Wednesday, June 3, 2009

This Week at the Library (3/6)

Books this Update:
  • Sarek, A,C, Crispin
  • The Hobbit, J.R. Tolkien
  • The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong
  • The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck
  • A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking

I began this week with a little Star Trek literature. The novel Sarek is about the titular character, better known as Spock's father -- played by Mark Lenard in every Star Trek production except the most recent movie. The book is set immediately after The Undiscovered Country, and it will build on plot elements of the movie as well as connect itself to almost every preceding Trek movie. When the book begins, Ambassador Sarek is investigating a conspiracy to set the Federation and the Klingon Empire at war with one another. Relatedly, Peter Kirk -- Jim Kirk's nephew -- is about to graduate Starfleet Academy when he accidentally gets caught up in a xenophobic Earth group called the "Keep Earth Human League", who intend to evict all non-terrans from Earth and drive Vulcan out of the Federation, allowing it to be wholly driven by the needs and wants of humans. Sarek's conspirators and Kirk's rabble-rousers are connected -- something larger is in the works, but Sarek will have to hurry if he wants to save the Alpha and Beta quadrants from interstellar war, and he'll have to do it while his wife dies. The story is done well: it connects to much of the canon while giving Vulcan, Sarek, and the rest of Spock's family more depth.

Next I read Tolkien's The Hobbit, which needs no real introduction. I attempted to read the book several times as a child but could never maintain interest in it. Perhaps growing older has given me a less capricious attention span, as I did finish this time. The Hobbit is the story of Bilbo Baggins, who is drafted by Gandalf (a wizard) to help some dwarves slay a dragon and reclaim their ancestral home in the "Lonely Mountain" -- and recover their wealth, which the dragon is currently sleeping on. The book serves to introduce the reader to a magical world while forcing poor Baggins to realize that yes, he can face a dragon without running away. (So long as he has a magic ring that makes him invisible, anyway.) I found the book enjoyable, although I'm still not sure that I will read the much-lauded Lord of the Ring trilogy.

I looked forward to Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation, and she did not disappoint. The book deals with both comparative religion and history, examining the development of four centers of religious and philosophical traditions: Confucianism and Taoism in China, Buddhism and Hinduism in China, transcendental monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Armstrong begins with Mesopotamian civilization and religion and moves north into Iran before shifting to India and beginning the book proper -- which is organized into a number of themes (Knowledge, Suffering, Ritual, etc) that encapsulate the developing traditions. I found Armstrong's narrative to be both informative and tightly woven: despite how much information Armstrong had to deal with, she worked it well into the overall book while connecting ideas for greater clarity.

Although some of Armstrong's writing dealt with the importance of reason, the old religion's approach to spirituality seems to be more mystical than not. M. Scott Peck takes a different approach, taking on spirituality from a psychological point of view in The Road Less Traveled. He begins it with "Life is difficult", and the title seems to come from the fact that pursuing Peck-style spirituality takes much discipline -- so much so that Discipline constitutes his first section of the book. He also writes on Love -- what it is, and what it isn't. Among what it isn't: romance, emotional investment, or dependence. He next examines the role of religion and God. His criticism of both surprised me, given that he promoted deity-based ethics in A World Waiting to be Discovered. The last section, "Grace", does not seem to tie into the book as well and I did not find it engaging in the least. Overall, I found the book to be challenging and interesting.

Lastly, I read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which is a short popular science book about black holes, time, the big bang, quantum physics, and various other and related topics. Although Hawking was informative, I think he expects the reader to know part of the information ahead of time: he didn't explain the concepts he worked with in detail before building on.

Pick of the Week: The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong

Next Week:
  • The Quiet Game, Greg Iles. A recommendation.
  • Gump & Co, Winston Groom. The sequel to the novel Forrest Gump, which I read in high school.
  • Buddha, Karen Armstrong
  • The Faith Club: A Christian, a Muslim, a Jew -- Three Women Search for Understanding; Ranya Idliby, Suzaane Oliver, and Priscilla Warner
  • Asimov on Astronomy, Isaac Asimov.
  • The Last Olympian, Rick Riordian. This is the last book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and was just released in May.

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