Thursday, July 17, 2008

This Week at the Library (17/07/08)

Books this Update:
  • The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Harry Potter Universe by Tere Stouffer
  • The Undertaker's Window by Philip Margolin
  • The History of Science from 1945 to the 1990s by Ray Spangenburg and Diane Moser
  • Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare by Isaac Asimov
  • The Neandertal Enigma by James Shreeve

I began this week with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Harry Potter Universe. While I was amused by the idea of a Harry Potter encyclopedia -- there are, after all, probably already Potter wikis out there -- I actually found the book to be amusing. The author, who holds a Masters in Children’s Literature and who is apparently one of the first Harry Potter scholars (?), wrote her graduate paper on the differences between the Potter universe and the universes of other similar fantasy works by C.S. Lewis and J. R. Tolkien. This is sort of what she does in this book. Stouffer looks into the origin of various characters’ names, the origin of their spells, the history of mythological creatures in human literature -- drawing on various mythologies and folk tales, from the Judeo-Christian bible to Celtic fairies. It’s a brief, but interesting read if you like the Potter books and want to learn more about trolls and so on. I’m not much for fantasy, but the Potter books are unique in …bewitching me.

Next I read Philip Margolin’s The Undertaker’s Widow, which I found to be rather captivating. It’s about an ethical judged named Quinn who finds himself rapidly being entangled by a web of conspiracy, deceit, and blackmail. I enjoyed it immensely. While blurbs on the back of the book describe it as a “legal” thriller, it could be variously described as mystery, a political thriller, or a legal thriller. The story takes place in Portland, Oregon, and the mystery begins when a contender for one of Oregon’s senatorial slots shoots an intruder in her home after he shoots her husband. It was a fast, tight story with several nice twists.

After that, I read The History of Science from 1945 to the 1990s. I commented last week that the physics was rapidly going over my head, and that problem was exaggerated here. I read the section on gluons and muons and that sort of thing several times and didn’t understand a lick of it. Since the book was published in the 1990s, it doesn’t mentioned string or M-theory, one of which I actually remember from Dan Falk’s terrific Universe on a T-Shirt. I think I should revisit that book, since I remember actually understanding -- at least a little bit -- the atom. Happily, atomic theory is only one small section of the book. As ever, the book is divided into two parts: Physical Science and Life Science. In all of the preceding books, an appendix in the back included a section on the scientific method. In this book, that section introduced the book. Life Science was mostly about viruses -- AIDS received much more publicity back then in the 90s. I only see an occasional commercial about it now, and if it weren’t the fact that I read newspapers from around the world, I might be oblivious to its continuing existence. I haven’t heard anything about AIDS from network television in years.

What made this book a blast for me was the rest of the Physical Science section, as large parts of it were on space and that I understand quite well. The book was written in the early 90s, so it mentions possible plans for “Freedom Station”, which I know from reading Basecamps to the Stars was the planned US-only space station before the idea was scrapped in favor of the International Space Station, which sounds much less gimmicky. The book references the then still-living Carl Sagan, which was a bit weird. He died in 1996. It’s strange reading a book from the 1990s and realizing it was over a decade ago. I came of age in the 90s, so it’ll always be my “home” decade -- or the decade that my temporal frame of reference is at least partially tied to.

Next I read The Neandertal Enigma. (While “Neanderthal’ is the typical spelling, the author drops the second H because the “th” sound doesn’t exist in the German language, which is where “Neanderthal” derives from.) The book is about the author’s struggle to figure out where Neanderthals fit into human evolution. The impression I have from contemporary reading of various books is that Neanderthals aren’t our ancestors: they were roaming around Europe and Asia, but eventually squeezed out and eliminated by our ancestors, who were migrating out of Africa. This in fact a new theory when the author hears it in this book, and it is in opposition to the old idea that Homo sapiens evolved directly from Neanderthals. The Leakeys and their work at Olduvai Gorge are mentioned a lot.

Ancient bones from Olduvai
Echoes of the very first cry
‘Who made me here, and why?’
‘Beneath the copper sun..
African ideas, African ideas.
Make the future clear, make the future clear.
And we are scatterlings of Africa, both you and I
We’re on the road to Phelamunga,
Beneath a copper sky
And we are scatterlings of Africa,
On a journey to the stars..
Far below we leave forever dreams of what we were.

I should note that I didn’t quite finish the book. As the argument and counter arguments about the “Eve” hypothesis (that all modern human beings descend from one African woman, whose ancestors then populated Europe and Asia while pushing out the Neanderthals) were developed more and more, I began to lose interest. It didn’t help that during my reading I had a sinus headache, which has just gone away today. It turns out that I am less interested in Neanderthals than I thought I was. On a side note, the author mentions Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, which depicts Cro-Magnons (ice age humans) and Neanderthals living beside one another. I read the five books in the series last year. He refers to them as “romance” novels, which is interesting. I think he means they show a romanticized view of life back then, since sex doesn’t show up that much until the third book. After that, of course, Ayla and Jondalar are inseparable, joined at the...hips. The writing of The Neandertal Enigma is good, it’s such that it was becoming something I wasn’t all that interested in -- a lot of discussion about mitochondria DNA.

Next I read some of Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. I say “some” because the book offers commentary on Shakespeare’s plays, and it would be rather silly of me to read commentaries on plays I’ve never read. While Asimov does quote liberally from the plays he’s commenting on and summarize the plot, I decided I didn’t want to read commentaries of plays I’ve not read. I did read some, and some were enjoyable even without having read the original plays, but I decided not to go on. (I decided to not go on right in the middle of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because I was tired of reading about fairies and goblins. I moved on to Julius Caesar.)

Pick of the Week: The History of Science from 1945 to the 1990s.
Quotation of the Week: Not an exact quote, but in The History of Science, the author commented that Pluto’s position as a planet seemed to be safe for the time being. I thought it amusing.
Next Week:
  • The Rise of Reason, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Moser. The authors of The History of Science series have another series.
  • Primates of the World, Rod and Ken Preston-Mafham
  • Personal Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant
  • Asimov’s Mysteries, by Isaac Asimov. Science-fiction mysteries in short-story form.
  • The Universe in a Nutshell, Stephen Hawking.

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