Monday, April 27, 2009

This Week at the Library (27/4)

Books this Update:
  • The Associate, John Grisham
  • A People's History of American Empire, Howard Zinn
  • Abounding Grace, M. Scott Peck
  • The House of the Vestals, Steven Saylor
  • Our Inner Ape, Frans De Waal
  • The Sane Society, Erich Fromm
  • The Reason for God, Timothy Keller
  • Out of my Life and Thought, Albert Schweitzer

Please note that Out of my Life and Thought, The Sane Society and The Reason for God have not received individual comments yet, although they will. Two of the books require more thoughtful commentary than usual, and I've not finished ordering my thoughts yet. As for the third, I just forgot about it until now. I began the week with John Grisham's The Associate, his latest legal thriller and one that is in some ways a return to the style that made him popular. Although it has received mixed criticism, with an author as well-known as Grisham I don't know that it really matters: people with high expectations will be disappointed, while those who just expect to be entertained will probably be so. The book is pure entertainment, lacking the criticism of The King of Torts, The Street Lawyer, The Last Juror, The Rainmaker, and a few others. (There are those who don't like Grisham expressing his opinions about society in what they expect to be just a bit of amusement, but quite frankly you're going to get opinions even if you read the Sunday comics.). The book reminded me of The Firm: in both books, the young hero finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Although the book was a page-turner, it ended somewhat clumsily and if I didn't know Grisham better I'd think he was setting up a sequel.

Speaking of entertainment-as-criticism, I then read Howard Zinn's A People's History of American Empire, presenting a lecture by Zinn on the history of American imperialism in the form of a graphic novel, or comic book. Zinn begins with the last of the Indian Wars and ends with the invasion of Iraq. Had the book been published later, there's no telling how much Zinn could have found to write about. Most of the book serves to illustrate Zinn's lecture as a comic version of him gives it, although sometimes Zinn uses stories that seem outside of his lecture's narrative to push the book's overall story forward. The story itself is the growing power of American and corporate imperialism, their indifference to the sufffering they cause, and the people who fight against them. Although this isn't really a "comic book", it definitely has its heroes and villains. I knew most of what Zinn wrote about, and I think his interpretations are mostly fair. One of my friends voiced objection to Theodore Roosevelt's association with racists, but I don't know enough about his "Rough Riders" to comment intelligently. I enjoyed the book and thought it a pretty smart commentary.

Throughout the week I read from a book of quotations called Abounding Grace, compiled by M. Scott Peck, some of whose work I read a few weeks back. The quotations are organized into twelve themes -- Courage, Happiness, Love, Faith, and so on, most of which have subheadings. The only theme without a subheading, actually, is "Wisdom", the book's final chapter. Peck introduces each theme with a brief essay that delves into why he thinks the matter important and -- indeed, what he thinks it means. I have shared my favorite quotations from the book at my philosophy and humanities blog.

I also continued in Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series, although I deviated a little from the pattern and read one of his short-story collections instead of the actual novels. I want to read his books through chronologically, not in their publishing order. The House of the Vestals is set between Roman Blood and The Arms of Nemesis, tying them together well. The book consists of nine mystery stories, most of which are solved by Gordianus the Finder. (The remaining story is not actually a case of Gordianus': rather, it is a mystery story told to him by the woman would will become his wife.) I enjoyed all of the stories, and appreciate Saylor grounding them in historical accounts.

I finish Erich Fromm's The Sane Society this week, a sturdy book of social criticism published in the 1950s. While it is not "popular sociology", it isn't a stuffy academic tome, either. Fromm was a member of the Frankfurt school, which is sometimes labeled Neo-Marxist from its members' shared criticism of capitalism. Fromm begins by asking the question: can we criticize a society and make useful judgements about it? He believes we can, and then establishes criteria to that effect. A good portion of the book is devoted to "Man in Capitalistic Society", as Fromm believes we can only understand why people are the way they are by studying the culture that shaped them. In this, his biggest chapter, he analyzes the needs of capitalism and shows how they are met by trying to reshape the minds of men -- but since our minds are not infinitely moldable, and since the shape we are being pressed into is unnatural, misery develops. He then addresses attempts by people to reform the system through "Supercapitalism" and "Socialism" and delves into their problems. He finishes the book with "The Path to Sanity", in which he introduces the reader to "Humanistic Communitarian Socialism", which is a bit of a mouthful. The book reads well, given that it is being written for old Germans in the mid 1950s with very specialized vocabularies. Its scope is wide-ranging: Fromm discusses everything from religion to consumerism. I found the book interesting and engaging, to say the least, but I don't know how many readers it would actually appeal to.

Next, at the behest of a friend, I read Timothy Keller's The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Apparently, it's all the rage in evangelical circles these days and is touted as an answer to all the various atheist books released in recent years. Keller addresses the "Four Horsemen" -- Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens -- by name at various points in the book and cites from some of their work, although he displays a decided preference for quoting Dawkins and Hitchens. I suspect this is because their style is more aggressive. After introducing his worldview -- a fundamentalist perspective that includes a desire for social justice -- Keller addresses various "attacks" on Christianity. Although some of what he says is true, he rarely seemed to address the claims themselves. He seemed to dance around, attacking questions rather than answering them, and he lost my respect a hundred pages in. It took me two weeks or so to read through this book, mostly because I would pause to avoid getting trapped in a argumentative mindset. In the second part of the book, Keller presents arguments for Christianity, including an argument from beauty and an argument from "well-why-would-they-have-written-it-down-if-it-weren't-true?", in which he expresses his belief that it's more likely that Jesus did rise from the dead than that people would make it up. He asks "Why else would they have said this?". Why do Catholics canonize saints who "perform miracles" in their life? Why do people share testimonies about being abducted by aliens? Given that all these people are expressing the same basic story -- "I was abducted by bobble-head aliens who gave me an anal probe!" -- isn't it more likely that this is True rather than they just made it up? I mean, what is the likelihood of people just believing things because it feels good?

The book is in my view a poor example of apologetics, and I am amazed that so many Christians are raving about it. It seems to me a matter of "preaching to the choir". I will be posting more formal responses at my philosophy and humanities blog on Fridays. Also, I was disappointed by another matter. When I placed this next to The God Delusion, nothing happened. I was hoping that they would be repelled by one another like oil and water, or attracted like the opposite ends of magnetic poles, but nothing happened.

Next I read Albert Schweitzer's Out of my Life and Thought, a biography of sorts that I found through reading The Book that Changed my Life. Having read it, I'm certain why it changed that essayist's life. It's certaintly about a very interesting man who expresses engaging thoughts, but much of the book consists on theological musings and a history of the organ. Schweitzer -- who I had never heard of before -- grew up in Alsace, a German-French region that officially belonged to the German Empire, although its citizens spoke both German and French. Schweitzer details some of his life -- mostly his experiences at seminary, his writing career, and his position as a doctor in Africa -- while musing on various topics. He writes about the decay and need-for-revitalization of western civilization, which he sees as having lost an ethical impulse that drives society forward. He comments on various religions and philosophies, giving Stoicism in particular high marks. I will be looking more into this man, who I had never heard of before.

Lastly, and a very enjoyable reprieve from the heavy criticism and philosophy, I read Our Inner Ape by Frans De Waal, a Dutch primatologist who uses the book to compare chimpanzee, bonobo, and human societies against one another to see what our biological heritage can teach us about power, violence, sex, and kindness. De Waal believes that our nature is Janus-like, in that it has two faces. The same heritage gives we and the other apes a propensity for violence as well as empathy. In a very casually written and enjoyable narrative, De Waal goes into great detail about his and other's experiences observing chimpanzee and bonobo tribes. I found it thoroughly enjoyable.

Pick of the Week: Our Inner Ape, Frans De Waal. To be fair, there's something of a three-way tie this week, and I probably went with this one because its impression is so fresh on my mind.

Quotation of the Week: "There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumblings of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, [and] kindness. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many where people have behaved magnificently -- this gives us the energy to act. Hope is the energy for change. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live in defiance of the worst of everything around us is a marvelous victory." - Howard Zinn, The People's History of American Empire

Next Week:
  • Comments on Out of my Life and Thought by Albert Schweitzer, The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, and The Sane Society by Erich Fromm
  • A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn
  • The Great Journey: Peopling the Americas, Brian Fagan
  • Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao, Wayne Dyer
  • Maybe more, because most of my classes are winding down and my computer is broken so my main source of entertainment is reading. (This is the reason my list is longer this week.)

Our Inner Ape

Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are the Way We Are
© 2005 Frans De Waal
288 pages

I've been passing by this one for weeks now, and decided to give it a go this past weekend. It was a short, quick, and incredibly interesting read. Although we human beings like to separate ourselves from the (rest of the) animal world, De Waal states in his opening chapter that we can learn a lot about ourselves by studying the society of our closest relatives, the great apes. While his introduction mentions gorillas, the book is utterly dominated by examinations of chimpanzee and bonobo society. Bonobos are a subspecies of chimpanzees who are in some ways closer to us -- both physiologically and socially. Although we associate our animal nature with "brutish" behavior, De Waal maintains that our nature is a "Janus nature". The nature of the apes lends itself to both violence and peace -- to hate and love. Rather than focusing on one "face" of our existence over the other -- or on one kind of chimpanzee studies over the other -- De Waal belives that we have a lot to learn from either.

The book is divided into four sections -- "Power", "Sex", "Violence", and "Kindness" and finishes with an epilogue. In each, De Waal compares human societies with chimpanzee and bonobo communities, commenting at length on the extent and type of behavior being observed. The book is very well written, I think, and draws directly from field research. He references Jane Goodwall's work as well as his own. He goes into a lot of detail: for me, having read one of Goodall's books so recently was quite helpful. There are a couple of particular points he makes I'd like to share. In the "Sex" chapter, De Waal notes that sexual behavior among the great apes is done a disservice among humans when forced to fit into only a few boxes -- "Hetero", "Homo", and "Bi". Chimpanzees, bonobos, and human beings don't fit into those boxes. Given the range of behavior exhibited by all three species it is more likely that most of us are capable of enjoying intimate relations with everyone when cultural inhibitions are taken out of the equation. Also of note for me was the chapter on "Kindness", in which De Waal demonstrates that even chimpanzees -- the "killer ape" -- are capable of acting with reason and empathy to beings within their group. Religions don't introduce kindness to people, in De Waal's (and my) words: they only build on its natural tenders in us .

I recommend the book -- not only is it very interesting, but it's quite readable as well. I went through it in a matter of hours.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The House of the Vestals

The House of the Vestals: The Investigations of Gordianus the Finder
© 1997 Steven Saylor
260 pages

In previous weeks I have read two novels by Steven Saylor starring Gordianus the Finder, ancient Rome's very own private detective. This book is a break from Saylor's usual format in that it is a collection of short stories set between Roman Blood and Arms of Nemesis. The novel includes nine stories, although the font is set rather small so there is more to the book than its page numbers tell. The various mystery stories are not repetitive, although many of them make use of Gordianus's new friend, a patrician named Lucius Claudius. Old familar characters like Cicero make a reappearance. The stories themselves give the reader an idea about Roman theatre, the vestal virgins, Roman beekeeping, and even include a ghost story. The stories are not all about Goridanus: in the book we see his family grow and mature, and Eco and Gordianus' slave-only-in-name/wife Bethesda both feature prominently in helping him solve some of the mysteries. In one, "The Tale of the Treasure House", Bethesda relates an old Egyptian folk story (a mystery) to Gordianus to lull him to sleep. The book is quite enjoyable: not only is it well-written, but it draws heavily from historical documents and gives the reader an accidental briefing in late-Republic Roman history. Saylor ends the book with historical notes and a timeline.

Abounding Grace

Abounding Grace: An Anthology of Wisdom
© 2000 ed. M. Scott Peck
384 pages

Abounding Grace is a strangely titled book of quotations, compiled and commented on by M. Scott Peck, a psychologist who wrote a number of so-called "self-help" books. The book is divided into twelve major themes, most of which have subsections. For instance, "Happiness" -- part one -- id divided into "Acceptance", "Cheerfulness", "Contentment", "Forgiveness", and so on. Peck introduces each theme with a few pages of commentary, explaining the meaning and importance of the theme. Peck writes that he was careful to choose quotes that were devoid of too much mystical language, hoping instead to err on the side of "pithy". I recognized many names among the quoted -- Robert Ingersoll, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Anne Frank. Peck seems to have deliberately chosen quotations so that quotations in a given section might contradict one another, presumably to force the reader to think about context.

Outside of this, I don't know what to add. I enjoyed reading the quotations, and will go through the book later to cull out my favorites and write them down.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A People's History of American Empire

A People's History of American Empire: A Graphic Adaption
© 2008 Howard Zinn
273 pages

Earlier in the week, I read A People's History of American Empire, composed by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, and Paul Buhle. The book is a graphic novel, and framed through a lecture given by Howard Zinn -- featuring Zinn as a character, introducing his lecture on American imperialism in the introduction before beginning it in chapter one. The story of American imperialism is expanded in twelve chapters, beginning with the end of the "Indian Wars" and ending with the invasion of Iraq. Most of the text is Zinn speaking, with the pictures providing illustrations. There are numerous "stories" set in the text, in which Zinn-as-narrator almost disappears. Given the nature of the book -- or the graphic novel, as it were -- its narrative reads very well.

This is very much a book about individuals who have resisted American and corporate imperialism as well as government and corporate indifference to the misery they cause. There are two general themes: one, the developing nature of imperialism, and two, the reactions of the 'people'. The reader thus will be engaged in a critical history of the United States which gives the labor, civil rights, and peace movements their due. Both stories are developed pretty well, I think, and the illustrations were good as well. (I'm not exactly sure how to comment on a graphic novel other than to say I enjoyed the pictures.) I did find fault with one panel, in which the Lusitania is shown carrying tanks. The Lusitania was sunk before the development of tanks, and one of the tanks appears to be a model from the Second World War.* As for its historical credibility: I knew much of this before, having accidentally learned it for the most part. If he took liberties with the facts, they weren't obvious to someone who is -- in my and other's estimations -- a fairly well-read history student. Some interpretations are more questionable than others: no one can deny the self-serving motives of the Spanish-American War or the Indian Wars, but it's also fairly difficult to cast World War 2 in such a cynical light.

Although the book's story can be seen as somewhat grim, the number and conviction of people who have stood against the book's villains gives the reader cause for hope -- and indeed, Zinn deliberately concludes the lecture/book on a hopeful note. "There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumblings of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, [and] kindness. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many where people have behaved magnificently -- this gives us the energy to act. Hope is the energy for change. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live in defiance of the worst of everything around us is a marvelous victory."

I'm going to recommend this one.

* This may be excusable on the basis that lay readers will more easily equate "tank" with 'weapons" than unmarked boxes of ammunition.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Associate

The Associate
© 2009 John Grisham
373 pages

I will admit to taking John Grisham for granted. Like old t-shirts and Star Trek, when I begin a Grisham novel I do so with the expectation that I will enjoy it. Grisham rarely disappoints. Although he is known for his legal thrillers, in recent years his new releases have been away from the courtroom. He returned to legal thrillers last year with The Appeal, but it seemed different from the novels of old and was (in my experience) reacted to negatively. Although Grisham's novels rarely end with everyone living happily ever after, the ending of The Appeal struck readers as..."wrong", somehow. It is one of the few Grisham books that I didn't really enjoy -- but with The Associate, Grisham has returned to a similar style.

This book, like most Grisham novels, is written in the third-person. The book's main character is Kyle McAvoy, the son of a small-town lawyer who has little interest in making a career out of working for big-league Wall Street lawyers. The book begins one night at a community basketball game, at which McAvoy is coaching. As he watches the game and yells at the kids, he sees a rather obvious man watching him -- a man dressed in the apparel of a government agent. Unnerved, he tries to leave the gym after the game via a back entrance, but is apprehended regardless. The man -- a "Bennie Wright" -- asks Kyle for ten minutes of his time.

Kyle soon realizes that Bennie holds power over him -- evidence that links him and three of his friends to rape allegations from their early college days. While Kyle is perfectly innocent, the evidence shown to Kyle makes him realize that there is a very real possibility two of his friends aren't, and that their indiscretion may ruin him. Bennie knows Kyle's fear, and exploits it: in return for a guarantee that there will never be a trial about this issue, Bennie wants Kyle to accept a job at a major Wall Street law firm and gather information for him. Kyle is thus stuck between Scylla and Charybdis: he can risk the ruin of his name by helping Bennie and violating his future clients' trust, or he can risk the ruin of his name by allowing the federal investigation to go on. Neither are attractive possibilities, but the latter ruin is far more likely than the former.

Even as Kyle bites the bullet, he learns that Bennie is not who he claims to be. There is something far greater going on here than an FBI investigation: defense contractors are going to (legal) war with one another over the design and production rights of a major piece of military equipment. Not only are the investments of the United States government at risk, but there are foreign governments like China, Russia, and Israel willing to interfere in the trial -- and Kyle is being made to take part in this madness, to help unknown people by stealing information from his law firm and delivering it to his handlers.

Kyle, knowing unpleasant things are bound to happen to him if he just passively cooperates, begins planning his extrication from the situation he's been trapped in from the very start. Although the book is primarily about him, Grisham occasionally gives the reader a rest from Kyle and follows Baxter Tate -- the alleged rapist -- instead. Tate's problems with alcohol and descent into the world of rehab and relapse provide occasional breaks for the reader and eventually connect to Kyle's problems.

The case of the lacrosse players from Duke entered into my mind, and I would wager that their trial in 2006 gave Grisham inspiration. The book is somewhat similar to The Firm in that a brilliant young antagonist quickly finds himself stuck between two impossible-to-accept scenarios, who has to find his own way out of the mess. The book's ending chapters were pretty gripping for me, although I did have a "Wait, really? That's it?" moment at its final conclusion. It's almost as if the ending isn't properly realized. The book doesn't have the "untold story" quality of The King of Torts or the criticism of The Street Lawyer or The Rainmaker, but it was pretty enjoyable for me all in all.

(Please note that The Associate is not a prequel to The Partner.)

Monday, April 20, 2009

This Week at the Library (20/2)

Books this Update:
  • Persian Fire, Tom Holland
  • Shattered Mirror, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
  • Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade, Brian Fagan
  • The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu, Henry Wei
  • The Moscow Option, David Downing

Although I read most of Persian Fire last week, I didn't quite finish it before my weekly trip to the library. Tom Holland writes on the development of the Persian Empire and its extended period of conflict with the Greek powers of Athens and Sparta. He employs the same narrative approach he used in Rubicon, much to my enjoyment -- I prefer my history written as a story. The book is quite thorough, and I think Holland does a good job of not only writing about the material causes of the war and the political development of the various powers, but gives the reader an impression of how these people so far removed from us thought. One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that Holland frames the war from the Persian perspective as a religious conflict between those who serve Truth and those who serve lies.

Next I returned to Amelia Atwater-Rhodes' fiction in Shattered Mirror, the third of her books and one set in the same universe as In the Forests of the Night and Demon in my View. While the protagonists of the former books were respectively a vampire and a human, this book (written from the third person point of view) focuses on Sarah Vida, a young witch. Her family and kind serve to protect humanity from the vampires who prey on them -- but Vida's moral and familiar obligations come into question when she accidentally befriends two pacifistic vampires. I enjoyed the book -- perhaps more than Demon in my View -- but it seemed quite busy after the half-way point. There are more principle characters involved here.

Brian Fagan's Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade was next, in which I read about many various cultures of the Americas before Columbus. Although I had expected to read about the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca, Fagan's approach is more broad: he writes on those three, but he also dwells with small tribes living in South America's desert and everywhere else -- from Inuit to Moundville people in Alabama. He writes on societal structure, religion, history, and agriculture. The last topic also constitutes the bulk of his last chapter, in which Fagan explores the agricultural and medicinal contributions of the Americans to the Europeans who vanquished them. The book is quite well written and enjoyably illustrated by hundreds of photographs.

Next I moved from history to religion and read Henry Wei's The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu, a book written on the Tao Teh Ching, the basis of Taoism and written by Lao Tzu. The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Wei introduces the reader to Taoism and writes on specific topics within Taoism, such as the possibility of the afterlife and the benefits of meditation (including time travel). The Tao Teh Ching itself is reproduced in the second part of the book, with commentary from Wei. The book's organizational scheme works well: thanks to Wei's interpretive essays in the first section, I was not as confused by the Tao Teh Ching's more mystical passages. I've not read enough about Taoism to say if this book is apt: it was fairly enjoyable to read, for whatever that is worth.

Lastly, I read The Moscow Option, on loan to me from a coworker. The book is alternative history, although it does not present a "Nazi victory" scenario: when the book closes, the war is still on-going. Author David Downing focuses rather on how the war would have proceeded differently had two little things been changed, changing both the War in the Pacific and Hitler's invasion of Russia. The book begins with the Russian campaign, hence the "Moscow option". Some reviewers at Amazon took offense to how the campaign is presented in the book, but the day people aren't arguing on the Internet is the day there is no Internet. I don't know enough about the "orders of battle" to comment on the historicity of most of the book: what was written seemed to be plausible. The style of the book is a different story: at times it seemed like a popular history book from an alternate universe, and at times it seemed like a military report. Sometimes the author invents fictional characters and has us see what is happening through their eyes, but they never linger long and are mostly forgotten by the time the reader has moved on. Although it's not a crime for history books to not be written in narrative form, I thought the writing -- more so in some parts than in others -- was choppy. Sentences that should have been tied together were left alone, and some that were stuck together were not done so well. It's as if the editor read over those passages and forgot to change them.

Pick of the Week: None of the books I read this week demand special recognition (as some do), but I could be pressed into recommending either Persian Fire or Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade.

Next Week:
  • The House of the Vestals, Steven Saylor. This is a collection of short stories written under his Roma sub Rosa series and featuring Gordianus, ancient Rome's private eye.
  • Out of my Life and Thought, Albert Schweitzer. This is one of the books I saw mentioned in The Book that Changed my Life.
  • A People's History of American Empire: A Graphic Adaption, Howard Zinn.
  • Abounding Grace: An Anthology of Wisdom, ed. M. Scott Peck.
  • The Associate, John Grisham. I'm finally getting around to reading his latest, which I received for Easter a few weeks back.

The Moscow Option

The Moscow Option
2006 David Downing
256 pages

Working in a university setting means being surrounded by readers, and this occasionally gives rise to book recommendations. This week, I read a brief alternate history book from the library of my boss, who thought I might be interested in it. Written by David Downing, The Moscow Option is a summary of what happened in different World War 2 in which Germany and Japan are given advantages they did not hold in real life -- twists of fate that went their way and not the Allies'. While I am a touch weary of "Nazi victory" scenarios, seeing Wehrmacht troops marching through Moscow on the front cover piqued my curiosity. More than a little of my interest stems from the treatment of east Germans under the Soviet puppet government during the Cold War, I must admit.

Surprisingly, the book isn't a "Nazi victory" scenario: the book ends in 1942 with neither side victorious, although the reader is given an impression of who will triumph in the end. The "surprisingly" part is even more so because -- not only is that the way books are written -- but because the book is written from the perspective of a historian, who is seeing these events as the past. He knows what's going to happen: he just doesn't finish the entire story for the reader. This is apparently a "Why did the war go that way instead of another?" book written for people living in an alternate universe.

Downing begins the books by writing that he wanted to modify the direction of the war by adjusting subtle things after it had already started. There are two major points of deviation that I observed: firstly, Hitler is rendered comatose after a plane crash on the Russian front, thus preventing him from interfering in the various Wehrmacht generals' plans for bringing the USSR down. Secondly, the Japanese figure out that their codes have been broken shortly before Midway. The book's writing is a bit technical: it isn't a narrative. This is a nonfiction book of military history written about a fictional event, and it reads like a military report with some literacy devices thrown in. I often read through passages of short sentences that could have easily been linked with commas and conjunctions, and should have. In other passages, the author linked sentences together with commas but nothing else, forcing the reader to mentally add in the phrases that tie sentences together. There were a few highlights: alternative historians like to wink at real history by hinting at what-might-have-been, and in a few cases Downing adds a good bit of humor and muscle to the skeleton of a historical account he has rendered. In writing on a Japanese air attack on Los Angeles, for instance, Downing writes that a stray bomb knocked the "H" and the "Wood" off of the famous Hollywood sign, and then cites Oliver Hardy claiming that the Japanese recognized his artistic merit. (Granted, this joke is only amusing to those who are familiar with the work of Laurel and Hardy.)

The history rendered is interesting, and probably plausible in most aspects. (I don't know enough about the minutia of the war to grouse about anything, anyway.) The writing itself, however, needed work.

The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu

The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu : A New Translation and Commentary on the Tao Teh Ching
© 1982 Henry Wei
234 pages

In the interests of cultural literacy, I've been trying to get a handle on major religions I have little knowledge of: this mostly extends to the "eastern" religions, as I've read on Judaism and Islam in the past -- although my Islamic literacy is still quite limited. As evidenced by previous' weeks' reading, I've been poking into Buddhism. Now, my interested piqued by a quotation from Lao Tzu posted in someone's forum signature, I turn to Taoism. The book is divided into two sections. In the first, the author addresses various topics within Taoism. Wei begins with an introduction to Taoism. The "Tao" is alternatively the way people should follow and some thing behind or underpinning the universe, although it seems to be separate from the idea of God. It is described in various "mysterious" ways.

Although I found the first section cumbersome, my interest picked up after he began writing on topics relating to meditation. Throughout this section -- and indeed, throughout the book -- Wei tries to connect the Tao Teh Ching with scripture from the Judeo-Christian bible. The second section of the book consists of the Tao Teh Ching itself with annotations and explanations provided by Wei. Because Wei had already talked about interpetations of topics within the text, I wasn't quite as confused as I might have been when reading the poetic and "mysterious" passages. The book seems to have been written for the benefit of rulers, so some of the advice is impractical for those of us who don't manage kingdoms of peasants. There wasn't as much ethical philosophy as I expected, but it wasn't terrible reading.

When the world goes in accord with Tao,
Horses are used for hauling manure.
When the world is out of keeping with Tao,
Horses are raised in the suburbs for war.
No sin is greater than yielding to desires.
No misfortune is greater than not knowing contentment.
No fault is greater than hankering after wealth.
Therefore, know contentment.
He who knows contentment is always content.

This was the only bit of the translation I copied, although there were other bits and phrases "a hallway filled with jade is not easily guarded" that I liked. I'm not exactly sure why I copied the above down: I don't agree with it fully*, and parts of it like the last line seem to state the obvious.

*Desires aren't always unhealthy to fulfill.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade

Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade: the Americas Before Columbus
© 1991 Brian M. Fagan
240 pages, including 180 photographs set into the text

I've had a fascination with the Aztecs for most of my life, since I first saw pictures in second grade depicting their water-city Tenochtitlan. Growing up in Alabama, my fourth-grade history text also introduced me to the fascinating lifestyles of the various indigenous people living here before European colonization. As such, I looked forward to reading this, which I figured would deal heavily with the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca. My interest in getting a book by this particular author stems from a lecture he gave at my university a number of weeks back, in which he described the Mayan temples as both sacred places and ways to catch and channel water. Although the book does address the three cultures I expected, the book's scope is more broad than that and so Fagan does not go into a lot of detail -- there are many other cultures to visit.

Although he begins with brief chapters on the Aztecs and Incans, he quickly moves to the beginning of human settlements in the Americas. I'm hard-pressed to make sense of his organizational scheme: although writing on civilizations and cultures all over the Americas, he tends to move back and forth through time. The smaller cultures are not ignored in favor of the more memorable ones, an approach I grew to like. Although the information I was expecting was not in here -- the water-channelling rule of Mayan temples -- there is a wealth of information on the various cultures of the pre-Columbian Americas. Fagan writes on politics, agriculture, religion, symbolism, and history. He ends the book with a quick lecture on what the Americas gave the world in terms of foodstuffs and medicinal knowledge.

The book is well-written, provides ample pictures for illustration, and provides what I think is a generally good survey of the Americas. I enjoyed this book more than The Great Warming, at any rate, and will continue reading Fagan.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Shattered Mirror

Shattered Mirror
© 2001 Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
227 pages

Given the current Twilight mania, I am just a touch self-conscious about reading a vampire novel written for young adults. Back in high school I read Atwater-Rhodes' In the Forests of the Night, and found it entrancing. Her world was different from the fantasy settings I'd read about before, and her rules seemed to make more sense. It was also dark, but not off-puttingly so. A few months back I finally got around to reading another novel of hers, and here I read a third. The book is written in the third-person, but sometimes seemed like first-person, as most of the book is spent in the protagonist's -- Sarah Vida -- head. Interestingly, Sarah is very much like Rhodes' previous protagonists: teenage, female, living on the fringes, "dark", strong, and very stubborn and independent. Despite this, Sarah is fundamentally different from the other protagonists: Risika was a vampire, Jessica Shade a human, and Sarah a witch.

Witches were mentioned in In the Forests of the Night as being vampire-hunters, but in Demon in my View, we learned through the story of Jessica Shade that witches seek to protect humanity from the vampires who prey on them -- although it is clear that some witches enjoy killing vampires for the sake of killing. I found this idea very intriguing, so I was delighted to learn that this book's protagonist was a witch -- and specifically, a hunter. Using an ability to detect vampiric auras, superhuman strength, and magic knives, she and her kin seek out vampires and kill them. As the book begins, Sarah and her family have recently moved to a small Massachusetts town, prompted by Sarah accidentally destroying part of her school in a recent hunt. (This reminds me of Riordian's Percy Jackson series, in which Jackson seems to switch schools every book after destroying part of each school he visits by defending himself against monsters. ) As soon as Sarah enters her first classroom, she immediately catches the attention of two teenage vampires.

Sarah's life and the lives of the two vampires -- Nissa and Christopher -- will be drawn into friendship and conflict as Sarah tries to reconcile the rules of her family, her moral imperative to kill vampires, and the confusion that is wrought when her family's leading target turns out to be connected to the two vampires Sarah meets. Atwater-Rhodes expands her universe in this book, adding in a "SingleEarth" organization -- a union of vampires, witches, and humans who want to live peacefully together. Compared to the two other books I've read by her, this one was "busy". I think this is so because there are more principle characters. In the Forests of the Night had two, Risika and Aubrey: their power conflict constituted the plot of the book. Demon in my View had three: Jessica Shade, Aubrey, and a teenage witch who tries to protect Jessica from her and Aubrey's increasing interest in one another. This book has four principle characters and three more who cannot be ignored. Consequently, there were times I had to pause and re-read parts of the book to keep track of what was happening. Regardless, the book was a quick and enjoyable read.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Persian Fire

Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West
© 2005 Tom Holland
418 pages

After reading Holland's Rubicon, blogger ResoluteReader recommended that I read Persian Fire as well. I have an interest in the various Persian and Babylonian empires that rose and fell thousands of years ago, and given my strong interest in the ancient Greeks, the book was thus quite appealing. Holland begins his narrative by establishing the early histories of the Persian Empire, Athens, and Sparta, including Persia's absorption of the Babylonian and Egyptian polities. I knew very little about the various empires in "Iran", and was especially surprised to learn about the religious aspects of the Persian emperors. Holland will frame the emperors' religious views in explaining their decisions to move to the east. A couple of them seem to think of themselves as Plato's philosopher-king's. In telling the story of the Greeks, Holland is especially through in detailing their petty quarrels with one another.

Roughly around the three-fifths mark, Greece and Persian come into conflict and resulting chapters detail the Persian Wars that Darius and Xerxes carried out against the Greeks. The Persian motivations are quite romantic: they intend to show everyone that Ahura Mazda is not mocked, nor is his Empire scorned, and neither will either tolerate "evil". The classic battles of the wars -- Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis -- are all included, typically given a chapter all of their own. The book is quite thorough and very readable. Although its level of detail amounts of a somewhat imposing read, it's fairly easy to get through. He does persist in using modern terminology -- putsch, generalissimo, and so on -- but that's just a trifling matter. The book ends by hinting at the conflict between Athens and Sparta -- the "Peloponnesian Wars".

Monday, April 13, 2009

This Week at the Library (13-4)

Books this Update:
  • Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh
  • Arms of Nemesis, Steven Saylor
  • The Universe in a Single Atom, Tenzin Gyatso

This week's reading started off on a high note, with Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day, an account of how he spent six years spending time in a Chicago in the midst of a gang of drug traffickers, making their base the Robert Taylor housing projects. Although the book does serve to give the reader an idea of what life is like for gang members, it isn't really a work of voyeurism. It reflects his dissertation in that it does show how impoverished people are struggling and adapting themselves to their situation. In a place where the federal government doesn't exist and the city government is negligent when not impotent, people make due with what they've got, leading people to make what an outsider would see as morally questionable choices. I found myself both sympathizing with and slightly put-off by some of the people who emerged. At the same time Venkatesh is writing about this community in the projects, he also labors to connect it with the greater context of the late 20th century and especially the early 1990s. It was a very readable book.

Next I read Steven Saylor's Arms of Nemesis, another mystery novel set in ancient Rome starring the classical detective Gordianus the Finder. After being pulled out of bed in the middle of the night and offered enormous amounts of money to take a job, he finds himself on a ship leaving Rome and headed for the "Cup" of Italy, where all the patricians keep their villas. One particular patrician, Marcus Crassus, has recently lost a family member: his brother, who manages one of his estates, has gotten himself killed. Two slaves have also vanished, and a message on the floor near the fallen body implies that they have revolted and run off to join Spartacus. Crassus, who wants the Senate to grant him an army to destroy Spartacus with, declares that in five days his remaining slaves in the villa will be put to death if Gordianus does not find that they are innocent. Gordianus soon realizes that Crassus neither expects nor wants the slaves to be vindicated: he is in fact disturbingly anticipating the opportunity to show how tough he is by putting them to the death. When Gordianus finds hidden piles of weapons and gold in the villa's port, he begins to suspect that something larger is happening -- and it may be large enough to get Gordianus himself killed. The book was quite enjoyable, more so than Roman Blood in my opinion.

Lastly, I read the Dalai Lama's The Univere in a Single Atom, in which he attempts to connect Buddhist ideas like "emptiness" and "the beginningless universe" to quantum theory and the big bang. He also reflects on Buddhist and scientific ideas concerning consciousness and writes about possible problems with genetic engineering. The chapters on consciousness were interesting, but overall I could have given the book a pass.

I almost finished with Persian Fire, but my busy schedule -- tests and papers -- stopped me from that.

Pick of the Week: Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh

Quotation of the Week: "Decapitation has a way of making even the most powerful men irrelevent." - Steven Saylor, commenting on Crassus' eventual fate in his epilogue.

Potentials for Next Week:
  • Persian Fire, Tom Holland. I'll finish the last fifty pages or so.
  • The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu, Henry Wei
  • Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade: the Americas Before Columbus, Brian Fagan
  • Shattered Mirror, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
  • Embroidered Textiles (I thought this would be a book on world religions for some reason.)
  • The Moscow Option, David Downing

The Universe in a Single Atom

The Universe in a Single Atom: the Convergence of Science and Spirituality
© 2005 Tenzin Gyatso
224 pages

This week marked the first time that I read something by the Dalai Lama that was not concerned primarily with ethics. The book begins with "Reflections", as author Tenzin Gyatso tells of how he became fascinated by the world of science and technology. He then launches into the book proper, looking for connections between Buddhism and modern science. His opening chapters deal with "Emptiness, Relativity, and Quantum Physics", which reminded me of Doug Muder's essay Humanist Spirituality in which he begins by dispelling the idea that quantum mechanics is mystical. (I have run into this attitude myself, in meditating with a friend. When I asked him to explain his belief in chi, he asked me if I believed in quantum mechanics.) His next chapters deal with the evolution of sentience and cosmological evolution, in which he compares the Buddhist idea of the "beginningless universe" to the big bang. Several chapters on consciousness follow, and he ends with a chapter on the ethics of genetic manipulation.

It's hard to comment on the book: doing so would require greater understanding of the ideas he is comparing. I thought the chapters on consciousness were interesting, and he seems generally fair about the idea of genetic engineering in plants. He's also critical of "scientific materialism" and enjoys using "reductionism" and variations thereof. I didn't find what I was expecting in this book, namely biological reasons for acting ethically. I suppose I shall have to stick to Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, since in it he explores the idea of altruism being beneficial to us.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Arms of Nemesis

Arms of Nemesis: A Mystery of Ancient Rome
© 1992 Steven Saylor
318 pages

Two weeks ago I read Roman Blood, a mystery novel set in late-Republican Rome. It was the first in the series Roma sub Rosa, and Arms of Nemesis is the second. Both are written in the first-person from the perspective of Gordianus the Finder, the era's version of a private detective. The book begins with a rude awakening: Gordianus is summoned by gladiators to enter the service of an as-yet-unknown benefactor at five times his usual rate. Gordianus, being curious and in need of the money, agrees. Soon he finds himself on a ship headed for the "Cup" of Italy: the arch of its "boot". Along the way, Gordianus muses himself about the ill treatment of slaves, which hints at the plot.

Once arriving in the Cup, Gordianus confirms what he already suspects: he has been hired by Marcus Crassus, the richest man in Rome. Crassus is a mysterious and potentially dangerous man to work for: he is known as the richest man in Rome and has a private army. He is also in the middle of a power struggle with Pompey the Great, which I've read about in Rubicon and Imperium. Crassus' brother, who managed one of Crassus' many villas, has suddenly turned up missing half of his head. Two slaves are also missing, and the presumption is that the two slaves murdered their master and then ran off to join Spartacus, who is at the present time terrorizing the patricians of the Republic with his army of slaves-turned-revolutionaries. The dead man's wife doesn't buy the idea that the slaves of the house did this, and so at her bidding Crassus has agreed to allow someone to investigate the matter. That someone is Gordianus, and he soon finds out that if he does not find out who is responsible for this in five days, the remaining slaves of the villa -- 99 in all -- will be butchered as an deterrent to other patricians' slaves and to prove the manliness of Crassus.

As Gordianus develops his investigation, he begins to suspect that Crassus has no real interest in questioning the supposed guilt of the slaves, and realizes that Crassus may want to make an example out of them just to prove to the Senate that he is quite the embodiment of Roman virtue and thus perfectly fit to be given command of the army being raised to fight Spartacus. The plot further thickens when Gordianus discovers bags of swords, shields, spears, and money hidden in the port of the villa: clearly, there is something else going on here other than revolt by two slaves.

The book was very enjoyable to read, and I must say that I like it over Roman Blood. I was not expecting the plot to end the way it did, but it ended well.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Gang Leader for a Day

Gang Leader for a Day: a Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
© 2008 Sudhir Venkatesh
302 pages

One of my ways to find reading related to my interests is to visit Amazon and search for books I have read before and liked: I then browse the "Related Books" section. It was in this way that I found Gang Leader for a Day, having searched for Freakonomics. One particular section in Freaknomics -- about a young University of Chicago graduate student who spent years associating with a Chicago gang, whose research showed how little money most crack dealers actually made -- intrigued me, and after I began reading Gang Leader for a Day I realized that this was the very same graduate student.

The story goes that while a grad student at UC, Venkatesh joined a project overseen byDr. William Julius Wilson and was tasked with visiting a housing development and asking a few questions. Venkatesh does so, and immediately draws the attention of several gang members who believe him to be a spy from one of the Mexican gangs in the city. They force him to stay in one of the buildings under their paranoid eyes while they wait for their boss (a man Venkatesh will name "J.T.") to arrive. When J.T. he arrives, he asks Venkatesh about his studies, and bursts into laughter when Venkatesh begins to ask him questions from his survey -- "How does it feel to be black and poor?" J.T. quickly informs Venkatesh that if he wants to find out about life in the projects, he has to spend time with the people who live there -- not walk around with a clipboard asking census questions.

So begins an at least six-year project in which Venkatesh spends time with people living in the Robert Taylor housing projects in Chicago, a a major source of drug trafficking. While Venkatesh's initial years are spent with J.T. and other members of the BK gang, his research -- which eventually assumes the form of exploring how people living there respond to poverty -- takes him into the community of the housing projects. The distinction between the two is very vague: the gang members are quick to assert that the gang is a community-building project, hosting parties and helping out people who need a hand, and as Venkatesh will see, community leaders from tenant presidents to local ministers have to deal with the gang as if they were a "legitimate" part of the community. Indeed, Venkatesh documents the power conflict between J.T. and Ms. Bailey, the tenant president.

This is not a Goodfellas-esque work of voyeurism: Venkatesh's book does more than just showing the "secret work of drug leaders". It reflects his dissertation in that it does show how impoverish people are struggling and adapting themselves to their situation. In a place where the federal government doesn't exist and the city government is negligent when not impotent, people make due with what they've got, leading people to make what an outsider would see as morally questionable choices. I found myself both sympathizing with and slightly put-off by some of the people who emerged. At the same time Venkatesh is writing about this community in the projects, he also labors to connect it with the greater context of the late 20th century and especially the early 1990s.

The book makes for gripping reading. It's an easy narrative to read through, even when Venkatesh is trying to relate what he's seeing to the outside world and thus giving the reader background information. It's also extremely thought-provoking. I'm not reading the book at a very deep level, but even in my relatively casual reading experience a lot of questions surfaced. It changed my idea of what Chicago gangs were like -- I am only familiar with the old Italian gangs of Prohibition and to a lesser extent the modern drug gangs in Los Angeles -- but it also showed me how deep the problem of inner-city decay is. It also helped me to understand a little of the racial divide in Chicago, something I hadn't thought of until last Saturday when I listened to a This American Life show called "The Wrong Side of History". It gives me a new respect for what President Obama and his colleagues must have had to go through when working in Chicago, and now I want to read about his work there.

I definitely recommend this.

Monday, April 6, 2009

This Week at the Library (6/4)

Books this Update:
  • Through a Window, Jane Goodall
  • The Book that Changed My Life, ed. Roxanne J. Coady
  • The Great Warming, Brian Fagan
  • The Ghost, Robert Harris
  • The Words of Martin Luther King, ed. Coretta Scott King

Four out of five authors recommend starting book titles with "The". Jane Goodall, the lone voice of opposition, is mildly famous for her experiences living among chimpanzees, and in Through a Window she records some of her experiences. I've never read any Goodall before this week, but I must say she's earned her reputation for being enjoyable to read. She has spent decades of her life among the chimpanzees, watching generation turn into generation and leaders rise and fall. Her book explores themes as they relate to chimpanzee society -- war, family, sex, etc. -- and devotes specific chapters to certain chimpanzee individuals that made a larger-than-normal impact on their communities or were of particular interest to Goodall and her colleagues. She also compares chimpanzee behavior to human behavior and chastises humanity our unneighborly behavior.

Next I read The Book that Changed My Life, a collection of essays by seventy-one authors on the books that had a profound impact upon them. Perhaps the book gave them a love for reading, made them think a new thought, or led them to making life choices that they might not have otherwise made. Being the philistine I am, I recognized only two of the essayists -- Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain. The books the various authors chose are mostly literature, although there a few nonfiction titles thrown in here and there: Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, for instance, or Ernst Becker's The Denial of Death.

A couple of months ago or so, professor Brian M. Fagan spoke at my university on the topic of climate change and its influence on human history. While his lecture and The Great Warming began with the positive effects of the "Medieval Warm Period" on Europe's climate and civilizations, the net effect on humanity does not appear to have been positive. Most of the book is concerned with droughts, flooding, and mudslides. There are not isolated affairs, either: Fagan places special emphasis on the fact that these drought periods were extended, wreaking havoc across generations. While the information presented was disturbing and interesting, it wasn't the strongest narrative I've read. I will be visiting more Fagan, though.

What is a strong narrative is Robert Harris' The Ghost, a short novel about the mysteries that surround the United Kingdom's retired prime minister after he announces he intends to publish his memoirs. After Adam Lang's ghostwriter strangely washes up on a beach, his lawyer contracts our narrator to edit and build on the work already done. Because the memoirs are supposed to be written in Lang's voice, the narrator must find Lang's voice -- but Lang is both a politician and a man, and the ghostwriter struggles in finding who the real Lang is. While he investigates into Lang's past to find reasons for his taking up the vocation of politics, he is bothered by the mysterious death of his predecessor and the feeling that something isn't right. He soon finds himself in the middle of a mystery/political thriller that has lethal consequences -- possibly for himself. I enjoyed it immensely.

Lastly I read a collected set of quotations by Martin Luther King Jr, compiled by his now-late wife Coretta Scott King. I don't have much to say about a book of quotations: it's not a very cohesive source. Bits of his two most famous speeches are added at the bottom, but not the full text of either. I saw no selections from "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam", the speech that made King come alive for me. This was somewhat disappointing.

Quotation of the Week: "What Camus is saying is that there is reason to be hopeful, that man must understand his condition and must struggle, fight, and rebel against the absurdity of life. There is hope, and hope is to be found in man and in man only. Man defines himself, gives himself an identity through his actions. Even though the futility of our condition leads us all to the same end, we must and can dignify life through our needs and behavior." - Jacques Pepin, commenting on Camus' Myth of Sisyphus.

Pick of the Week: Tie between Through a Window and The Ghost.

Next Week:
  • Arms of Nemesis, Steven Saylor. I'm continuing in the Roma sub Rosa series.
  • Gang Leader for a Day: a Rouge Sociologist Takes to the Streets, Sudhir Venkatesh
  • Persian Fire, Tom Holland -- a recommendation from "ResoluteReader".
  • Scientific Explorers: Travels in Search of Knowledge, Rebecca Stefoff

The Words of Martin Luther King Jr.

The Words of Martin Luther King Jr.
© 1983, edited by Coretta Scott King
112 pages

I had intended to read a book on Martin Luther King Jr. back in January near his birthday, but the requested book never arrived. After watching Gandhi last week -- repeatedly -- I thought of King and decided to find another book containing his work. The Words of Martin Luther King Jr. do not contain the full text of his speeches, but consists rather of quotations organized by topic. The most famous portions of "I've Been to the Mountaintop" and "I Have a Dream" are listed, but not "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam", which was the speech that made King come alive for me. The quotations are fitted into various selections -- "The Community of Man", "Racism", "Civil Rights", "Justice and Freedom", "Religion and Faith", "Nonviolence", and finally "Peace", with the bits from his most famous speeches inserted at the end along with a proclamation of Martin Luther King day, signed by Ronald Reagan, and a chronology of King's life. For those interested, I will soon post some of the quotations I liked most at my philosophy/humanities blog. The book's contents were generally enjoyable, but its use is limited: this is a collection of quotations, and while I could make some generalizations about the character of King as they portray it, I would rather draw from a greater context -- like a book containing full speeches.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Ghost

The Ghost: a Novel
© 2007 Robert Harris
412 pages

I know the Internet is the stuff a paranoiac's dreams are made of. I know it parcels up everything -- Lee Harvey Oswald, Princess Diana, Opus Dei, AL Qaeda, Israel, M16, crop circles -- and with pretty blue ribbons of hyperlinks it ties them all into a single grand conspiracy. But I also know the wisdom of the old saying that a paranoiac is simply a person in full possession of the facts...

With those words, a ghostwriter's struggle to find his client's voice begins to grow into a mystery thriller, ending unexpectedly. The controversial prime minister of the United Kingdom stepped down from his post two years ago, accepting ten million dollars by a US publishing firm for the publication of his memoirs. Wanting to leave a testament behind him but unwilling to actually do the work, Adam Lang -- a "thinly veiled" version of Tony Blair -- passes the work off to loyal aide Mike McAra, who spends two years engrossed in libraries doing research. As Lang and his ghostwriter approach the deadline, McAra's body washes up on a beach. The PM's wife Ruth Lang, having read several ghost-written works by our narrator -- as the book is written in first-person -- recommends him to finish the job.

The timing is most inconvenient, as an ex-colleague of Lang's has recently seen fit that the International Criminal Court should investigate Blai-- pardon me, Lang's -- role in allowing the United States to kidnap several Pakistani nationals and then stick them in secret "black site" interrogation centers to be tortured for information. As such, Lang -- holed up on an island in the United States while resting from a recent lecture tour -- is forced to respond to those accusations while being interviewed by our narrator. The potential stress of the job does not compete with the $250K our narrator is being paid for the month of work, and so he takes it on.

He struggles to find his subject's voice early on, grappling with the question of who his client is. Who is the man behind the public face? Nothing makes sense, and in the course of doing his research he stumbles into more serious questions, questions that endanger his life and trap him in a web of political intrigue. I enjoyed the book extremely: unlike Enigma and Archangel, I didn't have to work my way through this one. Every page captured my attention, and I finished it in a matter of hours. Characterization is particularly strong in this novel, I think. I laughed out loud when reading the narrator's response to seeing his predecessor's work for the first time: after reading through an extremely dull manuscript (which he is expected to revise), he realizes how much work there is ahead of him and describes his reaction: "I pressed my hands to my cheeks and opened my mouth and eyes wide, in a reasonable imitation of Edvard Munch's The Scream." After the emoting, he turns to see Lang's wife staring at him. Her only response is to raise an eyebrow and say, "As bad as that?" I found the scene funny: Harris doesn't have his narrator describe his feelings: he has the narrator show them in a spontaneous way. The characters' personalities come through in little quirks like this. Another example is Ruth Lang's bodyguard, who likes to read Harry Potter books on the job. There aren't too many major characters, and each of them are fleshed out well. (Lang, interestingly, receives no physical descriptions beyond his clothing: if Lang is indeed Tony Blair, I suppose Harris thought none was necessary. It's as if he's telling the story with a wink to his audience. The story, by the way, is told to the reader -- breaking the fourth wall -- by the unnamed narrator, and so includes bits of foreshadowing. Nothing is ruined, though. Beyond characterization, the book's plot develops in interesting ways. Harris is plainly used to the modern era: at one point he has the narrator Googling for information and presents search results in the text -- including fake Wikipedia articles, lending a touch of realism. These little touches and the plot in general made for a fun read -- extremely enjoyable stuff, and a very worthy diversion from the sociology paper I worked on all day.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Great Warming

The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations
© 2008 Brian Fagan
282 pages

Earlier this year, Dr. Brian M. Fagan visited my university to deliver a talk titled "Climate Change, the Flail of God, or the Elephant in the Room" in which he spoke on the effects of the "Medieval Warming Period" on societies then existing. Fagan elaborates in the book that while the "Medieval Warm" was a topic of discussion occasionally bandied about, there was little in the way of concrete evidence outside of oral history. He did find evidence to support such a theory, but more disturbing was the evidence of severe climactic disturbances elsewhere on the global -- perhaps different consequences of the same weather pattern. This book is -- as I've hinted -- a full elaboration of that brief lecture, and in fact answered a question I raised during the question and answer session that Fagan only answered half-heartedly then. The full title is Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. Fagan is primarily concerned with the global consequences of the Medieval Warm period, and his chapters -- while beginning in sunny Europe, enjoying a climate far more conducive to being able to grow surplus food than ever before, take us to the Sahara, following Moorish caravans, eventually visiting every continent except Antarctica.

I read Collapse by Jared Diamond back in December, and this book reminded me of it in many ways. Both Fagan and Diamond examine the expanding reach of the Vikings and how settlers in Greenland struggled to survive in the harsh climate, eventually being cut off from Europe when the warm period ceased and vanishing all together. (My question to Fagan was if the warm period had affected Scandinavia to the point that surpluses had created a population boom, necessitating the Vikings attempting to make a living for themselves by trading with and sacking parts of Europe. That's a lot to fit into one question, so there's little wonder he misheard me then. The answer, according to the book, is yes. My suspicions were confirmed.) Diamond and Fagan both address the Mayan "implosion", although I will say that Fagan's coverage of the Maya was more exhaustive. In his lecture, Fagan told us how the Mayan temples were actually used to catch and channel water in additional to being tall and intimidating. Fagan covers more ground than Diamond, though,visiting places I've never heard of.

The theme of the book is how climate change alters human societies differently depending on where they live. While some societies -- the Europeans, for instance -- fared well during the warm period, severe and extended droughts and flooding periods in other parts of the world killed millions and in some cases dealt societies a staggering blow from which they would not recover. An observation of mine was of how vulnerable we are to droughts, flooding, and so on: we seem utterly at the mercy of the climate. My opinion of the book is mixed. While the information was interesting and generally presented well, it wasn't that strong of a narrative: it didn't grip me the way Diamond did. I'm going to read a little more Fagan to see if it was just this book, though.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Book that Changed my Life

The Book that Changed My Life
© 2006 editors Roxanne J. Coady and Joy Johannessen
197 pages

Last week while ending a walk about town, I stopped in my university library to refill my water bottle and investigate On the Road to see if it was worth reading. While strolling through, I happened to see The Book that Changed my Life on display. Its title amused me to the point of picking it up, and I settled down to read it at various intervals throughout the week. The book consists of seventy-one essays by authors on the book (or sometimes, "books") that changed their life in some way. Most of the essays are short -- a page and a half seems to be average -- and all were fairly easy reading. The books covered are mostly literature, with some exceptions -- The Guns of August, for instance, which inspired Doris Kearns Goodwin to become a historian even though it was a field -- was and still is, perhaps -- dominated by men. Some essayists shared books in common -- J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby were both mentioned multiple times. The essayists' motivation for choosing one book or another varied. For some, it introduced them to reading for pleasure: for others, their books gave them new insights. One person wrote on the effect that the Sears Catalouge had on him as a child. Of the essayists, I only recognized two -- Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain. (One of Lieberman's picks was "The Bible", but he gives it little more than lip service, as would be expected.) The book was an enjoyable read, and will be of interest to "readers": I was able to find a few suggestions for further reading.

Just a few of the titles I wrote down:
  • Out of my Life and Thought, Albert Schweitzer
  • Letters to a Young Poet, Ranier Maria Rilke
  • The Snake Has All the Lines, Jean Kerr
  • The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker (this was mentioned twice)
  • The Reason Why, Cecil Woodham-Smith
  • An Introduction to Contemporary History, Geoffry Barraclough

It seems appropriate, after reading this book, to consider the question of the book or books that have changed my life. There are many that have changed my thinking -- Neil Postman immediately comes to mind -- and some that have entertained me beyond measure (John Grisham's The Rainmaker), but when I turn my mind to the question but don't think about it, Paul Zindel's The Pigman* comes to mind. Zindel was the first author I ever read who wrote about "strange" things, and his The Pigman was the first book about serious issues I ever read. As a child, the book seemed to be very "adult", and I remembering it being perhaps the first book to move me to tears, to have a memorable response other than basic enjoyment. This is a book that lingers in my memory. Because of it I read everything my high school library had by Zindel, including The Pigman's Legacy and The Pigman and Me.

* Ordinarily I'd link you to the Wikipedia page, but the page in this instance is abysmally done and I won't be responsible for whatever impression it gives about the book.