Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This Week at the Library (15 Sept - 29 Sept)

Recent reads...

  • Casino, by Nicholas Pileggi, is the rise and fall of  of two real-life Mafia associates in Las Vegas.
  • The Mao Case is a detective story with political implications set in contemporary Shanghai: Qiu's detective is likable protagonist, so much that I'm interested in reading the rest of this series. My library doesn't have anything else by the author, though.
  • The King of Torts is a legal thriller by John Grisham criticizing the mass tort 'industry'/profiteering scam by chronicling the rise and fall of a public defender turned multimillionaire.
  • Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is far from deathly, abounding in interesting tales and plenty of dry humor.
  • Barefoot Boy with Cheek is Max Shulman's satire of college life at a liberal arts college in the 1940s, often surreal
  • African Exodus is an excellent history of human evolution by Christopher Stringer and Robin McKie. 


Selected Passages:

Now we come to the most important part of writing. Except for lady poets, writers must eat. In order to eat, they must sell what they write. But how? You must remember that thousands of manuscripts pour into editors' offices daily. Make your manuscript stand out from the rest. Attach a cake to it, or a bundle of currency, or a nubile maiden. " (Max Shulman's Large Economy Size; introduction.)

"I stood that day and gazed at the campus, my childish face looking up, holding wonder like a cup; my little feet beating time, time, time, in a sort of runic rhyme. A fraternity man's convertible ran me down, disturbing my reverie. 'Just a flesh wound,' I mumbled to disinterested passersby. "(Barefoot Boy with Cheek, Max Shulman.)

"'It has been reported to me, and I have seen it myself, that Asa has been observed riding in a convertible in which the top was up, the seats were not filled, and nobody was yelling., I want to say, in a friendly way, naturally, that it's things like that that can give a fraternity a bad name. When riding in a convertible, the top must always be down, no matter what the weather, and there must be no fewer than eight people in the convertible, and they must all be yelling. "

"I moved on to Czechoslovakia, tense as this was the third anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion. There my car was emptied out all over the road, and I was interviewed for four hours by border officials who made it clear that they found a long-haired, Western anthropology student about as welcome as a hippie at a regimental reunion. 'Your visit is of no value to the people of Czechoslovakia', I was told in response to my pleadings that my work was of international scientific importance". (African Exodus, Stringer and McKie)

"Life is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, not a ladder of predictable progress." (African Exodus)

"We should not be overcome with a sense of our own organizational superiority, however, for it is wrong to equate survivorship with some form of worth. Extinction is the inevitable destiny of all evolutionary lineages. [..] 'For every species alive today, a hundred now lie frozen into the rocket sediment of the earth,' as Erich Harth, of Syracuse University, New York, puts it with some understatement." (African Exodus)

"We sadly take our two-legged prowess for granted, says Gould. 'It is now two in the morning and I'm finished,' he concludes. 'I think I'll walk over to the refrigerator and get a beer; then I'll go to sleep. Culture-bound creature that I am, the dream I have in an hour or so when I'm supine astounds me ever so much more than the stroll I will now perform perpendicular to the floor.'" (African Exodus)


Potentials for Next Week:

  • Barring a case of spontaneous combustion, I'll finish off the essays of Emerson in the next couple of days.
  • I'll also be reading with serious intent to finish The Life of Greece by Will Durant.
  • Spook: Science Takes on the Afterlife by Mary Roach is a definite.
  • Christine by Stephen King is a twofer: not only is it a challenged book, which I'm reading in observance of Banned Books Week, but it's a horror novel that's seasonally appropriate.
  • There are more possibilities swirling about, but I've been distracted from Greece for nearly a month now. Time to dig in!




African Exodus

African Exodus: the Origins of Modern Humanity
© 1996 Christopher Stringer and Robin McKie
282 pages

"Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history..."

Ever since Charles Darwin made that first and solitary reference to human evolution in The Origin of Species, people have wondered at our history as a species. It is a history that began not by the banks of the Tigris, with the use of writing and agriculture, but elsewhere and much earlier, when creatures who were human-like became human. Who where those ancestors, and when did we become human? These are questions which have spawned contesting ideas, two of which are discussed at length in this book: the multiregional hypothesis, which posits that humanity evolved in five distinct places throughout the globe and merged into a larger combined family with distinct 'races'; and the Out of Africa theory, which holds that humanity evolved in Africa, expanding from there throughout the globe and diversifying in various ethnic groups. Stringer advocates the later in African Exodus, a history of human evolution and an examination of evolution's consequences for humans living in the 21st century.

After an opening chapter focused on Stringer's graduate work (helping to establish that humans did not evolve from Neanderthals), he launches into a study of where both originated. After piecing together a history of human evolution beginning with the first hominid who took to walking upright in Africa's savannahs, Stringer uses on fossils, DNA (particularly mitochondrial), and language studies to confirm that the epicenter of human expansion began in Africa. Time and again in reading this book, I was impressed by our species' sheer virility. We are a people forged by hardship, who have spread across the globe so quickly that individuals from far-flung parts of the world are more genetically similar than two gorillas living in the same hundred--square-mile patch of forest. The three species of chimpanzees are ten times as genetically diverse compared to one another as all of our ethnic groups, despite the fact that we see the chimps as identical to each other and ourselves as radically different.

The ending chapters were a pleasant surprise, as Stringer wrote of the merits of evolutionary psychology. Although we continually imagine ourselves as distinct from the animal kingdom, we are animals even to our bones -- and our evolutionary heritage continues to shape our behavior and our bodies' response to living in the 21st century.  The book as a whole is quite a treat: Stringer and McKie have produced a book comprehensible to the lay reader which will undoubtedly enrich our understanding and appreciation for the history of our species. Especially interesting for me was the treatment of Neanderthals, who were as intelligent and cultured as early humans. They appear to have taken to the sedentary lifestyle before their sapiens contemporaries, but they were out-circled by the aggressive lightweights who were modern Europeans' ancestors.

Recommended!

Related:

  • Before the Dawn, Nicholas Wade
  • The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond
  • The Naked Ape, Desmond Seward


I haven't read the latter two, but I've read their authors and intend to get around to those works.

And we are scatterlings of Africa, both you and I
We're on the road to Pheleamunga, beneath a copper sky
And we are scatterlings of Africa, on a journey to the stars
Far below we leave forever dreams of what we were.
(Johnny Clegg, "Scatterlings of Africa")


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Top Ten Favorite Quotations

I forgot to post this last week, and decided to post it today instead of "Top Ten Favorite Book Couples", which I can't do as I don't know that many book couples.

I drew from the books I've read since May 2007, since I tend to share favorite passages in the weekly review posts. I realized too late that I only included  quotations that have a point to make, rather than just being amusing. I included one of those as a bonus.

1. "It's always easy to avoid other people's vices, isn't it?"
This comes from Star Wars: Yoda, Dark Rendezvous.

2. "But where are the gods to make an end to all these horrors, these wrongs, this inhumanity to man? No, not the gods, but MAN must rise in his mighty wrath. He, deceived by all the deities, betrayed by their emissaries, he, himself, must undertake to usher in justice upon the earth. [..] Atheism in its negation of the gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty."  (Red Emma Speaks, 245-248.)

3. "Many a doctrine is like a window pane. We see truth through it, but it divides us from truth." (Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam)

4. "Don't become disgusted with yourself, lose patience, or give up if you sometimes fail to act as your philosophy dictates, but after each setback, return to reason and be content if most of your acts are worthy of a good man. Love the philosophy to which you return, and go back to it, not as an unruly student to the rod of a schoolmaster but as a sore eye to a sponge and egg whites, or a wound to cleansing ointments and clean bandages. In this way you will obey the voice of reason not to parade a perfect record, but to secure an inner peace. Remember, philosophy desires only what pleases your nature while you wanted something at odds with nature." (The Emperor's Handbook: Book 5, passage 9. A modern English interpetation of Marcus Aurelius' Greek)

5.  "Is life worth living? Well, I can only answer for myself. I like to be alive, to breathe the air, to look at the landscape, the clouds, the stars, to repeat old poems, to look at pictures and statues, to hear music, the voices of the ones I love. I enjoy eating and smoking. I like good cold water. I like to talk with my wife, my girls, my grandchildren. I like to sleep and to dream. Yes, you can say that life, to me, is worth living." (The Best of Robert Ingersoll)

 6. "There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumblings of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, [and] kindness. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many where people have behaved magnificently -- this gives us the energy to act. Hope is the energy for change. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live in defiance of the worst of everything around us is a marvelous victory." - Howard Zinn, The People's History of American Empire

7. "There is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine, or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter what or who they are: ultimately these are all we need. So long as we practiced these in our daily lives, [...] there is no doubt we will be happy." (Ethics for a New Millenium, Tenzin Gyatso)

8. "The art of life is to deal with problems as they arise, rather than to destroy one's spirit by worrying about them far in advance." - Cicero, as quoted in Imperium by Robert Harris.

9. "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." - Spinoza, from Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things.

10. “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” - Thomas Paine, The Crisis, quoted in Robert Down's Books that Changed the World.

11. "But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can't share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them." (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J. Rowling.)

Teaser Tuesday (28 September)


 In the heady days before consent forms and drop-of-a-hat lawsuits, patients didn't realize what they might be in for if they underwent surgery at a teaching hospital, and doctors took advantage of this fact. While a patient was under, a surgeon might invite a student to practice an appendectomy. Never mind that the patient didn't have appendicitis. 

(p. 30, Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Mary Roach.)
The lover cannot paint his maiden to his fancy poor and solitary. Like a tree in flower, so much soft, budding, informing loveliness is society for itself, and she teaches his eye why Beauty was pictured with Loves and Graces attending her steps. Her existence makes the world rich. 

(p. 104, The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Love")



Monday, September 27, 2010

Barefoot Boy with Cheek

Barefoot Boy with Cheek (© 1943)
From Max Shulman's Large Economy Size © 1948
207 pages


Blessings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons,
And thy merry whistled tunes;
With thy red lip, redder still
Kissed by strawberries on the hill;
With the sunshine on thy face,
Through thy torn brim's jaunty grace;
From my heart I give thee joy, -
I was once a barefoot boy!
- John Greenleaf Whittier

Barefoot Boy with Cheek is an ironic tale of college life, told from the vantage point of Asa Heartrug, an enthusiastic young freshman with an impressionable mind, eager to fill his head with facts and find a sophisticated young lady to wed. After being hit by a car while gazing in thrall at the university campus ("'Just a flesh wound', I mumbled to a disinterested passerby"),  Asa passes his physical examinations with flying colors and loads up on all manner of courses designed to turn him into a well-rounded individual  with no prospects but writing. 

Asa plunges into the thick of things after falling through a trap door and into a local fraternity's clutches, becoming their only pledge that semester as well as their freshmen representative to the Student Government, attending meetings at the Subversive Elements Society (where people have names like Workingstiff and sing songs of Marx and Veblen), and wooing not one but two girls -- a sorority d√©butante named Noblesse Oblige and a fiery young woman intent on a revolution of the proletariat. The book follows Asa through the whole of his freshman year, and possibly the whole of his academic career given that he flunks everything.

Shulman's customary oddball humor is supplemented with thick irony in Barefoot Boy: he satirizes liberal-arts acadamia primarily, depicting the University of Minnesota's professors as being horrified at the idea that people were coming to college to make money, and not to become sophisticated, well-rounded ladies and gentlemen who can debate the merits of Shakespeare as well as identify the eighth avatar of Vishnu. College life in general receives a sound mocking, although Shulman's world now seems a relic. Its anachronistic charm is part of Shulman's attraction for me, though: it's one of the reasons I enjoyed Dobie Gillis so much. Barefoot Boy is also more surreal than the works of Shulman's I've read: characters often launch into long, eccentric stories that have little bearing  on the conversation at hand, dismissing Asa's confusion by leaving. I half-expected the Colonel from Flying Circus to stop a chapter midway by declaring it silly. Chapter heads begin with a quotation in French or Latin, although the only ones I managed to translate tended toward the banal ("My uncle is dead.")

It is an altogether silly book, one I enjoyed reading thoroughly -- and look forward to sharing quotes from on Wednesday.

Related:
  • If you'd like to read some of Shulman, his short story "Love is a Fallacy" is available to read online.
  • The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Max Shulman.



Friday, September 24, 2010

Stiff

Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
© 2003 Mary Roach
303 pages

Being dead is absurd. It's the silliest situation you'll find yourself in. Your limbs are floppy and uncooperative. Your mouth hangs open. Being dead is unsightly and stinky and embarrassing, and there's not a damn thing to be done about it.  - p.11

Stiff is a lively book about the dead -- odd, thoughtful, informative, and oddly funny. Over the course of a dozen chapters, Mary Roach finds out what becomes of us when we cease to be. Her journey starts in the world of science, where surgeons practice their art, drawing on the lessons of anatomists who were themselves taught by the dead. Vocational opportunities for corpses abound, particularly in testing automobile airbags and armaments.  Forensics specialists and other detectives find them particularly helpful. And then there are the odder uses people find for the recently deceased -- recreating the crucifixion of Jesus, or attempting to make severed heads come alive by supplying them with oxygenated blood.

My first thought after settling in to read this was that I should've saved it for Halloween:  part of the holiday is making light of death and other mysterious or frightening things. My reaction to death has always been fascination rather than fear, hence my attraction to this book. Even those who find death intimidating will be able to enjoy Mary Roach's approach: the book is saturated with dry humor, interesting tales, Roach's occasional tangents. She prefers a hands-on approach to investigation, taking the reader into embalming studios, body farms, Chinese mortuaries rumored to be the source of "human dumplings", and an abandoned laboratory where the first head transplants were attempted.

While readers can expect to learn quite a bit about the use of entomology in forensics,  the history of anatomy,  and the benefits of being a brain-in-a-jar, discovering how people who interact with decedents on a regular basis relate to their work fascinated me. Some objectify the dead, imagining them as a faceless mass of tissue, while others hold memorial services and give their subject bodies names. How the living relate to the dead is a major theme of the book, and another reason why I would've liked to read it around Halloween.

The information, humor, and musings make the book a memorably enjoyable experience, and I'd recommend it provided you aren't too squeamish. While Roach isn't gratuitously graphic, it's a book about dead bodies. Don't read the chapter on body farms if you're within three hours of a meal. I'll be reading more of Roach.,

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Booking through Thursday: Current

Booking through Thursday asks: What are you reading right now? What made you choose it? Are you enjoying it? Would you recommend it? (And, by all means, discuss everything, if you’re reading more than one thing!)



I checked out The Life of Greece by Will Durant two weeks ago, but have made little progress in it. I'd intended to read a little every night, like I did with Our Oriental Heritage, but my  reading ground to a halt in the chapters on Greece's colonies throughout the Med. I couldn't get started again until last night. 


I'm also reading from The Collected Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson: there are just under 20 essays inside, and I've been reading one a day. My reading is slow because I write so much down: Emerson is provacative. I've already recommended the book to several people on "Self Reliance" alone.


I'm also working through African Exodus, which is interesting so far, but I started reading Mary Roach's Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers while stopped at a railroad crossing. I think it may demand my immediate attention. I spotted it while looking for a book on anatomy and physiology to answer a question for my father. For some reason he wants to  know about the connection between skin pores and sweat glands. Stiff is...oddly hilarious. 








Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (21 Sept)

Teases on Tuesdays sometimes come in threes. Here, anyway.

Let us begin with fundamentals. The first requisite for a young writer is paper. You will find that the work will go much better if the paper has not been previously written on.  

(Max Shulman's Large Economy Size)

Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear; that a man is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations, that he should be ashamed of our compassion, and that the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries, and customs out the window, we shall pity him no more but thank and revere him, -- and that teacher shall restore the life of man to splendor and make his name dear to all History. 

(p. 43, The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Self Reliance").

I have never been able to trace the source of my passion for fossils. Neither, to their eternal bafflement, could my family. Indeed, it was the basis for some unease that I spent so much of my childhood drawing and painting skulls -- scarcely a healthy hobby for a growing boy, after all. 

(p. 1, The African Exodus. Christopher Stirnger and Robin McKie

The King of Torts

The King of Torts
© 2003 John Grisham
472 pages

"Why won't they just throw money at me to make me go away?"
"Now you're thinkin' like a real mass tort boy!"

Clay Carter is an underpaid and overworked Public Defender, providing legal services to the poor and needy. The job attracts idealists, but Clay isn't one: he took it out of desperation when his father's law firm collapsed and he needed a job. It impresses no one, least of all his girlfriend's nouveau-rich parents who made it big in development and are now firmly entrenched in the world of the rich and vain.  From the shadows, a Mephisto-like character named Max Pace offers Clay an opportunity to enter that world. If he's willing to do a little clean-up work for Pace's client -- offering millions of dollars to a particular group of company's victims in exchange for silence -- his fees will be $15 million.

$15 million is a lot of money for an ambitious guy like Carter, and it's just the tip of the iceberg. If all goes well, Pace's own firm can give Clay the inside dirt on a harmful product of their competitor's. Clay can sue the rival firm and sack them for millions and give Pace's firm an edge in their on-going competition. Thus Clay is introduced to the world of mass torts. The formula for winning is simple: pour millions into television advertising to scare those who have taken the product into calling the law firm and being tested, gather a few thousand victims of the product, and sue. The numbers and potential for damages will encourage the sued firm to settle quickly, the combined fees will net Clay millions of dollars for doing almost nothing in the way of litigation. It isn't law, exactly: more like a shake-down with paperwork. He's thus catapulted into the world of the jet-set -- and the jets are real, as he learns when he attends a mass-tort lawyer convention and enters casual debates about the merits of the new Gulfstream jets. The anonymous public defender once sharing a dismal apartment now frets about boats, jets, houses in the Bahamas, and clothing for his newly-acquired supermodel arm candy.

The King of Torts might be subtitled The Rise and Fall of Clay Carter, for Carter is nothing more than a high-stakes gambler on a winning streak, and sooner or later the bubble is bound to burst. Clay's path to financial success has left a trail of short-changed clients and ruined lives behind him, and a tenacious lawyer who specializes in attorney malpractice is soon on his trail.

The King of Torts is one of my favorite Grisham works to read, although it's not as finely-crafted a story as The Last Juror or The Rainmaker. Carter's rise and fall are dramatic: the money goes to his head, but he's never completely corrupted by it. As with a few other of Grisham's works, Torts also has a point as he uses it to air the mass tort community's dirty laundry. He does this not out of sympathy toward the pharmaceuticals and manufacturing firms which are taken down by these lawyers, but with an eye toward the future: if abuses like Clay's continue, government reform may muzzle the ability of consumers to take action against irresponsible producers in the future.

On that basis I'd recommend it, but Torts is also light fun. I picked it up for some leisure reading between more serious works and couldn't quite put it down.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Mao Case

The Mao Case: An Inspector Chen Novel
© 2009  Qiu Xiaolong
289 pages


This novel's title caught my attention, but the setting hooked me. A police mystery set in contemporary China? Eager to explore what is for me terra incognita, I happily settled in to join Chief Inspector Chen Cao, working for Shanghai's police bureau. Chen is an experienced investigator both honest and capable, although he never intended to be a cop. He prefers poetry, in fact, and his fluency in English has merited him some success in translating Chinese poetry into English verse and vice versa. He prefers poetry, in fact, and his fluency in English allows him to publish translations of poetic verse between that and his native tongue. Although Internal Security doesn't have Chen's poetic gifts in mind when "requesting"  his assistance in a politically volatile case, the soul of a poet  dovetails nicely with the demands of a cop in this mystery.

The granddaughter of one of Mao's former mistresses is believed to be in possession of an item from her grandmother's years as Mao's mistress and consort, and item that could be used to embarrass the legacy of Mao and undermine support of his Party. Government security gives Chen two weeks to approach the young woman, earn her trust,  and resolve the situation without any embarrassment to the Party. They have no idea what the item is, but if Chen doesn't find out within those two weeks, they'll resort to more traditional means of finding out the information  from the girl -- means as imaginative as they are cruel.

Chen is not cruel. Like Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder,  he is an essentially decent man trapped in a world of corruption and meanness. Though Communist in name, modern China's prosperity is built on ruthless capitalist efficiency. Peasants toil in factories hardly recognizable from those of the Gilded Age, while the government -- which supposedly represents the People and protects them from exploitation -- prefers the profits these business practices bring to the well-being of its people.  As lax as the laws are in governing business, some -- like those operated by the Triads --  do not see fit to operate within its bounds, employing gangsters to enforce cooperation among potential customers.


Any dealing with Mao's troublesome legacy is bound to be problematic. The Founder of modern China's legacy was tainted by the violence of the Cultural Revolution, but the corruption and poverty that followed with his successors cause many in China to look with longing to his Golden Age. Chen has no interest in the case, though he has little choice but accept it as his responsibility -- for the will of the party is an unavoidable maelstrom.  Dutifully, he begins an investigation partially assisted by his retired mentor. Chen draws his history as an author and interests in poetry to approach people who would have shrunk away from a uniformed cop,  each new name sending him deeper into the past, to Mao's days a revolutionary hiding from Nationalist troops in the mountains.

Qiu's setting prompted me to check the book out, and it remained the most vital element of the book. Modern China is a fascinating world of contradictions, of disparate philosophies melting into the other: traditional and modern dogma produce people as obsessed by nostalgia for the days of Imperial China as they are with the legacy of Mao.  Qiu's setting is immersive: being an immigrant to the US from China himself, he uses Chinese metaphors, symbols, and poetic allusions to draw the reader in. Poetry is particularly pervasive:  Chen and Mao are forever occupied by it, which is not surprising given that Qiu is a published translator of poetry. Mao's own poems are plot elements, and a reader who pays attention to expressions within them may easily beat Chen to the punch.

As a mystery novel, The Mao Case has weaknesses: Chen is extraordinarily lucky in habitually bumping him into helpful and chatty people, the first example being a retired Red Guard member he literally stumbles into at a bar he just chanced to decided to go into. The mystery broadens throughout the novel and crashes in on itself in the final dozen pages, playing a somewhat discredited trope rather hard. Despite this weakness, I enjoyed the novel for its setting and main character. My library has a few more books in the Inspector Chen series, and I'll be reading them.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Casino

Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas
© 1995 Nicholas Pileggi
363 pages


The first gangster movie I ever watched was Martin Scorcese's Goodfellas, based off of Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy. Pileggi's account of life in the Sicilian mob is considerably more gritty and less romanticized than Mario Puzo's novels, and he followed it with this work, Casino, which also inspired a movie starring Joe Pesci. (He plays the same character in both films: a short, mouthy bruiser who can go from a dead calm to psychotic rage at the drop of a hat.) I encountered the book while doing a web search a few weeks back and finally remembered to check it out this week.

Although Casino was classified as fiction by my library, the narrative draws heavily from interviews with the main character and those who knew him (including the police), wiretapping transcripts, official police reports, and news articles. It's the story of Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal,  a talented sports bettor, bookie, and handicapper who oversees the action of four Mob-backed casinos in Las Vegas in the 1970s relying on Tony "the Ant" Spilotro for intimidation purposes. Pileggi begins by establishing the two characters' backgrounds: while Rosenthal grew up learning to predict odds for sports matches, Spilotro preferred handicapping people to games: his chief talent was intimidation through brutality.  After trouble with the law, they both migrate to Las Vegas and make the town their own -- living large and socking away millions before falling prey to themselves and an increasingly effective FBI.

Entertaining for a mob story, but what I enjoyed most was learning about the world of sports gambling and casinos. I don't understand why gambling is illegal in the United States, but it seems to give unsavory characters a reliable means of income by controlling underground affairs. The book ends with a curious sigh for days gone past, when the Mafia with its personal touches ruled Vegas instead of the garish, impersonal theme park casinos of the corporations.


Related:

Booking through Thursday: Day and Night

Booking through Thursday asks:  Do you divide your books into day and night reads? How do you decide?



Although I don't think of books in terms of "day" and "night" readings, I distinguish between books I can read in public, or outside the house, and books I should keep indoors. Day readings -- books I take with me to work, to classes, and even to lunch in case I can't find anyone to dine with -- are small, lighter reads that I can easily keep at my side without too much getting in the way. I'm not going to haul Our Oriental Heritage around with me, for instance: instead, I keep meatier books on my coffee table or beside my bed, and when I do my evening reading I go to them. This is why I often read two books at a time.  



Wednesday, September 15, 2010

This Week at the Library (8 Sept - 15 Sept)

This week at the library...


  • Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir is the story of Lady Jane Grey, a young girl who was made queen in an effort to 
  • Karl Marx: the Passionate Logician by Joel Carmichael is a brief biography of Marx that delved more into philosophy than I'd anticipated,  but one which helped me understand the Hegelian background of some of his ideas. The most is mostly critical of Marx, portraying him as a frustrated failure who could have been  political leader were it not for his renunciation of Prussian citizenship.
  • I also tried reading ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: a year in an american high school by Elisha Cooper,  which follows a dozen teens through a year of their education. It never hooked me, though.


This past week was poor for reading in general; only one book really caught my attention. Even the two Star Trek novels I tried reading didn't take. I'm excited about this next week, though.


Next Week's Potentials:

  • I'll be reading from The Life of the Greeks by Will Durant.
  • Casino by Nicholas Pileggi is a supposedly true story about the Mafia and Las Vegas which inspired Casino starring Joe Pesci and Robert de Niro. 
  • I'll be reading from The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which I've looked forward to for a while.
  • African Exodus will ease some of my hunger pangs for science reading, I hope.
  • ...and The Mao Case by Quu Xiaolong is doubly interesting, first because it's set in China, and again because the protagonist is asked by Government Officials to handle a political scandal involving a mistress of Mao. I saw it while looking for Jules Verne.

Top Ten Books I'm Dying to Read

A few weeks ago I found a blog that does a weekly activity called "Top Ten Tuesdays", but I haven't yet managed to participate:  I'm still working on "Top Ten Books I Can't Believe I Haven't Read", and....well, it's been a few weeks.  This week's meme is related.

1. Glimpses of World History,  Jawaharlal Nehru.  While imprisoned by the British government for his participation in Gandhi's campaign of nonviolence, India's future first prime minister wrote a series of letters to his daughter that constituted an epic history of the world. The letters were later collected into Glimpses, which is now out of print. Reading a biography of Nehru piqued my interest in it, and I continue to troll for an affordable copy online.

2. Anarchism and Other Essays, Emma Goldman. Reading Red Emma Speaks was a provocative experience for me, and I'd like to read this or Living My Life, her autobiography.

3. Dialogues and Essays, Seneca.  Whenever I have a little discretionary income, this is always in the running. I enjoyed reading Seneca's letters, and the quotations that originally interested in me in Seneca are apparently from this collection.

4. Anything by John Shelby Spong, an Episcopalian theologian whose voice I adore listening to, and whose ideas are just as gentle and noble. Jesus for the Nonreligious and Liberating the Bible: Reading the Bible through Jewish Eyes are the two lead contenders for my first Spong read.

5. The Roman Republic / The Roman Empire, Isaac Asimov. Books about one of my favorite subjects by my favorite author are sure to be winners, but alas! They are out of print.

6. The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy; Michael Foley. Blogger Cyberkitten  reviewed this recently and it instantly caught my attention.

7. Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm.  From what I can tell, the book is about human responses to living in a world our genes never anticipated, and feeling alienated as a result. The human desire to end alienation all too often  leads to the triumph of oppressive political and religious ideologies.

8. The Great War in Modern Memory, Paul Fussell. The author explores the war's social impact by studying letters, essays, poems, and essays written during the war and after it. One of my professors often shares excerpts from it when one of his classes is discussing the Great War, and in the process he's gotten me interested in reading it properly.

9. The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, Oliver Sacks. I've wanted to read this ever since reading V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain. When our brains go awry, the results are... bizarre.

10. Any one of Christopher Moore's vampire comedies. (Bloodsucking Fiends, Bite Me, and You Suck are three assuredly related titles.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (14 September)

I would never be so impertinent as to give the Lady Elizabeth only two sentences -- even if it is Teaser Tuesday.

What of Elizabeth then? She is a dark horse, and I do not trust her. She rarely comes to court, and when she does visit the King, she appears meek and pious, but I am not fooled. Beneath that dutiful mask, I have no doubt, lies a devious and dangerous character. I would not like to tangle with Elizabeth.

Innocent Traitor, p. 243. John Dudley, musing on which princess of the blood royal might best suit his designs.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Innocent Traitor

Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey
© 2006 Alison Weir
402 pages


I just found Alison Weir this year and have thus far enjoyed her work in history and historical fiction. Innocent Traitor marked her introduction to historical fiction, and since The Lady Elizabeth and Captive Queen were so enjoyable, I looked forward to reading the work that presaged them. Innocent Traitor is set during the same period as The Lady Elizabeth: Henry VIII, the aging Tudor monarch, has  failed despite six wives to generate a brood of sons. All of England's hopes for avoiding a bloody war of succession -- bloodier still now with the Protestant Reformation gaining in strength and promising to make such a war one of religion to boot -- are pinned on the health of Henry's only male offspring, Edward. Meanwhile, charismatic and wily characters compete for power and influence: court intrigue abounds, and our titular character is thrust into it by her ambitious parents.

The Lord and Lady Dorset are mightily displeased at their daughter Jane for having been born a girl, but the timing of her birth -- close to that of Prince Edward's -- and her Tudor blood make her a viable candidate for marriage  to Edward when he reaches his majority. From the moment Edward's birth is announced, Jane's parents scheme to insert her into English politics.  Jane lacks the imperious will of her friend Elizabeth: she has no interest in ruling, or in most affairs of aristocracy. She prefers studying theology and the simple pleasures of reading and conversation to noble sports like hunting, gossip, and conspiracy. Still, the examples of Elizabeth and others put enough steel in her backbone to give those who wish to casually use her pause.

Although Jane is the primary character of Innocent Traitor, hers is not the only voice. Weir relies on a half-dozen voices to tell the story: Queen Katherine (Parr); Frances, Jane's cold and oppressive mother;  Ellen, her governess;  the future Queen Mary, and John Dudley. Weir uses the first-person voice for all of them, which required some getting used to: Dudley's inclusion seemed especially odd at first, although he is instrumental in dragging poor Jane into court in an attempt to prevent the Catholic Mary's succession and the return of England to the "yoke of Rome". Unfortunately for him and Jane, Mary is a force to be reckoned with.

Innocent Traitor is not as tightly focused as The Lady Elizabeth, but it's still a good read: Jane is as sympathetic a character as I've ever read, and Weir's training and work as a historian are put to good use, portraying the flamboyant, dangerous, and miserable world of Tudor-era England in rich colors. The final fifty pages are particularly poignant. Dialogue has a historical flair, but is not overly stilted -- though Jane's childhood narrative chapters have an adult formality to them. (This was also present in The Lady Elizabeth).

All in all, an enjoyable novel, and yet one bettered by Weirs' succeeding works.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

This Week at the Library (1 Sept - 8 Sept)

This week at the library...


  • I began the week with Lost Souls, the outstanding finale to the generally impressive Destiny trilogy. David Mack didn't disappoint; in fact, he floored me with the service done to this vein in Trek literature.
  • Next I read Albert Marrin's The Spanish-American War, a short history of the beginnings of American imperialism in Cuba and the Phillipines. I read it for Marrin, and his familar style was as enjoyable as ever. It should serve anyone wanting an introduction to the war or a refresher well.
  • I finally finished Will Durant's Our Oriental History, an epic work. It is impressive not only for the writing style, but for how much Durant manages to cover. He first examines the meanings of civilization, then covers the political, economic, artistic, literary, and intellectual achievements of the major ancient-era societies and three Asian powers that have lasted to the present day. 
  • I received Steven Saylor's Empire in the mail shortly after my weekly visit to the library and had to read it, of course. It's a worthy successor: not as ambitious as Roma, but a good story by itself.
  • Lastly I read Michael Crichton's Timeline, a blend of history and science fiction involving an expedition into the past when a team of historians and archaelogists travel to medieval France to fetch a missing colleauge. Entertaining and as informative as Jurassic Park given that some of Crichton's characters lecture throughout the novel.


Selected Quotations:
[Worf] picked up  his weapons from the platform, climbed the stairs, and stepped onto a transport pad. Turning back, he said, "Victory against these odds will be almost impossible."
Dax narrowed her eyes. "I wouldn't say impossible."
Worf replied with a smirk, "I meant for the Borg."
 (Lost Souls, David Mack)


Next Week's Potentials:

  • I'll be reading The Life of the Greeks by Will Durant, though I'm planning a more leisurely pace. I don't want to fatigue myself on the Story of Civilization series by trying too much at one time.
  • The Good that Men Do, which I'd planned to read several weeks ago but which was prempted by the Destiny trilogy. I may return to it.
  • Karl Marx: the Passionate Logician; Joel Carmichael. Thought Marx is an abused personality in the United States, I'm rather fond of him: I spent the better part of my second year at university reading from a set of his 'complete works' on and off, and the image that emerged was of a man keenly interested in improving the human condition.
  • Innocent Traitor, Alison Weir. A novel about the Lady Jane Grey, a young girl foisted upon the throne and later killed in the course of court politics. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Timeline

Timeline
© 1999 Michael Crichton
444 pages


What happens when quantum mechanics and medieval history meet? Specifically, what happens when a team of American archaeologists  excavating the site of a ruined medieval fortress-town  are approached by the techno-firm ITC which is sponsoring the dig and asked to undertake an expedition into the past to find their missing professor?

In unearthing the foundation of a monastery and castle, the team is already exploring the past -- but ITC offers them an opportunity to do so in an altogether different way. ITC's interest in quantum teleportation inadvertently made a form of time-travel possible, and in the years since they first realized this, they've moved toward capitalizing on the discovery. They have constructed machines capable of sending a person or persons into the past: Professor Johnston, the team's leader, has used one of those machines to enter the world of medieval France during the Hundred Years War. He has not yet returned,  and so the two grad students and isolated adults involved in the history site are dispatched to find him.

What follows is a curious blend of science fiction and history as the team attempts to navigate the world of medieval France. It is a world no less dangerous than invented in Crichton's Jurassic Park: the English-held castle being investigated at the outset of the novel is under siege by the French army, and violating social customs carries dangerous of its own -- as one of the grad students, Chris, finds out when he picks up a glove thrown at him by an insulted nobleman and accidentally accepts a challenge to joust. What makes the book a thriller is that so much goes wrong on both ends: while the grad students and their guide try to avoid being taken for witches and spies, overcoming a language barrier and surviving court intrigue, ITC experiences an equipment malfunction that may prevent the expedition members from returning safety.

It's certainly a fun story, and one rich in detail. History is a great love for me, and medieval history is a pet interest:  I enjoyed seeing the two students react to their expectations being completely confounded, and found their realizations more interesting than the actual plot. As in Jurassic Park and its sequel, Crichton has a character to lecture throughout the novel: his eccentric Marek is as much fun to read as Ian Malcolm. His lectures were in line what I've been learning about the medieval era through my university studies and outside reading, and I hope that this novel has seduced a reader or two to find out more about history in general, for Crichton comments on its importance more than a few times.

This should be of interest to both SF and historical fiction fans.


Related:

Teaser Tuesday (7 September)

Lo! A traveler from a distant land! I pray thee, sir, willst ye sit down and tarry with me a while? I shall regal you with  tales from mine own adventures in reading...
...no? Have at you, sir!

He watched Chris jolt down the field, precariously hanging in the saddle. And he watched Sir Guy charging toward him, in perfect control, body leaning forward, lance couched in the crook of his arm.
Well,  Marek thought, there was at least a chance that Chris would survive.

(p. 229, Timeline: Michael Crichton)

And...bonus! Here's another!

 Deanna Troi screamed in horror as Dr. Ree sank his fangs into her chest just below her left breast, and Ree felt absolutely terrible about it, because he was only trying to help.

(p. 9, Lost Souls. David Mack.)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Empire

Empire: the Novel of Imperial Rome
© 2010 Steven Saylor
589 pages


Last summer -- strangely enough about a year ago last week --  I had the pleasure of reading Roma: the Novel of Ancient Rome. The novel was a thousand-year epic, following one family through many generations in eleven stories. Saylor's rendering was impressive, so much so that I preordered its sequel as soon as I had the opportunity. I rarely preorder books: I have done so on only one prior occasion.

Empire is far less ambitious in scope than Roma, covering just over one hundred years. Saylor employs the same approach as in Roma, focusing on the same family (the Pindarii) and grounding the reader with an amulet that is passed from heir to heir. In Roma, the amulet transformed through its thousand-year history from a lump of metal purported to contain the essence of a god into a winged phallus (representing said god, Fascinus), into a decayed shape roughly similar to that of a cross -- appropriate, given that Roma ended in the first year "anno domini".

Although said designation was created during the medieval era, that year did start a new era in Roman history, for after the decline of the Republic and the establishment of an increasingly autocratic Empire, the only voice in Roman politics that mattered was the voice of the Emperor, who is hailed in the books as "Dominus". Empire  is a story told in four parts: two stories lengthy enough to count as novellas, bookended by two shorter stories.  The first begins in the last months of Augustus, while the novel ends with the appointment of Antonius Pius.* The intervening emperors -- especially Caligula, Nero,and Domitian -- drive the book. Their ambitions, whims,  and favor -- or disfavor -- force the Pindarii to think on their feet time and again. The Pindarii are patricians, once disgraced but restored to dignity when a family friend dons the purple and gold. They remain within strangling distance of the Emperors for most of the book, which is good for the reader but somewhat unhappy for them.

Although less ambitious, Empire does not disappoint: the drama here dwarfs that of his Roma sub Rosa series: on more than one occasion I bolted to my feet surprised by a plot twist. His Pindarii are far more sympathetic in Empire than in Roma, which may force the reader to be more anxious about how they might survive the Year of Four Emperors, the madness of Caligula, the Great Fire, the eruption of Vesuvius,  and the Emperors' increasing power. Historical persons appear throughout the novel beyond the emperors:  Seneca, Epictetus,  and Seutonious are three that caught my attention, but as in Roma Saylor introduced me to more that I had never heard of, like Apollonius of Tyana. The city itself is a background character, continually changing with the ambitions and tastes of the men who rule it. In some ways, Empire is even superior to Roma: Saylor's authorial voice is much less intrusive, as he allows his characters to handle exposition.

A recommendation, of course, to those interested. I'm still more impressed by Roma's scope, but Empire was a pleasure.

The heirs:

  • Lucius: the Lightening Reader.  When the Emperor's nephew Claudius is summoned to performed an augury for Augustus, he brings his friend and fellow augur Lucius Pindarius to assist him. The result ensnares the Pindarii family in imperial attention,  linking their fates with imperial intrigue.
  • Titus and Kaeso: the Twins:  Lucius' twin boys come to age in the beginnings of Nero's reign, and the two are torn apart by their opposing loyalties to Caesar and Christ: one of the two develops a fondness for Jewish mystics while in Alexandria and is lured into a strange new cult obsessed with the Apocalypse.  
  • Lucius the Seeker:  Lucius, unlike his father and grandfather, has no interest in either augury or family. Living off of the family fortune, he prefers to spend his days shooting the breeze with Epictetus, a Sophist philosopher, a poet, and a member of the Imperial court. 
  • Marcus the Sculptor:  Young Marcus is the favorite architect of Emperor Hadrian, who is obsessed with leaving vast monuments and building projects to posterity.

Related:

  • Roma, Steven Saylor
  • The Sons of Caesar, which follows the evolution of the Roman empire from Julius Caesar's ascent to the fall of Nero.
  • Pompeii, Robert Harris.  (Novel.)


* Narrowly missing Marcus Aurelius, though I was delighted to see him at all: he appears as a youth, brought to court by Hadrian, who was intent on grooming him as heir.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Our Oriental Heritage

The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage
© 1935 Will Durant
1048 pages

"Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation."  (Opening sentence.)

Our Oriental Heritage is the introductory volume of a greater work, an eleven-book set covering prehistory to the last days of Napoleon. Judging from the preface, Durant initially planned to write The Story of Civilization as a five-volume set that went beyond Napoleon, even approaching the 20th century. This first volume begins in prehistory, Durant spending time to comment on the evolution of civilization's economic, political, moral, and mental elements before beginning his trek proper with Sumeria. Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Judea, Persia, India, China, and finally Japan follow. Although the majority of his subject nations have passed away into extinction, the latter three civilizations are still extant, and Durant follows their story up to the 'present day'.

Our Oriental Heritage is epic history: not only is the timeframe at hand vast, but Durant's approach is to tackle politics, religion, science, art, drama, and artisanry all together, giving his story depth as well as breadth. Despite the abundance of information, his presentation is never confusing. Sections are clearly delineated, and I enjoyed Durant's writing style: he's approachable, but dramatic, often waxing on eloquently about a particular poet, ruler, or philosophy. There's also occasional humor --  dry, of course, as historian humor tends to be.

Throughout Durant's work, civilizations rise and fall like waves crashing on a beachhead: they are born, he says, in stoicism, and perish in epicureanism. Those words are used chronically throughout the book, fading only in the last two general portions. I don't rightly understand that characteristic of his writing. While the misuse of epicureanism is understandable (being common, and objectionable only to people familiar with Epicures) as referring to powerful, rich states that grow sedentary in their success, slowly rotting inside before falling to a more youthful power,  'stoicism' always seemed out of place. He used it most often to refer to newfound religions or philosophical approaches that were puritanically moralistic.

Durant's place in all this seems a bit odd: while he approves of progress and prosperity, they reach their height during these epicurean periods which involve a worship of the intellect and the decline of emotionally-charged elements of civilization, particularly religion. He habitually mourns this decay, thinking of religion as a means by which people put their persistent tendency to believe in the supernatural to use -- strengthening individual characters, offering consolation to the suffering, and strengthening society and social order. Thus he tacitly approves of the vibrant religion of those who finish the decadent civilizations off and establish their own, all the while sadly recounting the horrors that the conquerors visit upon the vanquished. (Hinduism is the only religion in his book that doesn't attack the beliefs or artifacts of other civilizations, apparently because it co-copts them. Buddhism doesn't die in India: Hinduism simply absorbs it.)

As I cannot comment intelligently on much of the content (being wholly ignorant of some of his subjects, particularly early India and China), I can only say that I enjoyed reading the work, quirks included, and that I think my understanding of part of the human story improved for having read it. The book's age is somewhat problematic for the reader looking for a work like this: in Durant's world, the "present day" is the early 1930s -- and much has changed since then. Hitler has been the chancellor of Germany for two years and is swiftly turning it into a totalitarian nightmare;  Great Britain is the master of India, and Imperial Japan has annexed both Korea and a northern province of China, operating it as the puppet-state Manchukwo. Durant speculates on whether Japan and the United States will fight over their competing economic interests in the Pacific: he thinks they will, in all likelihood,  for economic competition has driven war throughout human history. Although old scholarship isn't necessarily bad scholarship, in the nearly eighty years since this book first saw publication, archaeological discoveries or linguistic breakthroughs might have added context that makes Durant's summaries inaccurate. An inconsequential example of this is Piltdown Man, which Durant references in tracking prehistorical hominids across Eurasia: Piltdown Man is a hoax, one not exposed until the 1950s.

There are undoubtedly other books and series written in the subject of ancient history or general surveys,  probably some written within the last decade with up-to-date scholarship. Are there better books in this subject? That I can't answer, not having read any series to recommend this book over. As said before, I did enjoy the book and do think myself edified for having read it. Durant's distinguishing characteristic, I imagine, is his decision to give a history that does not discount one thread of human life for another -- instead, he pursues economics, politics, religion, philosophy, drama, literature, and the like all with equal diligence. That approach is why I decided to start reading the series, it is why I will continue in it, and it is why I think the book worth your investigation if the subject is of interest to you.

Related:

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War
© 1991 Albert Marrin
182 pages


While still a sophomore in high school, I spotted a book titled The Airman's War in my school library and checked it out. It become a favorite, one of the first history books I ever purchased, and I have enjoyed both Marrin and early aircraft ever since. Recently he came to mind and I checked my local public library to see if they offered anything by him: they did, and this particular book gave me an opportunity to read Marrin again and refresh and strengthen what little I know of the war against Spain.

Marrin's story begins on the night of 15 February, 1898, when an explosion sank the USS Maine, anchored outside Havana. This incident, more likely an accident than a Spanish attack, was the seed out of which newspapermen like William Randolph Hearst manufactured a war -- using his power to inflame the populace and assault any politician who did not bellow for war. From there matters deteriorate, resulting in the American occupation of Cuba, the Philippines changing hands, and a lengthy, costly war against Philippine insurgents who -- surprise! -- were not impressed by their former ally's interest in the Philippines as a de facto colony.

The Spanish-American War, like most of Marrins' works, is written in a personal style. Stories focusing on the horrors of war and perils of soldiers are set inside a colorful narrative with generous background information that succeeds in not only making the war understandable, but in demonstrating the deforming nature of war upon individuals and society. This is especially evident in the chapter on the Philippine  War, where former allies begin indulging in ritual humiliation and torture of the other side, poisoned by lust and violence. Although never shying away from the horrors of war, Marrin tends to err on the side of patriotism -- informing readers that President McKinley opted to annex the Philippines not because he wanted to, but because he feared on their own the Philippines would fall to the British, Germans, or Japanese. (It seems to me that a garrison of troops and a naval base would have established American presence well enough, and the Philippine leader was so favorably disposed to the Americans that he offered ports and areas for bases.) Marrin's account of the rise of the Anti-Imperialist League also isn't exactly friendly: he seemed to stop just shy of giving the League a piece of his mind.

In all, a good read: I'd recommend it to those who think their knowledge of the wars deficient. Marrin's style lends his books well toward readers who are completely new to the subject.


Related:

  • Weapons of Satire, a collection of writings by Mark Twain written against the annexation of the Philippines and the American war against Filipinos fighting for independence.  

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Lost Souls


Star Trek Destiny: Lost Souls

© 2008 David Mack
453 pages


As far as cliffhangers go, I don't think I've ever encountered one as dramatic as the final pages of Mere Mortals,  the second in the Destiny trilogy, but Lost Souls' conclusion exceeds it in intensity. It is easily the most emotionally provocative Trek book I've ever read. Lost Souls begins in the horror of a general Borg invasion of the Alpha Quadrant: the Allied fleet is literally smashed to pieces, powerless against the Borg armada -- seven thousand ships strong.

Captains Picard, Dax, Hernandez, and Riker were spared from the opening moments of invasion by their own missions and perils, but regroup at the eye of the hurricane: while the Borg armada deploys in all sectors of the quadrant, attacking the Allies' worlds simultaneously, their three ships make repairs and contemplate the apocalypse. While fleets throughout the quadrant charge at the Borg fleets with a courage born of desperation,  the four captains contemplate what, if anything, can be done. They only have hours, a few days at most before every Allied planet in the Alpha quadrant have been destroyed -- but there remain still a few straws to grasp at.

The action unfolds quickly here, throughout a half-day. Although Mack's emphasis is on the struggles and actions of the four captains and their respective crews, he frequently cuts to Klingon commanders fighting holding actions  and the Federation president, who can only watch the ominous black fleets devour her worlds and advance steadily toward Andoria, Betazed, Vulcan, and Earth. Mack also takes breaks from the action to follow a group of temporal refugees, the MACOs (space Marines) from Captain Hernandez' ship, whose mutinous actions nearly destroyed the Caeliar. The squad is trapped seven thousand years in the past on a bitterly cold planet, facing death with a few members of the Caeilar who were flung into time with them. At first I thought the diversion odd, but they play a most important part in the momentous finale.

The finale is...epic, and turns an already successful story into a staggeringly well-done work. Horror is transformed into a joy and a nightmare scenario into a conclusion that is truly in the spirit of Star Trek's highest aspirations.  Lost Souls is a stunning finale, well-worthy of being read not only by Trek lit fans, but by anyone who has watched The Next Generation or Voyager enough to become interested in the Borg. I highly recommend Destiny

On the cover: Johnathan Frakes as Captain William Riker and (I assume) Ada Maris as Captain Erica Hernandez. 

Related:






This Week at the Library (25 August - 1 September)

This week at the library...

  • The Birth of the United States by Isaac Asimov is second in his American history series, picking up from the end of the Seven Years' War and following the story of the thirteen colonies through rebellion, independence, nation-making,  and the War of 1812.  Asimov is as ever interesting, and I appreciated his approach in presenting the  motives of the British, varied American states, the French, and other powers fairly. Villainizing or lionizing powers would have been easy. 
  • Mere Mortals is second in David Mack's "Destiny" trilogy, which brings the various current threads of Treklit together in an epic battle against the Borg. The book ended with a cliffhanger, although that isn't nearly dramatic enough  to describe the last few pages. I'll be reading the third and final book, jumping into the abyss and hoping something remains to break my fall. 
  • Disease Fighters Since 1950 is a collection of biographical essays concerning medical researchers , although it focuses more on the people rather than the subject at hand. Although shelved in the adult section of my library, I think it was aimed more for younger readers.
  • The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower, a fictional bigraphy. The bulk of the book consists of concise summaries of Hornblower's career, with letters providing background information and making the book seem like the biography of a real person. Parkinson does fill the gaps of Hornblower's life that Forester's novels don't cover, so Hornblower fans would probably enjoy reading it. 

Selected Quotations:
"When a simple-minded man abused him, Buddha listened in silence; but when the man had finished, Buddha asked him: 'Son, if a man declined to accept a present made to him, to whom would it belong?' The man answered: 'To him who offered it.' 'My son,' said Buddha, 'I decline to accept your abuse, and request you to keep it for yourself.' (429, Our Oriental Heritage)

"It is in the nature of governments to degenerate; for power, as Shelly said, poisons every hand that touches it." (463)

"'The superiority of man,; said Akbar, 'rests on the jewel of reason.' (469)

"The secret of polytheism is the inability of the [...] mind to think in impersonal terms; it can understand persons more readily than forces, wills more easily than laws." (510)

Potentials for Next Week:

  • Our Oriental Heritage, Will Durant. I've been making good progress reading this, and should be done by next week. Currently I'm in the middle of a chapter on the history of Indian medicine.
  • Star Trek Destiny: Lost Souls, David Mack.
  • Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brian.  Durant's kept me awfully busy.
  • Empire: the Novel of Imperial Rome, Steven Saylor. Guess what *I* received in the mail this morning, having preordered months ago? 
  • The Spanish-American War,  Albert Marrin. Marrin was my favorite author of history back in high school: his The Airman's War hooked me on airplanes. I thought of him recently and decided to see if my library had anything by him. 
  • ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool : a year in an American high school, Elisha Cooper. This distracted me while enroute to the humor section. 
  • Timeline, Michael Crichton. 


...

I did say "potential".