Wednesday, January 23, 2013

This week at the library: Little Ice Age, and Bernard Cornwell



Last night I finished Battleflag, third in the Nathaniel Starbuck series. Seeing as I just finished and commented on Copperhead, posting extensive thoughts on Battleflag seemed redundant. Nate is still the son of a Boston abolitionist preacher fighting for the south to rebel against his father and his best friend Adam is following his conscience by a course that sets him against his own father, a southern aristocrat, and they're not even the most interesting characters in the book. What sets Battleflag apart is the sudden  and hilarious transformation of a contemptible slave-holding drunk who has a military office because of political favors into  a sympathetic character. I'd reveal more, but for spoilers. The ending is also brilliant, because it brings Nate into direct collision with his father, who is a major character as well. Daddy Starbuck's appearance makes Nate far more likable, because in spite of the abolitionist vein of his preaching, the Reverend Starbuck  is a decidedly unpleasant man to spend time with. The next, and so far final, book in the series is Antietam.


Before that, though, I read Brian Fagan's The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850. It's an odd blend of history and science, and chronicles a long and weary succession of droughts, famines, plagues, and death. Small wonder the Calvinists subscribed to such a vicious god: if I'd lived through these years I'd start to think someone was out to get me, too.  Fagan doesn't try to make a case for the age being caused by one thing: although there are meteorological cycles to consider, the timespan was punctuated by volcano eruptions which didn't help things. The evidence Fagan uses ranges from the solid (weather records kept by farmers, monks, and the like) to the more dubious (changes in art, and the church's frequency of "Dear God in Heaven PLEASE STOP WITH THE PESTILENCE BIT" prayers), but Fagan clearly made pains to create a big picture understanding: the most notable illustration in the book is a two page map spread of Europe, which portrays the weather patterns for a particular month and includes references or evidence of the weather that at that time -- rain in Portugal, severe snow in Denmark, and so on.  All told, Little Ice Age proved an interesting read, illustrating  how quickly the weather can change and how severely it can effect human lives, something I'd hope we're starting to pick up on after the calamities of recent years.

I also finished James Howard Kunstler's Home from Nowhere, but it will merit its own post.

Note to self, stop buying books. Amazon delivers them more quickly than I can read them. I'm not kidding -- I ordered two books on Monday, figuring they'd be here in a week and a half to two weeks. In the meantime, I'd  chew over a couple of books at the library I've been interested in for a while now. But today, this morning, the books arrived. Now I have four new books waiting to be read in addition to my library books. Hmph. They are, for  the curious:


  • Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I waited for this book's release all last year. 
  • Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Jeff Speck. This is also a new release, and by one of the authors of Suburban Nation, one of my top ten favorites of last year.
  • Earth: An Intimate History, Richard Foley.  My second science read for the year, this time in geology.
  • The Age of Steam, Thomas Crump. I bought this one to feed my hunger for trains, and then realized the library had a copy of Christian Wolmar's The Great Railroad Revolution. I don't want to binge, so this is low priority even though it also features a subject I'd like to find a book dedicated to, which is riverboats.


From the library, I have...

  • Patterns of Home, a spin-off of Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language, which I intend to read one day if I find a copy that isn't priced so dearly.  The book examines elements of successful home construction, like proportion and sunlight management. 
  • Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment , various authors including Robert Bellah. I'd intended for this to be my next serious read, but considering my interest in Antifragile, it may wait. 

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