Yaroo, Flavia!

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

If you don’t know Flavia, and you like mystery fiction, you’re in for a treat. Her full name is Flavia de Luce and she’s an 11-year-old prodigy with a deep love of chemistry. Her specialty, she admits, are the poisons she dreams of concocting to get sweet revenge on those who cross her, like her sisters, or adults who treat her like a kid. In addition, she has a knack or propensity for finding bodies that have died in mysterious circumstances.

The first time we encounter Flavia is in Alan Bradley‘s novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, where she has been hogtied and thrust into a locked closet by her older sisters Feeley (Ophelia), 17, and Daffy (Daphne), 13. Flavia, being very resourceful, works out of her bonds and uses a coat hanger to pick the lock of the closet door, then goes to her chemical laboratory to plot a sweet revenge. Flavia, who lives in a deteriorating but large English manor house, Buckshaw, with her father and sisters (their mother died in a climbing accident in the Himalayas), is mad about chemistry and one of her immediate ancestors left her a beautifully appointed laboratory in the east wing of the house.

Flavia, as mentioned, has a knack for discovering dead bodies in and around the village of Bishop’s Lacey as well as Buckshaw. The Flavia de Luce novels are mysteries set mainly in England with an 11-year-old sleuth, but I would hesitate to label them YA (Young Adult) fiction. They appeal more to adults.

The order in which to read the Flavia novels, if you want to read them in the order they were written, is as follows:

The latest in the series, Chimney Sweepers, was just released and here at the Wilburn household we devoured the novel in two or three sittings. In this one, she attends Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto, as part of a special preparation that Flavia herself isn’t entirely sure about.

Rumour has it that a TV series of Flavia is in the works. Honestly, I don’t know whether to cheer or drown my sorrow in a Guinness. I have such a well-formed mental picture of Flavia and Buckshaw, I’m reluctant to be subjected to the whims of a director. Fingers crossed that it’ll be at least palatable, and, maybe, somewhat as good as the novels.

Oh, and “Yaroo!” is what Flavia often cries when she’s excited and riding her bike, Gladys, into Bishop’s Lacy to help the local constabulary who are not particularly eager to hear her insights.

Taking Stock: Facing 2012

iPhone Selfie

I hope you all had a good Christmas and New Year season!

Traditionally New Years Day is a time for resolutions that will largely be unkept in the months that follow, so I’ll refrain from making any. Besides some of them are ongoing no matter what time of year: lose weight, exercise more, write more.

Looking back to 2011, I’ve had a Macbook Air (11″) for a year now and it’s so slick and useful it still feels new. As such it’s an incentive to get down to the task of writing just so I can use it. I enjoy my technologies, but it’s been a long time since one has stayed so fresh. Kudos to Apple for another brilliant design and execution.

There are rumours of a new iPad in the works some time 2012. If it turns out to be true I might be ready to pick one up. I gave my previous one to Marion after getting the more writer-friendly Macbook Air, but I confess I miss the iPad experience. I get a miniature version of it with my iPhone 4 but it’s not the same without the large viewing screen.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a fan of podcasts and I’d like to pay tribute to my two favourites: I Should Be Writing, by Mur Lafferty, and Brain Science Podcast, by Dr. Ginger Campbell. You ladies have allowed me to listen in on hours of intelligent conversation. Thank you.

I have a couple of directions I may take my writing in 2012. One idea I’ve been kicking around is putting together a series of personal essays into a Kindle book. The other is to write on a couple of subjects that interest me, but as extended feature articles that could be published as Kindle Shorts.

I don’t have any special photo projects in mind for the year. I’m content to carry a camera around with me and take shots of this and that as I see things. I plan to post a new photo on my Flickr photostream every day, if possible. The camera in my iPhone 4 increases my odds of meeting this goal.

One of the things I may do more of in 2012 is post short reviews of books I’ve read. My current reading is Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, by Toby E. Huff. I’m about 25% into it and already it’s shaping up as the best science book I’ve read in the past year.

Currently listening to The Harrow & The Harvest, by Gillian Welch. Indispensable if you like a traditional folk sound.

My other two goals for the New Year are to study more philosophy and mathematics. I’m nearly ready to tackle my Algebra II course and I have a good Teaching Company Great Lectures course Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida that I’ve started. Staying intellectually active is less a goal than a deep-seated need. I suspect it’s the same for you.

I look forward to seeing and hearing from friends in 2012. May your 2012 be a wonderful year.

Blue Nights


I’ve recently read two remarkable nonfiction books, Blue Nights, by Joan Didion and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

In Blue Nights, Didion reflects on the death of her daughter, Quintana, and the difficulty of coming to terms with it and understanding it as well as the increasing fear of frailty and loneliness as Didion herself turns 75. A New York Times review said, “It is a searing inquiry into loss and a melancholy meditation on mortality and time.”

A Culture review quotes Didion on the writing: “I’m not talking about it being easy because of the difficulty of the subject, or the sensitivity of the subject, I think it was a difficult book for me to write because it was an entirely different kind of book than I’ve ever written. It wasn’t a narrative, it was a reflection.”

The Amazon.com description of the The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks explains it this way:

“Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first ‘immortal’ human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the ‘colored’ ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.”

Both books are highly recommended.

Autumn Weather


Autumn is the start of the photo season for me. I’ve never liked shooting in summer because of the generally hard light. This summer was too hot to enjoy being outdoors much anyway, so I spent more time writing.

But, as this view of the harbor shows, the autumn weather is returning, and that generally means more interesting light combined with good cloud covers. The kind of sky I find irresistible.

Autumn also brings Photokina and a bunch of product announcements. The one that grabbed me by the ears this year was the one for the Fuji X100 — a retro rangefinder camera design that even includes shutter speed and aperture dials where Barnicke intended them: on the top and around the lens. It also has an exposure compensation dial on the top, à la Bessa. It’s likely to be too expensive for me to take seriously, but one can drool.

On the writing front I’ve written a short story and am busy with a nonfiction book project. More on that once it nears publication, but I intend to self publish it as an e-book.

In terms of e-book reading, I recently finished Stephen King’s The Shining, and am reading through his short stories in Everything’s Eventual. My current novel is Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

My apologies for such a time gap between blog postings. I shall try to update it more frequently.

A Morning at the Park


We place our lawn chairs beside the small stream in Saddington Park, underneath gnarled, elvish willows, our backs to the lake. Marion unpacks her art supplies and lines them up on the ground, then begins sketching. I switch on my Kindle and begin reading “The Gold Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe. It’s another of the endless stream of classics I neglected in my youth.

Male redwings shout their shrill, aggressive calls nearby, chasing intruding birds that venture into “their” territory. Female redwings sneak through the undergrowth. It’s mid June and they have youngsters hiding from view. The Redwings may have staked this as their spot, but no one owns a stream and other birds fly into the trees and down to the water.

Momentarily losing my concentration on Poe, I begin inventorying birdsong. A red-eyed vireo belts its pretty but incessant affirmations from overhead, high in the treetops. A mockingbird cycles through its extensive repertoire. A male robin joins in, then a male cardinal. Then a nuthatch and a song sparrow. Just beyond the trees rough-winged swallows and barn swallows swoop and tumble noiselessly through the air, speeding like stealth fighters, nailing insects in mid flight.

Marion stands for a moment, stretches, then takes a couple of limping steps. She gets bursitis in the region of her replacement hip, and her other hip is deteriorating. Osteoarthritis — painful, insistent. I stretch too, stiff, sore. In our mid 60’s our health is relatively good, but age is telling. We feel young, but the internal scaffolding is wearing out.

As Marion turns to the lake, she sees someone on a plank with a sail attached. We both grope after the word for it but can’t bring the name back to memory. Something like “sail plane” but we know that’s not quite right. I turn on the Kindle’s wireless and search Wikipedia. Nope, a sail plane is a glider, but I stumble across “sail board” and “sail boarding.” That’s it. We do crossword puzzles every day to try to stave off memory loss. It helps … a little.

Back to the stream. Marion finishes her initial pencil sketches and starts applying watercolour. I return to the tale of the gold scarab beetle and its deepening plot. What has possessed Mr. William Legrand? Jupiter, his black serving man, thinks the gold bug is bad mojo. The narrator thinks Legrand may be going insane. Jupe is now up an ancient tulip tree, at Legrand’s insistence, and finds a skull nailed to the seventh branch. The plot is twisting.

As we sit quietly, a pair of mallards silently paddle into view where the stream widens at this spot under the willows. They stop to preen. A redwing chases out a grackle. The vireo never stops singing. For some while little insects have been alighting on my hands and arms, occasionally ambling across the Kindle’s screen. I look more closely at them: there are three kinds leafhopper nymphs, all of them green. The largest is about the length of the quick of my thumbnail and is a brilliant uniform green — katydid green. The middle one is darker green, with black stripes. The smallest is a uniform muddy green. All of them look much the same, except for size and colour. Then, in the middle of the green, a red speck strolls across my hand to the kindle and across its top. A red mite.

Suddenly I need a cuppa. I check with Marion and she too would like a hot drink. And a bagel. There’s a Starbucks about a fifteen-minute walk from the stream, so I switch off the Kindle, leaving the story near its climax. I’ll savour it more once I’m caffeinated. Besides, I need the exercise. I had a good physical exam on my 65th, but my doctor chided me a bit on my waistline and weight. As I’m a heart patient, he advised me to slim down.

At the Starbucks counter I learn that someone came in earlier and bought up all the bagels. I remember seeing a ferris wheel appear suddenly across the bridge at the local library. Waterfront Festival. The carnival people have just arrived and set up, which probably accounts for the run on bagels. I pick up a grande mild coffee and a grande black tea and slice of lemon poppyseed cake for Marion. With luck she’ll offer me a bite.

I walk back to the stream and the redwings and the lawnchairs. We sip our hot drinks and I finish “Gold Bug.” Although the prose is from another era, Poe was an immensely creative writer. It was a very good read.

Marion adds black ink “highlights” to her watercolour, bringing out more of its structure. As usual, she dismisses her work, but I like it. Like most artists, she undervalues her talent.

Soon we wrap up. Marion puts away her brushes, pens, and pencils while I attempt to take a macro shot of one of the leafhopper nymphs with my little digicam. They move too quickly and appear blurry in the viewing panel, so I delete the pix. We fold our lawn chairs, carry our trash to the bins, and return to the car in the parking lot, bidding adieu to the park until next time.

A Morning at the Park

Does the Kindle Contain Steroids?

I’ve owned the 6-inch Amazon Kindle Global Wireless for about 15 days as I write this, and I’d never have guessed how much reading I’m doing. In terms of novels or novellas, I’m reading, or have finished:

The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton
The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
The Shadow Out of Time, H.P. Lovecraft
A History of Terraforming, Robert Reed (Asimov’s, July 2010)
Triplanetary, E.E. “Doc” Smith
The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaal, E.A. Poe

In addition I’ve read short stories by Poe, Conan Doyle, and Charles de Lint, plus whatever else is in Asimov’s July 2010.

Current nonfiction on the go:

Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould
Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present, Edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone (just finished the marvellous essay, “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” by John McPhee)
The Smashwords Style Guide, Mark Coker
Walden, Henry David Thoreau
On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

With nonfiction, I tend to read bits at a time, usually a chapter or another logical unit.

The Kindle, as evidenced by the above, has put steroids into my reading habits. The only downside so far, I’ve been neglecting my math studies for the past few days.

Why Kindle?

Early B'Day Present

What I asked for, and received, for my birthday, was an Amazon Kindle, the 6-inch screen international model sold to Canadians.

Several of my friends told me they were surprised I didn’t go for an iPad. Given my penchant for tech toys, it’s a legitimate observation. Here’s my attempt at an explanation.

First, let me say I have nothing but admiration for the iPad. I’ve held one and had a good look at it. I also have an iPod Touch I use frequently, which, I believe, provides me with a smaller but similar experience to the iPad.

Though it may be counter-intuitive, it’s the iPod Touch experience that dampened my enthusiasm for the iPad. The reason is that it can do too many things.

When a technology provides multiple things that can be done with it, I’m the kind of person who tends to hop from thing to thing, enjoying each goodie. I add programs. I do my email. I check blog sites. I solve a sudoku. You know the drill.

Everything about the iPad is leading edge and is justly praiseworthy. However, I’ve confirmed many times over that, for me, trailing-edge technologies that offer less sometimes deliver more.

Take word processors, for example. Though they do many things well, including decent page layout, I do all my professional and personal writing in plain text editors. I import them into a word processor to pass along to editors, but I get more done with simple text editors. They’re less distracting, and the files are superbly portable.

Another example is the AlphaSmart Neo. It’s essentially little more than an electronic typewriter with a great keyboard and a small LCD screen. It stores files as text files and squirts them into computer programs via a USB cable. When I have the Neo along, instead of the Touch or the netbook, the only option I have is writing. And I write more, with better concentration.

Turn this to reading, and I had a hunch that the Kindle would result in my spending more time reading e-books than an e-book reader on a multipurpose device. The Kindle essentially does only one thing, and does it well. It provides a good reading screen, simple controls, great battery life, and the ability to annotate and make notes.

I’ve had the Kindle less than five days and I’ve already read two novels and am halfway through another. I’ve also read several short stories. It’s light enough to hand hold while I’m lying in bed.

There are drawbacks to the Kindle, or any e-Ink e-book reader such as the Sony Reader. They don’t display colour. Although the Kindle will display PDFs they’re hard to read. The Kindle is not well adapted to newspaper formats, with fancy columns.

But feed it straight text–the kind you get in stories and essays–and it allows you to see right through the device itself, into the flow of the text. That is, it provides a good reading experience.

I don’t chase best sellers, so contemporary e-books aren’t a high priority for me, though they’re available. What I like is downloading Project Gutenberg copies of free e-books from sites such as manybooks.net that offer them in just about any popular e-book format, including Kindle’s native AZW format.

So far I’ve read John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and I’m well into H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time. I’ve been reading short stories by Poe, and the Sherlockian adventures of Conan Doyle. There are thirty or so more books waiting in line.

Do I like the Kindle? Very much! Sometimes less is more.

In Short

Moleskine, Pen, Photo Notes (by StarbuckGuy)

I leave the keyboards behind. Aside from a pocket-size digital camera, an iPod Nano, and an emergency cell phone, all I pack is a set of fountain pens, small spiral notebook, and thin pad of yellow legal paper. And a new book.

The cold wind surprises me. Balmy days of 1 or 2 degrees Celsius are over, for awhile. Winter may retreat occasionally but she never relents. Not in February. Slushy spots on the sidewalks have turned to ice. Tricky walking.

I listen to a Science Times podcast as I walk circumspectly across icy patches, and hear that birds are being equipped with tiny, nearly weightless, recorders — like miniature backpacks. The data coming in is helping ornithologists track flight speeds and migration patterns. More data on the pile.

What I need today is not data, but understanding. Where is my migration taking me? Is my journal a little backpack recorder? My blog? They tell me where I’ve been. Where am I going?

I crave deliberateness today. I feel driven, and want time and reflection. I sip a Tall Mild and paint words in black ink, watching as they appear on the yellow page, glistening, until they dry. A natural pace. A civilized pace.

Is faster better, or does it merely produce more words?

I read from the new book, In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. The first two entries astonish me. I didn’t know so much could be done with so little. The writings are like small, perfectly formed footprints in the snow. Intriguing. Just so.

I sense I’ve found a direction. The coffee tastes fine today.

Wind & Words

The Eloquent Essay (by StarbuckGuy)

A fresh wind blew in yesterday — a strong warm wind that reduced piles of snow into slush pools. A big, high wind. The kind that starts in the Texas Gulf then sweeps through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio on its way to Ontario, pushing aside all lesser weather fronts along the way.

It was a welcome wind, taking temperatures north of freezing for the first time in weeks. It’s been a cold winter. Cold and snowy. The kind of winter beloved by travel agents selling Island packages to Canadians fed up with being cold and restricted.

The restrictions are worse than the cold. When the sidewalks ice, not even the toy snowplows that clean them can clear a reliable walking path. The guys on the plows do their best, if it isn’t before 9 or after 5, or the weekend, but once the ice layers lock down, they stay until the temperatures rise above freezing.  I’m avoiding some of my favourite park areas due to the icy footing.

I walked to the library in a light coat, no scarf, and no hat or gloves. The wind blew my hair in one direction, then another. I drank the warm air into my nose and deep into my lungs, recalling Emily Dickinson — “Inebriate of air am I.” Gulls circled overhead, surfing the air currents.

Waiting for me on the hold shelf was a copy of The Eloquent Essay: An Anthology of Classic & Creative Nonfiction, edited by John Loughery, containing seventeen essays by writers ranging from George Orwell and W.H. Auden to Joan Didion, Carl Sagan, and Barbara Kingsolver. I tucked the book into my backpack and stork-walked across the pools and puddles to Starbucks.

I glanced through the book as soon as I found a seat — Starbucks is crowded on a late Saturday afternoon. George Orwell’s “A Hanging” (1931). Lord, it’s been years since I last read that one. I saved it for later, knowing it packs a whollop.

I’d never read Joan Didion though I’ve come across her name often lately, so I started my reading with “Georgia O’Keeffe” (1976). I’ve been fascinated by O’Keeffe for years, ever since first seeing one of her large canvases of a bleached cow skull in the desert. It was hung in the library at Arizona State University and it stopped me in my tracks. The essay had bite, punch, and colour. Didion described O’Keeffe as a “hard woman” and I could see her point. O’Keeffe’s bare honesty, honed by the New Mexico landscape, was absolute.

Next up, Carl Sagan, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” from his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995). I’d read the book previously so there were no surprises — just a pleasant visit with a dear, departed friend. Sagan, who did so much to popularize science and rational thinking to the public, has long been one of my inspirations.

Then it was time to head home for dinner and rejoin the family for the evening. When I’m alone at Starbucks I’m a writing kind of person. When I return home, I’m just one of the family. Marion and I watched a video on the life of Jane Austen, then sat back and re-watched a couple of episodes of season two of Angel. But The Eloquent Essay remains in my backpack, ready for the morning’s walk to the coffee shop, waiting to infect me with prose spirit.

Nation, by Terry Pratchett

Nation, by Terry Pratchett (by StarbuckGuy)

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a Terry Pratchett fan and am currently re-reading all the novels in his Discworld series. When I heard that his newest novel, Nation, was not set in Discworld, I was a little disappointed, mainly because Discworld is so much fun, not to mention addictive.

But Nation is an entirely fresh Pratchett, unlike any I’ve read before. It takes place on a round world, namely ours, but 150 years ago in a parallel universe, when a tidal wave, or tsunami, caused by a Krakatoa-like explosion, washes over parts of what we’d call Pacific Ocean islands, wiping out most of the inhabitants.

On one particular island, called Nation by its inhabitants, the sole survivor is a young boy who had been at sea in his canoe when the wave struck. The wave also washed a large wooden ship ashore and its only survivor is a young high-society Victorian-era girl. There’s an immediate tension between these two when they meet. They learn some of each other’s language, but they have no cultural references in common.

From this starting point the story unfolds and it is exactly what I would expect from Pratchett — an engaging, humorous, thoughtful, deeply-meaningful story told by a master storyteller. There is nothing Disneyish about the story, and its development and ending are totally appropriate to the two main characters.

It’s officially a Young Adult novel, like the Tiffany Aching Discworld novels, and like them it’s what I call one of Pratchett’s ‘wisdom’ novels. Through the plot and character, the novel plumbs philosophical depths that would be unexpected in most YA fiction.

By extraordinary luck, I had the very first hold on the novel from my local public library system. I finished it in the wee hours last night and can say with no hesitation that it’s a delight (except for the loss-of-sleep-reading-it part). Pratchett fans will love it. If you’re new to Pratchett, this would make a good first read — primarily because it’s not part of the complex Discworld series. It’s a wonderful standalone novel that I think will become known as one of his finest.


There are two very good short videos on YouTube in which Pratchett talks about Nation and its creation.

1. Terry Pratchett on Nation: 3:01

2. Nation: An Interview with Terry Pratchett: 7:09