Wednesday, August 26, 2009

This Week at the Library (26/8)

Books this Update:
  • Casebook of the Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov
  • The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama
  • Who Needs God?, Harold Kushner
  • The Japanese Experience, W.G. Beasley
  • Catalina's Riddle, Steven Saylor

I started the week with an old favorite by returning to the Black Widower series -- again reading a collection of stories set at the Milano restaurant where the Black Widower club has its monthly meeting, accompanied by the (seemingly) monthly puzzle to reason through. I don't know what else to add: the book was as charming and witty as I expect, although there are stronger Widower collections.

Next I read Barack Obama's political philosophy in The Audacity of Hope. While the book is typically classified as a biography, it is at its essence a political book that uses biographical anecdotes to show the reader how Obama's life has informed his views. His approach is one of moderate pragmatism combined with determined optimism that we do have the ability to make things work. He seems to want to bring common sense and empathy back to the political sphere , seeing them as having been lost somewhere in the past few decades. The author's tone seemed honest, approachable, and more moderate than I would have expected. I liked and recommend it.

Who Needs God? was next, written by Harold Kushner and addressing the ethnically nonreligious. Kushner uses the book to defend religion, not the idea of God, but his idea of "religion" is far more broad than you might expect. I liked the author, but I can't say I agreed that religions alone satisfy the needs they meet in this book.

Moving on to history, I read W.G. Beasley's The Japanese Experience, a short book spanning most of Japanese history (ending in the 1990s). Although its scope was considerable, the book was more successful than Albert Hourani's similar History of the Arabs: Beasley seems to have found the right balance between details and narrative, managing to convey a sense of what has happened without ignoring detailed information altogether.

The week ended strongly with Steven Saylor's Catalina's Riddle, a mystery-turned-political-thriller set in ancient Rome, during the time of the "Catalina conspiracies". Populist and exiled patrician Catalina has attracted the fury of Cicero, whose rhetoric toward him is so acerbic that it became the final straw for our main character, Gordianus. Gordianus, having created a successful career for himself as a detective of sorts, decides to move to the country to get away from Roman politics. Unfortunately for him, Rome follows him and Gordianus is dragged into the heart of the conflict -- giving Catalina safe haven in his home at Cicero's request. This is probably my favorite of the Roma sub Rosa books.

Pick of the Week: Casebook of the Black Widowers, Audacity of Hope, and Catalina's Riddle are all strong contenders, but Catalina's Riddle was utterly riveting. Perhaps it has advantage in being the last book I read, but it's definitely memorable.



Next Week:
  • Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, Shaine Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I'm finally able to follow up on a recommendation from reader Pom Pom: the book has been out of the library since June or so, and finally reappeared.
  • A History of God, Karen Armstrong. I tried reading this in 2006, but I didn't get far.
  • Roma, Steven Saylor. I'm taking a break from the Roma sub Rosa series to read a similar but unassociated novel by Saylor, this one recounting the thousand-year history of Rome through the eyes of one Roman family.
  • Are We Rome?, Cullen Murphy: a comparison of the United States and Rome.
  • Alternative American Religions, Stephen J. Stein. The book has what appears to be two Amish women holding saxophones and looking mischievous on the inside cover. How I could I resist?
  • The Irony of American History, since I didn't finish it last week.

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