Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower

The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower
© 1970 C. Northcote Parkinson
304 pages


Last week I finished C.S. Forester's series of sea stories following the adventures of Horatio Hornblower, a navy man who rose to prominence during the Napoleonic Wars. I began the series in the spring, and early in the summer a fellow student -- also a Hornblower reader -- brought this book to my attention. The idea of a Hornblower biography amused me immediately, although I doubt I would have heard of it had she not asked me about it. (I had to send for the book through England.)

Parkinson's account begins by expressing his gratitude to Forester for having brought the life of Hornblower to the attention of the British public, as well a his sorrow that Forester died before completing his fiction series based on the life of Hornblower. This biography, drawing from Forester's sources as well as from newly-discovered boxes of letters and other correspondence that Forester did not have access to, aims to complete the story of Hornblower and fill in the gaps that Forester left for one reason or another. It is a tribute to both Forester and Hornblower.

"Portrait of Sir Horatio Hornblower, K.B., painted by Sir William Beechey, R.A. in 1811 and now in the possession of the present Viscount Hornblower."' From the inside cover.

The chapters are separated by rank, which coincides nicely with the books, particularly the omnibus collections. When Parkinson's text overlaps with Forester's novels, the result tends toward concise summaries supplemented by maps and letters written by or about Hornblower. There are also image plates: a portrait of Hornblower, the title page of a book he owned in childhood with his signature, that sort of thing. Parkinson doesn't give Hornblower many new adventures in his twenty years at sea: I assume he's somewhat constricted by Forester's timeline. Beyond background information, there is new material here both in the chapter on Hornblower's early life and the chapters which focus on his later years following the final defeat of Napoleon. Hornblower takes an interest in steam-driven vessels and helps establish a commercial shipping firm whose fleet is wholly steam-based.  Appendices include information on Hornblower's descendants (his progeny were at Dunkirk and D-Day) and a letter written by Hornblower in regards to the Renoun affair, in which he was nearly branded a mutineer when the mentally unfit Captain Sawyer mysteriously fell down into the hold prior to the ship's encounter with a Spanish fort. (Parkinson's account of the events is considerably less dramatic than Forester's:  Hornblower and his fellow lieutenants are court-martialed for mutiny and attempted murder of a Royal officer in Forester's stories, whereas in Parkinson's "real" account, only the first lieutenant was placed on trial -- and not for attempted murder, either, but for presuming command when Sawyer was only insane and not yet dead.)

The intended audience is limited from the start -- consisting wholly of Hornblower readers, I imagine -- and it is they who will enjoy this. While it isn't a must-read for Hornblower fans, it will probably be enjoyable to those who enjoyed Forester's stories of his life at sea.

Teaser Tuesday (31 August)

Teaser Tuesdays are...epic! And oversized, but their subject warrants it. From ShouldBeReading, as ever.

How small they appear from the long road that approaches them; did we come so far to see so little? But then they grow larger, as if they were being lifted up into the air; round a turn in the road we surprise the edge of the desert; and there suddenly the Pyramids confront us, bare and solitary in  the stand, gigantic and morose against an Italian sky.[...] We stand where Caesar and Napoleon stood, and remember that fifty centuries look down upon us; where the Father of History came four hundred years before Caesar, and heard the tales that were to startle Pericles. A new perspective of time comes to us; two millenniums seem to fall out of the picture, and Caesar, Herodotus, and ourselves appear for a moment contemporary and modern before these tombs that were more ancient to them than the Greeks are to us. 

p. 139, Our Oriental Heritage. From Will Durant's opening tome in his Story of Civilization series.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Disease Fighters Since 1950

Disease Fighters since 1950
© 1996 Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser
164 pages

Spotting this excited me, as Spangenburg and Moser's history of science series (On the Feet of Giants and its expanded and revised successor) were delights for me in the past two summers. Disease Fighters is less a history of medical science and more a collection of interrelated biographies in science. The authors frequently tell what the scientist in question discovered, but never explain what that something is. There's not a lot of science here, and the only audience I imagine it being useful to are children and teenagers who  are curious about careers in the medical field. Possibly they might be inspired by these stories of people who put their minds to work for the benefit of all humanity.


Related:
Medical Firsts, Robert Adler
The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, Roy Porter

These are both titles in medical history.  Porter's is grander in scale.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Booking through Thursday: Giving

Booking through Thursday asksIf you’re not enjoying a book, will you stop mid-way? Or do you push through to the end? What makes you decide to stop?



It's rare that I find a book I don't enjoy, because I tend to rifle through books before I leave the library with them. I examine them to ensure that the author's style is readable. There are occasions in which a book fails to 'grab' me, at which point I simply switch to another book: I'm constantly reading, and don't want to stopped. I'll return to the book every few days to see if it clicks, but if not it'll find its way back to the library.  Unfinished books are like challenges to my honor, though: I will seek satisfaction, provided I didn't quit out of disgust. It took me three tries scattered across two years to read The Selfish Gene, for instance, but after I did a little background reading in biology I made it through. (My hurdle was the section of the book that focused on chromosomal crossover.)

There are times in which I make myself work through a book: maybe it's mandatory reading for school, or because I am determined to learn about the subject, read something from the author, or finish the book because it has a reputation. Most of my school texts have been interesting, though it takes force of will to make it through articles by Max Weber. Sometimes books are hard to get into, but with a little perseverence I can crack its shell and start making progress.

Mere Mortals

Star Trek Destiny: Mere Mortals
© 2008 David Mack
433 pages

The small, finite lives of mere mortals carry little weight in the calculations of gods. But even gods may come to understand that they underestimate humans at their peril. 
(From the back of the book.)

In 2158*, the Earth ship Columbia limped its way to a nearby planet to find repair.  Instead, they were trapped by a hospitable if overly cautious race of highly advanced beings called the Caeliar, who were adamant about keeping their galactic profile to a minimum, so much to the point that any visitors were either forced to stay or flung across the galaxy to be forever cut off from their homes.  Hundreds of years later, the crew of the USS Titan stumbled upon these same Caeliar while tracking the transwarp energy lanes that Starfleet believes the Borg were using to mount their incursions into Federation space. Titan's crew met the same fate as Columbia's: friendly imprisonment. To their astonishment, the captain of the Columbia -- Ericka Hernandez -- greeted them upon their arrival, in the best of health despite being hundreds of years old. Meanwhile, Captains Picard and Dax begin attempting to access the energy lanes and find the route the Borg have been using to launch their invasions. While Picard's initial desire is to destroy the subspace lanes, the task is seemingly impossible. While the Federation's best minds attempt to sort out how to shut these pathways down, Picard believes they can be used to the Alpha Quadrant's advantage. He proposes that the Federation build a coalition of Alpha- and Beta- quadrant powers ready and willing to take the Borg on directly -- that the allied powers send a combined expeditionary force into the Delta Quadrant to destroy the Borg's staging ground and prevent Borg forces from accessing the lanes until the Federation can destroy them safely.

Although Mack focuses on the same four crews -- the Enterprise, Aventine, Titan, and Columbia,  Mere Mortals  primarily focuses on the combined efforts of Picard and Dax to find the lane leading to the Delta Quadrant. Titan is only a sideline story, as her characters are essentially powerless to do anything: they're barely there. The inclusion of a Columbia story thread surprised me, but Mack follows Hernandez and her crew as they adjust -- or fail to adjust -- to their benign captivity, eventually linking Hernandez' story with that of the Titan crew's.  Most of the book is simply setting the stage for the final chapter, but tension mounts as Picard and Dax continue to narrow down which lane leads to the Delta Quadrant: one bridge officer comments that their efforts remind him of Russian roulette. While this is happening, an Allied fleet -- hundreds of ships from the Federation, the Klingon, Cardassian, and Romulan empires, and the Ferengi Alliance (with Breen mercenaries tagging along) -- slowly gathers. In the book's final chapters, Mack forces the fleet to stare into the Abyss -- into the mouth of hell, to borrow from Tennyson -- and then sends it hurtling in.

Destiny continues to impress. Gods of Night was interesting, but Mack uses drama to a greater effective here -- slowly lulling the reader into the feeling that this book is just filler, just a train between two ports. Then the tracks disappear and you realize this is a roller coaster, and you no idea where  the fall will stop, or what gut-wrenching turns await.  I have a feeling that once I finish Lost Souls next week, I'm going to need to watch a few warm and fuzzy episodes of TNG or the original series to recover.

On the cover:  Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard; Ada Maris as Captain Hernadez-pretending-to-be-Wonder-Woman.

*Give or take a decade. 2168 is when the Columbia was lost, but she'd been traveling at near-light speeds long enough that they were out of sync with Earth's calendar, so I'm not exactly sure.

Related:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Birth of the United States

The Birth of the United States
© 1973 Isaac Asimov
274 pages, including a table of dates.


While trolling Amazon in search of elusive copies of Isaac Asimov's Roman history books, I chanced to find evidence of a four-book history series on the United States, beginning with European colonization and ending at the Great War. They're decades out of print, alas, and I won't be able to read all of them. The Birth of the United States picks up at the end of the French-Indian war (known in Europe as the Seven Years' War) and the beginnings of mutual Anglo-American resentment. Asimov then takes us through the Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, and up to the end of the War of 1812.

Asimov didn't achieve success as a writer by being poor at it: Birth is perfectly lucid. I don't think I've followed any account of the Revolutionary War as easily as this one. The political wrangling that followed the war, as the states with varying interests  who proposed national constitutions that protected them from the others, could easily be dull -- but it isn't. Impressively, the normally opinionated Asimov is fair to the various clashing interests he covers. The British are not presented as tyrants, for instance, nor does he take sides when recounting the numerous issues between the states. He simply explains why everyone thought as they did, and detailed the ways in which varying decisions helped and hurt either side. In retrospect I am not surprised at his approach. There are rarely villains in his fiction works: he preferred instead to bounce characters with justified but opposing interests off one another. (He does opine against incompetent generals, though, and disapproves strongly of characters like Banastre Tarleton.) He's obviously fond of the subject matter, being a naturalized citizen of the US and an ardent humanist who believed in the United States' Enlightenment-era ideals. Asimov frequently takes the reader aside to mention trivial tidbits, like that after the Battle of Lexington,  settlers in Kentucky renamed their settlement to commemorate the dawn of America's war for independence.

Reading The Birth of the United States was an experience both helpful and enjoyable. It filled in my own gaps of the period, and I'd recommend it to any reader needing or wanting an introduction to the early United States.

This Week at the Library (18 Aug - 25 Aug)

This week at the library...


  • Working IX to V, a romp through odd jobs of the ancient and classical worlds. Though informative, the author relies heavily on humor to connect with the reader.
  • Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies was my last Hornblower read by C.S. Forester, alas, but the series enjoyed on an enjoyable note. In the West Indies is more cozy than dramatic, though.
  • Gods of Night by David Mack is the first in the Destiny trilogy, which ties together various threads in the Treklit canon (the TNG relaunch and the USS Titan series, mostly, but with nods given to the DS9 and Voyager relaunches) and sends the Federation into a final, deadly grapple with the Borg.
  • Sharpe's Eagle is the story of an English riflemen during the Napoleonic wars, who has to overcome the sturdy French army and the incompetence of his aristocratic overseers to redeem the honor of his regiment. Fun read. 
  • The Lost World is Michael Crichton's sequel to his Jurassic Park, and follows the same general plan. Crichton does drama well, and the information he has his characters deliver on dinosaurs will of course entertain.


Quotation of the Week:
     "Then this is a whole lot of coincidences," Keru said. "A mysterious power source with an energy profile that resembles transwarp, shooting beams that point at Federation space, Borg space, and a planet in the Gamma Quadrant, where an old Earth ship has been sitting for two centuries."
     Tuvok arched one eyebrow to indicate incredulity.

(p. 222, The Gods of Night. This statement ties the stories of the four starship crews featured in the book together.)

Potentials for Next Week:

  • The Birth of the United States, Isaac Asimov. 
  • Disease Fighters Since 1950, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser. Spangenburg and Moser's history of science books were staples of two of my last few summers, and their names caught my eye when browsing today. 
  • I'll be tipping my toe into Will Durant's Story of Civilization series by beginning Our Oriental Heritage, which appears to be a largeish text on the Indians, Chinese, Egyptians, Babylonians, and company. 
  • Odds are good that I'll pick up the second book in the Destiny trilogy at some point. If it's anything like Gods of Night, I won't be able to put it down for several hours.
  • I also checked out Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brien. I tried it once a few years back but all the naval terminology kept me from getting into it. In the meantime I've read an entire series of sea stories set in the age of "wooden ships and iron men", though, so perhaps I'm better prepared this time. 
  • And a mystery entry, when I have been waiting to read for weeks.
In the future...

  • I wanted to read Michael Crichton's Timeline this week, but despite being checked in, it's not on the shelf. I'm guessing that like The Lost World, it was lost. Maybe this one is lost in time. 
  • Although Alexandria by Lindsey Davis seemed readable, it never grabbed me. I'll return to her series of Roman novels at some point, though. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Lost World

The Lost World
© 1995 Michael Crichton
431 pages

"'Ooh, aah'. That's always how it starts. Then later there's the running and the screaming." - Dr. Ian Malcolm, The Lost World

In the 1980s, a biocompany called InGen discovered a way to isolate dinosaur DNA and patented a cloning process intended to bring the dead back to life. Majestic and fearsome beasts who once ruled the Earth were resurrected in laboratories, intended to be the featured attractions of a resort park intended to amuse their successors -- humanity. The park's first visitors -- including paleontologists, a lawyer, and a chaos theorist named Ian Malcolm -- witness the catastrophic failure of the park's systems within hours of spotting their first dinosaur. The park died amidst intrigues from a rival biocompany (BioSyn) and nature's fury -- though Malcolm would insist that so complex a system was doomed from its beginnings.  The Costa Rican military and InGen are eager to destroy all evidence of the failed project, but they're not as thorough as they ought to have been -- for now, five years later, corpses from another epoch are washing up on the beaches of Pacific islands.

The Lost World follows the same basic pattern as Jurassic Park:  evidence of dinosaurs appears to people who have no idea the park existed, the evidence trickles down to our primary characters, they visit the island and have a "WHOA! Dinosaurs!" moment, and then a deadly pandemonium ensues: the lead characters run around the island losing equipment, sanity, and friends while Dr. Malcolm lectures. In The Lost World, Malcolm applies chaos theory to the efforts by paleontologists to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs. The familiar pattern does not distract from the book: dinosaurs are a powerfully interesting subject, and as the characters talk about various species in an attempt to reason out the best way to escape, the reader is treated to mini-lectures compiling modern dinosaur research from scientists like Jack Horner. In the last novel, Crichton seemingly honored Horner with a proxy character: in this, he acknowledges Horner directly. Crichton does drama well: his text is replete with foreboding descriptions and cliffhanging segments.

The Lost World is terrific fun -- lots of tension, and the dinosaur mini-lectures are certainty informative. Malcolm tends toward the anti-scientific at some points, but I suppose that's in-character for an eccentric iconoclast.

Teaser Tuesday (24 August)

Teaser Tuesdays are sometimes ominous. Not quite as ominous as this.

Consumed by flames, the torso crackled and the fat sputtered, and then as the skin burned away, the black, flat ribs of the skeleton were revealed, and then the whole torso turned, and suddenly the neck of the animal swung up, surrounded by flames, moving as the skin contracted. And inside the flames Levine saw a long pointed snout, and rows of sharp predatory teeth, and hollow eye sockets, the whole thing burning like some medieval dragon rising in flames up into the sky. 

p. 26, The Lost World. Michael Crichton.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Sharpe's Eagle

Sharpe's Eagle
© 1981 Bernard Cornwell
270 pages


The year is 1809, and much of western Europe has been subdued by the First French Empire. Napoleon Bonaparte rules as Europe's greatest emperor, but there are those who resist. England stands apart from Europe  and has employed her mighty navy to forestall an invasion of the British isles. In Spain her armies stand beside those of the dons. Richard Sharpe of the 95th Rifles is an accomplished soldier, having spent half his life in uniform, and on the eve of one of the bloodiest battles of the war he's been tasked with helping a newly-mustered battalion of troops destroy a bridge to make things more interesting for La Grande Arm√©e .

Unfortunately for Sharpe -- a man who rose through the ranks on merit and brazen accomplishments --  the officers in charge of the expedition are aristocrats more interested in playing soldier than learning how to fight. For them, a soldiering is a dashing affair involving men in bright uniforms marching to the sound of the fife and drums, scaring the enemy way by sheer presence. Their incompetence is matched only by their contempt for the men they lead and their own hubris. So woefully inadequate is one such man -- Colonel Sir Henry Simmerson of the South Essex -- that a simple expedition ends in humiliating failure. French horsemen route a force ten times their size and spirit away the King's Colors: the regiment's battle-standard. The actions of Sharpe salvage the affair somewhat, but make him an enemy of the Colonel.  In the larger battle to come, Sharpe must find a way to redeem the regiment's honor despite its leadership.

Richard Sharpe is an interesting character to read about: closer to Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds than to the archetype of the noble hero, beyond reproach. He cares for honor in his way and looks after those around him. Cornwell's writing is up to the job of describing the toils of character and war. He portrays 19th century warfare well enough to make maneuvers clear to someone lacking particular interest in troop maneuvers, and unexpected humor abounds.

This went well for my first foray into the Sharpe series: it's a fun read, and I'm hoping further books will give me an image of the peninsular war, something more or less unknown to me. (My knowledge of the Napoleonic wars is limited to Trafalgar, Austerlitz, and Waterloo.)

Related:

  • Sharpe's Eagle on Youtube. The novels have dramatized, and I enjoyed the first one. The actor portraying Simmerson does a terrific job of making him loathsome. (He shows up in the beginning of this clip.)
  • Jeff Shaara's  American Civil War novels. The style of warfare is somewhat similar, though cavalry's role is much less prominent. Shaara uses a panel of viewpoint characters to portray the same events from multiple angles. 

Gods of Night

Gods of Night
© 2008 David Mack
431 pages

"The moment I have dreaded for [...] years has finally arrived. The Borg, our most lethal enemy, have begun an invasion of the Federation...and this time there may be no stopping them." (Jean-Luc Picard, First Contact)

Since their introduction in "Q Who", the Borg have remained the Federation's greatest nemesis. They are remarkable villains not for their power or technological prowess, but for their soulnessness. The Borg embody passionless inhumanity: though they dominate nearly a quarter of the galaxy, their conquests have been achieved not through the zeal for power or glory. The Borg are ruthlessly pragmatic, acquiring and destroying species as needed to move forward towards their goal of perfection. Their every advance into the Federation sees fleets of starships destroyed -- and every assault is more pointed, more dangerous than the last. As the Borg renew their goal of subduing the Federation, Captain Jean-Luc Picard fears in his bones that the coming battle is more than those who have come before: to him, the man who hears the Borg whispering in his thoughts at time, the coming conflict will be the last. The Borg are coming, and the Apocalypse is at hand.

Gods of Night is the first in a trilogy portraying this final, deadly grapple between the Federation and the Borg. It is the story of three crews:  in the Alpha Quadrant, Captain Picard and the Enterprise-E serve as the Federation's greatest weapon against the increasingly frequent Borg incursions into Federation space. In the far reaches of the Beta Quadrant, Captain Riker of the USS Titan is engaged in an extended mission of scientific exploration, but he and his crew have found a way to contribute to the war effort by investigating a mysterious dark solar system that seems to be projecting transwarp lanes across the whole of the Milky Way. In the Gamma Quadrant, Captain Ezri Dax of the USS Aventine is investigating the wreck of the NX-02 Columbia, an Earthship more than 200 years old. The Columbia is far from home: too far to have made it there on her own.

Mack weaves these three stories together into one grand fabric of peril and mystery, and tacks on a fourth -- the story of the Columbia's crew, who were crippled at the outset of a great war at the birth of the Federation between Earth and the Romulan Star Empire -- for good measure. Despite the abundance of characters and minor substories,  the novel remains impressively cohesive. Aside from history, scientific mysteries, and war, Mack gives time to personal issues. Picard is possessed by the war, Riker and Troi are struggling to have a child, and Dax is attempting to adjust to her new role as ship's captain, haven taken over the Aventine when most of its senior staff perished in battle.

Destiny's formidable hype is so far warranted, and Mack has my attention.

On the cover: Nicole de Boer as Captain Ezri Dax; Ada Maris' ponytail as Captain Erika Hernandez' ponytail.

Related:

Friday, August 20, 2010

Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies

Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies
© 1957 C.S. Forester
250 pages


Although not the last Hornblower book published -- Hornblower during the Crisis was a work-in-progress when Forester died -- it is the novel set latest in Hornblower's life. The Napoleonic wars are over: after twenty years of tumult, Europe is finally at peace. Owing to his many years of excellent service, Rear Admiral Hornblower has earned a position in the peacetime navy, keeping watch over Britain's forces in the West Indies. Though described as a novel, West Indies is more kin to a book of interrelated short stories. Hornblower has no singular campaign to manage, but the storm-tossed seas of the tropical Atlantic give the admiral little rest. There are pirates and slavers afoot, and the Americas are awash in revolutions as various people attempt to rid themselves of colonial overlords.

West Indies has an altogether different tone from the rest of the books, save Midshipman Hornblower. While its stories offer drama, the consequences of failure are less severe than they would be in wartime. Instead of gathering intelligence and striking blows that will defeat a tyrant, Hornblower is kidnapped, chases pirates and slavers, and contends with a hurricane while settling into a contented old age.  It's cozy, comfortable. For my own part I enjoyed it. Though not the great adventure that other books -- Lord Hornblower, for instance -- were, it's a gentle farewell to the man whose adventures I've enjoyed reading so much through the spring and summer.

Fair winds and clear horizons, captain.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Booking through Thursday: Reading Questions

From Booking Through Thursday:

1. Favorite childhood book?
The Pigman, Paul Zindel. I probably should not have read it as a kid, but I did.  The book is the story of two misfit teenagers who befriend a lonely old man and later accidentally set the stage for his death.

2. What are you reading right now?
Just finished Gods of Night by David Mack right last night. Picked it up and spent the next few hours utterly engrossed.

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
None currently.

4. Bad book habit?
Snacking while reading and accidently smudging the pages.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library

  • Sharpe's Eagle, Bernard Cornwell
  • Working IX to V, Vickie Leon
  • Alexandria, Lindsey Davis
    6. Do you have an e-reader?
    I take umbrage at the very idea. Harrumph!

    7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
    I generally read one nonfiction book at a time and read from a fiction book to relax.

    8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
    Readers frequently recommend books. When I first started this blog, I focused heavily on nonfiction, but that is unrelated to my having the blog. So far this year, 60% of my reads are nonfiction and 40% are fiction. I know this only because I'm contributing to a book-thread at a forum where we list the books we read as we read `em. I updated my list yesterday and out of curiosity decided compare the fiction and nonfiction.

    9. Least favorite book you read this year (so far?)
    The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written, Martin Seymour-Smith.  Tirades unrelated to the subject at hand bore me.

    10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?
    Red Emma Speaks, Emma Goldman; The Complete Robot, Isaac Asimov

    11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
    Not often. Citizens was out of my zone, but I decided to make the effort for Bastille Day.


    12. What is your reading comfort zone?
    History,  anything by Isaac Asimov, generally books under 600 pages,  some popular science.

    13. Can you read on the bus?
    I spent over two hours a day on a school bus back during elementary and high school. Had to do something to pass the time.

    14. Favorite place to read?
    There's a certain tree on my university campus I can spend hours curled under, a discrete corner in the university library, and my own couch. It's against the wall, and against two large windows, so I can pull back the shades and lounge comfortably reading in the daylight while enjoying all the perks of air conditioning.

    15. What is your policy on book lending?
    Same as Gollum's policy on the One Ring, but with less murderous intentions.

    16. Do you ever dog-ear books?
    Not since childhood. Now I just note the page number .

    17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?
    No, except to deliberately...dishonor the book, and even that feels childish of me.

    18. Even in college textbooks?
    Most of my college textbooks are regular books: The Trial of Madame Caillaux, From Dignity to Despair, Storm of Steel, The Road to Wigan Pier, and A Life of Her Own are all books I've read for class that I also commented on here.

    19. What is your favorite language to read in?
    English, seeing as I'm not too fluent in reading German. I can decode a sentence in German with a little help,  though not ones as developed as in Der Spiegel, say.

    20. What makes you love a book?
    Seeing humanity at its best.

    21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
    Nonfiction: how well the material is organized and presented. I'm also picky about the author's voice. I prefer for them to enjoy their subject matter. Fiction? How well it deals with human issues.

    22. Favorite genre?
    History, among nonfiction:  probably historical fiction for fiction, though I also read a lot of science fiction by way of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Asimov.

    23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)
    Sociology. All of my sociology readings for classes are articles, not books, and librarians tend to be rather sketchy when sticking books into the sociological section of libraries. Best I can do is social criticism, and that's taxing after a while.

    24. Favorite biography?
    I, Asimov. Isaac Asimov. I adore Asimov, I really do, and reading his autobiographies is like listening to him talk. Like sleeping, it's hard to imagine getting tired of.

    25. Have you ever read a self-help book?
    Not unless Stoic philosophy counts.

    26. Favorite cookbook?
    Um, I don't really have a favorite cookbook...

    27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
    Red Emma Speaks, Emma Goldman.

    28. Favorite reading snack?
    Pretzels.

    29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
    Twilight. I probably won't be able to approach that series for a decade.

    30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?
    What critics?  I visit Amazon.com after writing comments to see how my experience compared with others. I'm rather easy-going about books: I glean what good I can and tend to ignore the badly-done parts.

    31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
    I don't like it. I cringe at the idea of attacking work someone has invested their emotions into. When writing comments or reviews that other people will read, I try to find a balance between providing a useful review and   attacking the book. I'll remark on weak elements of the book rather than referring to the book itself as weak -- unless the book is a real stinker.

    32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?
    German is fun, and Latin would be useful.

    33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?
    Citizens, Simon Schama

    34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?
    The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon.

    35. Favorite Poet?
    Kahlil Gibran.

    36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
    Oh...three, four. Unless I'm working on a research paper, in which case it's like "Oh...fifteen, twenty."

    37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?
    Happens once or twice a month, I suppose. I always poke through a book before checking it out, but sometimes I lose interest or learn the book wasn't as I thought it was. I sometimes return to these books and sometimes not.

    38. Favorite fictional character?
    I can't choose.

    • Lemony Snicket, whose narrating style is darkly hilarious.
    • Gordianus the Finder, a strikingly decent man.
    • Horatio Hornblower, whose perpetual awkwardness in social situations is endearing.
    • Hermione Granger, a lovable know-it-all and smartass who also clocked Draco Malfoy.  


    In light of the evidence, Granger it is.



    39. Favorite fictional villain?
    Count Olaf, from The Series of Unfortunate Events. He's more likable in the movie.

    40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?
    I'd probably bring a couple of unread books, along with old favorites like something from the Black Widower  collections.

    41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.
    Ten hours if I sleep really late on Saturday morning.


    42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.
    What You Need to Know about Islam and Muslims. I thought it was a "In this day and age, Islam is in the news a lot. Here's some context." type book, but it was really more of a "In this day and age, Real True Christians need to know that Muslims are everywhere and they're out to get us" book. It's written for Jerry Falwell's kind of audience.


    43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
    Having a song in my head, wanting to look up information online. Do you know how hard it is to concentrate on French history when you're already prone to having "La Marseillaise" stuck in your head for hours at a time?

    44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?
    A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart or A Series of Unfortunate Events.

    45. Most disappointing film adaptation?
    I've not seen it, but I've heard that the adaption of Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief is as big a failure as one can imagine in terms of staying true to its source.

    46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
    Trips to school bookstores in my youth -- before I discovered Amazon's marketplace -- could run well over two hundred. As for myself...probably a little over thirty? I'm not one to spend a lot of money at one time.

    47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
    Always as I'm able. I'd only go into a book blind if I knew the author.

    48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
    Spilling milk on it, like I did with For Whom the Bell Tolls in eighth grade.

    49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
    I'm working on that. I've plans to buy a new bookcase, but I need to figure out which books I want where. I want to keep related books (history, science, reference, philosophy/poetry) together.

    50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
    I'm the kinda guy who would rent a two-bedroom apartment just for having a library/reading room, so guess.

    51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?
    I've put off reading The End of Eternity and The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov, as those are the only Asimov books in the library I've not yet read.  Instead I've been reading his other works, particularly essay collections. I've also taken an extended break from religious reading given how much of my attention that genre claimed last year.

    52. Name a book that made you angry.
    I nearly stopped reading The 100 Most Influential Books in History several times, so put-off was I by the author's rants and whining.

    53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
    A Life of Her Own, which I read for a European history class. The diary of a French peasant? How exciting can that be? And yet, this is one of the books that stays with me. It's an inspiring story:  a woman from an isolated mountain village, stifled by tradition, becomes a self-made freethinker and humanist. Her experience with socialists and anarchists changed the way I regarded socialism and communism: prior to this, I'd conflated the two with statism.

    54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?
    Hornblower and the Hotspur, C.S. Forester. I've liked the Hornblower novels, but this one just fell flat for me.

    55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?
    Isaac Asimov short stories, preferably with forwords or afterwords. I love reading his commentary.

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010

    Working IX to V

    Working IX to V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns, and Other Prized Professions of the Ancient World
    © 2007 Vicki Leon
    312 pages


    This amusingly-titled volume caught my eye more than a few times in the past, and with an itching to read something about Rome, I decided to delve into it. The book contains over 160 job descriptions from Greece and Rome, sorted into general categories ("Law and Disorder" contains sections on bureaucrats, policemen, bodyguards, and mercenaries, for instance). Occasionally Leon uses one particular individual from history to explore an occupation's duties and hazards. Cicero's faithful slave Tiro stars in the section devoted to scribes. The descriptions are laced with humor, often ribald. Leon is a casual author, constantly making sly jokes to the reader Illustrations abound, and more than a few of them sport humorous captions.

    Working IX to V is immensely detailed, and as every section is individually listed in the table of contents I can see the book being useful to someone writing historical fanfiction, though I suppose a for-profit author would prefer a more standard handbook.  I enjoyed the book:  although more pedestrian jobs are included (tax collectors and mercenaries), Leon delights in telling the reader about history's bizarre and revolting occupations. Her book will considerably enrich the way I think about daily life in Rome, as the details go beyond just specific occupations. Every section contains information on how that job fit into the overall scheme of things, and I learned all manner of odd details. For instance, blue-blooded Roman ladies had specific slaves to carry around their shoes when they paid social visits: different shoes were required for different occasions. Apparently, wearing sandals with one's toga was a major faux pas to the Romans. Playwrights were also expected to take active hands in performing and finding actors for their plays in Greece.

    For information on daily life in Rome, particularly concerning occupations, this book will serve and amuse amply.

    This Week at the Library: 11 Aug - 18 Aug

    This week:

    • Heroes of History by Will Durant is a brief summary of western history, though one introduced with chapters on India, China, and Egypt. Durant's heroes are philosophers, theologians, poets, and an occasional political figure. 
    • West and East is second in Harry Turtledove's The War that Came Early series, a planned six-part set that has World War 2 begin in 1938 at the Munich conference. Although the characters are interesting so far, the war remains unremarkable.
    • Don't Know Much About Geography is a book of geographical trivia written for casual readers. Though enjoyable to read, it is more scattered than focused.


    Pick of the Week: Heroes of History, Will Durant. I will be investigating his Story of Civilization series.

    Quotation of the Week:
    Durant's ending paragraphs for Heroes of History  resonated most with me, but I found the below passage amusing the first time I read it.

    Siberian mosquitoes were numerous, savage, and large. A Japanese joke said one of them had landed at an airstrip, and groundcrew men pumped a hundred liters of gasoline into it before they realized what it was. Fujita thought it was a joke.

    p. 98, West and East.

    Potentials for Next Week:

    • Finishing Working IX to V, which is all manner of casual, but fun so far.
    • Gods of Night by David Mack, the first book in the long-anticipated Destiny trilogy, finally arrived in the mail. 
    • Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies, a collection of short stories. I'll miss ol' Horny. 
    • Alexandria, Lindsey Davis. 
    • Sharpe's Eagle, Bernard Cornwell. First in a series of books about a rifleman in England's army during the Napoleonic wars. I'm thinking about trying the series because I'm about to finish the Hornblower books and yet don't want to be finished with them. This is...somewhat similar. Of course, there are always the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O'Brien...
    • The Lost World, Michael Crichton. When I arrived at the library to pick up West and East, this was also waiting on me. Turns out when I reported the library's copy lost, they ordered another copy and reserved it for me. 


    And yet, in spite of the list above me, there's this little voice in my head telling me to start Will Durant's series of books. I don't think it appreciates the fiction binge.

    Don't Know Much About Geography

    Don't Know Much about Geography: Everything You Need to Know about the World But Never Learned
    © 1992 Kenneth C. Davis
    384 pages



    I've taken several geography courses as part of my university education, a tribute perhaps to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel -- which made me regard geography as an essential part of understanding human history and behavior. The subject remains of interest to me, so Don't Know Much about Geography seemed fair game. Written for a lay audience and replete with joking references,  it tends more toward light trivia than a thorough introduction, even one written for newcomers to the subject like myself. Davis organizes the book topically, although the first two chapters have unclear general subjects. The latter four focus on oceans, political history, meteorology, and astronomy. Each section of the book consists of a general statement or question -- "What is a butte?", "Where is the world's most populous city?", and "Major Historical Earthquake Disasters" are three examples.  He makes frequent uses of timelines and bullet lists, as well as direct quotations from historic documents like Lewis and Clark's account of their expedition or Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle. Davis writes primarily for American readers: the first of his appendices includes information on the names and nicknames of the American states.

    Don't Know Much about Geography is a casual read brimming with interesting trivia, though it may be too casual for serious students. Someone claiming to be Robert Adler (author of Science Firsts, which I read two years back) has taken issue with the book's scientific trivia. Regardless of his identity, the page quotes he identifies and their issues appear to be valid, indicating more thorough factchecking might've been in order. The book, published in 1992, is also dated, which may mitigate its use for some readers. It's also amusing to read of the booming Japanese economy on the cusp of the "Lost Decade". The date also causes a slight inconsistency in the matter of Yugoslavia: it began disintegrating in 1991, and at times Davis refers to it as still in existence and at times as a defunct state.

    I don't particularly regret having read it, as it provided me with information I did not know, but I will continue to look for a better general introduction to the field written for a larger audience. It's a fun book, but limited. Although I doubt I will be able to take any more geography courses,  it is a field that will remain of interest to me.

    Tuesday, August 17, 2010

    West and East

    The War that Came Early: West and East
    © 2010 Harry Turtledove
    436 pages



    In 1938, the Munich Peace Conference ended in a general European war. Britain and France, outraged by Hitler's transparent attempts to manipulate them, pledged to defend Czechoslovakia -- resulting in a war that came early, with all sides largely unprepared. The conflict between Britain, France, and Germany widens into a two-front war for Hitler after Russia, discomfited by the Germano-Polish entente that emerged following their sacking of Czechoslovakia, invades his western neighbors. Imperial Japan seizes the opportunity to expand its puppet-state in Manchuria into Siberia.  So ended The War that Came Early: Hitler's War.

    That last plot development ensured that I would read the second book in this series, West and East, for it had the potential to radically change the story of the war. While Turtledove's eventual story may read quite differently from our own history books, West and East isn't the book that does it. Though outfitted with interesting, mostly sympathetic characters and not being bogged down in too much trivia, West and East isn't much of an "alternate" history novel. True,  Europe's situation is different --  France, though partially occupied, has not fallen -- but  Germany expanding then falling back against a two-front war isn't much of a change. The most promising twist -- a Russo-Japanese war -- never amounted to much in this novel. The Japanese viewpoint character spends his chapters swatting mosquitoes, avoiding being hit by Russian bombers and mortars, complaining about the weather, and thinking patriotic thoughts about the Japanese race and empire. If Russia and Japan's armies did something other than throw things at one another, it's not apparent here. I was hoping for a wider altercation, but Japan is apparently too busy consolidating its rule in China, where a resistance movement has begun a terrorist campaign against Dai Nippon's occupational forces.

    It's a...fair read. I looked forward to hearing from some of the characters, especially the American communist fighting in the Internationals and a Czech soldier embedded inside France's army, who uses an anti-tank rifle to duel with German snipers. The fate of Peggy Druce, an American stranded in Berlin after the war began, was also of interest. Other viewpoint characters include English, Welsh, French, German, and Russian military officials and a Jewish family in Germany. Though  the characters' stories interested me, I'd hoped to see more overall plot development. This is the second of a planned six-book series, though, so it's not altogether surprising development is so slow. Hopefully the events here will be the germ for more interesting developments later on. I'm especially interested on the Russo-Japanese war's impact on Japan's Pacific ambitions, and whether or not Germany will rally to continue to be the villain through the remaining four books. I'm sure Turtledove can pad out a long retreat through four books, but mixing things up -- having an early German defeat followed by an immediate cold-war-turned-hot featuring Russia and Japan as twin evils, for instance -- would be an improvement over a so-far predictable recounting of historical events with a slight twist. I'll read the third when it comes out, but I'll only finish the series if the divergence widens.

    Teaser Tuesday (17 August)

    Teaser Tuesday again, hos- waitaminute, who'd he say he was? 

    "Sind Sie Frau Druce?" A man's voice.
    "Yes, I'm Peggy Druce. And who the devil are you?"
    "Adolf Hitler here," the voice answered. 

    p. 170, The War that Came Early: West and East.  Harry Turtledove. 

    Sunday, August 15, 2010

    Heroes of History

    Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age
    © 2001 Will Durant
    348 pages


    Will Durant is an author I've heard of but not yet read from, and this slim volume intended to summarize his large series on world history seemed a good way to introduce myself to his work.  Durant made it clear in his introduction that his purpose in writing history is to celebrate civilization, which he thinks of as "social order promoting cultural creation", vital to domesticating more savage instincts and making life beautiful. Although initially concerned that this would be a book recounting "great kings", Durant's heroes are poets and saints; philosophers and theologians. He lavishes love on political figures and states then and again, but allows the text of poems like Shelley's "Ozymandias" to use valuable page space. He sees civilization as forever veering toward decadence or puritanism, and holds high those individuals who strive to hold their lives in balance -- and higher still those who help others right their own paths. Durant is a man plainly in love with human history, which heightens my interest in reading more of him.

    After the introductory chapter ("What is Civilization?"), Durant picks up the thread of human stories with Confucius, and from there moves through India and Egypt to Greece: the rest of the book is devoted toward western civilization, with great emphasis on Greece, Rome, Christianity, the Renaissance, and the Reformation. Durant died before completing his work; his last chapter is titled "Shakespeare and Bacon". At 347 pages, this is a slender volume, and those well-read in western history may find nothing new of interest, although the book may serve to fill in gaps in the readers' education. The ideal reader for this work would someone with a casual interest in western history, who only need a guiding hand to start exploring it in full.  Durant's authorial voice is forever tender toward his subjects and friendly to his readers, although some may not appreciate his areas of emphasis. For my own part he conflated Epicureanism and more 'decadent' hedonism, and the praise he lavishes on the pre-Constantine church was a bit too intimate for my liking. Still, he honors hardened skeptics who call for people to let go of superstition with the same zeal he favors charitable figures who rooted their approach to helping others in a religious tradition.

    I imagine this would be a fair read for someone interested in history, but yet not introduced to it. The detail he gives to Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance may be particularly helpful to those with gaps.Though his summaries are quick, they're by no means shallow: Durant spends considerable time on the culture and living conditions of the people who give rise to his 'heroes'.  I recently finished a Renaissance and Reformation class, and Durant's three chapters are detailed enough to increase my own appreciation of the period. Below is one of the first passages that grabbed me.

    "I will not subscribe to the depressing conclusion of Voltaire and Gibbon that history is 'the record of crimes and follies of mankind'. Of course, it is partly that, and contains a hundred million tragedies -- but it also the saving sanity of the average family, the labor and love of men and women bearing the stream of life over a thousand obstacles. It is the wisdom and courage of statesmen like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, the latter dying exhausted but fulfilled; it is the indiscouragable effort of scientists and philosophers to understand the world that envelops them; it is the patience and skill of artists and poets giving lasting form to transient beauty, or an illuminating clarity to subtle influence; it is the vision of prophets and saints challenging us to nobility.
    On this turbulent and sullied river, hidden amid absurdity and suffering, there is a veritable City of God, in which the creative spirits of the past, by the miracles of memory and tradition, still live and work, carve and build and sing. Plato is there, playing philosophy with Socrates; Shakespeare is there, bringing new treasures every day; Keats is still listening to his nightingale, and Shelley is borne on the west wind; Nietzsche is there, raving and revealing; Christ is there, calling to us to come and share his bread. These and a thousand more, and the gifts they gave, are the Incredible Legacy of the race, the golden strain in the web of history.
    We need not close our eyes to the evils that challenge us -- we should work undiscouragingly to lessen them -- but we may take strength from the achievements of the past; the splendor of our inheritance. Let us, varying Shakespeare's unhappy king, sit down and tell brave stories of noble women and great men." 

    - page twenty, concluding "What is Civilization".

    Friday, August 13, 2010

    Booking through Thursday: Evolution

    Booking through Thursday asks: Have your reading choices changed over the years? Or pretty much stayed the same? (And yes, from childhood to adulthood we usually read different things, but some people stick to basically the same kind of book their entire lives, so…)


    My childhood reading consisted mostly of short fiction intended for children, books on animals, and collections of ghost stories. I liked trying to figure out what people might be experiencing other than shades of the deceased.   As I grew older I tended to read only from large series: Goosebumps in elementary school, Animorphs in middle school, and California Diaries during high school. I also read the occasional Star Trek novel (with increasing frequency after DS9 ended on TV and began again as a book series) and discovered John Grisham at some point, beginning with The Firm.

    In gen-ed college, the idea of  learning finally became interesting to me. Two of my instructors were thorough-going intellectuals who delighted in introducing their students to the human experience. I think I read my first pop-history books here (Nothing Like it in the World: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, Stephen Ambrose), as well as finding other books that have remained favorites, like Jerry Flamm's Good Life in Hard Times: San Francisco's Twenties and Thirties.

    In late 2005, my approach to reading changed rather dramatically. I left the fundamentalist sect of Christianity I'd been raised in, and religion all together at the same time:  I'd wanted to leave all throughout 2005, but stumbling across the word humanism made me bolt for freedom. Everything human-related was now gloriously fascinating. I suddenly realized what I wanted to do for a career, and started getting my stalled college career back on track. I started educating myself as best I could in the meantime, reading three to five books a week that were almost wholly nonfiction. In 2007 I started this blog, and those opening posts reflect that this nonfiction streak in my reading was still going strong. I focused on science, having discovered the world anew.

    Once I entered formal university studies, the regimen was no longer necessary or possible. Classes, work, and outside research time -- plus the joys and trivialities of college life, like hanging around campus with new friend -- consumed most of my time. I still read before classes and during work as I could, and later on the weekends, but I shifted to lighter fare like Harry Potter. Nonfiction still remained a strong element in my reading, though, and during the summers I recommitted to it.

    Since then, I've maintained a steady and possibly balanced diet of fiction and nonfiction, although every year has its flavor: I discovered Isaac Asimov in 2008, reading him almost every week of the summer, and in the next summer I gorged myself on religious philosophy, having become interested in Stoicism and Gandhighiri. My aim is to be well-read, being able to draw upon science, history, philosophy, sociology, and poetry in understanding the world. Along the way I want to enjoy good stories about the human experience.

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    This Week at the Library (11-8)

    This Week:

    • Provenance of Shadows, a novel of Doctor McCoy split in time. While one thread of the novel follows McCoy from The City on the Edge of Forever onward to his death, in part novelizing the third season of TOS and its movies, the other thread follows McCoy as a man lost in 1930s America, forced to create a new life  in the American south amidst the Great Depression. Definitely of interest to Trek readers.
    • The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written may be more properly titled Ranting While Reading.  Essays, though readable, tend toward the disorganized and often fall apart completely when the author begins ranting about unrelated subjects that struck his fancy. The rants grew repetitive and childish quickly. 
    • Give Me Back my Legions, a short but disappointing work by Harry Turtledove detailing one of Rome's worst losses in the field. How Rome is lured into the ambush is made obvious at the outset, and the battle itself only comprises two chapters (one of confused Romans dying, the other of happy Germans  quartering Roman corpses). The rest is characters talking back and forth and adding nothing.
    • The End of the Beginning redeemed Turtledove for me,  telling the story of Hawaii's occupation following the successful Japanese invasion of it in December 1941. With enjoyable characters,  an interesting setting, and few of Turtledove's weaknesses, it's easily one of the strongest Turtledove books I've read.



    Quotation of the Week, from Provenance of Shadows
    "Do you know I don't believe in Heaven?" McCoy asked.
    "I'm not surprised to find out," Lynn said, "But even if there is no heaven, doesn't that make this life even more precious?"

    Potentials for Next Week:

    • Working IX to V, Vicki Leon
    • Heroes of History, Will Durant
    • Alexandria, Lindsey Davis  (Historical fiction, novel)
    • Don't Know Much About Geography, Kenneth Davis
    • The Good that Men Do, a sci-fi/political intrigue work about a man who hears himself declared dead.  


    Future Reads:

    • I've decided to go ahead and read the Destiny trilogy, as reading through the A Time To... and Titan series will take too long. They should be arriving in the post this week.
    • The sequel to Hitler's War, West and East, is finally out. Although not too much impressed with the first novel in Turtledove's new six-part series, the ending ensured that I'll read West and East at the very least. 

    Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    Teaser Tuesday (10-8)

    I forgot it was Tuesday. How do you forget it's Tuesday? Now this is Tardy Teaser Tuesday. :-/ (From ShouldBeReading.)

    So this is what it's like to be dead, he thought, really trying on the idea for the first time. Funny. Doesn't hurt quite as much as I thought it would.

    The Good that Men Do, Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin

    Monday, August 9, 2010

    The End of the Beginning

    The End of the Beginning
    © 2005 Harry Turtledove
    448 pages


    The Empire of the Rising Sun has cast a dark shadow across the Pacific. On December 7th, 1941, the naval and air forces of Imperial Japan struck Pearl Harbor, disabling or destroying most of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl, and paving the way for the invasion forces that immediately followed. Unprepared for the assault, American troops were forced to abandon the island. Early in 1942, America launched an ill-considered attempt to regain the island, resulting in a disastrous naval battle that completed the Pacific Fleet's destruction. Only one American carrier survived to limp back to drydock.  In the wake of their triumph, the Japanese have established a puppet government in the form of the newly-revived Kingdom of Hawaii. The Empire will soon learn, though,  that taking Hawaii and keeping it are different challenges altogether.

    Although little remains of America's surface fleet in the Pacific, her submarines still hunt the waters there -- and Hawaii's location at the end of a very long supply line makes the occupational forces even more vulnerable to their attacks than England in either world war. Hawaii's soldiers, prisoners, and civilians need food and oil if they're to maintain their newly acquired 'shield' against the United States, and the freighters that bring those supplies into Honolulu are ideal targets for submarines. While Japan's occupational forces complete their subjugation of the islands and dig in in anticipation of future assaults, factories in the United States break records to produce another -- and a far greater -- fleet from scratch. The end result is inevitable, but exciting to see developed.

    Turtledove relies on his usual structure, telling this story of Hawaii's occupation and restoration through a diverse cast of characters from both sides of the conflict. Notable viewpoint characters include Joe Crosetti, a Hellcat pilot who's itching for vengeance;  Army officer Fletch Armitage and his ex-wife Jane, who are both prisoners -- one doomed to work to death in labor gangs, and the other forced into the role of comfort woman for the Imperials; Minoru Genda, the officer who planned Hawaii's invasion; and the Takayashi family, including two boys who were raised American and their Japanese father, who eagerly provides whatever assistance he can to the men of his native country.  The villains here were not as sympathetic as most of Turtledove's antagonists, almost always betrayed in the most sadistic light.  While I typically support one of Turtledove's factions over another, I haven't rooted for a villain's defeat this enthusiastically since the large Timeline-191 series. The Imperials treat Hawaii as savagely as they treated China and the Philippines in reality.

    The End of the Beginning is a strong book: the Armitages and Takayashi boys were especially sympathetic characters, and the Pacific theater is not one Turtledove has invested a lot of time in prior. Although the eventual outcome of the book is obvious -- the cover of the novel depicts American forces attacking Japan's forces in Pearl Harbor -- the ride there was fun. He even avoided engaging in too much repetition: there were only two obvious offenders, and one of those (the emaciation of POWs) may be justified. I could've gone without reading abut Joe Crosetti hearing bullets rip into his plane, checking the gauges automatically, seeing that they were normal, and noting that Hellcats are built to last four times.

    It doesn't appear that Turtledove is expanding this series more, which may be wise:  given the United States' industrial output and the scarcity of resources in Japan, the conflict can only end in defeat for the Empire; Turtledove even throws in foreshadowing to hint that the Empire's surrender will follow a certain explosion in Hiroshima. I'd recommend this to both Turtledove fans and alternate history readers in general: it redeemed Give Me Back my Legions! for me.

    ----------------------------------
    I picked this up from the library a few weeks back, not because I expressly wanted to read it but because I didn't want to return from the library empty-handed. Purchasing and beginning to play Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault rekindled my interest given that its first level forces the player to survive the chaos of Pearl Harbor. I'd share a screenshot, but I haven't been able to take one that gives the full scope. Here are a few, though:
    - Seeing the first wave of Zeros buzz Pearl Harbor, after which point I was forced to run across the base hiding from their strafing runs.
    - Using the deck guns of a PT boat to shoot (and miss by a large margin) Zeros while enroute to my post aboard the USS Arizona. (Yeah, that bodes well.)
    - Sailing down battleship row, which is quite an experience given the bombers, strafing runs, and ships that are falling down around me. 
    - Shooting at more planes while trying to find a ship that isn't destroyed; the Arizona perished before my eyes.
    - And aboard the West Virginia,  defending it from the second wave of fighters after jumping aboard ship, saving it from sinking, waving an axe around, saving soldiers from dying, and nearly dying myself of smoke inhalation. The ship was morbidly detailed.

    Give Me Back My Legions!

    Give Me Back my Legions!
    © 2009 Harry Turtledove
    320 pages


    Give Me Back My Legions! is a piece of historical fiction by Harry Turtledove, detailing the why and how of Rome's savage defeat at the hands of German tribesmen in the Teutoburg Forest. I read it primarily for the Roman setting. While a mildly entertaining and quick read, the book is the weakest Turtledove I've yet read.

    Give Me Back My Legions is limited in scope, following two main characters through three years of Roman history. Both are historical and less developed than Turtledove's usual personalities. The first, Governor Varus of Rome, has been assigned to hasten Germany's conversion into a Roman province. He earned this difficult task not through his experience and skill as a military commander, but because Augustus intends to invest the area with a tenth of Rome's military and wants someone trustworthy to oversee them. Varus' foe is Arminius, a German soldier in the Roman auxiliaries secretly devoted to Rome's defeat. A citizen of the Empire after twenty years of service, Arminius used that time to study Roman military doctrine and tactics.. He intends to use that knowledge to defeat Rome on the battlefield: while German soldiers are superior in individual combat,  they are powerless against formations of highly trained and disicplined Roman legionnaires.  Varus and Arminius meet when Arminius' father-in-law levies charges against him. Varus decides for Arminus after establishing a rapport with the young German, resulting in a cordial friendship that Arminius uses to undermine Varus and lead him into a trap. Although Varus is warned of Arminius' treasonous intentions by his new friend's father-in-law, he ignores the warnings -- thinking them to be based on personal animosity. Such is Turtledove's path leading into the Teutoburg Forest.

    Give Me Back my Legions has Turtledove's usual weaknesses, but none of his typical strengths. There's no mystery as to what will happen: the reader knows from the outset that Rome will be defeated by the Germans, and the obvious means of their demise is established early on. Dialog is atypically stilted and wooden at times, especially Arminius'. This is unfortunate given that the book is essentially two hundred and fifty pages of dialog,  leaving the rest for  the battle, its aftermath, and Augustus feeling sorry for himself. The battle starts late and is over fairly quickly -- as ambushes tend to be. Give Me Back my Legions just isn't much of a story. I don't miss the time I spent reading it, but I can't reccommend it either.

    Sunday, August 8, 2010

    First Read, First Love

    BookingThroughThursday poses the question: What was the first book you remember readingWhat about the first that made you really love reading?

    It's lightening today, so I figure I can post something intended to share on Thor's Day.

    In all likelihood, my first read was something by Dr. Seuss or a Sunday school book -- you know, the kind that present the death of everything on Earth as a kid's story. My parents encouraged reading in my sister and I, and were readers to varying extents themselves. Either my mom, my dad, or my sister would take me to the library once a week, where I would bolt upstairs and check out as many books as they would let me. I remember declaring early on that Beverly Cleary was my favorite author, so it is possible and likely that my first book of any substance came from her series about Henry Huggins, his friend Beatrice Quimby, her kid sister Ramona Quimby (who called Beatrice ("Beezus"), and Henry's dog Ribsy.

    I also enjoyed Gertrude Warner's Boxcar Children series (mysteries) and R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" series. Goosebumps, a fantasy-horror-dark humor series aimed at kids, became an obsession in late elementary school.  I declared Stine, Cleary, and Warner my favorite authors at varying intervals. I also read a lot of Bruce Coville, who did science fiction for kids. One of his books, The Search for Snout, involved  an interplanetary crew searching for their apparently deceased, serious-minded friend Snout.....which now sounds vaugely familiar.

    My first novel, though altered for children, was the Great Illustrated Classics version of Jack London's Call of the Wild. I received it for Christmas and felt proud of myself for reading a "real" book. The first unaltered novel was Paul Zindel's The Pigman, which may have been too serious or dark in theme for the child that I was.

    Sorting out what book made me "love" reading is more difficult. I so much as a child because my parents believed televisions were unsuitable for Christians to have, so entertainment for me meant reading, playing with toys, or running around outside. Trying to figure when I began to love reading would be like figuring out when I began to enjoy sweet tea: I've been doing it for too long.  I do remember Brian Jacques' Redwall making me value reading more, changing my perspective on what a book could be. Books like Goosebumps were light entertainment, but Redwall kept me spellbound for hours at a time. It did to me what Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter did for other generations of kids.

    The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written

    The Most Influential Books Ever Written: the History of Thought from Ancient Times to Today
    © 1998 Martin Seymour-Smith
    498 pages


    In retrospect, the introduction should have served as a warning to me.  Author Martin Seymour-Smith opened his The 100 Most Influential Books by elaborating on the subjectivity of terms like "best" and "greatest", maintaining that he preferred to evaluate books from a more quantifiable or objective basis, that of influence. After this promising start, he chose to spend six paragraphs berating Richard Dawkins and making it dead clear that The Selfish Gene would not appear in his book.  The bewildering viciousness of the seemingly random assault left me a mite puzzled. My facial expression resembled that of an anime-inspired emoticon, "o_O".  Yet for my love of the subject -- for I consider myself a generalist, and enjoy the full buffet of human experience  -- I pressed on.

    The subject itself kept me reading the book, for it spans most human endeavors: philosophy, religion, history, science, literature, sociology, and psychology for starters. There were a few names on the list I'd never heard of, leading me onward -- but after two hundred pages in, the book simply ceased to be a pleasant experience.  Seymour-Smith wrote interestingly enough, but tended to ramble on to the detriment of his essays. In one six-page essay, he devoted four pages to biography of his subject and two slim paragraphs to the actual book, and those paragraphs told me nothing. Too many of the essays simply gave a dictionary-type definition of the concept for which a given author might be best known for, although there are a few -- mostly those concerning post-Enlightenment philosophy -- where he treats the subjects properly.  They are unfortunate exceptions: his essay on the Hebrew scriptures consists of a formulaic definition of the Torah followed by his grievances with modern Christianity. While I might share his grievances, I wondered why I was reading them instead of about the influence of the Hebrew scriptures.   It's not as if I'm keen on them, but I thought he might have some insight I had not heard. He didn't even broach the subject.

    Seymour-Smith's unprofessionalism turned the already difficult process of reading his disorganized essays into an outright chore. Caustic tirades tended to erupt from his ramblings, confronting the reader with violent paragraphs with little to no connection to their source essays. For instance, while writing on Euclidean geometry Seymour-Smith decided to return to his rant against Dawkins.Christianity, atheism, clerks, and political correctness -- an altogether nebulous term he used so broadly that it lost all cohesion -- were favorite subjects of repeated scorn. The endless barrage of temper tantrums and petulant whining embedded inside paragraphs soured the experience for me, and became dull with repetition besides: how many times can a man refer to political correctness as "neo-Stalinist, tyrannical mediocrity" in one book? Where is his editor? .

    One of the reasons I kept reading the book -- especially after he bellowed about both organized religion and atheism --  was to figure out what he did like. Although Seymour-Smith liked to employ scientific methodology as a means of seeming objective, he is no fan of rationalism or materialism. He refers to Epicureanism as an anti-superstitious philosophy and does not mean it as a compliment.  He reveres Jesus, refers to the Kabbalah often and fondly, and seems to enjoy natural philosophers with a background in mysticism (Newton, and to a lesser degree Kepler).  I believe he conflates science and meaning. Like Carl Sagan's fictional Joss Palmer, he rebukes science for failing to do something it was not designed explicitly to do: make people feel good. Science, Karl Popper be praised, isn't bronze-age cosmology.

    Enjoyable subject, miserable book. This is one of the few books I regret having read. There's far too much childish kvetching and far too little thoughtful reflection.

    Related:

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010

    Provenance of Shadows

    Crucible, McCoy: Provenance of Shadows
    © 2006 David R. George III
    627 pages


    Leonard McCoy is a man lost in time. Accidentally thrust into 1930s New York by the Guardian of Forever, McCoy befriends an idealistic young social worker named Edith Keeler, saving her life -- and in so doing, destroys his own future. Although Kirk and Spock, temporarily protected by the Guardian, are able to restore the timeline,  McCoy still experienced that futureless life: in Crucible, McCoy: Provenance of Shadows,  McCoy lives two lives -- one aboard the Enterprise in the 23rd century, going boldly where no man has gone before -- and one in 1930s America, first in New York and eventually in a small southern town.

    Their stories run concurrently, the author alternating settings after every chapter. While "Len" McCoy attempts in vain to find a way back to the future, migrating southward once he loses hope, Dr. McCoy continues as the Enterprise's chief medical officer throughout Star Trek's third season and movies. While he experiences all the curiosities and dangers of Enterprise's various missions and attempts to solve a mystery of physics, "Len" McCoy enjoys a quiet existence in a small South Carolinian town, serving as the local doctor and cultivating new friendships. His contentment turns to horror when the version of World War 2 his fellow citizens experience diverts radically from the version he learned in the history books -- to the detriment of humanity. Both struggle against McCoy's ancient demons in coming to grips with his past and trying to learn to love again.

    Provenance made for a quick read: George's habit of switching back and forth did not distract, although I tended to see the novelization of TOS's post-City on the Edge of Forever canon as a diversion. That thread picked up interest after The Undiscovered Country, as George explored new territory.  The hold that McCoy's previous marriage held on him -- in prompting him to join Starfleet, and which makes him reluctant to enter into romantic relationships -- is explored in both books.

    Enjoyable story; McCoy fans will especially appreciate it.

    Related:

    This Week at the Library (4/8)

    This week at the library...


    • Alison Weir's Captive Queen, a novel of Henry II and Eleanor. Straining conventions, two young aristocrats marry for love -- but the problems of empire, politics, and family life may prove too much for them. Starts off like a supermarket pulp romance, but shapes up into an interesting read of historical fiction.
    • La Belle France by Alistair Horne covers French history from the Romans to Jacques Chiraq in a little over four hundred pages. An informal and swiftly-moving narrative gives readers a big picture that tends to prefer stories of strong leaders to mass action.
    • A Time to be Born is a TNG relaunch novel set shortly before Nemesis and leading up to it: Picard's career hits a sour note when he is thrown into a difficult situation and inadvertently causes the destruction of a starship and the loss of a Federation ally. The ending was interesting enough to keep my interest in this series alive.


    Quotation of the Week: "There are mysteries and oddities here, and we want to shed some light on them. There are rational explanations for the gravity sink, the wild antimatter, the Ontailians' actions, and we should go and find them. We may fail, but we can no longer take 'Oh, it's haunted' as an explanation." Jean-Luc Picard tiring of "goddidit" in A Time to Be Born. p. 89, John Vornholt.

    Pick of the Week: La Belle France, Alistair Horne. Although I prefer tales of popular revolt to strong leaders, reading the book was otherwise a treat.

    Upcoming Reads:

    • Crucible: McCoy, Provenance of Shadows by David R. George III. Leonard McCoy is trapped in 1930s Earth after he inadvertently destroys his future. 
    • The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written: a History of Thought from Ancient Times to Today, Martin Seymour-Smith
    • Galileo's Daughter: a Historic Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love; Dava Sobel. I picked this up when doing research for a paper on the evolution of heliocentrism and the perception of a rational universe, but I want to give a proper reading. 
    • Give Me Back my Legions!, a rare bit of historical fiction by Harry Turtledove portraying one of Rome's most staggering losses. 


    Future Potentials:

    • My library doesn't have Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies; To the Indies! is not, as I thought,  its alternative American title. (Forester's books sometimes have different titles when republished for sale in the US.) I still want to read it, though.
    • I've decided to dive right into Star Trek's much-lauded Destiny trilogy despite not having read all of the books that lead up to it. Destiny is worshiped at the TrekBBS, and I want to know what all the fuss is about. 
    • I'm interested in reading more from Alison Weir, Simon Schama, and Alistair Horne. 

    A Time to Be Born

    A Time to Be Born
    © 2004 John Vornholt
    284 pages

    On the cusp of their epic battle with Shinzon, many of Captain Jean-Luc Picard's long-time crew were heading for new assignments and new challenges. Among the changes were William Riker's promotion to captain and his new command, Riker's marriage to Counselor Deanna Troi, and Dr. Beverly Crusher's new career at Starfleet Medical. But the story of what set them on a path away from the Starship Enterprise has never been told.
               UNTIL NOW.

    Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the Enterprise-E have been dispatched to the site of a terrible battle during the Dominion Wars, a site filled with dangerous anamolies and mysteries. His orders are to collect the dead from Starfleet vessels and, analyzing the site's physicial remains and examining ships' logs, attempt to explain what happened during the conflict. He is accompanied by the Juno, an older Excelsior-class starship, and a few new allies who appear to have ulterior motives for infiltrating the rubble. Picard needs the help of his comrades and allies, for an unexplicable gravity sink, apparantly sourceless energy discharges, and a swirling vortex of debris are not the only dangers: combative scavengers flit among the remains, stealing parts and ambushing the Starfleet crews.  In the perilous darkness, nothing is as it seems, and Picard will have to make quick choces that end his career in Starfleet.

    I bought A Time to be Born four years ago, although my reading of it stalled half-way through. In trying to get back into Trek lit, I figured I'd give the A Time to... series another shot. The series consists of nine parts, the titles of each coming from the Hebrew book of Ecclesiastes -- though that may be more familar to some readers as being from Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn".  The series aims to bridge Insurrection and Nemesis, exploring character development, Alpha Quadrant politics, and answering questions about or mending mistakes of Nemesis.  The premise of this initial book is interesting, and I liked the ending, but the development of Picard's time within the battleground was a struggle to read through. If I'd only wanted the general story or events of consequence, I could read the introductory chapters and then skip ahead to Picard's trial.

    Rough start but a promising ending. I intend on reading through the A Time To series, but not immediately.

    Related

    Tuesday, August 3, 2010

    La Belle France

    La Belle France: a Short History
    © 2005 Alistair Horne
    485 pages


    I have rarely enjoyed any book as much as La Belle France, a quick sprint through French history that begins in the Roman era. Initially focusing on a small town named Paris on an island in the middle of the Seine, Horne moves swiftly through hundreds of years of kings, riots, and wars to end in the early 1990s with the election of Jacques Chiraq.  Horne is obviously affectionate toward his subject, at the beginning musings on his native England and France's conjoined destinies. I've not encountered a general survey of French history since my freshman days, and this thoroughly delighted me. Horne's narrative is a genuine story, one that grows increasingly detailed as he approaches the modern era. Horne is ever-present, and frequently employs anecdotes about France during his periods of visiting it. His voice betrays a slight bias toward strong leaders and orderly reform, wringing his hands regarding mass action like revolutions, prolonged strikes, and student protests. This bias doesn't show up until the book hits the 19th century. His focus is also only on France proper: Canada, Algeria, and France's problems in Vietnam get scant attention.

    Horne covers  thousands of years in only a little over four hundred pages, moving quickly through the centuries. From time to time he pauses to reflect on France's course, making the book an efficient read for someone who needs a "big picture" approach. I checked this book out for such an approach, thinking it would help me during what was intended to be a French-themed week (the week of 14 June). It still informed my reading of Citizens, Horne's general story allowing me to bring Schama's many details into focus. Overall I think the book a solid hit: easily one of the most readable and entertaining general histories I've yet read.  I want to read more of the author, and was particularly interested in his book on the Commune of Paris until I saw in here that he focused chiefly on its bloodshed. The Seven Ages of Paris will probably be my next Horne read.

    Teaser Tuesday (3-8)

    Teasing? On a Tuesday?  But of course. From ShouldBeReading.

    Together with the carrier-pigeon, the rat was to become the most fabled animal of the siege of Paris, and from December on a good rat-hunt was one of the principle activities of the National Guard, although the number actually consumed quite relatively few. The elaborate sauces required to make a rodent palatable meant that rats were essentially a rich man's dish; hence the famous menus of the Jockey Club, featuring such delicacies as salmi de rats and "rat pie".

    (p.278, La Belle France. Alistair Horne commenting on the siege of Paris by Bismarck's Prussian army in late 1871.)