Wednesday, June 24, 2009

This Week at the Library (24/6)

Books this Update:
  • Jesus, Deepak Chopra
  • Bagombo Snuff Box, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller
  • Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, Stephen Hawking
  • Medical Firsts, Robert Adler

I started the week off on a fictional note with Deepak Chopra's Jesus. I read a book about Jesus by Chopra last week and didn't like it much, so I suppose it's a little strange that I checked out another. What made me do it, though, was that this was a novel -- and I thought it would tell the story of the Christian gospels from Jesus' point of view. It isn't quite what I expected. Chopra decides to focus on Jesus' journey to enlightenment during his twenties. Because there is no evidence documenting what his life was like during that time, Chopra instead uses what he refers to as a template of enlightenment -- a path that all who have realized "god-consciousness" have followed. Unfortunately, the novel never really grows from that point: it doesn't read like a real human story, it reads like some kind of spiritual Mad-Libs. Although this is set in a historical setting, that setting has no influence on the story: this book could have been written in modern-day Croatia. The characterization of Jesus seems forced after a while. I think people who find Jesus interesting and who are not attached to a particular interpretation of his life will probably find something to enjoy here, but without that I think the novel would fail to hold people's interest.

Whenever I have a book of essays or short stories, I don't read them all in one go but choose to enjoy them throughout the week instead, so the order that I comment on them may be slightly out of order from the order in which they were read. Throughout the week I read from Kurt Vonnegut's Bagombo Snuff Box, a collection of his earliest (pre-1953) work. There are over a dozen short stories here, all terribly interesting and most making sly criticisms of the culture. The settings vary: some are set during the Depression and some are set during the space age, but most of them are confined to the late forties and very early fifties. The book ends with a commentary by Vonnegut on his time as a contributor to short-story magazines. The book is a must-read for Vonnegut fans, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to people who enjoy reading in general.

Blue Like Jazz was probably the most interesting book this week, being the story of one man's life and his relationship with Christianity in various forms. The book is not organized beyond topical chapters: it seems to have been written free-form, and Miller goes from thought to thought in a way that's lively, but not distracting. Although his writing style is somewhat whimsical, he does talk about serious issues of life and I think he does so seriously. My thoughts about the book changed from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to paragraph -- Miller can be frustrating, mystical, uplifting, and funny all at the same time, and I find it hard to really get my head around the book. I can't say who I'd recommend it to: it was overall a fun and sometimes thoughtful read, but it's unpredictable and so is the way people are liable to respond to it.

Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays by Stephen Hawking is much more straightforward. The book is a collection of essays, some on personal topics and some on scientific topics -- beginning with the one and working its way forward to the other. I find it hard to be thrilled about black holes and quantum theory --which the science essays are generally about, but Hawkings isn't dull. The book ends with a transcript of Hawkings "Desert Island Discs" interview, in which he is grilled on various topics while playing the eight songs he would bring with him to listen to on a deserted island.

Lastly, I read the quite enjoyable Medical Firsts by Robert Adler. I've read Adler before -- last March, when I read his related Science Firsts. Medical Firsts contains a dozen chapters on innovative ideas and practices in medicine, all very readable and well-composed. The book is a good read about the history of medical science for even casual readers.

Pick of the Week: Bagombo Snuff Box, Kurt Vonnegut. This is easily my favorite short story collection of Vonnegut's.

Quotation of the Week: "All men are created equal, endowed with reason sufficient to manage their own affairs and even to get to the heart of abstract and philosophical matters. The miracles attributed to the greatest prophets and religious leaders are tricks, no more real than the illusions of street-corner fakirs. People do not need rules handed down and enforced from one high to form orderly societies. In contrast, blind belief in the absolute truths of religions inspires fanaticism and hatred. All authorities and accepted knowledge need to be questioned. Each generation has the opportunity to move science forward through new observations and experimentation and because of such progress, society itself often advances." - Abu Bakr al-Razi, as quoted-in-paraphrase in Medical Firsts. Razi died in Iran in the 900s.

Next Week:
  • The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby.
  • Why Evolution is True, Jerry A. Coyne
  • Socrates Cafe, Christopher Phillips
  • A People's History of the American Revolution, Ray Ralphael
  • (and perhaps) The Earl, Cecelia Holland.

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