Thursday, July 10, 2008

This Week at the Library

Books this Update:
  • The History of Science, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Moser
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom, Elliot Roosevelt
  • Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor by Isaac Asimov
  • Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution, Randal Keynes

I began this week with The History of Science from 1895 to 1945. At usual, the book is separated into the physical and life sciences, but this book does away with the recap that the other books employed -- previous advances are summarized in their respective chapters. Some of the advances in this book include quantum theory and the discovery of viruses. While the book is as well-written as the ones preceding it, some of the topics -- like quantum theory -- are harder to understand, and so I enjoyed this book less. The book does mention “the Leakey’s brilliant son, Richard”, which amused me as a few weeks ago I read one of Richard Leakey’s works -- his commentary on The Origin of Species.

The next book I read was a recommendation from a friend. The book, by Margaret Atwood, is called The Handmaid’s Tale and is set in a dystopian world where the United States has turned into a monotheocracy, functioning as a military dictatorship where society is stratified along religious lines. How exactly this happened is unclear. A massive earthquake along the San Andreas vault causes numerous nuclear power plants to “explode”, and then a conspiracy takes over the government and suspends the constitution. It is unclear as to whether or not the conspiracy was already in place and just seized the moment or if it formed immediately after.

While it doesn't seem possible that dull-minded people like fundamentalists could manage to take over a country in one fell swoop, their job was made considerably easier by the fact that paper money had been done away with -- everything had become computerized. Once the unnamed group takes over the government by assassinating everyone in the Congress (it must not have been an election year), they suspend the Constitution and seize control of the money so they can make the United States a Christian nation -- or at least their version of a Christian nation. Now, you would think that the military would object to this, but they were fooled into thinking Islamic fanatics from Iran did it. Bear in mind, this book was written when fundamentalism was rising in both Iran and the United States -- when people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were gaining political power.

The new government is run along strict biblical lines, although the goons show a decided preference for the Hebrew scriptures; indeed, the stratification of women is completely based on Abraham's family. Abraham, for the uninitiated, is the legendary father of both the Hebrew and Arab peoples. According to the Hebrew bible, Abraham was a tradesman from Ur, which is not far from Babylon. Yahweh told him to leave Ur, and he did, and in return Yahweh promised Abraham that he would have a child and one day he'd have a mess of descendants. The promised kid doesn't come for a long time, though, and eventually Abraham's wife Sara becomes barren -- so Sara tells Abraham to knock up her handmaid Hagar so they'll have a child. So Abraham does: he knocks the girl up and they have a kid named Ishmael. Although Hagar wasn't Abraham's wife, she's Sara's handmaid, and Sara is Abraham's wife, so...the kid is technically Abraham and Sara's somehow. (Yahweh doesn’t think so, but fortunately his twin brother Allah does.)

That's what happens here. The people running the government -- old guys who like uniforms and call themselves "Commanders" and their wives, old "Ladies Against Women" types -- are all barren, so they need young hussies to propagate the species. The women are divided into five different castes -- "Wives", "Marthas" (old servants), "Handmaids" (whose job it is to get pregnant and give the commander and his wife a child), "Aunts" (who train girls to be handmaids), "Jezebels" (prostitutes, who serve the Republic by doing whatever prostitutes do), and "Unwomen", or women who are too educated or lesbian to be of any use to the Republic of Gilead. Unwomen are either killed, sent to The Colonies for hazardous duty, or turned into Jezebels.

The Handmaid's Tale is about one handmaid -- who before the takeover was a college graduate living with her husband and wife and working in a library. She only accepts her fate because she hopes that there is a resistance -- hopes that there are those working to destroy this New Order. This story is about her own personal resistance -- the story of a free mind rebelling against those with power over her. I won't say more. Once I found the book, I found it rather gripping. According to Wikipedia (the fount of all knowledge), The Handmaid's Tale is on the American Library Association's list of most-challenged books, as some see it as "anti-religious".

Even if that were so, intellectual cowardice is no excuse not to read the book. As it happens, though, the book is not anti-religious. While the Republic of Gilead is a religiously-defined world, the religion in question is practiced only by a nutty few. Most Christians in the United States are just ordinary people who happen to wear crosses at their necks. There are some who are assholes, but that's just the law of averages. This book isn't about the majority of Christians or even most fundamentalists -- it's about the ones who transcend batshit craziness and become positively evil -- like cells that turn cancerous just for the sake of being little microscopic dicks.

After The Handmaid’s Tale, I read Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom, a murder mystery set in the 1943 White House, during the Trident Conference. Murder…is part of a series of mystery novels starring Eleanor Roosevelt. I am amused by the idea of Eleanor Roosevelt dressed in Sherlock Holmes’ cloak, cap, and pipe, closely followed by FDR in a Watson-style bowler, who says ‘But Eleanor! How did you know?”, and her replying “Elementary, my dear Franklin.” The book was interesting. As it was penned by Elliot Roosevelt, one of the Roosevelt sons, I imagine it’s a fairly accurate depiction of 1943 D.C.  -- or at least as accurate a picture Elliot could paint from his own memories and research. The series of books appears to have been published after Elliot’s death.

I took a break from conspiracies and murder to read Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor, which is a collection of some 600 jokes complete with commentary by Asimov. He included all sorts of jokes, from puns (some of which I’ve used to annoy my friends with already) to cultural/ethnic jokes. Asimov being Asimov, though, the jokes in question are not offensive and still funny. Here’s my version of a favorite from the book:

There’s this Palestinian walking in the desert, going from his school to his family home. As he’s walking, he suddenly gets an eerie feeling. Pausing to take things in, he realizes that a sandstorm is bearing on him and will overtake him in only minutes. There’s no way that he can make it to his home in time, so he decides to dig a small pit for himself. He figures that he can lay on his belly in the pit and tuck his face into his jacket so that he’ll protect his mouth, eyes, and nostrils from the sand. So he drops down and starts digging furiously. As he’s digging, he encounters a curious sort of container. It looks old. He tries to take the top of so he can use it as a cup to aid in his digging, but when he opens it he finds himself face to face with a genie.

The genie roars “Thank you for saving me, young master! For your reward, I shall grant you three wishes! Choose wisely.” The young guy is taken aback, but quickly asks that the genie get rid of the approaching sandstorm. All at once, the sandstorm is gone. The Palestinian is amazed -- this is real. “Your second wish, young master?” inquires the genie. The Palestinian stands and thinks for a while, then says that he wants a large home surrounded by lush farmland -- filled with servants and luxury goods, along with a wife. The genie nods, and suddenly the desert transforms into a magnificent estate, surrounded by farms that are ripe for the harvest. The estate looks like the old Hanging Gardens -- magnificent. There are sport cars in the driveway, and the young man is suddenly flanked by a beautiful woman who is his wife.

“For my first wish, I saved my life. For my second wish, I secured my future. For my third wish, I should look to the welfare of my people,” said the young Palestinian. “I want you to destroy the nation of Israel”, he says to the genie. All at once, the estate and wife are gone, and the sandstorm is seconds from overtaking the young man. The moral of the story? Be careful what you wish for: your genie may be Jewish.


Asimov’s version was more medieval -- an Arab dying of thirst in the desert who wishes for a palace with camels and who wishes for the destruction of the Jews. I made it contemporary. My favorite chapter was the chapter on wordplay, because I like puns. I like puns because I don’t have to memorize anything: all: mine are usually extemporaneous -- I just happen to hear an opportunity and I seize on it. I will do this even if the pun is a particularly terrible one, because groans can be rather melodious.

Next I read Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution by Randal Keynes, who is related to both Charles Darwin and the economist John Maynard Keynes. As I mentioned last week, I basically checked this book out because the cover art caught my eye and the inside text looked fairly interesting. Like Charles Darwin: the Naturalist who Started a Scientific Revolution, this book focuses on Charles Darwin and his theory of descent with modification. Since both books are essentially on the same subject, a comparison is due. The Naturalist Who Started a Scientific Revolution is a much more comprehensive biography of Darwin and the theory. Its beginning chapters focused on Darwin’s family history, and the book went into depth exploring what books and what scientists inspired Darwin and so on. Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution is different. While the book does cover the development of the theory, its author does not describe the voyage of the Beagle in detail. This book is about Darwin, the adult scientist and family man -- the man who pauses his daily trips around the Sandwalk to play with his children, who rented a home for his family while he was undergoing treatment in another city just so they would be close by -- the man who made notes about his children growing up, from the time they were babies -- and who monitored his daughter Annie’s death in hopes of finding a cure. I mentioned before that the author is related to the Darwins. Because of that, he has access to family items like Annie Darwin’s writing case -- complete with writing quills that still have dried ink on the tips.


Pick of the Week: Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution
Quotation of the Week: “If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.” - Charles Darwin, p. 308 of Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution. Original source is his Autobiography.

Next Week:
  • -The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the World of Harry Potter. I’m not kidding. I saw it when looking for one of my other books, and the very idea of it amused me so much that I had to check it out.
  • Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, because I like Asimov and am only familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedies.
  • The Neanderthal Enigma, which I checked out because Neanderthals may be interesting.
  • The History of Science From 1945 to 1990, which is the last book in the On the Shoulders of Giants series -- alas.
  • The Undertaker’s Widow by Philip Margolin, which I checked out because I like Margolin.

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