Monday, January 31, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (1 February)

Rabbit rabbit, it's teasin' time again.



"I'd like to rent a car for the night," I told the agent, selecting a good old-fashioned white Jeep Wrangler. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I was ready for my usual Jeep routine and scouted a place to sleep for the night. I drove to the nearest hotel parking lot and, in my usual fashion, climbed into the backseat to rest.
At 4:00 a.m., I returned the car. When I turned in my keys, the employee checked my mileage. "Two miles?" he asked, bewildered. 

p. 250, 50 Jobs in 50 States. Daniel Seddiqui.


"What are you doing there, you lazy batos?" said a voice he instantly recognized as his mother's. Which was odd because he was sure he remember her as being quite dead for quite some time. 

p. 6, Sword of Damocles. Geoffrey Thorne.

50 Jobs in 50 States

50 Jobs in 50 States: One Man's Journey of Discovery Across America
© 2011 Daniel Seddiqui
275 pages




Disclaimer: I read from an advanced review copy of the book, available through NetGalleys. No compensation for a review, good or negative, was offered or requested, aside from my own potential enjoyment of the book.


Frustrated and crushed by scores of failed job interviews, author Daniel Seddiqui felt like an utter loser. After breaking down in the parking lot of his local Macy's -- after returning the suit he bought for one such interview -- this athlete-turned-volunteer coach decided to pursue a dream, to 'live the map' of America by travelling throughout the continent and working a job in every state. With the support of his pseudo-girlfriend Sasha and a network of family and friends throughout the country, Daniel hid the road, determined to experience each state's most signature job for a week.

The trip starts out fairly mundane -- preparing care packages in a Mormon humanitarian office -- but future states bring more sensational opportunities, like serving stock cars at the Indy 500, serving drinks during New Orleans' Mardi Gras, and giving Hawaiian tourists surfing lessons. North America's wealth in natural resources creates a wide variety of jobs, and Seddiqui seems to have gotten his hands dirty by engaging in most of them -- meatpacking, farming,  mining, and logging all feature.  Aside from a streak of agricultural jobs (broken when he decides to sell real estate in Idaho instead of farming potatoes),  Seddiqui is able to find vastly different work every week: at one point, he transitions from modeling in North Carolina to coal mining in West Virginia.  His effort to find every state's most culturally significant job is generally successful (cheese-making in Wisconsin, working with automobiles in Michigan), though there are surprises along the way. Seddiqui sometimes chose jobs slightly off the mark out of necessity (Sorry, Daniel, you can't show up at Fenway Park and play for the Red Sox), but most of his fifty choices seemed appropriate. There's overlap between his and Stephen Fry's choices:  when the British journalist visited each of the U.S.'s fifty states, he sometimes participated in that state's most prominent job: both men realized that lobstering in Maine is far beyond their endurance level, both descend into West Virginia's coal mines, and both participated in political rallies in New Hampshire (Seddequi makes "Obama Cares" posters and manages to slip a complimentary note to the president without being tackled and manhandled by the Secret Service, quite a feat given his partial Afghan heritage that had him mistaken as an illegal immigrant while in Arizona).

Seddequi's account is certainly readable: I read the book in a single sitting, and found him generally pleasant traveling companion. His tone is informal and conversational, perhaps overly so --for at times he makes comments about people that seem inappropriate in this context. His deteriorating relationship with Sasha (which ends for good when he is in Arkansas doing excavation work and heartily agrees with graffiti that reads "Sasha Sucks") gives the reader an idea of his emotional difficulties, He also makes comments about the girls he tries to date while on the road, which strikes me as entirely out of place.  Aside from this, however, he was an agreeable host. While the book ends with a brief chapter about lessons he learned on the road and appears to be targeted as inspirational, I enjoyed it more for the occupational accounts. I learned much about some of the best and worst jobs in the United States, and his tales of on-the-road hospitality are heartening.

50 Jobs in 50 States will be available from Berrett-Koehler on 15 March 2011.

Related:

Electric Universe

Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity
© 2005 David Bodanis
308 pages

When you're in the dark, and you want to see, you need
Electricity, E-LEC-TRICITY!
(School House Rock, "Electricity")


Every now and again, I misjudge a book and find it a superior surprise. I picked Electric Universe up thinking to read an introduction to electricity, but found instead a rich history detailing the human discovery -- and use of -- electricity which contains stories of curiosity, intellectual courage, romance, adventure, and wartime bravado. In addition to providing clear, picturesque descriptions of how electrical processes work, Bodanis examines how electricity has changed society as a whole from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age.

 Electric Universe is truly a multi-genre book.  I checked it out for the science, as my understanding of electricity is somewhat dim. Like Brian Silver in The Ascent of Science, Bodanis is talented at making electricity understandable at its most basic level,  then applying that explanation to technological applications. The science continues throughout the book, culminating in a chapter on biological nervous systems. Bodanis places a great deal of emphasis on the scientists and technicians who sought to understand and use the hidden powers in nature to illuminate, link together, and revolutionize the world. I never knew that Edison was a patent-breaking scoundrel,  nor did I realize that Nazi Germany had its own sophisticated version of radar. How has a movie not been made of the daring W├╝rzburg raid, in which a scientist parachuted into occupied Europe, escorted by grizzled paratroopers, to take over a German radar installation, learn its secrets, and return to England? There's even a film-worthy moment of all-on-the-line drama when the raiders' retreat is blocked by German machine gunners, who are defeated the last moments by the reappearance of previously lost Scottish highlanders, firing their rifles and yelling out old Gaelic battle-cries.

Modern society is entirely impossible without electricity and the various technologies -- like radio and computers -- which developed from its understanding. The transformation of society through these technologies fascinates, and Electric Universe is a history of that transformation with human-interest stories to spare. I read it in two sittings, pausing only to go to bed for the night, and consider Bodanis an author of interest for the future. Electric Universe is a definite recommendation.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Beyond Band of Brothers

Beyond Band of Brothers: the War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters
© 2006 Dick Winters and Colonel Cole Kingseed
303 pages

When I landed, the only weapon I had was a trench knife that I had placed in my boot. I stuck the knife in the ground before I went to work on my chute. This was a hell of a way to begin a war.

Dick Winters didn't join the Army out of abounding love for his country, but because he didn't want conscription interrupting a profitable business career. Though he joined in peacetime, that peace did not long last, and Winters became a soldier for the duration.  That strategic decision of his turns out to be the last less-than-noble action Winters makes, for he is The All-American soldier.  He's Sam Damon, come to life, fulfilling every ideal Americans have about soldiers: devoted to God and country, hard-working, clean-cut, conscientious, and morally beyond reproach. He never loses his temper, never shrinks back from a fight, and never seems like anything less than an iconic hero.  For those looking for inspiration, his memoirs will provide it in bounds -- but all the stories about his men's nobility and sacrifice seem a little too much like a 1940s newsreel meant to bolster spirits and inspire faith in the men and the cause than a thought-provoking account of the trials of war.

After joining the Army,  Winters determined to be the best he could be. Determined to excel and to lead, he applied for the paratroop corp and became a lieutenant of a company destined to fight in D-Day, the Bulge, and a few tough spots in between before ending the war as a Major governing a portion of Austria as military governor. While the "on-the-ground" look inside the D-Day operations and beyond is what will attract most readers, I was most interested by his account of basic training and Officer Candidates School.  The intensive training parachutists were put through seemed perverse at times.  After his account of the war -- in which  Winter proves himself to be a superb commander, so inspiring that when a superior officer court-martialed him, all of Winters' non-commissioned officers near-mutinied, resigning their stripes rather than serve  under Winter's offender -- Winter ruminates on lessons learned, particularly in regards to leadership.

The account is readable, and were I less cynical I suppose I would be beside myself with all the inspiration being handed out. I enjoyed it nonetheless, aside from Winter's account of looting and billeting as they marched through Germany. Winters thought nothing of kicking German civilians out of their home -- ordering them, weapons in hand, not requesting -- for his own comfort, and justified this by claiming they were supporting Hitler. This seemed disingenuous at best: why the rationalization?  "To the victor go the spoils" may be a cruel mantra, but at least it's honest. Exacting private judgment on strangers is no more noble when done by a 'hero' than by the 'villains'.  This attempt at justification and the endless moral lessons being taught to the audience soured me on Winters after a while, though I felt a bit guilty about it since he's a recently deceased Hero and all (d. 2 January 2011). All things considered, I much prefer Sam Stavinsky's Marine Combat Correspondent. Winters reminded me more of Ernst Junger, who wrote Storm of Steel -- both seem more like  ideals than real men, their memoirs fulfilling their respective country's stereotypes about themselves.


Related:

  • Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose's account of "Easy Company" which brought Winters and his men into the public eye. 
  • Marine Combat Correspondent, Sam Stavinsky, the account of a glass-wearing journalist turned grizzled Marine. I remember it fondly, though I read it back in high school when the romance of nationalism and noble soldiers had in me an ardent follower. 
  • Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger -- a German account of the Great War, written by a man with a spooky detachment who embodies the stereotype of the cold, efficient, tough-as-nails Prussian solider. 
  • Once an Eagle, Anton Myrer, from whose protagonist Sam Damon Winters and his co-author quote. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

This Week at the Library (19 Jan - 26 Jan)

Over the weekend I decided to give TWATL a visual refresher and am happy with the way it turned out, aside from some minor niggles. Beyond appearances, I added a few elements -- the Cumulative Reading List, which became necessary last year as assorted surveys  made it difficult to glance over  the annual reading; a much neater approach to labels, and a Shelfari widget to show books I'm currently reading. That last seems more like a gimmick than anything else, but I was in mood to play around.

2011 Nonfiction Reading Challenge Update:
Since the challenge began, I have read three applicable books:

  • Six on Six Legs (Science)
  • The Rise and Fall of the Bible, which I could apply toward culture or art..I 
  • and The Age of Absurdity, which -- since there's no philosophy category -- I'm not sure as to what to do with. Culture? Money?  


In the future I think I'll be using this weekly review to share book-related links I find of interest, like Susanne Alleyn's essay on writing proper historical fiction by staying honest and as close to the facts as possible, Rick Riordian's thoughts on writing fiction in general, and a collection of Goosebumps run-throughs from "Blogger Beaware". If you read the series as a child you may enjoy revisiting them through this complete series of snarky reviews. Blogger Beware has a sufficiently geeky enough audience to merit its own TvTropes page.

This past week at the library was an usually strong series of books. I started the week off with an interesting murder mystery by Michael Connelly, in The Black Echo. I then read another advanced review book, The Rise and Fall of the Bible, which proved to be an entertaining and informative history of the Bible as a cultural icon.  After reading the surprisingly excellent Far Better Rest, I finished the week off with The Age of Absurdity, which I am still collecting my thoughts on.

Selected Quotations:
"Always make a practice of provoking your own mind to think out what it accepts easily. Our position is not ours until we make it ours by suffering." -  Timothy Beal quoting another author, listed in my notes as 'Chambers'. in The Rise and Fall.

""We're used to picturing the genaology of a text like a family tree: one original at the base ascending like a single trunk, with copies branching off it, and copies of copies branching off them. And so on throughout the generations. We imagine an original from which all the generations of diversity spring as scribes make revisions and introduce copying errors. But the reverse seems to be the case when it comes to the origins of the Bible: the further you go back in its literary history, the less uniformity there is. Scriptural traditions are rooted, quite literally, in diversity. " - p. 106, The Rise and Fall of the Bible

There were a lot of quotes from Age of Absurdity, but I think I'll wait until I'm done mulling over things to share them.

Next week's potentials:

  • Beyond Band of Brothers, Major Richard Winters
  • The Electric Universe, a history of the human discovery and application of electricity. 
  • Stonehenge, Bernard Cornwell. I haven't started this one yet, aside from the first page.
  • The Confessions, Augustine. This time I'm serious
  • The First World War, John Keegan. I checked this out because I wanted some history, but couldn't find a generic medieval history as I was in the mood for.  I've heard good things about Keegan



Also, with the money from birthday checks and the like I recently purchased six Star Trek paperbacks (mostly used copies) and one science book, and will be buying another science book at some point in the next few weeks, so that's something to look forward to. They'll probably start arriving this weekend or early next week, seeing as I always buy from the states around Alabama if I can.  Included will be the last Typhon Pact novel (Dayton Ward), another entry in the Titan series (Christopher L Bennett, and my first Vanguard (David Mack) reads.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Far Better Rest

A Far Better Rest
© 2000 Susanne Alleyn
353 pages




Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is the story of a family beset by revolution. Regarded as a classic of western literature,  the novel warns against the dangers of Revolution and celebrates individual self-sacrifice, unpredictably embodied by the figure of Sydney Carton, who rouses himself from a drunken slumber to save a man’s life, returns to his rest, and rises once more at the novel’s end to save an innocent man from the guillotine’s murderous wrath. A Far Better Rest is Carton’s story, told through his eyes -- and an excellent complement to the classic, I might add.

At first the novel did not too much impress me: its cover and opening chapters made me suspect I was in for a period romance instead of a ‘proper’ historical novel. This, I’m happy to report, was a misjudgment on my part. While romance is inevitable -- Carton’s enduring love for Lucie Manette drives him throughout the plot, here as in Dickens’ original -- this is not a bodice-ripper. Indeed, those bodices which are mentioned remain firmly fastened. Though we see inside Carton’s soul, Alleyn does not make her readers bedroom voyeurs. Instead, Alleyn focuses on what love drives Carton to do. Inspired by Lucie’s faith in him, and her simple goodness, Carton determines to recall himself to life and travels to France, where he finds himself in the middle of a Revolution -- a revolution that will, as it continues to mold France’s destiny, force Carton and others to choose their own paths. Carton is continually buffeted by fate, but seeks redemption if only to justify Lucie and others’ faith in him. Lucie is not his only motivation: having grown as a character, Carton only learns of the Mannettes’ presence in Paris in the midst of a personal quest.

Any novel inspired by A Tale of Two Cities cannot very well avoid the Revolution, but Carton’s place in the relative thick of things gives the reader a personal view of the chaos that began to unfold after the First Republic found itself at war with a continent full of adversaries and ruled by a council of ruthless crusaders determined to preserve their gains at all costs. Carton finds in the Republican struggle something to live for, but his hopes are dashed when the Revolution, "like Saturn, eats its own children".  Alleyn evidently knows the period quite well, and displays an impressive amount of historical detail. (She even attaches a bibliography -- not something I see in a lot of historical fiction.) This is reflected in the style of the narrative, for Carton-as-narrator employs some older spelling variations ("connexion"), capitalizes random Nouns within sentences, and O! uses period abbreviations, tho' they run the gauntlet between being distracting and somewhat immersive.  Alleyn or her editor's choice of font was also well done -- conveying an 18th century feel.  The only truly distracting stylistic choice (for me) was Carton's self-censorship:  words deemed vulgar are marred by underscores, so damned becomes d___ed and bollocks b_ll_cks.  The reader knows d___ed well what's being said, but 'walking through' the underscores tends to slow down the book's pace.

Speaking of pace, the book turned into a page-turner after a slow start. The beginning of the book is its weakest -- there's a forced scene in which Carton meets two future revolutionaries while studying in France, one that has no function other than to establish a prior relationship between the boys for when they mature into men destined to lead France from monarchy to Republicanism. The political elements make the book a sort of thriller, and Alleyn's depiction of Carton's relationships with Darton, Lucie, and a third character, coupled with his masterful character growth, created in this book book an absolute winner for me -- one I'd recommend without reserve. Just as Carton redeemed himself, so will his "self-written" account redeem the story of A Tale of Two Cities for those who think it too florid, dense, or inaccurate -- for Alleyn thinks Dickens' exaggerated account of the revolution a blot on his reputation and attempts to portray it more fairly here. She's an author who takes her history seriously.
        

Related:

Teaser Tuesday (25 January)

Tuesday Teasin' time again, from Should Be Reading.

"They'll hang the fellow at Tyburn, and there will be an end to it."
"If he is found Guilty."
"Indeed. Your legal acuity never ceases to amaze me."
"I do not intend that he shall be found Guilty."
"A commendable position for the Counsel for the Defense. Bravissimo."

 p. 32-35, A Far Better Rest. Susanne Alleyn.

There are many variants among the more than fifty-three hundred early New Testament manuscripts and manuscript fragments that survived the Greek language alone (not to mention early Latin, Syriac, and Coptic translations). The oldest of them (from the second, third, and fourth centuries) are the most divergent. Granted, many of the variations among different manuscripts are not terribly significant. But a good number are. Some of these differences were no doubt the result of accidents, but some clearly were not. Early manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark, for example, offer four different endings. In the Greco-Roman world of the first and second centuries, long before copyright laws, works of literature quickly lost touch with their authors. They were copied, edited, supplemented, and distributed through decentralized, informal networks in ways that the writers could not anticipate or control.

p. 101, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: the Unexpected History of an Accidental Book, Timothy Beal.

Top Ten Book (Series) I Wish I'd Read as Kid

The Broke and the Bookish are curious: are there any books you wish you'd read as a child?

1. The Redwall Series, Brian Jacques

I did read a few of these books as a kid, but not very many. They're...fantasy novels which star woodland creatures. In the first book, Redwall, a mean rat named Cluny (Cluny! Cluny! CLUNY THE SCOURGE!) decided to attack a pleasant little abby-sanctuary called Redwall and use its high walls as a fortress. He spurs his horde of vermin onward while, a plucky little mouse named Matthias seeks a magic sword to help save his home.  There are over twenty books in the series in all now.

The books were charming and the dialogue fun (a friend of mine and I used to entertain each other by imitating the rabbits of the Long Patrol), but the older I got the more embarrassed I felt about sneaking into the children's section to read books about mice with longbows.

2. The Nancy Drew Series and 3. Hardy Boys Mysteries (Various Authors)

While I enjoyed mystery novels as a kid, I mostly read from the Boxchar Children stories. I may have read from one Hardy Boys mystery, but aside from that both series were untouched. (The actual title of Hardy Boys #3 is The Secret of the Old Mill, but the above image came up in a google search and amused me, so there you are.)

4. Matt Christopher's Works

I was never into competitive sports as a kid: while I liked playing them, I liked PLAYING them. I wasn't interested in keeping score, which was why I tended to spend recess going on unsanctioned nature walks in the woods with friends,  and Saturday mornings riding bikes and building stunt ramps.  Christopher wrote a series of books about kids and sports, and while I read a couple of them (The Year Mom Won the Pennant, and a book about a kid who gets into biking as a way to get in shape),  I ignored most of the series.

5. Sweet Valley High and 6. The Babysitters' Club (Francine Pascal, Ann M. Martin)


I realize these are girls' books, but so were the California Diaries books and I enjoyed them just fine, thank you very much. (I was introduced to that series by a male character, though...Ducky.)  I read one or two in the SVH series from my  older sister's collection back in the day, though all I remember is that Elizabeth fell asleep with her headphones on once, and there was a third twin who was evil and...may have burned down a house?  I am too old to empathize with the characters now, though. As for the other: California Diaries was a spinoff of Babysitters' Club, -- and one character, Dawn Schaefer, carried over. That's the main reason that in high school I tried to find the books to read them before realizing they were meant for preteen girls. While Dawn wasn't my favorite character,  she was the second-nicest person in the series and sort of a hippie, which I liked.

7. More of Ghosts of Fear Street and 8. Goosebumps 2000.  (R.L. Stine)

I was a kid during the Goosebumps heyday, and owned all of the books in the original collection. Ghosts of Fear Street was a kid's version of his Fear Street books (with less  axe-murder and more psychotic sea monkeys), while Goosebumps 2000 was more or less an attempt to remarket Goosebumps for the new millennium. I disapproved of this for some reason and would not read the books, and by the time I'd gotten over my knee-jerk reaction,they'd  vanished from the shelves. D'oh.  Fear Street Adventures was a different story:  the only place in town that sold books offered them only sporadically.

9. More of Starfleet Academy. (Various authors)

My library had two of these (Starfall and Capture the Flag) and I loved `em both, but Selma doesn't have a bookstore beyond the supermarkets (which tend to sell romances, westerns, and Christian fiction exclusively), so I couldn't read more. I would've liked to read the adventures of young Worf and young -- err,...Cadet -- Data.

10. More of Great Illustrated Classics. (Various authors).

As a child I read quite a few "classics" in a shorter, illustrated form -- The Call of the Wild, Robinson Caruso,  Black Beauty, War of the Worlds, etc. There are many more, but I only read a fraction of them. Now I read the 'real' version of those books, but I still would've liked to have read more of the series in this fashion.

Bonus:
11. Harry Potter - -- ? Maybe?
While I couldn't have truly grown up with Harry (being older than him when the first book was released), I wonder how I would have enjoyed the experience of waiting anxiously for every new release and reading through it with great anticipation at what would happen. Instead, I read all of the books in Autumn - October 2007...but I don't think I was so much disadvantaged.  While Harry was leaving behind a world that disliked him and finding new friends at Hogwarts, I left an unpleasant, past and found my own home and friends in at the University of Montevallo, which I began attending that very fall. So I related rather powerfully to Harry in those first two books. Now, when I watch the movies, I'm reminded of my first week and semester on campus, and I like the connection. (When I investigated my dorm for the first time, I said: "It's not Gryffindor Tower, but it'll do.")  So maybe it was best I only discovered the series in my adult days, eh?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Bible

The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book
© 2011 Timothy Beal
225 pages, not including index.


Disclaimer: I read from an advanced review copy of the book, available through NetGalleys. No compensation for a review, good or negative, was offered or requested, aside from my own potential enjoyment of the book.

For better or worse, the Bible holds a singular place in western history. Within its thousands of pages are history,  poetry, proverbs, legends, and more laws than anyone knows what to do with. For fifteen hundred years, people have looked at it for justification and inspiration --  saints and scoundrels alike.  Timothy Beal writes The Rise and Fall of the Bible in part to address how it arrived at this status. His work is not a comprehensive history of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, but focuses on their collection, promotion, and role in western society.  Essentially, it's a history of the Bible as a cultural icon -- as The Bible, the ultimate and authoritative voice that offers simple, direct, and instant answers to any who seek its counsel -- and a critical appraisal of the same.

Beal grew up seeing the Bible in this way, but while he still holds to the Christian faith, he now sees a gulf between this iconic status and the Bible in its most potent context. Rather than seeing it as a "magic eight ball" that delivers answers at convenience, Beal has grown to view the Bible as a work of work which forces individuals to engage with it, to grapple with its diverse meanings.  He believes that the ruthless conversion of the Bible from sacred literature into consumer product is fast eroding its status as an icon, and that the rise of digital literature will encourage individuals to work with the bible for themselves.

Beal's opening chapters comment on the current status of the Bible (emphasizing its constant repackaging into forms like 'biblezines 'and manga stories), after which point he gives a brief history of the Christian canon. I'd expected this section to be the meat of the book, but Beal uses the history to illustrate his point that the relationship between people and the Bible has changed throughout history. In early Christian history, no Authority handed down approved texts to individuals and communities. Instead ,they collected -- and created -- such texts themselves.  According to Beal, both Jewish and Christian scriptures existed in an infinite variety, as collections and translations were assembled for a given community's desires, purposes, and preferences. They lifted quotes out of context to apply to their own needs, freely -- and this is true not only of the rank-and-file believer, but of church fathers like Paul.* Copyists and translators played fast-and-loose with their work, and the organization of the Christian canon in the early medieval  period seems like a desperate struggle to impose order on chaos. It's no accident that the canon only came to be once the resources of the state were at would-be censors' disposal. It's also rather obvious that the censors' opinions are arbitrary: from the early church through the Renaissance and Reformation, theologians bickered on what was Authoritative and which was not.

This history of the Christian bible, while not as thorough as I'd expected, was thoroughly fascinating all the same. Such diversity explains all the little inconsistencies, and makes defending claims to the Bible speaking in only one voice impossible to defend. Beal devotes a chapter following his history discuss his problems with seeing the Bible as a one-voice monograph. It is, he says, a library of books that is "constantly interpreting, interrogating, and disagreeing with itself."  Beal adds to his discussion of the Bible's role by commenting on how the physical expression of scriptures -- in scrolls, codices, books, and now digital texts -- changes the way people view it.  The unwieldiness and expense of the scroll promoted oral traditions and short anthologies, while the Bound Book conveys to the reader a sense of finality:  a text that is bound is finished and cannot be altered. Its sheer physicality is an imposition, and the relative openness of digital literature is one reason why Beal is optimistic about the future role of the bible. As it becomes more personal affair, the lessons gleaned from it will have real value: rather than meekly accepting The Final Word, individuals will earn truth and meaning by working for it.

I'm glad I read The Rise and Fall of the Bible, though it's not the book I thought I would be reading. Its history added to my appreciation of early Christian history, and its theme -- the Bible's changing relationship with the people who read it -- has given me food for thought.  I never realized how 'loose' the Christian canon truly is.

The Rise and Fall of the Bible will be available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 16, 2011.

Related:

  • God's Problem, Bart Ehrman, which expounds on the lack of a ultimate answer to the question of evil --  something Beal cited as evidence of the Bible's  multivoiced nature. 
  • Asimov's Guide to the Bible, Isaac Asimov-- a treatment of the Bible as human literature. 


*In studying the creation of Christianity from Judaism back in late '06 and 2007, I realized that the Gospel authors were rather enthusiastic in repurposing  Jewish scriptures for their own use. One rabbi referred to this as "painting Christianity into the [Torah]".

Friday, January 21, 2011

This Library Has a New Look

I threatened to move this blog to the new Blogger template last year after Let Me Be Frank made such an impressive transition, and now I've gone and done it.  I wanted to make the background either my home library or a large reading room and ultimately went with the latter. At the moment I have two concerns about the blog's look: first, it seems a bit....dark. If you are not viewing the blog on a widescreen monitor, some of the picture is cut off -- including my favorite part, the "NO CELLPHONES" sign. That's what sold me on the picture to begin with! (I take pleasure in staying disconnected! ;-) ) I think the cut-off eliminates the brighter portions of the background and makes the blog as a whole seem darker. Secondly, the font color may make it harder for some viewers' eyes. If this is a problem for you, please let me know.  White may stand out more.

Here's what you are missing if you are not viewing this on a widescreen monitor, by the way:




I bought a new PC back in the fall of 2009, and as a consequence I've gotten positively spoiled: the blog's appearance on more squarish monitors never occurred to me.  Baley of The Reader's Book Blog showed me what it looked like from her end, and while it's not as...attractive as the widescreen view, it also hasn't prompted me to go back to ye old drawing board.  I may see what the page looks like with a background picture of my home library in the future, but ever since adding that Cumulative Reading List 'page' last night, I've been wanting to complete the transition to modernity.

Special thanks to Jamie of the Broke and the Bookish for telling me how to convert Great Big Lists of Labels into delightfully tidy drop-down lists, and to Baley for her feedback and encouragement.

The Black Echo

The Black Echo
© 1992 Michael Connelly
375 pages


It's the week before Memorial Day 1991 in Los Angeles, the city of stars, urban street gangs, and smog -- and Detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch has been called in on a Sunday to check out a possible overdose in a pipe. It's just a quick job: all he needs to do it is confirm the initial suspicions. If Harry's partner had been called to the pipe, or any other officer, that might have been the end of it -- but Harry takes his job seriously and notices the little details that others would ignore for convenience's sake. He notices the lack of tracks leading into the tunnel, the unusually pure heroin ingested by the dead man, the indications in the pattern of how his clothing is arranged that indicate he was drugged and dragged in This is no accidental overdose. This is murder.

But who would murder this man, a shiftless Vietnam veteran who has drifted from job to job in the twenty years since the end of the war? Driven by duty -- both to the badge and to a former comrade -- Harry digs in, annoying his fellow police officers who see only another broken veteran who sought release in a drug that killed him. That's not unusual for Harry, who is an excellent detective but a miserable police officer. Once he's committed to a task, he has little patience for rules or people who get in the way. Harry is a perpetual outsider who pains those who work with him,, a grizzled lone wolf, a man on a quest ---- and that quest links his case to a bank robbery in which the culprits used Los Angeles' vast system of underground flood-control tunnnels to dig inside the bank's vaults.  A year later, the FBI is still looking -- but now, they and Harry join forces. They must work quickly, because the thieves may strike again come the weekend.

This is my first time reading Michael Connelly, and I rather enjoyed the experience. I suppose the world-weary police veteran with a hidden heart of gold is a familar character,  but I like Harry.  The book unfolds through the course of a week, as Harry tries to build his case while battling charges by the grudge-holding department of Internal Affairs, who despise a curmudgeon.  There's a little romance and a lot of plot twists -- so many, in fact, that the last one doesn't emerge until after the actual crime has been taken care of.  There are subtle fragments of evidence woven throughout the book that allow the reader to put the pieces together for him- or herself, without relying on bursts of insight from Bosch.

Perfectly enjoyable book: I liked the gritty detail of it, and the intriacacy of the plot impressed me. I'll be continuing in this series as I'm able.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

This Week at the Library (12 - 19 January)

Most of the books I read are strictly for myself, aside from the odd request from a friend to read a book to see how it is. This week, though, I reviewed two books (Sex on Six Legs, To End All Wars)  for Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt through NetGalleys. Neither of them have been released yet, and both proved good reads. To End All Wars was particularly exceptional.  In fiction, I read Bernard Cornwell's Redcoat, which surprised me. While historical, its drama is mostly interpersonal, focusing on a young British soldier whose loyalties grow more complicated during the occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-1778.

Selected Quotations:

"You have no quarrel with Germany!" he roared. "German workmen have no quarrel with their French comrades....we are told international treaties compel us [but] who made those? The People had no voice in them!" As he spoke, the sky over London blackened with storm clouds, and before he finished, they burst in a torrential downpour.
That evening, Germany demanded from Belgium passage for its troops.  

(p. 91, To End All Wars. Greg Hochschild.)

"I knew it was my business to protest, however futile protest might be," wrote Russell decades later, "I felt that for the honour of human nature those who were not swept off their feet should show they stood firm." 
"I should like the words 'alien' and 'foreigner' to be banished from the language. We are all members of the same family."  - Charlotte Despard 

- As quoted in To End All Wars

"I think to think of the nuclei of our cells, not as perfectly tuned whirring machines, each gear essential, but as vast echoing warehouses of factories. Entire machines are outdated and useless, left rusted in a corner but never taken away and demolished. Others are jury-rigged out of pieces from older models and newer ones, rattling jerkily through their paces but ultimately manufacturing something usable." 

p. 55, Sex on Six Legs


Potentials for next week...

  • The Age of Absurdity by Michael Foley. I'd intended to read more of it this past week, but wanted to focus on the two advanced reviews.
  • The Rise and Fall of the Bible: the Unexpected History of an Accidental Book, by Timothy Beal. This is another advanced review copy, huzzah. 
  • The Black Echo, Michael Connelly. I saw its main character on TvTropes last night as being characterized by saying "Either everyone matters, or no one does", which I approve of. The character in question is a grizzled LAPD detective, so I'm expecting an urban mystery.
  • A Far Better Rest, Susanne Alleyn. A Tale of Two Cities from Sidney Carton's perspective. Again, a TvTropes discovery.
  • Beyond Band of Brothers: the War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters, Richard Winters.  Winters died recently, so I thought it might be appropriate to read his memoirs of parachuting into D-Day.  (Technically before  D-Day, but the two are inexorably bound together.)


Sex on Six Legs

Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life,  Love, and Language from the Insect World
© 2011 Marlene Zuk
246 pages, not including index.





Disclaimer:   I read from an advanced review copy of the book, available through NetGalleys. No compensation for a review, good or negative, was offered or requested, aside from my own potential enjoyment of the book.

Like many of her subjects, Marlene Zuk's popular treatment of insect life is short, buzzing with excitement, and gruesomely fascinating.  Insects are the most numerous and varied life on Earth. While the functions they play are essential in maintaining a healthy ecology,  a close examination of them reveals a captivating world of behavior that is not only interesting in itself, but can shed light on questions of interest to humanity -- like the origins of language and personality.

Zuk kicks off Sex on Six Legs by explaining the scientific advantages of studying insects beyond simple curiosity.  Because insects are so far removed from humans in appearance -- and indeed, given their tubular mouths and exoskeletons, repulsive to many -- conclusions about insect life are much less likely to be tainted by our tendencies to anthropomorphize the subjects at hand. As relatively simple creatures, the genetic causes of behaviors are far easier to track down than in humans, and their quick lifespans are a boon to scientists studying the effects of genetic manipulation on evolution.  Insects perform the same essential acts of life as humans, and seem to engage in behaviors similar to our own -- language, parental care, and community living. Though in most cases insects and humans have taken different routes to the same result,  with insects the behaviors must have an exclusively genetic basis: most insects, like beetles and flies, are solitary creatures whose behavior is not taught or influenced by parents or a society's needs.  Finding this basis could shed light on the similar genetic foundation of human behaviors.

There's no denying that Zuk is an entertaining writer, filling the conversational narrative with her dry humor and giving sections whimsical names like "Incest and the Solution to Physics Envy".  Her subjects are endlessly intriguing, and many a time I was left staring at a page in mute horror after reading descriptions of wasps who zombify roaches and led them into her lair  to be munched on by her little ones -- or of spiders who as babies suck blood from their mother's legs until she is too weak to move, at which point they devour her. Zuk is successful, though, in making the book more than voyeurism:  her chapter on how insects contribute to the study of 'sociogenomics'  added much to my knowledge of genetics, for instance. Not everything in a given species' genome consists of usable DNA, and if grasshoppers and other insects are any indication, some species carry far more junk than they do viable information.  Also of note are the chapters on social behavior, addressing questions of insect communication  and organization -- no one does court intrigue like ants sizing up potential queens, or consensus democracy like a hovering swarm of honeybees searching for a new home.

Sex on Six Legs will delight anyone with a curiosity about insects, and impress those who think little of them. It's look into a vast world that most people rarely see, one with lessons to teach about evolution and life as a whole.  The book will be available from Hughton Mifflin Harcourt in the first week of August.

Related:

Booking through Thursday: Periodicals

From Booking through Thursday:

Even I read things other than books from time to time … like, Magazines! What magazines/journals do you read?


Back in 2000, when getting excited about the release of The Sims, I bought a magazine called PC Gamer and enjoyed it enough that I subscribed for years thereafter, until after I'd graduated high school. My machine could no longer play modern games, and since the magazine had gotten thinner and less attractive visually, I let the subscription lapse. I keep them in a box in my closet, which baffles anyone who asks about  it. I maintain that one day I am going to want to read those old editorials and staff pieces. It's mostly a sentimental value, though. Because I now have a not-yet obsolete gaming rig, I have entertained notions of resuming my subscription.

I also bought Disney Adventures magazine faithfully as a kid, since it was my only way to stay hip about pop culture.

At the library, I browse National Geographic, The Smithsonian, and other random science/history magazines that catch my eye. I sometimes read Newsweek or Times, but this only rarely.

In bookstores, I sometimes buy copies of mental floss, Star Trek: the Magazine,  The Skeptical Inqurier, and the odd pop history magazine. I'd like to subscribe to magazines like Free Inquiry, UU World, and The Humanist, but as a student my mailing address tends to fluctuate and I do not like forwarding addresses. I'd also like to try Analog magazine, the modern form of the old Astounding Stories, but I have not read much real science fiction and find "hard SF" to be a bit intimidaitng. In the future I can see subscribing to Scientific American. I've read one issue and enjoyed it.

I also receive The Historian, a historical journal, as a benefit of being a member of Phi Alpha Theta. Even though I've not read any of them in full, I'm always happy to see them arrive in the mail -- same goes for a science magazine(ish) the Howard Hughes Medical Institute used to put out.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (18 January)

This is my 52nd Teaser Tuesday, which means I've been following the little game for a year now. That may be "just shy" of a year, since my first TT post was published on 19 January 2010.  I enjoy this weekly diversion, though it and Top Ten Tuesdays keep me up entirely too late on Monday evenings. ;-)

Since this is an anniversary, let's make it a triple course!


"You wouldn't become an American for liberty, Sam, because you don't think we lack it. And you wouldn't become an American out of a republican conviction, because you can't even spell it -- but you'd become an American for Caroline. That's what love is, Sam."  

Redcoat, Bernard Cornwell.

This is overly long but entirely too good to not share.


The NCF [No-Conscription Fellowship] scored another another rhetorical point when, in the course of one legal case, a lawyer on the government's side, Sir Archibald Bodkin (best known to history as the man who would later get James Joyce's novel Ulysses banned from publication is postwar England) declared that "war will become impossible if all men were to have the view that war is wrong." Delighted, the NCF proceeded to issue a poster with exactly those words  on it, credited to Bodkin. The government then arrested an NCF member for putting up this subversive poster. In response, the NCF's lawyer demanded the arrest of Bodkin, as the author of the offending words. The organization's newspaper -- named, with deliberate irony, the Tribunal -- called for Bodkin to prosecute himself, and declared that the NCF would provide relief payments to his wife and children if he sent himself to jail. 

To End All Wars, Adam Hochschild. 

I was planning on posting a teaser from Sex on Six Legs, but do you really want to read the context of the phrase "pulsing inside with fly"? 

...yes?  Okay, then. It's your stomach.

Once a female fly locates a calling cricket, she deposits tiny larvae on him. A larva, usually one but sometimes two or even three, burrows inside the cricket's body and starts, every so slowly, to eat his flesh while he is still alive. First it feeds on his body fat, but eventually, as the fly maggot grows until it occupies the entire body, from head to abdomen, it consumes the male's other organs so he is is a shell that looks like  cricket but is pulsing inside with fly.

p. 18, Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World. Marlene Zuk.



Top Ten Inspirational Characters

This week the Broke and the Bookish want ten characters from fiction who've inspired us. I assumed they meant  from books when writing my list. And awaaaaaay we go. (Don't take these too seriously: after a few entries I settled for 'admirable characters I can remember.')

1. Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Saxon Stories, Bernard Cornwell)
This is not Uhtred, but Brad Pitt's Achilles character is similar in temperament.

Uhtred is a surely Viking who lives outside the law, sneers at convention, and tends to solve problems with his swords. Despite this, he's not a bad fellow. Though he's no innocent,  he is a wolf preying on other wolves -- not  a wolf amid the sheep, like a king or a priest. I like his forthright bluntness. He makes no excuses for himself -- but what I most like about Uhtred is that he enjoys life, with gusto. Whenever I read Uhtred's stories, I feel like slamming down goblets of drink with enthusiasm, whacking strangers on the back in friendship, and singing old songs loudly and without a care in the world as to if they're off-key or not.


2. Ebeneezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens)

 I never knew how to swing a cane properly until I met ol' Ebeneezer

He may be a crotechy old man, but when made to see the consequences of his actions, both for himself and for those around him,  Scrooge seeks to create his own redemption -- and he does so even though those who knew him before mock him for it.

3. Harry Potter (Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling)

I know such a popular literary figure seems like an obvious choice, but (Azkaban spoilers!) when Harry decided to rise above easy vengeance and bring Peter Pettigrew to trial instead of letting Sirus and Remus feed him to Crookshanks, I was...impressed. Then, in Goblet of Fire, he goes out of his way to assist his rivals in the Second Task, because he believes without assistance,  Fleur's sister and Hermione will be left to die. And then there's the whole abandoning-oneself-to-death-to-defeat-the-dark-lord thing!

4. Sidney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."  Those words captivated me even when reading this book as a child (via Great Illustrated Classics). Carton epitomizes the heroic sacrifice to me.

...hey, I warned you.

5. Ducky (California Diaries, Ann M. Martin)

Ducky has shown up on one of these lists before, and that's because he's a great guy. He makes his introduction in the California Diaries series by coming to the rescue of three soaked, sicked, humiliated, and terrified freshmen who just escaped from a hazing trap. In the second book, he drives for several hours at night looking for a friend who has run away (one of the same girls), and later keeps a vigil outside of his friend Alex's house, because Alex is depressed and suicidal.  So Ducky is serving as the big brother figure to a group of younger girls while at the same time trying to make sense of how he and his own childhood friends have grown apart. On top of all this, he's doing it without a support system: his parents are research scientists working across the globe, his older brother is useless, and his best friend is the suicidal Alex mentioned prior.  But Ducky takes it all on his shoulders, and even when he is disheartened, manages to survive.

6. Sam Damon (Once an Eagle, Anton Myrer)
Sam joined the Army when the Great War started, not because he was bored or looking for glory, but because he thought it was the right thing to do. He survives and prospers in the Army not through wealth or family influence, by working hard,  learning all he can about the situation he's in, making the best of every situation, and doing right by his men. From the trenches in Belgium to the jungles of Korea and Vietnam, that is Sam Damon:  he pursues the 'right' course of action and accepts the hard word simply because it's the right thing to do and the work needs to be done. It's a simple, and admirable, ethic.

7. Salvor Hardin (Foundation, Isaac Asimov)
Hardin appeared in two of Asimov's foundation stories, and in both manages to save his city-planet Terminus from annexation and defeat at the hands of four great kingdoms through audacity and cleverness while uttering aphorisms like "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent" and "It's a poor blaster that doesn't point both ways".

8. Jake Berenson (Animorphs, K.A. Applegate)
The face of a battle-weary commando.

In middle school, I wasn't asked to become the leader of a guerrilla force consisting of a group of six kids, waging a desperate war against a hidden alien invasion of parasites who take over people's minds. Jake was, though, and boy -- did he have a time of it. He endures years of constant bloody battle against hideous foes, years of living with the enemy (his brother is Controlled), years of knowing his decisions could kill his best friends and spell doom for Earth. The psychological stress seems incredible, but he doesn't shrink with indecision or grow utterly callous. The experience hardens him far beyond his years, perhaps beyond that which is healthy, but his basic character endures.

9. Huck Finn (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:"All right, then, I'll go to hell"- and tore it up.

For context, Huck has been faced with the choice of being a good Christian, which means following the law and returning his friend Jim to slavery, and doing what his natural empathy tells him. In deciding to keep hiding Jim, he choses to thwart the law and go to hell, instead of betraying his friend and damning his soul in a more real way. The irony of this is that I first heard the passage being read by an apologist  intent on mocking it, and I thought to myself -- wow, I've gotta read this book.

10. Rudy Baylor (The Rainmaker, John Grisham)
Rudy Baylor was the first Grisham protagonist I ever read, and I found it easy to sympathize with the young man who took on an insurance company abusing its 'clients', refused to settle out of court rather than face their team of brilliant and experienced lawyers, and along the way rescued a friend from a case of domestic abuse.

Honorable mentions:

  • Ernest Everhard (The Iron Heel, Jack London)
  • Ellie Arroway (Contact, Carl Sagan)
  • Violet Baudelaire -- "There's always something." (The Series of Unfortunate Events, Daniel Handle.)
  • Elias Vaughn (Warpath, David Mack)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Redcoat

Redcoat
© 1998 Bernard Cornwell
485 pages


Shortly after the capture of Philadelphia in September 1777, General George Washington led his Continental army in battle against the now-defending British army. In the chaos of his opening assault,  brothers Sam and Nate Gilpin -- both privates, and both wearing the red coat of the British army -- were captured and ordered to tend to the American wounded, including an injured merchant-turned-patriot soldier named Jonathan Becket.  A sudden reversal offered both the chance to escape both the battle and a life's service in the army -- but Nate's decision to make a run for it cost him his life.  Both armies retreated into winter quarters, where Sam continued nurse the American -- now a prisoner himself -- back to health at the behest of his sister, a strong-willed Patriot whose forthrightness and charm give her even Lord William Howe's ear.  Throughout the long winter, while the American army languishes in Valley Forge,  Sam keeps the company of saucy rebel ladies, and makes unexpected friends and enemies alike -- growing from a simple private to a troubled man torn by conviction.

Although this is a historical novel set in during the midst of the war, it is not a war story.  Most of the book takes place during the long winter of '77-'78, and it is personal drama -- character drama -- that takes the field, as people struggle with loyalties to their countries, their ideals, their friends, and themselves. This surprised me, but pleasantly so. As usual, the novel is flecked with little historical and technical details that give the setting life, but it's the characters who reign. Sam Gilpin is not unlike other main characters used by Cornwell --  strikingly decent, though not without his faults. Cornwell played an awful lot of tricks on me with the characters in this book -- those who I started out liking, I grew to despise, and those I disliked at first I found myself utterly interested in. So help me, I never expected to be enthralled by a love triangle, but after reading a score or so pages in a matter of a week, something clicked and I read the better part of 300 pages in a single sitting. Romantic threads are only marginally existent in the books I read, but Cornwell's worked for me. It's not the war story I or others might've expected, but I certainly enjoyed it.

I checked this out because I could not find the Cornwell books I wanted to read, but what attracted me to this one -- instead of Stonehenge, say -- was the prospect of reading an 'American' story through the eyes of a British private. This was somewhat reflected by the favorable characterization of Lord William Howe, who seems an awfully kind gentleman to be wearing the coat of a military man, but Sam isn't particularly passionate about the 'Cause'. He's in America to fight the rebellion because he's a soldier and soldiers do as they're told. His motivations mature rapidly through the winter, but Sam's no idealist fighting to keep the Realm whole -- or to campaign for Republicanism. The American characters tend to be preachy when they're in Patriot mode, but they don't hold a candle to the unpleasantness of the American loyalists, who are obsessed with money and are a downright ornery bunch. None of them seem to have any principles beyond getting rich and remaining so, which I think is unduly mean to the historical loyalists.

Not as much as a 'British' version of events as I'd hoped, but I truly enjoyed this story of a man growing to realize there are things worth standing up for, like love and friendship.


Related:

  • Jeff Shaara's Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause, which feature American generals complaining about the complete uselessness of the militia and British generals complaining that this is a stupid war to waste money, time, and soldiers' lives on. (Er, if memory serves.)
  • The Complete Idiot's Guide to British History, authored by a Britisher and which gave me some much-needed perspective regarding Britain's treatment of the colonies. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

2011 Nonfiction Reading Challenge

The Broke and the Bookish, home of Top Ten Tuesdays, is hosting a nonfiction reading challenge which is meant to expand horizons even for people who read nonfiction on a regular basis, like myself.  They've listed nine categories to read from, and a few of them are those I rarely go near.  I've never done a challenge before, and this sounds like fun.

Culture: "Non-fiction books about different cultures, religions and foreign lands; memoirs & biographies count."
There are a couple of books on India and China I'm interested in reading this year, though I think they're mostly history. In any case, I also intend to read something about Hinduism this year. Will Durant's books are heavily cultural, too.

Art: "Non-fiction books about anything art related (painters, music, architecture, photography, dance, literature, film, etc.). Memoirs/biographies of any people related to the arts count."
Well, if my library has a book on the history of architecture I'd be interested -- and if not, there's always that biography of Sammy Davis Jr. which I never finished. I also want to read a biography of Audrey Hepburn, because she's adorable in every movie I've seen her in.

Food: "Food memoirs, anything related to food industry, food lifestyles."
...I have no real idea.  Maybe Epicures will say something about food?  I'm going to be reading his works this year.

Medical: "anything related to the medical field--industry memoirs, memoirs about illnesses (mental included) /diseases, etc."
Hm.  I will have to poke around. I rarely venture into my library's medical section, because it has books on homeopathy and by Keven Trudeau, and those just make me sink to the floor weeping.  This attracts attention and diminishes the productiveness of my library visits.

Travel: "travelogues, industry memoirs, travel guides, etc."
This should be rather easy:  I still have the second Walking Across America book waiting for me.

Memoir/Biography: "Self explanatory "
Should be easy enough. I'm planning on reading D-Day parachutist Dick Winters' memoirs, as he recently passed away.  I'm also interested in reading a big ol'  biography of Franklin Roosevelt.

Money: "Anything related to finances, economics, history of money, financial improvement etc."
- Last year I intended to read The World is Flat, a book on globalization, but didn't get around to it. This challenge will provide such an opportunity.

Science/Nature: "Anything related to any scientific field, memoirs count."
- Sex on Six Legs, which won't be released until late this year -- but I have an advanced review copy.  Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan, which I haven't read since 2006, is a likely contender. And to those challenge-folk reading, Carl Sagan was famous for working to popularize science. He's written quite a few books in addition to hosting Cosmos. (Link is to "A Glorious Dawn", which is..Cosmos in concentrate.)

History: "Anything history related-- events, biographies of historic figures, etc."
- Heh. History is my bread and butter, so to speak, so this one will be easy. The Age of Faith by Will Durant, and The Near East by Isaac Asimov are two reads I already have in mind. (You know, I really should get around to reading The Age of Faith so I don't keep mentioning it in Broke-and-the-Bookish-related posts. It's appeared on three or four lists now...)

Friday, January 14, 2011

To End All Wars

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
© 2011 Adam Hochschild
480 pages



Disclaimer:   I read from an advanced review copy of the book, available through NetGalleys. No compensation for a review, good or negative, was offered or requested, aside from my own potential enjoyment of the book.


Though American history books tend to portray the Great War as merely the prologue of World War 2,  its momentous horror and long-reaching effects deserve more recognition. The war shattered the late 19th century's dreams of an optimistic future -- that with reason enthroned and science driving society, humanity would march ever courageously into a progressive future toward paradise.  That great vision vanished when national pride flared and the being known as Modern Man turned into a screaming chimpanzee with a machine-gun, perverting the material and intellectual accomplishments of humanity for the cause of destruction --  hell-bent on the brutal evisceration of its enemies and too drunken with anger, grief, and war-lust to stop the bloodshed.  To End All Wars delivers the full scope of the horror and makes it personal, but offers the reader inspiration and hope in the midst of lunacy by partially focusing on the lives of those who stood against the great madness.

To End all Wars consists of two intertwined narratives: the first is a general history of the great war, which is surprisingly detailed.  In spite of the book's brevity, Hochschild managed to convey not only the essential course of the war (generally focusing on the Western Front), but an astonishing amount of pertinent details and background information -- like the peculiarities and horrors of trench warfare and the requirements of this, the first great industrial conflict that demanded 70% of a nation's active resources to maintain. Hochschild's narrative makes the inhumane conditions , chronic and massive destruction of life, and utter pointlessness more obvious than any other Great War book I've read save soldiers' memoirs.  The effect is all the more poignant to the reader because those who perish are not nameless: they are the loved ones of people we know personally.

The other entwined half of To End All Wars is a personal history of Britain in the last decades of the 19th century and during the Great War. Hochschild introduces a handful of individuals from varied classes and backgrounds who will each play their separate roles in the war to come. Some, like the miner-turned-politician Keir Hardy, will resist the war and be literally heartbroken by its initial popularity. Others, like Sir John French, will devote themselves to the Glory of the Realm and fight on come hell, high water, or Bolshevik revolution.  This portion begins with Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and chronicles the battle for expanded voting rights and social justice. Suffragettes are particularly visible, and the story of their fight astonished and delighted me.  How can a reader resist the charm of women who back furniture trucks into Paraliment's doors and deploy a dozen or so suffragists to storm inside and shout "VOTES FOR WOMEN!", joined by comrades rappelling through the ceiling skylights? This is the kind of lively drama that conventional history texts miss completely.

Among the ranks of these lives -- through whom we witness the expansion of empire and the full horror of war -- are heroes and villains, champions of the human spirit and aristocrats consumed by wealth and vanity. Few of them, however, are predictable. Charlotte Despard, one of the more heroic figures in the text, was as ardent a populist champion as Eugene Debs -- but her brother was Sir John French.  Emmeline Pankhurst starts the book out as a socialist suffragette who attempts to blow up the prime minister's home with him in it -- but once the war starts, she becomes said minister's staunch ally and denounces any and all who question her.  The effects the war had on personal relationships is fascinating:  Emmeline and the minister, once enemies, became allies -- and Emmeline and two of her pacifist daughters, once comrades-in-arms, became strangers to one another. Other notable figures include Bertrand Russell and Rudyard Kipling, two literary-intellectual figures whose stances were in opposition. While Kipling produces poetry, stories, and essays praising war and the Honor of the Nation and denouncing Germans as subhuman, persistent enemies of civilization, Russell stands sadly in the rain and watches his countrymen cheer the deaths of human beings simply because their last names are different.  (He's later thrown into jail for opposing the war.)

To End All Wars is an exceptional read. Its narrative of the war, slightly marred by an American bias toward the Allies, would  function well as a general introduction to the war, but the personal accounts make the book golden. The stories of those  who stand against 'man's blind indifference to his fellow man', who oppose the inhumanity of their government's actions, are inspirational enough, but their treatment at the hands of their fellow citizens serves to remind readers of other, more subtle costs of war -- moral corruption.  Though Woodrow Wilson disingenuously referred to the war as a defense of democracy,  there's little democracy to be seen in the actions of Britain's government. Those who do not enthusiastically support the war and the government are spied on,  denounced, stoned, imprisoned, vilified by the press, and lined up to be shot. Though this is a story of the Great War, the 'war to end all wars',  its most important story is that of the pacifists, the socialists, the principled Christians, and the internationalist intellectuals who saw the war as futile, pointless, and the only true enemy of any nation.  While scenes of the destruction and death were emotionally difficult to read, the lives of those few provided a ray of hope, and their vindication at war's end finishes the book on a somber, somewhat relieved note.

To End All Wars will be available commercially on 3 May 2011, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Related:

  • The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914, Phillip Blom
  • A People's History of the 20th Century, Howard Zinn
  • The Great War in Modern Memory, Paul Fussell
  • All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Go Go Gadget Literature....?

When I step into this library, I cannot understand why I ever step out of it.
- Marie de Sevigne


Change is inescapable. As a student of history, I've realized that nothing, no matter how wonderful or precious, endures forever. We as people change with our experiences; life, language, and landscapes continue to evolve with use and time,  and even the stoutest mountains melt away under the withering of wind and rain. I realize this the more I get older, and it's something of a solace: the wisdom in knowing that things must change allows me to make peace with the fact that the change is happening.


Even so, the rising popularity of e-readers makes me thump my nonexistent cane on the ground, scowl at the nonexistent kids on my lawn, and yell "You kids get those gadgets off my grass and outta my life!".  The philosopher in me knows that if books wither away under the barrage of e-readers with cloyingly cute names like 'Kindle' and 'Nook',  the circumstances of such a defeat are out of my control, and thus not fit to get bothered about. I was a book-lover before I was a philosopher, though, and I can no more  accept the decline of books than I can watch them be burned at the hands of those incapable of appreciating the ideas they contain.

Part me believes, and cries in a protest borne of fear about books' potential decline, that those who prefer electronic literature have failed to appreciate books as an art form. This is a feeling, a reaction. I know that to some people, a book is just an object with ideas in it and they can get those ideas from another object, this one with a glowing screen, just as easily. But books aren't just objects to me, they're....beautiful wonders. I love the feel of books, the smell of ink and paper, the texture of those pages, the stylized fonts whose ink gleams in the light. I enjoy them all the more as they age -- as the pages yellow, as they take on the scents of owners and bookcases, as they acquire a history of their own. I keep books all around me -- piled around my home, in my car. They're on my person, if I travel -- tucked into my jeans or jacket pockets. I'm a genuine bibliophile.

I like books too much to accept substitutes, which is all e-readers will ever be to me. I'm told they can hold hundreds of books at once, and I'll admit that's a great convenience. It's also something of a liability, though, a case of putting one's eggs all in one basket. E-readers can be broken, fried,  or otherwise rendered inoperative -- and repair of electronic gadgets is increasingly difficult, if not impossible in the case of those oh-so-vulnerable LCD screens. Amazon can simply delete the books on your Kindle if it desires -- and it has. It's possible that book publishers will send you another e-reader to ensure you continue buying their stock, but it is not wise to count on the charity of those who seek profit. As for me, I like my libraries to have physical form -- I like holding a book in my hands, turning the pages, feeling that physical presence, knowing that it is real. It can't be deleted or corrupted by a software glitch. It's there. It can be destroyed, but it will last longer than me and can endure things I cannot. I wouldn't survive a fall from a skyscraper, for instance, but a book can. Its cover will be battered and perhaps a bit dirty, but it will survive.

It remains to be seen, however, if books will survive humanity's obsession with immediacy and convenience. Maybe it's the neo-Luddite in me, but I've stopped being convinced by claims to convenience, for all too often authenticity loses out in the bargain. In the United States, downtown streets have been turned into boarded-up ruins for convenience's sake, as the glories of the free market prefer box stores in the suburbs staffed by unhappy peons to corner groceries. Once upon a time, Broad Street in my hometown (Selma, AL) used to have pedestrians. Every building had a bustling business in it, and above those buildings were more offices and even apartments where people lived. I never knew this until I started talking to people who lived in those days and began reading books -- for now, a walk down Broad Street reveals only a scattering of operating shops. The upstairs are boarded up, and many of the buildings are condemned for lack of maintenance. No one lives there anymore: those buildings have lost their souls.

That, I fear, may one day happen to literature -- that it will lose its soul and become nothing more than data tucked away inside a glowing gadget composed of a plastic case and rubber buttons. E-readers have a lot going for them, and I'll admit to using GoogleBooks to find a specific passage containing choice quotations instead of doing a page-by-page search myself. Perhaps the conversion of literature into digital information is unavoidable. Perhaps one day, as in Star Trek, those who hold on to bound books will be seen as idiosyncratic intellectuals stuck in the past, holding on to antiquities -- but if that's the case, I intend on being one of them.


"To each his own, Number One." 

The title is a reference to those old  Inspector Gadget cartoons starring a man whose suit can spawn virtually every tool he needs, from helicopters to grappling hooks.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

This Week at the Library (5 Jan - 12 January)

Slow week at the library this week, in part because I'm just starting to get over a rather miserable cold and in part because the books I checked out at the library weren't what I was expecting. I went to the library hoping to start Bernard Cornwell's  Arthurian legends series, but the entire set of books seemed missing. After inquiring with the librarians, who promised to look, I decided to settle for Redcoat, a story of a presumably British soldier during the American War of Independence. It hasn't caught my fancy enough to read just yet, though.

I also checked out The Mind of Egypt after wandering about the library for nearly an hour and finding nothing of interest. (I was sick and tired at the time.) I figured this would be a cultural history of Egypt, covering Egyptian philosophy, religion, and science. Instead it seems to be about the Egyptian understanding of time -- which is interesting, but not exactly attractive at the moment.

Instead, I spent most of the week reading The Evolution of God, a brief history of the Abrahamic god and how religious beliefs about him have changed through time. Robert Wright focused on the religions' "home society's" role in influencing their development, which has a lot ot offer but which is not a complete story as he tends to ignore big-picture elements (like outside influences on a given society's religion).

Earlier in the week I read Reunion, a Michael Jan Friedman novel which introduced the Stargazer characters and had one of them try to kill the others. While Death in Winter spoiled  me for for the 'whodunit',  working out 'whytheydunit' proved to be just as  interesting for me. Fairly enjoyable.

I also read a wide swath of Isaac Asimov: the Complete Stories, volume two, and worked on The Age of Absurdity by Michael Foley. I got odd looks reading this one while watching NCIS with the advertising muted.

Reunion: 7.4
Evolution of God: 8.1

Potentials for next week:

  • To End All Wars, Adam Hochschild. For the first time ever, I am reading an advanced review copy of a book, thanks to Baley over at The Reader's Book Blog for suggesting I check out a particular site, NetGalleys.  It's a personal/social history of the Great War, featuring various pairs of individuals who were divided in their decision to support or protest the war. Quite good so far.
  • The Age of Absurdity, Michael Foley.  This is slow so far, but enjoyable. I think I'm on the outside of this cold, so hopefully my pace will pick up this week. 
  • Sex on Six Legs, a science book from NetGalleys. Haven't started reading it yet, but part of the reason I registered at NetGalleys was to see if I could use it to find interesting science books.  Unfortunately, most of them are questionable -- new age stuff and the odd book about why Jesus doesn't have science -- but this one is about a respectable subject, insect sex. 
  • Something by Bernard Cornwell. I may give Redcoat a go, or when I vist the library next I'll see if I can find Arthur or Agincourt checked in. 



Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (11 January)

It's teasin' Tuesday again, but this week I'm going to do something different. "What, cheat? You always do that." No, no.  Well, yes -- but not as much, and for a far nobler purpose than my own amusement. I'm going post a teaser from a single current read (as opposed to two or three), but pair it with a...similar quotation from a different book, for comparison's sake.

 ‎And the ad is no longer content to be passively observed. You no longer decode the ad, it decodes you. The latest digital billboards have concealed cameras and software that establish who is looking and display the appropriate ad -- so a young man will see a bimbo advertising beer and a middle-aged woman will get details of a pampering-day offer at a health spa. Eventually these billboards will be able to recognize individuals and personalize the offering -- seducing me with great 2-for-1 deals on Chinese poetry and hard-bop jazz.

The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy, Michael Foley

Interactive advertising panels, which were linked to the city's central database, contained sensors that detected the identichips of persons passing by on the street. The city's AI used the identichip codes to look up each citizen's purchasing history and economic profile, and it used that data to deliver targeted advertising tailored for maximum enticement. [..] In addition to being used for crass commercial profit, the system was a key tool of the BID, which used the network to monitor the movement and habits of Breen civilians and construct virtual models to suss out suspect behavior.

p. 120, Star Trek Typhon PactZero Sum Game. David Mack. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Top Tenish Booking Resolutions

We're only in the second week of the New Year, so it's not too late to make resolutions: the Broke and the Bookish is calling for biblio-blogging-related resolutions this wear. I'm not actually much for resolutions, but the yearly changeover does provide a nice opportunity to consider goals for the next few months.


1. Think about upgrading the blog template this year.  May will mark four years of weekly visits to the library, and as content as I am with the blog's current look I suppose a change is in order. I'm quite pleased with the new look for my philosophy/humanities blog,  which is encouraging. I don't have any ideas currently, though: I've considered making a photograph of my home library the background, but  I suspect the blog itself would obscure  most of the picture.

2.  Read more science. In 2009, I remarked that my science reading seemed down -- and it slipped further last year. I don't wish to continue that kind of trend, so when I have spending money perhaps I should divert it toward pop-science books instead of more Star Trek paperbacks...

3. Continue in my  'religious/cultural literacy' private studies, especially in regards to Hinduism. I've only read the Gita.

4. Continue reading classic literature and books which played significant role in human history, though I wouldn't expect The Wealth of Nations or Das Kapital to make any appearances. ;-)

5. Take those ten "to be read' books from last year seriously. I'm reading one at present for leisure reading, and I could very well finish it soon. It's an anthology, though, so it's not as if stopping in the middle would prevent me from  resuming it in the future.

6. As finances allow, look into reading more translations from Stephen Mitchell. He translates and interprets classical and religious literature, and I'm particularly interested in his version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. He's one of those authors I want to read more of, yet never think about when I'm approaching Amazon with my debit card in hand.

7. Stay active in the biblio-blogging community. I started following Teaser Tuesday, Top Ten Tuesdays, and Booking through Thursday this year and have met a number of fellow readers who enjoy writing about the books they're engaged with. I'd like to become more active, though not necessarily in the meme-following sense. (Three is enough,, I think..)

8. Maybe...use Twitter more. Though it comes as a great surprise to some people, I actually have a twitter feed.  I signed up....at some point within the last two years so I could follow Darth Vader.  The initial posts were personal ("Psychology professor just walked in on me while listening to "Call Me" by Go West."), but this year I started commenting on the books I was reading. I think I should comment on little discoveries as I'm reading, instead of just saying which book I've started. I could use it as a record of odd tidbits.

9. Follow up on old leads. Alison Weir was supposed to be a great discovery for my history reading, but I..forgot about her nonfiction works. Not sure how I managed that given that her biography of Elizabeth I sits openly on the shelves above my computer.

10. Continue enjoying Top Ten Tuesdays, of course! 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Evolution of God

The Evolution of God
© 2009 Robert Wright
576 pages


Evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright uses the concepts of natural morality and the 'moral imagination' to  understand the growth and (arguably) increasing maturity of the three Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  He moves swiftly from primitive hunter-gatherer mysticism to Jewish monotheism and through to the rise of radical Islam in four hundred pages, engaging in a casual conversation with the reader about topics like salvation, sin, and God. In the final hundred or so pages,  Wright offers concluding thoughts and expresses hope that the three "we're so very special" religions will one day calm down and learn to work together. He believes this is possible, and even probable, because natural selection has equipped human beings with the ability to recognize  potentially productive social bonds and either improve or move beyond religion and custom to engage in healthy relationships with other people.

In Wright's view, religion developed to effect and maintain social cohesion and order. Religion grows, shrinks, and otherwise adapts to serve society's needs. It can bring tribes together for productive purposes, or unite them against a common enemy. When a society needs peace and tolerance, the invented scriptures or interpretation of existing scriptures promote goodwill: when the society 'needs' or would profit by aggression and war,  the creation and use of scriptures changes accordingly: thus,  Muhammad promotes a live-and-live-live policy when attempting to lead a mixed Arab-and Jewish community, but shouts "Kill the infidels/polytheists wherever you find them" when leading assaults on his community's enemies.

There's much of value in The Evolution of God. Those completely new to understanding religion from a natural perspective  should find it a fascinating introduction to the subject.  I have been studying and attempting to understand the growth of Judaism and Christianity for several years ago, and enjoyed the refresher. There are some ideas in here that I've not heard of --  for instance, that the biblical kingdom of Israel was formed by two unrelated tribe with similar gods, who merged their respective chief deities (Elohim and Yahweh) into one. He reveals some of the Hebrew scriptures' mythological references, and turns evaluations of Jesus on their heads by making a distinction between the 'real' Jesus and the Jesus that matters. Sure, the historical Yeshua of Nazareth may have been an apocalyptic prophet who shared his people's prejudices against non-Jews,  but the Jesus the church created -- gentle Jesus meek and mild, defender of the poor and preacher of peace -- is the one people are inspired by. That is modernity's Jesus. Religion is important for what it does for people and society -- not for its initial revelations or the record of its sayings. This approach especially helped me to understand and appreciate the rapid growth of Christianity under Paul's command, as he uses it to create a network of mutually-assisting communities across the eastern Roman empire.

At the same time, his emphasis on a given society's  use  of religion sometimes detracted from the understanding of the religion's history: there's nary a mention of outside influences. I thought it rather odd to read about the evolution of Judaism  without a single mention of Zoroastrian dualism and apocalypticism, for instance. The closest Wright comes to this  in his chapters on Philo and the Logos, but even there he maintains that the idea of the Logos, that the universe itself was embedded with ideas about how people should live,  occurred in other societies at the same time -- so general Greek influences are ignored as well.  Wright tended to make more concessions that he needed to towards religious readers, but I suspect this is to make up for the perceived hostility of  his materialistic approach.

The Evolution of God is very readable, with a fair bit to offer those new to the subject. It is limited, though, so those interested would be well-served by reading further.  I have my own recommendations, naturally:

Related/Recommended Reading:

  • Asimov's Guide to the Bible. Asimov examines the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as human literature, not revealed and holy truths. I've only read the first volume but have been well-served by it.
  • God's Problem, Bart Ehrman.  Though the evolution of religion isn't a theme for Ehrman in this book,  it solved a major part of the puzzle of Judaism's evolution and later spawning of Christianity for me: apocalypticism.  Ehrman's written other books of interest, but I haven't read them. 
  • Reading Judas: the Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of  Christianity, Elaine Pagels and Karen King.
  • The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong
  • Persian Fire, Tom Holland. This won't tell you a thing about Judaism, but Holland writes on Zoroastrian concepts that migrated into the Judeo-Christian worldview following Israel's brief annexation by Babylon and Persia.
These are some of the books which have furthered my own understanding of Judaism and Christianity.