Monday, March 9, 2009

This Week at the Library (9/3)

Books this Update:
  • Lost on Planet China, J. Maarten Troost
  • The Compleat Gentleman, Brad Miner
  • Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Thomas Cahill
  • Evolution for Everyone, David Sloan Wilson
  • Pompeii, Robert Harris

I began this week with a travelogue by J. Maarten Troost, who humorously describes his adventures in China. Maarten, upon hearing repeatedly that China is "the future" and upon witnessing signs that China has changed from the China of his youth and is still changing, decides to visit the Middle Kingdom. In between accounts of stumbling over dead pigs in the street, visiting Tibetan monasteries, and haggling with Chinese merchants for the "real" price of everything from sex to Little Red Books, Troost reveals a China still establishing its own identity, but seemingly copying the United States in its unrestrained embrace of materialism. The book is quite funny.

Next I read a recommendation from a friend in The Compleat Gentleman by Brad Miner. The book purports to be an examination of the historical roots of chivalry as well as thoughts for how to apply it to the lives of men -- and that's men with an XY -- in the modern era. The book strikes me as being overly romantic and self-congratulatory, and the code of honor promoted to be hypocritical. I did not enjoy the read.

I then continued in Thomas Cahill's "Hinges of History" series with Desire of the Everlasting Hills, a book examining "the world before and after Jesus". Cahill begins in the age of Alexander, exploring the absorption of Judea into the Hellenic and Roman empires and its consequences. We see Judaism growing, splitting into various traditions. Although Cahill does not comment on Greek philosophy's effect on Judaism here, he did in Mysteries of the Middle Ages. The book is not a stern chronology: Cahill explores the way Jesus was perceived by different people at different periods in the sect's growth, and consequently does portray a picture of the evolving church, but it is not a staid history. It's more personal than that, and this is Cahill's gift: he knows how to connect the reader to the lives of his subjects. While I enjoyed the first five-sixths of the book, the remainder -- the lasting effects of Jesus -- seems as forced as The Gifts of the Jews did. He maintains his integrity for the most part, though.

Moving from history and religious philosophy to science, I read Evolution for Everyone, in which author David Sloan Wilson states that evolution ought not be to seen as controversial or difficult to learn. The problem in his view is not that evolution is not accepted, but that it is not acted on by people who study various aspects of humanity. He quickly and effectively explains the basic principles behind evolution and then launches into the heart of his book, in which he applies evolutionary thinking to all manners of topics from medicine to beauty to religion.

I ended the week with a little light reading in the form of Robert Harris' Pompeii, a novel set in the last days of that Roman city. As you may know, Pompeii was depopulated and partially destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius -- but the eruption helped preserve much of the city. After it was rescued from the layers of ash and rubble on top of it, Pompeii's death proved to be a source of information about what Roman towns were really like. It is from the details preserved by the volcano and from accounts written about its eruption that Harris builds a story. Our main character is Marcus Attilius, an aquarius of the Roman Empire. He has been ordered to oversee the Aqua August and investigate the reason as to why the water has stopped flowing south. As he investigates, tension in the Earth builds -- as does tension in the town of Pompeii, where Attilius' investigation into where the former aquarius went has attracted the ire of Pompeii's resident robber-baron. I thought the book was excellent reading, considering that it began with an engineering problem.


Pick of the Week: Pompeii, Robert Harris

Next Week:
  • Frank Sinatra: An American Legend, Nancy Sinatra
  • The Sun Shines Bright, Isaac Asimov
  • Enigma, Robert Harris
  • I to Myself: Annotated Selections from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, Jeffrey S. Cramer

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