Friday, August 22, 2014

The Age of Steam

A Brief History of the Age of Steam
© 2007 Thomas Crump
288 pages

For most of human history, transportation over land has been prohibitively expensive, limited to highly lucrative goods like silk. Trade grew from the rivers, as did civilization. But in the 18th and 19th century, the advent of industrial technologies, often utilizing steam,  radically transformed society. Not only did wood- and coal-fired engines free factories from the need to locate  beside rivers that powered watermills, but the advent of steam transportation knit cities across the landscape together, creating boundless opportunities for economic expansion. A Brief History of the Age of Steam focuses mostly on steam transportation,  first on boats and then on the rails.  Not surprisingly for an author who also penned A Brief History of Science, it places a lot of emphasis on technical details, like the mechanical workings of the steam engine.  As a rail history, it doesn't compare well to Christian Wolmar's work, since he incorporates both social and technical aspects, but it's a rare history of river steamboats and the rise of oceanic steamers.  A strong point is the close relationship between railroads and imperialism, which he develops.  Even though the writing focuses more on mechanical operations than the human element, the history reads well.  I'm still on the lookout for a naval history of steam transport, however.


Monday, August 18, 2014

This week: TBR progress

This past week I was positively underwhelmed by The Bishop in the West Wing, a mystery novel by Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest.  I’d hoped the novelty of a priest writing about a priest solving mysteries could make for an interesting read, but as with other Greeley novels I've tried, I just couldn't get into it.  I finished this one because it was short, the book is being discarded, and the plot unfolded in the White House.  Essentially the President is an Irish Bill Clinton from Chicago, who is being plagued by a poltergeist and invites his buddy from the old days, now a bishop serving the cardinal of Chicago, to drive it away.  Blackie Ryan, the lead, doesn't do a lot of sleuthing; he just spends several days hanging around the White House while the president eats and has mock-abrasive arguments with his precocious teenage daughters, until eventually Ryan decides the poltergeist is being generated by the malicious lady vice-president.

Well, OK then.   This week I’ll be reading a history of steam transportation that I bought a couple of years ago pursuing an interest in steamships.   It’s a to-be-read extra. I’m also getting back into Richard Fortey’s Earth, a geological history of the planet.

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol
© 2008 Ian Gately
546 pages

"We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them." 
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

A substance that a third of the world institutionalizes as a religious sacrament and another third expressly forbids  on religious grounds is one to be reckoned with. Since time immemorial, humans have been getting themselves sloshed in one way or another, putting their ingenious minds to work creating alcoholic beverages from whatever plants were available.  Drink is a sweeping history of the potent brew in its many forms, created and consumed by every culture and on nearly every continent.  It's a social history of a sociable subject -- for when people drink, they rarely do so alone. 

Alcohol's roots extend to the beginnings of civilization itself;  where there were grains, there was booze. Wheat rendered beer and rice, sake, and both beverages were the staple of many civilizations' diets. This owes not only to the human race's fondness for getting itself knackered,  but to the fact that bacteria-killing alcoholic content made beer a safer source of water than water itself.  Processing wheat products into potable beverages extended their lives, and sometimes gave people an edge, especially as distillation created drinks with long shelf lives. 

Beyond economic contributions, the communal consumption of alcohol created social ties as well. Not only was wine considered a doorway to inspiration from the muses -- a place later assumed by absinthe -- but drinking it together at feasts loosened tongues and allowed for more honest conversation. Not for nothing did the Romans say "in wine, there is truth.”   Not that true and alcohol were steady partners; mead-drinking also went hand and hand with vigorous boasting about deeds in battle. 

Abuse of alcohol has existed since  its cultivation,  something it lends itself to in affording an escape. Early industrial mill workers steeled themselves with ale to ensure the day, and the Romans were absolutely riotous. While the prevailing  view expressed by people throughout the book is that alcohol is an exquisite complement to life, in moderation,  in view of its power some have attempted to ban it altogether. Islam, for instance, forbids it, and has for centuries. Far less successful was the west's own attempt at prohibition, which led to the rise of organized crime and contempt for government.  

Drink, like those who have imbibed a bit too much, is outstandingly ambitious in trying to render a comprehensive history of alcohol and culture. While he's most thorough covering  the western world,   recurring chapters also address alcohol in China,  Japan, the middle east, and South America.  A 'cultural' history verges on the literal, as Gately examines alcohol's depiction and relationship with art, literature, and the movies.  Yet for all the ground to be covered, Gately does rather well;   the book's bar is well-stocked with stories, and if one doesn't suit your taste another setting and different subject are right behind it.

A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage.  A history of the world as told over wine, beer,  coffee, tea, rum, and Coca-Cola.

Friday, August 15, 2014

To Reign in Hell (Rise and Fall of KHAAAAAAAAAAN #3)

To Reign in Hell: the Exile of Khan Noonien Singh
©  2006 Greg Cox
384 pages

"No! This is not the end!  Khan Noonien Singh will never surrender, not to this accursed planet and not to the treacherous vagaries of fate. Hear me now! I shall show you that the superior man never bends before the cruelties of fate, no matter how hopeless the odds. Let this entire planet die a slow and miserable death. Let Kirk and Starfleet forget us entirely. I will keep you and the rest of my people alive -- this I swear upon my sacred honor."
He shook his fist at the dust-shrouded sky.
"Do you hear me, Kirk? I will survive!"   p. 269

Khan Noonien Singh is the most outstanding individual villain in all of Trek lore, a man who took from Kirk his dearest blood. An escaped superman from Earth's violent past, Khan failed in attempts to take over the world and then the USS Enterprise before Kirk exiled him to a harsh planet in the Mutara Sector to build his own civilization. Such a dream wasn't to be, however, as only months into exile astronomical phenomena destroyed the planet's chances of sustaining life for very long.   His last hope wrecked, his people dying,  a man bred to be an emperor was left to preside over nothing more than the apocalypse. To Reign in Hell is an exceptional tie-in to "Space Seed" and The Wrath of Khan,  and an expert conclusion to the Khan trilogy, depicting the demise of a dream and the descent of a man into madness.

The story picks up a year after the events of The Wrath of Khan.  Kirk and his comrades have decided to pay a visit to the hellhole that was Khan's world in order to find out what went wrong;  what happened to make the colony fail so catastrophically, and why did Khan blame a man who had been a  model of mercy towards him?  Soon after landing, Kirk and company discover the underground shelters that Khan and his people fled to when the surface was exposed to the blistering sun and fierce winds that turned grasslands into desert. Within the caverns are historical records, provided by the Starfleet historian who was seduced by Khan and joined him in exile -- Marla McGivers. The novel unfolds as Kirk delves in, and the story that Cox builds works wonderfully to iron out "Space Seed" and TWOK's wrinkles.

To Reign in Hell performs admirably in every aspect; as piece connecting two different Trek stories, as a thriller in its own right, and as the finale of Khan. Khan has never been as human, nor as remotely sympathetic, as he is here. He has no one to villainize, he has only his hopes and ambition, those dreams of creating a world for his people, and it is the environment that renders him a victim. He is doubly human in proving to genuinely love the historian who he took as a wife, Marla; perhaps because the story is told in her voice,  readers are given a more tender appreciation of his character. Certainly the warlord is still there -- he is called the Tyrant by some on the planet -- but here we see aspects of him, like that of a loving spouse, that make him even more fascinating.  It's even possible to feel sorry for him, left to a world washed over in violent storms, with starvation constantly haunting him.  Ultimately the book closes in hope, at least for Kirk -- who discovers in the ruins one last chance to do good by Khan's people.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Thank You For Smoking

Thank You for Smoking
© 1994 Christopher Buckley
272 pages

Nick Naylor may be one of the most hated men in America, because his job is to serve as the legal guardian and advocate of Big Tobacco –and he is very, very good at his job. Nick Naylor is a man who can be invited onto Oprah, and turn an ambush with a teenage cancer patient into a triumph for his own side.   Thank You For Smoking is a story of business intrigue as Naylor  wrestles victory from looming defeat, only to  be subjected to cold-blooded revenge.  A work of political satire, it bloodies noses all around.

 Naylor, like most modern protagonists, is not the model hero; there are few admirable things about him, other than his devotion to his son’s education. That education is financed by him lying through his teeth on national television on a daily basis, sure, but it’s impressive lying.  Although he does his part to prepare, staying abreast of medical reports and the like, most of his finessing the truth is impromptu. His fleet-footedness is impressive, even if he is a scoundrel with the discretion of a randy chimp. Eventually he has his private moment of reckoning, a bit of soul-searching that ends the novel.

The in-between is fun, a look into the lifestyle of the rich and infamous. This is a dark comedy,  which would be more comedic than dark were it not for the main character’s job occupation. He meets with a few friends every week for lunch, companions who represent the alcohol and firearms lobbies. Their tongue-in-cheek name for themselves is the MOD squad – for they are the merchants of death. Fun with names is a common trope here; Nick refers to nicotine, of course, and a stop-smoking group uses the acronym NOMAS, which is ‘no more’ for Spanish speakers.  If characters take themselves seriously, it is only in a pompous way that makes them easier targets for the reader to laugh at. Even an attempt at murder involves worldplay. The laughter stops after Nick is threatened with death on live TV, and then assaulted after he cheerfully loses his security detail.  The book quickly becomes a thriller at that point.

 Thank You for Smoking is not nearly as depressing as They Eat Puppies, Don't They?, and the characters offer much less room for melancholy. They're an awful bunch, but have their moments. It's a fast read, and I enjoyed the fact that while Buckley doesn't shy away from sinister goings-on within the camp of big tobacco, he doesn't take sides with the neo-Puritans who blame tobacco for every medical catastrophe under the sun, and use shame-based advertising to make smokers feel like rapists who simultaneously carry the Black Death.

Altogether it's a fun read.

Monday, August 11, 2014

This week: demon rum

This week I finally finished Huckleberry Finn, though I'm not sure why it's generally ranked higher than Tom Sawyer.  Presumably its assumed merit comes from it dealing with more serious themes, as a boy on an adventure has to choose between doing what he is told is "good" (turning in an escaped slave)  and doing what he knows is right (protecting his friend).  Morality aside, to my mind Tom Sawyer is a more enjoyable story.  My next 'American classic' will be Little Women or Up from Slavery.

I'm currently having too much fun reading Ian Gatley's Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. I was going to combine it with a few other books to do a quick review of Prohibition-era America, but my university library was closed last week.  I'm hoping to see To Reign in Hell, the finale of the rise and fall of Khan Noonien Singh, arrive in the mail at some point this week, and I really should mount an attack on one of my to-be-read books to finish off the list.

To be Read Takedown Challenge

  1. Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (7/18/14)
  2. The Vikings, Robert Ferguson (6/7/14)
  3. Power, Inc; David Rothkopf (6/14/14)
  4. An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage (7/8/2014)
  5. Small-Mart Revolution, Michael Shuman (7/12/2014)
  6. The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond (5/29/14)
  7. Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton (7/21/14)
  8. Earth, Richard Fortey
  9. Good Natured, Frans de Waal (6/27/14)
  10. Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins

Friday, August 8, 2014

Tending the Epicurean Garden

Tending the Epicurean Garden
© 2014 Hiram Crespo
185 pages

Stoicism is not the only Greco-Roman school of practical philosophy experiencing a revival these days. Epicureanism, long reduced to a synonym for food-and-wine-snobs,  has found an audience within the increasingly secularized west,  among people who cannot countenance traditional religious claims, but do not wish to dismiss all of their accumulated wisdom. In Tending the Epicurean Garden, Hiram Crespo explains  that wisdom tradition that was Epicureanism, and offers ways it might be practiced today.

Epicureanism is a novelty among classical schools of philosophy in being largely materialistic; its four-sentence credo begins with the assertion that there is nothing to fear from the gods. They may exist, but they have nothing to do with us. They certainly do not watch over us and create punishments and pleasures for us after life. After life there is nothing, for in death we no longer exist; there is no 'us' to experience anything.  What good there is must be obtained in life -- and it can be found, and what evil exists can be endured. The Epicureans believed that atarexia, a kind of imperturbable happiness, was the only good in life, and that it could be achieved through mindfulness, the cultivation of genuine friendships, and self-reliance.

Tending the Garden mixes Greek philosophy, Zen Buddhism, and some generic self-help advice together in a mix that might spark some interest in its subject. Key to understanding and practicing Epicureanism is the practice of mindfulness; while Epicureans might be regarded today as hedonistic libertines,  prudence was their mainstay. Epicureanism bears a closer resemblance to simple living than it does to living it up.  Crespo doesn't delve into the aspect of moderating pleasure a great deal,  but the idea is to be content with little. It is the longing after things that makes us truly unhappy, and here Crespo makes frequent connections to Buddhism and its contention that desire is the root of suffering. Mindfulness is a superb practice, but what makes Tending interesting is the attention given to community life and autarky.   Driven into unemployment by the 2008 blowup,  Crespo advocates an ownership society in which capital is widely dispersed among private owners and cooperatives.  Although the Epicurean and Stoic approaches to mindfulness are quite similar, especially in the habit of mentally girding oneself for bad news,  the only reference Crespo makes to Stoicism is to dismiss it as a false philosophy, being too theistically based.

Tending the Garden is a enthusiastic introduction to Epicureanism, but problematic; Crespo doesn't seem grounded in the world of the Greeks; because he is chiefly concerned with reviving Epicureanism, he doesn't examine its  historical context. There is no survey of the lives of professed Epicureanisms, for example, except to mention distant personalities like Thomas Jefferson who admired it. This is certainly not the Epicurean answer to Stoicism's  A Guide to the Good Life, but it may inspire moderns to look into it. There are an awful lot of eclectic ideas under the Greek tunic, though.