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

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