine that is dedicated to bringing attention to wonderful books from the past few years or century that have drifted from the limelight), there is an article, Nobody Ever Writes to Me, by David Spiller regarding the six volume collection of the correspondence, The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, 1955- 1962, between those classic old-school literary figures George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis. Their very names evoke a lost age that was only a blink of the eye ago.

As an aside, I should warn readers that Slightly Foxed is an incideous magazine for anyone infected with even the mildest strain of bibliophilia. In a house bursting at the seams with books and no place to put even the normal volume of new acquisitions that I make, the last thing I need is to be lured into new purchases. Collected correspondence between literati from fifty years ago, is, in the normal course of events, virtually at the bottom of my list of books to watch out for. More than at the bottom. Down the well. Way down.

And yet Spiller has done what all the writers in Slightly Foxed do. He has piqued my interest. He has ignited a spark. I know that, should I come across this set of books in my visit to bookstores, there is a high likelihood that, despite my prejudices, other interests and lack of space, those books will be coming home with me. Subscribe to Slightly Foxed if you wish but beware.

In his article, Spiller comments on how Lyttelton and Harte-Davis corresponded about many things but among other items, they wrote of literature and of books and how despite the differences in their ages, there was a high degree of agreement and judgement. He mentions:
Both men read Ian Fleming, whom Lyttelton described as 'bad and at the same time compellingly readable'.

I think we have there the answer to our rating dilemma. To HR, R, S, and P we can now add BBCR - Bad But Compellingly Readable.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The House of Christmas by G.K. Chesterton

The House of Christmas

by G.K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.