Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Gods Themselves

The Gods Themselves
© 1972 Isaac Asimov
288 pages

"Against human stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain." - Friedrich Schiller

In a small university office, something wondrous has been discovered: an isotope of Plutonium which cannot possibly remain stable according to the laws of known physics. Yet there it sits upon Dr. Hallam's desk, quiet as you like. The search for the isotope's origins creates a powerful new energy source for humanity, one which is effectively inexhaustible and utterly efficient. But nothing comes without a price, and one scientist realizes to his horror that the price of humanity's bounty may be the solar system itself.  The Gods Themselves is a story told in three parts: as two men on Earth and the Moon attempt to find someway of convincing the civilization of Earth to save itself, in another universe (the origin of that isotope) a dissident alien rails against her own people's attempt to save itself -- an attempt which is dependent on Earth's destruction.

The Gods Themselves is one of Asimov's more unconventional works, for the good doctor rarely used aliens in his stories. This may be the readers' loss, for the alien race he invents for The Gods Themselves is far from being a species of "rubber forehead" aliens with strange names. They are creatures far different from us, with three genders and bodies not quite so bound as ours. Wrapping my head around their society took a few pages, but once I'd gotten a handle on the genders I was hooked. Despite their differences, they remain sympathetic-- except for their dispassionate decision to destroy Earth's solar system to ensure their survival. Asimov's world-building on the Moon is also worth noting: it seems to be a popular location for him, as he used it in The Positronic Man and more than a few short stories.  The Gods Themselves is also a 'harder' kind of science fiction than Asimov's other works (like Empire and Robots):  the first third of the novel takes place almost entirely in the laboratory, where atomic chemistry dominates the dialogue.

The essential source of tension in the novel is human short-sightedness: as one character explains to the others,  when people are forced to realize their actions have destructive consequences, we seek to counter the consequences instead of ceasing the actions. Because our human heroes can't overcome human stupidity in this regard, they are forced to find a scientific solution to the problem at hand. I didn't know beforehand if this novel is intended to be set in the same storytelling universe as the Robots, Empire, and Foundation novels, so whether the characters would emerge victorious or go down fighting remained up in the air until the final chapter.

Definitely one of Asimov's more interesting works:  dramatic tension is maintained nicely, surviving even an interesting sidetrack to explore Asimov's alien culture. The most sympathetic character in the novel is an alien, actually: most of the humans are boors, though humanity is redeemed by two characters in the ending section. It remains to be seen if we will redeem ourselves, for the same weakness of Asimov's humans is present today: instead of throwing ourselves into solutions to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels, we insist on maintaining them for as long as possible, and so invite disaster.

Related:

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Age of Faith

The Age of Faith
© 1980 Will Durant
1200 pages



After centuries of economic decay, political corruption, and relentless outside attack, the glory of Rome finally surrendered to the tides of history some four centuries into the common era. The western empire gave way to a multitude of states ruled by those virile newcomers, a litany of Germanic tribes -- Franks, Normans, Angles, Saxons, Goths -- while in the east,  the classical world was maintained by the Byzantine empire, though more Greek than Roman. What unity remained was to be found in religion, in the Church: having formerly been integrated into the old Roman order, maintained its echo -- but it struggled for power with the many new kings, and even its unity would eventually be fractured. Across the Bosporus, Rome's old enemy Persia stirred -- and further south, in the windswept dunes of Arabia, a man named Muhammad was destined to create a new world power and religion, one which would war with and yet help revive western civilization. Such was the medieval epoch, and in this thousand-year history Durant tells the magnificent story of Europe's formative years.

Durant begins with the death-rattle of Rome and throws a spotlight on Byzantium before moving into the middle east. Although giving Persia and Egypt their time in the sun, it is the rise of Islam which dominates the early portions of the book -- Islam, which fundamentally altered the balance of power around the Mediterranean and  preserved much of the classical knowledge that Christian Europe happily tossed into the flames. After a time spent on medieval Jewry -- which, following the destruction of Herod's Temple, united around the Talmud -- Durant then moves to Europe which claims the bulk of the book aside from occasional check-ups on Byzantium. As with his other works, this is comprehensive history, tracking the growth of not just politics but of art, science, and religion. From where I sit, The Age of Faith is the best in the series so far.

It's been over a year since I read from the Story of Civilization series, and in that time I've forgotten how masterful an author Durant is, especially when reflecting and evaluating on the lessons our history has to offer humanity. The book is a hefty read, but the size is appropriate, allowing Durant to reflect on a multitude of cultures and ideas. His scope is impressive. The political histories and cultural treatments are exciting enough, but after musing on the vagaries of currency exchange and enthusiastically guiding the reader through the transformation of architecture from Romanesque to Gothic and the growth of literature and music,  he sits down with the reader -- perhaps under the shade of one of those awe-inspiring cathedrals which rose in the 13th century -- and ruminates on philosophy and religion, mulling over the different approaches Christians took to their faith. Some fled the world, others engaged it:  mystics held to dogma, while rationalists like Abelard dared to make reason the master of belief.  This book is a positive banquet of the human experience, and I relished dining on it day after day.

Although the medieval period is scorned as an era of darkness between the lights of classical civilization and the Renaissance,  the picture which emerges here makes that a view impossible to maintain. Though the newly empowered Christianity did do irreparable damage to the human experience, destroying "pagan" art and literature, Europe itself recovered -- and did so not by restoring Rome, but by claiming greatness in its own merits. Technology advanced, as did science -- slowly and painfully. While science had to overcome hostility by the clergy,  the medieval Europeans were at least interested in it, far more than the Romans. The Age of Faith bears witness to how much present-day Europe owes to its ridiculed ancestors -- those ancestors who created the universities, who conquered wilderness and marsh and turned them into civilization, who built towns from nothing and filled them with majestic structures which stand today, an enduring legacy. Then too are the fascinating human stories -- love affairs like Peter and Heloise,  philosopher-kings like Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire, and  philosophers and scientists in both Christianity and Islam who defied orthodoxy.

Although it took me several tries to tackle this book, I'm heartily glad I did. This is definitely one worth reading.

Related:




Monday, August 29, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (30 August)

The last Tuesday of the month already? Oy, the time flies.


Civilization is the union of soil and soul -- the resources of the earth transformed by the desire and discipline of men. Behind the facade and under the burden, of courts and palaces, temples and schools, letters and luxuries and arts, stands the basic man: the hunter bringing game from the woods; the woodman felling the forest; the herdsman pasturing and breeding his flock; the peasant clearing, plowing, sowing, cultivating, reaping, tending the orchard; the vine, the hive, and the brood; the woman absorbed in the hundred crafts and cares of a functioning home; the miner digging in the earth; the builder shaping homes and vehicles and ships; the artisan fashioning products and and tools; the pedlar, shopkeeper, and merchant uniting and dividing maker and users; the investor  fertilizing industry with his savings; the executive harnessing muscle, materials, and minds for the creation of services and goods. These are the patient yet restless leviathan on those swaying back civilization precariously rides.

p. 206, The Age of Faith. Will Durant.

Top Ten Autumn TBRs

This week the Broke and the Bookish want to know: as school resumes and the trees begin their autumnal parade, what will you be reading?

1. The Age of Faith, Will Durant

"Oh, pshaw," you say? "You've been trying to read that for a year. Why bother pretending you're going to finish any time soon?"

Because I only have a hundred pages left, that's why. I've been dedicated to it this last week. I read it in the morning with my breakfast, I read it at lunch, I read it at supper, I read it in the afternoon and I read it at night.

2. Department of Temporal Investigations: Watching the Clock, Christopher L. Bennett

I bought this a couple of months ago but lost it halfway through my reading. Actually, I didn't lose it so much as someone decided to put it someplace without telling me. By the time I found the book I'd forgotten what was going on, though -- so I'll probably be restarting.

3. Vagabond, Bernard Cornwell
This will be the last in the Grail Quest series for me, and (alas) my last medieval Cornwell read for a while, since I've been spending my spare money on Star Trek DVD sets instead of books lately.(If you could buy an entire season of an hour-long show for $15, wouldn't you?!)

4. The Land of Painted Caves, Jean M. Auel

This is really more a maybe. I read the Earth's Children series back in 2006 or 2007, but I enjoyed it progressively less as the series wore on. The last book (The Shelters of Stone) seemed to be missing a plot altogether, as the lead character Aayla wandered around being an awesome Mary Sue and coping with the other characters' jealousy.  It's still a book about Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals, though, so I'll give it a try at the very least.

5. The End of Eternity and 6. The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov
For some reason I want to knock out the rest of Asimov's novels this year. I'm not sure why, because I know I'll regret it and mourn the fact that I have no more Asimov novels to read.

7. Children of the Storm, Kristin Beyer

Beyer has impressively turned one of Star Trek's least-liked shows into one of its best-regarded novel series. Voyager is now leading a small flotilla of ships into the Delta Quadrant to make sure the Borg are truly gone, as well as to patch up any misunderstandings left from Voyager's original trip through the Delta Quadrant's many various civilizations.

8. The Litigators, John Grisham

Back in the start of the year we were asked to post books we figured we'd be reading this year, and I mentioned a hypothetical Grisham book. I titled it The Safe Assumption, because I just KNEW he'd be releasing another book this year. As it happens, it will hit the shelves on October 25. I won't actually read it until Christmas (which is when my sister and I will receive it from our mother), but I mention it here because the accuracy of my prediction amuses me.

I'm not sure what to make of the plot, though. It seems like a combination of one of his short stories from Ford County: Stories and The King of Torts.

9. Jesus for the Nonreligious, John Shelby Spong

I bought this a few weeks ago and started it right before The Age of Faith demanded my attention. I love Spong from what I've seen of him on YouTube, so I'm looking forward to this.


10. Various Incidentals

I'll be reading more of the Sharpe series, beginning with Sharpe's Havoc. I'm reluctant to be too quick about it, though, because once I finish my library's Sharpe books I've got nothing but Stonehenge and a series of books on the American Civil War which I'm inclined to avoid, because the idea of a northerner fighting for the slave-holding confederacy puts a bad taste in my mouth.  I'll be finishing Astronomy Made Simple once this book on the medieval epoch is done, and I want to return to that history of chemistry I picked up a few weeks ago -- Creations of Fire, I think it was called. I also have Galileo's Finger to finish, if I can get past the chapter on entropy (an appropriate place for my reading to be derailed, I suppose), and I need to find The Wellsprings of Life by Isaac Asimov so I can finish that. There are also a couple of books from my "top ten books I resolve to read" list that I should get cracking on sometime this fall.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Google Changing Blogger

This has nothing to do with books, but seems pertinent enough to share.  From Mashable.com:


Say goodbye to the Picasa and Blogger names: Google intends to retire several non-Google name brands and rename them as Google products, Mashable has learned.
The move is part of a larger effort to unify its brand for the public launch of Google+, the search giant’s social initiative.

Blogger and Picasa aren’t going away, of course — they’re two of Google’s most popular products. Instead, according to two sources familiar with the matter, Google intends to rename Picasa “Google Photos” and Blogger will become “Google Blogs.” Several other Google brands are likely to be affected, though our sources made it clear that YouTube would not be rebranded. The technology giant shut down Google Video, its failed web video service, in May.
The move isn’t without precedent; Google acquired JotSpot in 2006 and rebranded it as Google Sites in 2008. In 2007, Google acquired VOIP platform GrandCentral and relaunched it as Google Voice in 2009.

Picasa and Blogger were also Google acquisitions, although both companies have been part of the Google empire for far longer. Picasa was acquired in 2004 and Blogger (co-founded by Evan Williams of Twitter) was acquired in 2003 and is one of the top 10 most visited websites in the world. Although the rebranding could upset some existing customers, it also gives Google the ability to completely integrate both services into Google+.

Rebranding Coming in Next Six Weeks 
The transition from Picasa and Blogger to Google Photos and Google Blogs will occur “in a month to a month and a half,” we’ve been told. The date aligns with the likely public launch of Google+. Mashable has been told to expect the public debut of Google+ on or before July 31. The date is important because it’s the day all private Google Profiles will be deleted.
We believe Google doesn’t want to have private profiles after the public Google+ launch. Instead, the company is likely to encourage users who want more privacy to use Circles to curate their friend groups.

The brand unification effort will be the largest in company history — it’s never renamed a property as large as Blogger. The popular blog creation service has been receiving a lot of extra love recently. In March, Google announced that Blogger would receive a major overhaul. We doubt many people expected that the overhaul would include a rebranding, though.
Google+ makes perfect sense for Blogger and Picasa — they are both social products that improve as more people use them. It’s important to note that Google+ already has a photos feature, a product that we believe utilizes Picasa technology. It’s also important to note that Google+’s photo feature has no Picasa branding of any kind.

Update: Google declined to comment on this story.


I am already a Google+ member, so unless the new service is bothersome I will probably remain on "Google Blogs". I have a wordpress account reserved for this blog just in case, having registered it a few years ago in case I needed to mirror the blog for whatever reason.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Booking through Thursday: History

Booking through Thursday says: Sometimes I feel like the only person I know who finds reading history fascinating. It’s so full of amazing-yet-true stories of people driven to the edge and how they reacted to it. I keep telling friends that a good history book (as opposed to some of those textbooks in school that are all lists and dates) does everything a good novel does–it grips you with real characters doing amazing things.
Am I REALLY the only person who feels this way? When is the last time you read a history book? Historical biography? You know, something that took place in the past but was REAL.




I don't recall when my passion for history began, but I remember excitedly running to my desk on the first day of fourth grade so that I could see what my history book looked like. Since then, history has been my 'thing'.  As a story, it comes easily to me, and I regard history books as leisure reading. I suppose it's no surprise I went for a history degree. History not only allows us to understand the present, but to challenge it. Having seen the way things came to be the way they are allows us to say "Ah-hah, things don't HAVE to be this way." We don't need to be so impressed by the status quo. There's a history to everything, and the more I study it the more I realize how connected we all are. And of course, BTT is correct in pointing out that history is rife with fantastic stories -- and those stories needn't simply be entertaining. They can inspire us to action, as well.


In response to BTT's direct questions:
My last history reads were Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne and Unfamilar Fishes by Sarah Vowell, the latter of which takes on the American annexation of Hawaii.  Biography-wise, in March I read Howard Zinn's You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train. The events he witnessed in his life give me hope that positive political change is possible despite power and corruption.

Some recommendations:

  • Pretty much anything by Joseph and Frances Gies. This husband-and-wife team of historians focus on daily life in the middle ages, and their works are completely open to laymen. In fact, I'd wager that their intended audience are people who wouldn't otherwise read history. I'm, most fond of their Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel;  Life in a Medieval City;  and Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. One of the best, if not the best, history book I've read since starting this blog. 
  • A Life of her Own, Emile Carles -- the true story of a French peasant girl who survived the arrival of industrialism and two world wars. Easily my favorite book acquired through university classes, this completely altered the way I viewed politics.
  • On the Shoulders of Giants, a history-of-science series by Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser. This is a good way to acquire basic scientific literacy, and they wrote it for teen audiences so it's quite readable. 
  • And for a larger view,  Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, which points out the geographic and biological influences in human history, and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which tells American history from the vantange point of slaves, war protesters, and the working man. 




Wednesday, August 24, 2011

This Week at the Library (24 August)


Yesterday I finally -- and grudgingly -- accepted the suggestion that I visit the doctor's office, where I was given pills. The prescription appears to be working, and so today I managed to go into town and pay a visit to the library.

I picked up:

  • The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov. This one has been recommended to me by numerous readers, though given my ambition of reading everything Asimov wrote, I would have gotten around to it anyway. (Yes, I'm serious about that goal, but no, I don't anticipate fulfilling it. The man wrote hundreds of books, many of which are out of print.) 
  • The Age of Faith, Will Durant. I seem to have gotten into the comfortable habit of checking this out, reading a few sections, and then returning it. 
  • Sharpe's Havoc,  Bernard Cornwell. This is set early during Sharpe's Napoleonic adventures, though I don't know where exactly in the chronology it fits.


I also expect to finish Astronomy Made Simple.  I have two reviews outstanding -- The Third Chimpanzee, which is over a month overdue, and The Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Isaac Asimov's Caliban

Isaac Asimov's Caliban: A New Robot Novel
© 1993 Roger MacBride Allen
312 pages




The planet Inferno is slipping toward ecological disaster, and the only woman with the wisdom to save it has just been attacked and left lying in a pool of her own blood -- a pool disturbed by the tracks of robot feet,  tracks which lead outside to the capital city of Hades. The galaxy's first lawless robot, built without the safeguards of the Three Laws of Robotics, has been set loose on the city -- and there will be hell to pay.

Caliban is a three-threaded story: as Sheriff Kresh attempts to solve the case of this near-murder, the victim struggles to heal and resume her work of preparing Inferno to save itself from a permanent ice age,  and the lawless robot Caliban wanders through the city leaving a path of mayhem behind him. Caliban knows virtually nothing of robots, humans, and the relationship between then -- he must learn how to navigate the world on his own,  through the direct accumulation of experience.  The stories of all three persons merge in the end, and though it's a fitting end it still makes me itch to read the rest of this trilogy.

I did not purposely buy this book: when, two summers ago, I bought a box of Asimov books on eBay which contained the Foundation novels,  Caliban came with them. It has sat in my Asimov bookcase since,  but a few nights ago I decided to give it a try. Despite my starting off as a hostile reader ("'Isaac Asimov's Caliban? 'Where does he get off, using Asimov's name to draw in readers?!"), MacBride quickly won me over. Although the state of technology in 1993 creates a marked difference between MacBride's humans and Asimov's (Caliban has people using cellphones, and the robots functioning with HUDs), the central themes are definitely in line with what Asimov might have written. The societal consequences of over-reliance on robots is a source of conflict between the Spacers and Settlers -- who, together, are attempting to save the planet's status as a viable place for humans to live -- and motivation for the lead scientist whose battered head  introduced the story.  Caliban also takes on the Three Laws of Robotics, which Asimov invented in reaction to the early-SF use of robots as monstrous beings: he perceived robots as human-made tools, which would naturally have safeguards.  In Caliban, the use of those Laws -- a mainstay in all of Asimov's robot stories and novels -- is reevaluated while Caliban leads the Sheriff in a wild chase. The drama lasts until the last pages, ending on a high note and whetting my appetite for more.





Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (23 August)

(Hrrmm, I really should finish my review of The Big Rock Candy Mountain!)

Teaser Tuesday is a bookish thing hosted by Should Be Reading, in which people share an excerpt from their current read.

"Attack now or never; with a single ship, or all the force in the Empire; by military force or economic pressure; by candid declaration of war or by treacherous ambush. Do whatever you wish in your fullest exercse of free well. You will still fail."
"Because of Hari Seldon's dead hand?"
"Because of the dead hand of the mathematics of human behavior that can neither be stopped, swerved, nor delayed."
The two faced each other in deadlock, until the general stepped back.
He said simply, "I'll take that challenge. It's a dead hand against a living will."                                                    

p. 23 Foundation and Empire. From The Foundation Trilogy. I read this a few years ago but I had an itch to read the original trilogy again.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (16 August)

Teaser Tuesday is a bookish sharing experience hosted by ShouldBeReading, in which participants share two sentences from their current read(s) -- or more, if they're not much for rules.

His mind was whitehot with visions, and he vibrated like a harp to his own versions of Pinky's yarns. There was a place without these scorching summers that fried the meat on your bones; there was a place where banks didn't close and panics didn't reach, where they had no rules and regulations a man had to live by. You stood on your own two feet and to hell with the rest of the world.

p. 84, The Big Rock Candy Mountain. Wallace Stegner. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Top Ten Firsts

This week the Broke and the Bookish's top ten list is a free-for-all. I decided to go with a theme of 'firsts'.

1. First Book I Remember Reading:  The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss. I recently reread this, and I remembered how angry Thing One and Thing Two made me feel back in the day. They caused all that trouble and then just left?

2. First "Real" Book I remember Reading: The Call of the Wild, Jack London . It may have been a slightly abridged version, but I knew it was a real novel and not just a kid's story. Reading it straight through on Christmas day made me feel very grown-up.

3. First Science Fiction Novel:  I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X, Bruce Coville.

4. First Series:  The Henry Huggins / Beezus and Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary, starting with Ribsy.


5. First Book I Ever Read with a Friend: Roswell High, Melinda Metz.  A friend of mine read the first novel and let me borrow it: I bought the second novel and let him borrow it. This went on to the point that we read our separate copies of book four together while riding on a bus, but then he moved away, the fink.

6. First Book I Ever Ruined: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway. Checked it out in eighth grade and spilled a glass of milk on it. D'oh.

7. First Serious Book:  The Pigman, Paul Zindel. While The Call of the Wild may have been written with a serious idea in mind, as a kid I just saw it as a book about dog. The Pigman featured two very flawed main characters who undergo turmoil when a lonely old man they befriend dies as a result of their actions. I think I may have been eleven or twelve.  I also read The Pigman's Legacy and The Pigman and Me.

8. First Serious Nonfiction:  Nothing Like it in the World, Stephen Ambrose. While I'd read plenty of history and nature books in the library, this is the first I ever read which was targeted toward adult audiences.

9. First Book by my Favorite Author:  The Positronic Man, Isaac Asimov. I checked this out after watching Bicentennial Man, though Asimov wasn't then my favorite author, or even an author I retained in memory for long.  (Positronic Man, be it noted, is not the story  upon which Bicentennial Man is based. Its roots are in a short story of the same name.) I'm fairly certain I read a book by Asimov on the solar system before this, but I can't remember the name...so it doesn't count.

10. First Book I Ever Became Obsessivly Devoted To:  The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Max Shulman.   It's a collection of short stories featuring university/campus life during the late 1940s. The main character is girl-crazy, intellectual, bright, eccentric, and exceedingly proud of himself, and Shulman's humor in portraying him matches my appetite exactly.  You can read one of the stories, "Love is a Fallacy", here.



Sunday, August 14, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes
© 2011 Sarah Vowell
238 pages



For those accustomed to Sarah Vowell's usual approach to history -- one offering contemporary political allusions and biting wit -- Unfamiliar Fishes will seem decidedly straightforward. Her introduction describing 1898 as a perhaps more pivotal year for the United States than 1776 prompted me to think Unfamiliar Fishes would be a platform to criticize current foreign policy, but it truly is a straight history of the American annexation of Hawaii, one which serves as an introduction to Hawaiian history to boot.

Although her narrative begins in 1820, with the arrival of American missionaries keen on saving heathens, Vowell weaves in plenty of background information, starting from the union of the islands under a warlord. From there, Hawaii transforms into a beaten state in barely a half-century, its government taken over by puritans and ruthless industrialists. This is not a straightforward tale of good and evil, however:  savage warlords who oppress women deserve the misery that Puritanism brought, and staggeringly many Hawaiians were culpable in their own slow annexation -- like naive marks attracted to the idea of profit, playing poker with far more devious and ambitious men. Hawaii's history is a half-century of being hustled.

Vowell ends with the annexation of Hawaii at the hands of McKinley and Roosevelt, and revisits her idea of the ideals of 1776 being less important to American history than the greed of 1898.  Her ending chapter, quoting Henry Cabot Lodge's defense of the takeover, is positively chilling, as Lodge dismisses entirely the notion that the United States is a country built on the consent of the governed and defends that with examples from history -- exulting in how the rich and powerful have subdued the less fortunate multitudes time and again.  Class warfare is not a bogeyman dreamed up by Karl Marx.  The book ends on a  sad note, despite Vowell's usual attempts at humor.

Recommended for those curious about the aloha state.

Related:
The Spanish-American War, Albert Marrin

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Covert

Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob
© 2008 Bob Delaney, Dave Scheiber
288 pages


In the early 1970s, a young and promising New Jersey State Trooper named Bob Delaney was asked to join Project Alpha, a joint police-FBI undercover project intending to take down the New Jersey mob. Assuming the identity of a dead man known (appropriately) as Bobby Covert,  Delaney posed as the head of an ambitious new trucking company  on the New Jersey coast -- making money by shipping stolen goods for the mob.  After the State convinced an informant to join Delaney's team, the operation expanded rapidly. Suddenly he was spending his nights in restaurants chewing the fat with leading wiseguys, even if he avoided making a mistake and getting himself killed, the stress of living multiple lives threatned to send him to an early grave regardless.

Though Covert is billed as criminal nonfiction, it's almost more biographical. Delaney devotes time to his early years and writes on his transition from detective to NBA referee, imparting lessons learned from those careers to the reader: namely, even in this post-9/11 world,  that we cannot allow fear to rule us. DeLaney's emotional struggles while working the investigation made Covert work for me, much more than his tales of basketball and supper with the goodfellas.  DeLaney's work as a businessman isn't dramatic, but it gave the FBI insight into how the Mafia infiltrates and then dominates small businesses. Even though he started off doing small jobs for various New Jersey families, in a matter of a year they began treating it like their own private company.  Like William Queen,  DeLaney's greatest struggle is to maintain his sanity.  Although DeLaney doesn't live a Henry Hill/Goodfellas life, those interested in the Mafia will find this of interest, as it portrays the modern 'la cosa nostra' as nothing more than a bunch of classless thugs who are so utterly removed from what they prented to be that hey rely on The Godfather to gain ideas of what it means to be a mafioso.

Covert should easily be of interest to multiple audiences, including sports fans, given the range of the photos section. I tend to imagine Michael Jordan as a laidback guy, but Covert contains photos of him roaring in anger at the unflappable DeLaney. The state trooper-turned-referee also poses with Ray Liotta, who played Henry Hill in Goodfellas.


Seven Ages of Paris

Seven Ages of Paris
© 2002, 2004 Alistair Horne
458 pages

An entire city, built with pomp, seems to have arisen miraculously from an old ditch. - Corneille, Le Menteur, 1643

Paris is one of the most celebrated cities in the world, and predominates the heart of France to a degree unrivaled by other capitals. There is no 'second city' which can rival it. Occupied since Roman times, Paris has survived centuries filled with war, plague, famine, and boundless prosperity -- and Seven Ages of Paris is its irrepressible history, which entices the reader but which does not quite live up to its potential.

Last year I read Horne's La Belle France and loved it despite the author's old-fashioned "great men" approach to history. He uses the same style here, though it is more forgivable considering the sharp focus on Paris and the fact that the city's fates were tied to the ambitions, hubris, and failings of various kings for most of its history. Following a brief introduction ("From Caesar to Ab√©lard),  Horne tells the story of Paris in seven acts: Philippe August, Henri IV, Louis XIV, Napoleon, the Commune, the Treaty of Versailles, and de Gaulle. The table of contents reveals France's history as an absolute monarchy which briefly and nobly struggled to institute a parliamentary democracy before reverting to a more traditional presidential strongman. Horne does not follow France into the Fifth Republic, coming to  a close after the deaths of de Gaulle and Edith Piaf.

Although I'd expected the history of France through the eyes of Paris, Horne's focus pushes the background of French history to the periphery. Readers who dive in without knowing much about French history may flounder, as Horne connects his chapters on building programs and local culture with a colorful but threadbare narrative. While this is justifiable in some cases, I believe a history of Paris will attract a more varied readership (tourists, for instance) than students of French history. I suspect the shallow background is the result of Horne writing for a European audience which would be better versed in its history than other readers: the same is true of his giddy use of French phrases, which are is often integral to the text and not just included for a little flavor. I've studied Spanish and German, not French, and so had to break my reading experience while I looked up his reference -- this was somewhat bothersome.

Although Seven Ages of Paris flows as smoothly as Horne's other work,   it added virtually nothing to what I'd already learned from La Belle France, and even repeated that work -- sentence for sentence -- in some sections, most noticeably when he covers the Commune. It's a fair work and I enjoyed reading it, but I'm unable to drum up any enthusiasm for promoting it.



Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Synthesis

Star Trek Titan: Synthesis
© 2009 James Swallow
400 pages


On the cover:  Johnathan Frakes as William Riker; Carolyn McCormick as 'Minuet'/'Titan',

Although Synthesis may appear a steamy romance novel, the sixth novel in the Titan series is a serious and thrilling tale about artificial intelligence, featuring a race of sentient computers --some the size of continents -- fighting a destructive force greater than can be imagined. So fierce is their struggle that it has literally destroyed the fabric of space in part, and when the Titan is violently thrown out of warp while passing through the battlefield, her crew is forced into a war that has lasted for longer than the Federation has existed. Riker and his crew must contend with their own unease about dealing with sentient computers (so soon after the last great Borg War) as well as some of the AI's contentious attitude toward 'wetminds', or organic individuals.

To my knowledge, this is the first novel by James Swallow I've read, and if it presents his usual quality I'll be looking forward to more. Though no one can match Christopher Bennett for worldbuilding, Swallow's machine culture is impressively developed, with its own history that has produced a diverse set of individuals as divided between themselves as we are. There's no faulting Swallow approach to drama, and discrete references to Firefly and A New Hope relieved tension through laughter early on.  The most interesting element of Synthesis is one I can't quite reveal without spoiling -- let's just say Riker's companion on the cover is not Minuet, but something much closer to him.

Easily one of Titan's tier-one books, joining Orion's Hounds.

This Week at the Library (10 August)


I've been ill as of late, though I don't know what of. I imagine it has a fun name, though, because it's involved hallucinations, afternoons spent sleeping in the bathtub, and sentences that turn into meaningless babble halfway through their utterance. I think I am on the outside of it now, though, and I'm pretty sure the hallucinations were only due to sleep deprivation. I have two or three reviews pending (it's rather hard to write when words come off the page and dance) and today I visited the library for some new reads.

A new-ish book by Sarah Vowell (Unfamiliar Fishes) caught my attention, so I picked that right up. Vowell writes snarky histories with thinly disguised allusions to contemporary politics. I don't know what this release is about, but with Vowell I'm sure I'll be smirking and wincing at the various frailties of America.

I've been in a mood for the Bard recently (undoubtedly because of my repeated viewings of The Reduced Shakespeare Company Presents: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), so I spent some time in the literature shelves today. I finally settled on Signet Classics' Four Great Tragedies, which collects Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and MacBeth. I don't intend on reading all four of them, but I can't remember much about MacBeth (aside from it being "cursed" and ending with a bunch of guys dressed as shrubs marching on a palace) and I only know that King Lear was foolish.

I also picked up Astronomy Made Simple. I doubt it'll tell me anything I don't really know, but we'll see.
Lastly, while looking for something by Steinbeck, I spotted a book entitled The Big Rock Candy Mountain. That happens to be a song title, one which describes a "hobo's heaven".


In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, all the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmer's trees are full of fruit and the barns are full of hay
Oh I'm bound to go where there ain't no snow
Where the rain don't fall, the wind don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

The book itself follows an impoverished family through thirty years of the early 20th century. Boy does that sound fun.

I'm also figuring to finish Seven Ages of Paris.

Reviews to look for:

  • Covert, Bob Delaney
  • The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond
  • Synthesis, James Swallow



Thursday, August 4, 2011

Booking through Thursday: Anticipation

Booking through Thursday doth inquire:


What’s the last book you were really EXCITED to read?
And, were you excited about it in advance? Or did the excitement bloom while you were reading it?
Are there any books you’re excited about right NOW?

I'm a picky reader, so barring school-related items every book I read is one I wanted to read. However, there are books which I looked forward to for a long time before finally getting to sink my teeth into -- like The Age of Absurdity and The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond, the latter being a recent read.  I'd looked forward to the Diamond novel for years -- possibly since 2007.  Currently, I'm reading Seven Ages of Paris, which I've been itching to read for a year now, and Watching the Clock, a Star Trek novel by Christopher L. Bennett. He's become a favorite Trek author in the last year or so.

As far as books I'm currently looking forward to, I still have most of the Sharpe's series to explore. There are a few more Trek books coming out this year, and last night I stumbled upon a German-language translation of the first Harry Potter novel (Harry Potter Und der Stein der Weisen), which seems an appropriate way to rebuild my German reading skills.