Thursday, December 13, 2007

This Week at the Library (13/12)

Current Music: "Downtown Train", Rod Stewart

The past few weeks have been spent working on my term paper for German History class: my goal was to show how the German air force in the first world war shaped the role of the Luftwaffe. I was apparently successful in the attempt, as my paper received an A. I had been reading materials for this paper off and on throughout the course of the term, having decided at the beginning of it to cover a topic I with which I was already intimate. Aviation has always been a peculiar interest of mine. I have practically memorized Albert Marrin's The Airman's War, and that is the book that formed most of my knowledge about aerial power in the Second World War.

The first book I read in regard to this subject was The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, written by James S. Corum. Corum follows aviation in Germany from the early 1900s until 1940, focusing on the years between 1918 and 1939. Corum's book was more or less my main source. Corum attempts to deal with some misconceptions about German aerial power -- for instance, the idea that the Luftwaffe was developed solely as a tactical force to be used against enemy soldiers and tanks, and not as a strategic air force that would target enemy cities. The book is quite interesting, and for once that isn't guaranteed: I didn't choose my term paper research books because I knew they would interest me, I chose them because I needed the facts they contained.

Another book I read was David Irving's The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe. My professor actually laughed when he saw the book: as it turns out, Irving is or was a Holocaust-denier. Reading a history book by a Holocaust-denier is like reading a science book by a Young-Earth Creationist. When I found out the author's integrity had been compromised, I attempted to look for sources to verify that this particular book was worth reading. I found no such sources, but I ended up using the book for a few trifling facts about Erhard Milch, who played a role in the administration of the Luftwaffe. Irving's tone is pretty readable. Despite the book's title, it isn't actually about the Luftwaffe. It's about Milch, so it wasn't very usable.

Another key source for me was The Influence of Air Power Upon History, written by Walter Boyne. The Influence of Air Power is a history of military aviation, and I used this primarily for context. Whatever Dr. Corum's complaints are with the book, it's pretty readable. I didn't read the portions that Dr. Corum took issue with, but this wasn't because of his opinion -- I just didn't need to read the whole book to get what I needed. I did read substantial portions of it, just not the entire thing.

After I finished my term paper, you would think that I was sick to death of reading about Germany. Well, think again. I think that my historical main interest is (finally) shifting. See, in ninth grade I was obsessed with the first world war. In tenth grade, I was obsessed with the second world war. In eleventh and twelfth grades, my obsession was the Civil War. From 2004 on until today, my interest has been 1930s America: this began with the Mafia and then broadened to the 1930s. Now I believe that my interest is shifting to Germany. This isn't a new development: this interest has been slowly developing ever since my history professor at WCCS lectured on Bismarck. I then bought a book on German history and was even more interested. That let to me taking this class. I don't know what it is about Germany that interests me so, though. The past couple of years have seen a growing interest in French and German history, so it's not just Germany. My history professor recommend a movie called Downfall about the last days of the Third Reich. The clips I saw on YouTube look fantastic, although I fail to see how Hitler is seen as "sympathetic". In the movie he seems like a screaming lunatic. I guess it's the ex-Pentecostal in me, but I don't respond well to screamers. One of the "related" videos on the side was the "Hitler Rap", which I found hilarious.

Well, hi there peoples!
You know me!
I used to run a little joint called "Germany".
I was number one! The people's choice.
And everybody listened to my mighty voice.
My name is Adolf, I'm on the mike,
I'm gonna hip you to the story of the new third Reich!
It all started down in Munichtown, and pretty soon the word started getting around.
I said to Martin Boorman, I said "Hey Marty!"
"Why don't we throw a little Nazi party?!"
So we had an election -- well, kinda-sorta
And before you know it, hello, new order!
To all those mothers in the Fatherland, I said
Achtung, baby! I got me a plan!
They said "Whatchoo got, Adolf?"
"Whatchoo gonna do?"
I said, 'how about this one:
World War 2!'

Mel Brooks as Adolf Hitler: so hilarious it should be illegal. My favorite part is the face he makes at 1:07- 1:08. I first thought that this clip was from The Producers, so I checked it out. As it turns out, this song is novelty song produced as part of a play about homosexuals in Nazi Germany, called "To Be or Not to Be".

My last book dealing with Germany this week is a bit of pleasure reading, called Germans into Nazis, written by Peter Fritzsche. As you can imagine, Fritzsche is writing to explore how Germany was transformed into Nazi Germany. I realize I say this a lot, but the book is highly readable and very informative. Fritzsche expresses his aim is to do away with some misconceptions about Nazim's rise in Germany. He divides the books into three parts: the Great War, the Weimar Years, and the Nazi rise to power. This is fairly straightforward. Along the way, he deals with misconceptions about Germany. I don't want to repeat them all, but will mention one as an example. The Great Depression is often seen as Hitler's opportunity to seize power, but Fitzsche doesn't think so. Those most affected by unemployment were laborers -- and laborers voted mostly for the Communist party, not the Nazis. The middle class was hardly affected, but their fear of being affected was enough to shape the political scene. The Nazis actually began to lose power right before Hindenburg declared Hitler chancellor. Had Hindenburg not done so, Fritzsche says, Nazism would have dwindled further and the world might not have witnessed the second global war. Again, the book is very readable.

During Thanksgiving, I read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Seeing as I quoted numerous parts of the book a couple of weeks ago, I see no real reason to comment on the book other than to express my enjoyment of it. While on the break, I also read The World of Rome, which I found to be quite fascinating. The book is by Michael Grant. The book was, as ever, enjoyable and informative. I'm picky about what books I take home with me: I read from them in the library to see if they're interesting enough to merit my attention. This may be why I so rarely encounter a book that isn't entertaining and informative.

Lastly, I read Montgomery: Biography of a City, by Wayne Greenshaw. This is obviously of personal interest to me, seeing as I grew up near Montgomery and visit it so often that I often refer to it as my hometown. The book was thin, and I thought this unusual. I was able to read the entire book in just thirty minutes, as a matter of fact. I'm a quick reader, but the book isn't really an in-depth history of the city. It covers the first 175 years of Montgomery's history, but each section is fairly short. WW1 and WW2 only merit a couple of pages each, for instance. The book was enjoyable enough, and I did learn something from it: namely, that the town is the result of two towns merging, and this is the reason the streets in the city center often don't meet one another as they ought. One city's streets were laid out in one direction and the other's in another.

I googled for this picture to show the streets, and strangely enough Montgomery: the River City is also written by Greenshaw. This may support my idea that Biography of a City is intended for younger readers (hence it being so short) and The River City is intended for adult readers like myself. The picture doesn't show the street situation as clearly as I would like, but you can sort of see what I mean by looking at the left-center section of the book, between "The River" and "Wayne".

I intended to read that book about evolution this week, but what can I say? Biology bores me and I had a term paper and finals to prepare for.

Pick of the Week: The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War

In two days, I will be forced to pack my things and go back to Selma for the winter holiday. I rather like living in quiet Montevallo, so I am not looking forward to the move. Selma is quite dull. The only thing for me to do there is visit the library, and that I will be doing -- most assuredly. I am not sure what my reading will consist of during the Christmas break, but I know most assuredly that I will be reading some French history to prepare for my class, Christmas may be quiet enough that I might start updating weekly again, rather than once every two and a half weeks like I tend to do now.

Books I've checked out to read over the holiday:
  • France 1814 - 1919: The Rise of a Liberal-Democratic Society by John B. Wolf
  • The French Nation 1814 - 1940 by D.W. Brogan
  • Humanism and America, edited by Norman Foerster. (This one should be interesting, having been written in 1930.)
  • Greece and Rome: Builders of Our World
  • Roman Life

I rarely mention the movies I watch from my libraries, which perhaps I should.
- Moby Dick, by Patrick Stewart. I checked this movie out during Thanksgiving and watched it then. I'm a fan of Patrick Stewart (his version of A Christmas Carol is the only one I watch every Christmas), so I wanted to watch this.

- Walking with the Dinosaurs: this movie is produced by the BBC. It is excellent, as I've come to expect from the BBC. The movie examines the three great ages of the dinosaurs (the Triassic, the Jurassic, and the Cretaceous) and brings the dinosaurs to life with computer imaging. They presented the movie as an actual documentary, and inserted the strangest little bits of realism. For instance, a dinosaur tail accidentally hits the "camera" when it beaches. In another section, a mother carnivore (I can't remember all of their names) had three hatchlings, and one of them was a mistfit for some reason. The narrator said that he probably would not last long. The film then cuts to other dinosaurs, but ten minutes later the view goes back to these carnivores. The narrator then says "Already there is no sign of the youngest", as if this was an actual documentary where real things actually happened. I found these little touches to be amusing.

- Before the Dinosaurs is produced by the Discovery Channel and "records" the life of animals that lived before the dinosaurs -- huge sea-dwelling scorpions, for instance, dragonflies with six-feet wingspans, and the first fish. The movie ends at the beginning of the Triassic Age, and I would bet that this movie was designed to be sort of a prequel to Walking with Dinosaurs because they show the same "first dinosaur" and say the same things about him, exactly.

- 1776: a musical about the Declaration of Independence. I had heard that William Daniels (Mr. Feeny in Boy Meets World)'s role as John Adams in this movie caused the high school that his Mr. Feeny character is principle of to be named John Adams High, but I had never seen the movie. Then a few weeks ago a friend of mine sent me a YouTube video of "But, Mr. Adams" and I was fairly hooked. I checked the movie out and liked it all the more. I like musicals, American history, and William Daniels, so I couldn't help but like this.

- Good Morning, Vietnam: I've been a fan of Robin Williams ever since I watched Jack. What I love about Robin Williams' acting is that his characters are so believably human. Other actors can be brilliant in some respects but "off" in others -- but not Williams'. This is especially true of Patch Adams, which I think is some of his best work. He doesn't disappoint in this movie; it's hilarious and moving as well.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

This Week at the Library (20/11)

The majority of my reading for the past week or so has been exclusively class-paper related. For my medieval history class, I chose to investigate Jeanne d'Arc's influence on the Hundred Years War. I have been intrigued with her since the seventh grade, when I first read about her, and the eighth grade when I saw a movie based on her story. (The video is music from the movie set to excerpts from the movie. Leelee Sobieski shows at at :54) I went into the paper expecting to find that Joan's victory at Orleans had united the French people and won the war, but as I read more and more about the war I realized that England it when they lost their alliance with Burgundy. The Duke of Burgundy and the Duke of Orleans began feuding at the start of Charles VI's reign, and their feuding turned into what amounted to a civil war.

The first book I read was The Hundred Years War, by Desmond Seward. I read this book to obtain my background information. I wanted to understand the war so that I could sort out what Joan's real influence was. The book is very interesting, telling the story of the Hundred Years War through a casual sort of narrative. It was easy to read and very informative. If you want to get a handle on what caused the war and what happened in it, I would reccommend this one. The next book I read was Joan of Arc: the Image of Female Heroism. This book was likewise interesting (if not as much as Seward's book), and helped me to understand why the story of Joan has survived for so long despite the fact that her raising the siege at Orleans didn't do much.

Those were the only two books I read straight through; others, like Joan's trial transcript, I only used for specific information. I did read two other books not related to the term paper that I turned in today, though. The first was Great Tales from English History I. If you will recall, last week I read the sequel to this as part of my term paper research, and I was quite taken by the book and the author. This first book did not disapoint. The short chapters, each telling a story from English history, are immensely entertaining. I even found out why J. Rowlings chose King's Cross station to be her magic train station -- legend has it that a Celtic warrior queen, Boudicca, was buried there.

The last book I read was Stephen Colbert's I Am America (and So Can You!). I was quite giddy to find out that the university library had received it, and I checked it out only yesterday -- finishing it today. The book relates Colbert's opinions on religion, family, immigrants, science, and so on. The book is as funny as the show, so if you enjoy the show you'll probably enjoy the book.
The entire book is essentially like this. It's a strange book: it has stickers and games and strange things like that in it. This coming week will see me exiled to Selma for the Thanksgiving holidays, during which, I'll be doing research
, but I have some leisure reading planned:
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, reflections of a Stoic Roman emperor.
- The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism by Ardea Skybreak. The title is rather ambivalent, no? I'm reading this one to refresh my knowledge of biology. My brain despises biology and genetics, but in the interests of maintaining a balanced education, I have to set aside the history books for a few days and tackle biology.

The next term paper-related book I'll be reading is The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War. Now to study Deutsch!

Oh, and Pick of the Week: Great Tales from English History

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

This Week at the Library (6/11)

It's been a couple of weeks since the last time I updated, and most of my reading has been focused around school. I'm taking three courses that require readings to prepare for each lecture, and to supplement that (and prepare myself more for tests) I read from other books. For German History, for instance, I'm reading through The Complete Idiot's Guide to Nazi Germany, which is immensely helpful. For Geography, we had to skip a lecture on Israel, so I've been reading The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Middle East Conflict. (I own a lot of the The Complete Idiot's Guide and ...for Dummies books: they're wonderful in providing a general overview of a given subject.)

Last week, I picked up Great Tales from English History 2 because it had a chapter on Joan of Arc, who is the subject of one of my term papers. The chapter on her was actually quite short, but I found the other stories in the book -- short chapters about Azincourt, Oliver Cromwell, the feud between Elizabeth and Mary, the many wives of Henry VIII -- to be immensely interesting and entertaining. I enjoyed it very much, and it became my breakfast reading for the week.

In more conventional reading, however, I have also read two books for my German History class. In addition to the "textbook" -- a compilation of letters, memos, and such from various German political leaders, our class also had to buy Mephisto by Klauss Mann and Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany by Marion Kaplan.

We read and discussed Mephisto about a week and a half ago. The book concerns the career of a German actor named Hendrik Hofgen. All of the characters in the story with the exception of bigger names (Hitler and Goering) are based on actual people in real life, which is a little interesting.

Hendrik starts out as an actor in Hamburg -- a very talented and a very career-driven one. He's nominally involved with the far left, politically. His friends include Communists and Socialists. The book is set in the late 1920s and the early 1930s, a turbulent time for Germany. Germany had recovered from the hyperinflatation of the early 1920s and had begun to prosper -- only to have all that recovery taken away by the Great Depression.

Hendrik's determination to become a famous actor makes him immensely successful in Hamburg. He realizes, though, that to get to where he needs to be, he needs to make a name for himself in Berlin. He eventually moves to Berlin and uses friendships to advance his name. While filming in Spain, the Nazis come to power in 1933 -- disaster for a socialist like Hendrik, since the Nazis despised the left.

Rather than giving into despair over the loss of his life in Weimar Germany -- the deportation of his friends, the persecution for his political ideas -- Hendrik sells himself out. He relies on his friendship to the Minister of Propaganda's wife to insert himself into the new ruling circles. Hendrik is completely at home with the Nazi elite, given how much of their platform they began to ignore once they were actually in power. The Nazi ranks were full of political opportunists like Hendrik. Hendrik's performance as Mephistoles in the play Faust is what really makes Hendrik's name known. Mephistoles is one of the "Devil's" familars. Mephistoles convinces Faust to sell his soul for gain, but that's all I know.

Eventually, Hendrik has to face his inner demons -- guilt at advancing while his friends live as exiles and deteriorate in concentration camps. The book ends as he realized that like Faust, he has sold his soul to the "devil". For a "mandatory" read, I found the book to be quite enjoyable.

The third book, one which I finished over this past weekend, is Between Dignity and Despair. In high school I developed a morbid interest in the Holocaust. The very idea of shipping people off in cattle cars and exterminating them in gas chambers was (and is) so surreal that I was driven to read about it, in hopes of making sense of it.

Learning the German language and studying German history has made me somewhat sympathetic toward Germany, but this book angered me and made me sick. The author portrays the persecution against the Jews as increasing in stages. At first, Nazi rule is merely inconvienent: there are stores that won't sell to Jews, and some Jewish men have to find other places to work. As the years drag on, Germany becomes more and more Nazified. The German people are exposed to more and more propaganda against the Jews and become absolutely hateful toward them.

I learned some things that I didn't know -- for instance, that there were tremendous barriers against Jewish people emigrating from Germany. You would think that the Nazis would make it as easy as possible to get their "undesirables" out of Germany, but that wasn't the case. Jewish bank accounts were frozen and massive taxes levied against Jews trying to leave Germany for places like Japan . Eventually, Jewish emigration was completely banned.

It seems that the Nazis didn't want to get the Jews out of Germany: they wanted to exterminate them.

Pick of the Week: Great Tales from English History 2

My reading for the next week will be dominated by readings for my research papers. I'm going to be writing about two pet subjects -- Joan of Arc and the Luftwaffe -- for my Medieval European and German history classes, respectively. I went to the libraries (today -- 8/11) and checked out a number of books regarding my two papers. One was completely unrelated -- Great Tales from English History. I'm quite looking forward to it.

Some of the books I'll be perusing in the weeks to come:
- World War II in the Sky
- The Air War 1939-1945
- The Influence of Air Power upon History
- Hitler's Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War
- To Command the Sky
- The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe
- The Trial of Joan of Arc
- Joan of Arc: Her Story
- Joan of Arc: Heretic, Mystic, Shaman

I think I have one more book about Joan, but I can't remember the title at the moment. For reasons that escape me, I have had a strong interest in the story of Jeanne d'Arc since middle school. (Well, one of the reasons doesn't escape me.) I suppose it's because I'm a Francophile, but Joan fascinates me even though I'm a cynic about religion and she was purportedly being talked to by dead Catholics.

I have harbored a fondness for propeller-driven airplanes since high school. I don't know where or when (the clothes you're wearing are the clothes you wore, the smile you are smiling, you were smiling then...), but I developed a strong interest in the second world war and especially the air war. In ninth or tenth grade, I picked up a book called The Airman's War by Albert Marrin, and I loved it. Marrin is a fanstatic writer in my opinion. In tenth grade English, we were told to write a paper on anything that interested us.

I wrote twenty-two pages on the air war. It was an awful paper, really -- a glut of information that wasn't really focused -- and I only receved a C. I was going to do my German History paper on Nazi building projects during WW2, but I was unable to find a lot of information on that other than Albert Speer's memoirs. I decided to go with a pet subject. I hope to do the subject justice with this paper.

Friday, October 12, 2007

This Week at the Library (12/10)

Life at college tends to cut into my reading time. I'm not particularly caught up in doing any one thing, but there are a multitude of little affairs -- going to classes, working, practicing German, studying, club meetings -- that add up. Consequently, I'm not able to read through a given list as quickly as I used to be able to. My most recent reading:

- Broca's Brain by Carl Sagan
- The Assault on Reason by Al Gore, Nobel Laureate
- The End of Faith by Sam Harris
- And The Darwin Awards, edited by Wendy Nortcutt.

When I visited the campus library to obtain Broca's Brain, I had to go upstairs. The layout is very dense up there, and I was momentarily confounded by the Library of Congress system. While I looked around for the Sagan book, my eyes fell upon The Darwin Awards. The Darwin Awards, for those of you who don't know, are given to people to remove themselves from the human gene pool in incredibly stupid ways. The awards (given posthumously, of course) are so named because the removal of these genes are said to aide the human race in evolving. I visit the website on a regular basis, and I was delighted to discover this book, which is a compilation of submitted stories. The stories contained therein are hilarious.

After I finished The Darwin Awards, I was very eager to begin former Vice President Gore's book The Assault on Reason. Gore begins by explaining how the culture of television has negatively impacted the democratic process, leaving Americans entertained but uninformed. Then begins the book proper. Some of the topics Gore addresses are "The Politics of Fear", "The Politics of Wealth", "Blinding the Faithful", and "The Assault on the Individual". You can probably figure out what these chapters are about. "The Assault on the Individual" deals with the abuses the Constitution has endured in the past six years under the reign of You-Know-Who*. "Blinding the Faithful" concerns how those in the right wing have used Christians in America to come to power. Of course, there's no way I'm going to feel sorry for fundamentalist Christians who continue to be duped by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. I used to be one of `em. I say if you find a supporter of the current president, ask them about the Military Commissions Act and the Patriot Act. Their faces will go blank. They'll have no idea what you're talking about. The same is true of Executive Order 9066.

After finishing The Assault on Reason (which I would recommend), I read Sam Harris' The End of Faith. This book was one of the first to be written when rationalism and atheism started coming into vouge a few years ago. The book doesn't just attack fundamentalism (Christian and Islamic) and promote rationalism and compassion-based ethics; it contains a good deal of philosophy. I enjoyed the book, although it wasn't quite what I expected. My favorite part of the book was when Harris compares faith to a rhinoceros. In Harris' words, a rhinoceros won't do any real work for you, but up close it demands your attention.

Finally, I read Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science. This book was written by Carl Sagan, so as you can imagine I enjoyed it. The book strikes me as a collection of individual essays rather than one tightly-focused book. In one chapter, Sagan gives the biography of Albert Einstein. In another, he muses on the role science fiction plays in affecting people's ideas about science. The subjects are varied, and most are interesting. Given how different each chapter is from the other, I think it's safe to skip a chapter that focuses on something the reader isn't personally interested in.

Pick of the Week: The Assault on Reason. The Darwin Awards was a hilarious book, but I prefer substance over amusement.

This week's reading: unknown. I haven't really determined what all I want to read this week. I know I'll be reading Mephisto by Klaus Mann for my German History class, and I'll also be reading England in the Time of Chaucer by Roger Hart. I may also do some reading in the direction of my research papers.

Friday, September 21, 2007

This Week at the Library (21/9)

Current Music: "Rock and Roll All Night", KISS

The first book I read last week was River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins. The river is a "river of information" -- genetic information. The book doesn't have the focus of The Ancestor's Tale; it strikes me as almost being a collection of essays dealing with questions of biology. From the book's dust cover:

Filled with absorbing, at times alarming, stories about the world of bees and orchids, "designed" eyes and human ancestors, River Out of Eden answers tantalizing questions: Why are forest trees tall -- wouldn't each survive more economically if all were short? Why is the sex ration fifty-fifty when relatively few males are needed to impregnate many females? Why do we inherit genes for fatal illnesses?

The book answers those questions and adequately. The only chapter where my attention began to drift was the chapter on Mitochondrial Eve -- the ancestor of the human race. That was completely about how genes are transferred through sexual reproduction, so I was a little bored. I did find Dawkins' suggestion that our true universal ancestor was an Adam to be intriguing, though. He bases his argument based partially on the fact that male animals often rule over harems of females -- one animal sharing his genes with a larger number of females, and thus increasing his contribution to the gene pool exponentially. Female contribution in humans is still limited to one pregnancy every year, and so an individual female's contribution is negligible compared to the male who rules over the harem -- even considering pregnancies that produce multiple offspring. My favorite chapter was "God's Utility Function" where Dawkins explains why there are so many inefficiencies in living systems -- problems that make no sense if everything was designed by an all-knowing Creator, but that make perfect sense when seen through the eye of gene-driven evolution. "Do Good By Stealth" was also quite interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

The second book I read was Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s by F.L. Allen. The book's title is spot-on; the book is very informal. It's not written with the historical objectivity that I would like; the author assumes that his reader is an American, and so speaks of "us" and "we". The book was written in 1931, and the language of the book -- the usage of 'Negro", for instance -- dates it. Despite the informality, I did enjoy the book. The 20s and 30s are of particular interest to me; I've been reading about that era for almost four years now. Before, my main area of historical interest shifted year to year; in ninth grade, for instance, I was stuck on the Great War. In tenth grade, I moved on to the Second World War. In eleventh and twelfth grades, I was engrossed in Civil War history. Then in 2004 I began to research the Mafia and here I am years later still reading books about the 1920s and 1930s -- the Prohibition Era. The book increased my appreciation for living in the here and now; I wouldn't want to live in the time of the Red Riots the KKK, and the birth of Christian fundamentalism.

The last book I read was Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali was born in Somalia and raised as a Muslim. Her family moved around a bit because of her father's political activities (resisting the communists), and so she experiences life in different parts of the "Islamic" world. Ali writes of the clan blood feuds and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. She tells of how she threw herself into the religion even while questioning it. The systemic flaws of Islam do not go away with time, and eventually she finds herself in western Europe, having fled there to avoid an arranged marriage. In Germany and Holland, Ali discoverers what humanity is capable of when freed from the fetters of dogma -- civilization. The values of Europe were completely against the values Ali had been handed by her upbringing. Ali writes of her puzzling over the fact that Europe paid no attention to Allah or the Quran, yet was still prosperous and civilized. She enrolled in a university to better understand how such a society could have formed, and was immediately challenged by the western ideas being presented at her through her classes.

"Sometimes I could almost sense a little shutter clicking shut in my brain, so that I could keep reading my textbooks without struggling to align their content with my belief in Islam. Sometimes it seemed as if almost every page I read challenged me as a Muslim. Drinking wine and wearing trousers were nothing compared to reading the history of ideas."

Ali moves further and further away from the values of her upbringing and begins to become "secularized". She becomes a Dutch citizen, and Dutch values become her values. After 9/11, she decides to examine her faith. It falls apart the minute it is exposed to scrutiny. The last chapters of the book deal with the controversy she involved herself in when she wrote about the instability fundamentalist Muslims were bringing to Holland. The same problems are being caused in the United Kingdom and Canada. Ali summed the conflict up in a brilliant way, but I can't remember the exact wording and can't seemed to find it now. The gist of her statement was that the western European nations were overly tolerant of their Muslim populations in the hope that understanding and reconciliation would be reached --- but there would be no such toleration or understanding from the Muslims toward the unbelievers who were giving them a safe harbor.

I found similarities in the author's departure from religion and my own, although of course her situation is a lot more difficult than mine. I enjoyed the book, and that ends the week's reading.

Pick of the Week: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

This week, I'm going to be reading Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science by Carl Sagan. I discovered this one a week or so ago in a card catalouge and realized that here was a book by Sagan that I hadn't read. Well, I have to rectify that. After that, I'll be reading The Assault on Reason by Al Gore. I'm not sure what it's about, but I'm going to guess that Gore will be mentioning a "Republican war on science". Lastly, I'll read The End of Faith by Sam Harris. I've read Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation and enjoyed it. The summaries of the book that I've read say that it is a book aimed at fundamentalist Islam and Christianity. I'm looking forward to it. Next week my reading will probably drift into history and stay there for a bit as I ready myself for a couple of term papers.

  • Broca's Brain by Carl Sagan
  • The Assault on Reason by Al Gore
  • The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

This Week at the Library (11/9)

This Week at the Library (11/9)

Currently Listening To: "Waking Up in the Universe", Richard Dawkins

" It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it. " - Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

Last week I checked out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Shelters of Stone by Jean M. Auel. I had only half-finished Shelters the week before, and aimed to finish it -- which I did. I also finished The Deathly Hallows, which finishes the Harry Potter series. I had to wait almost an entire week to get it after I finished Half-Blood Prince. (I have been informed by friends who had to wait years between books that I "suck".) If you've not read Half-Blood Prince and plan to do so, kindly close your eyes and scroll down for a few seconds so that your reading experienced is ruined.

I kept thinking of the book as The Deathly Hollows; I thought that one of Harry's friends were going to be killed as he and the rest of Dumbledore's Army fought the forces of Lord Voldemort in some wooded area. As it turns out, the "Deathly Hallows" are three artifacts/relics that all have something to do with death. Actually, only two of them can be sensibly tied to death; associating the Invisibility Cloak with death is a bit of a stretch. In The Deathly Hallows, Harry and friends are supposed to be hunting for Hocruxes that contain bits of Voldemort's soul so that they can kill him off for good. I don't want to reveal too much of the plot, but every thing ties together. I was not particularly surprised by the ending, but I enjoyed it.

As mentioned, I also finished Shelters of Stone. I predicted that Jondolar would have to choose between his community and the woman he loves; well, he doesn't. In The Shelters of Stone, Ayla and Jondolar settle into life among the Zelandonii. Ayla tells the story of her life (the one she told several times in book three and the one she told too many times to count in book four). The reaction among Jondolar's people is pretty much the same as with everyone else; everyone is impressed with the exception of one or two jealous or tradition-bound people. Ayla once again draws some flak when she announces that she was raised by the Clan (the Clan being "primitive" Neanderthals and the Zelandonii being the "intelligent" Cro-Magnons). She makes a few petty enemies, gets mated to Jondolar, and has a baby. That's it. This book's lack of a real plot would be baffling if I didn't know that it's the fifth part of a sixth series. While the rest of the books can stand alone by themselves, though, I don't think this one can. I wouldn't read it without reading some of the others, just so that it makes some sense. It's nice to learn about the customs of these people, but there's no plot-driven story that is developed through the book. Auel simply tells what happens to Ayla once she and Jondolar arrive back at his home; the months recorded here are as uneventful as a few months in an average person's life. I am hoping that Ayla's petty enemies were being introduced in this book to serve some more dramatic purpose in the sixth, final, and yet to be released book.

Finally, I read Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot. I have now officially read every one of his books with the exception of the one on the nuclear winter. While I am morbidly interested in the effects of nuclear winter, I think the only nuclear attacks we'll ever really worry about are those that take place at the hands of Islamists with their addled minds set on dreams of Heaven. I may read it later on, though, just to say that I've read everything written by Carl Sagan. I recently watched an "old" interview (1989) between himself and Ted Turner. The entire interview is on YouTube, and you can begin watching it by clicking here. In the second clip, Turner brings up nuclear winter. While the interview is now nearly twenty years old, ridiculously enough we're still facing the same problems -- global warming, inadequate health care, and a woefully uneducated populace. Sagan even mentions that a sizeable percentage of U.S. students couldn't locate their own country on a map; deja vu, anyone?

I enjoyed Pale Blue Dot enormously. That goes without saying; the book is by Carl Sagan. I think the book might dethrone Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors as my favorite Sagan book; we'll see as time goes by. The book is primarily concerned with humanity's role among the stars. A few weeks ago (before I checked the book out) I added a video onto my MySpace profile. Sagan's words in the video feature in the beginning of the book. Toward the end of the video, he says that astronomy is a "humbling experience". This is how he begins the book, by illustrating through a history of astronomy the various ways that humanity's arrogance has been checked by further knowledge of our cosmic insignificance. Sagan moves on to explain how we started to explore the solar systems and goes into detail on how particular parts of the solar system formed; he talks about the natural history of Venus that can be deduced through the available evidence, for instance. The book covers all manner of subjects, all of them tied in some way to astronomy. While I think the book could be enjoyed by anyone, I would especially recommend it to people interested in astronomy like myself. I also want to recommend another video.

A couple of months back, I somehow encountered Prometheus Music, which produces songs dealing with humanity's adventures in space flight. "Surprise!" is about Sputnik, for instance. My favorite song is "Fire in the Sky". I happened to find a visual history of space flight set to the song -- I hope you enjoy.

Pick of the Week: Despite the fight Deathly Hallows put up, I have to say that my favorite reading for this week was Sagan's Pale Blue Dot.

I also began reading Only Yesterday. I'm not reading it in book form, but online. I can't find a copy of the book in any of the nearby libraries, and I've been wanting to read the book for two years. Because of this, I have overcome my aversion to e-books and started to dig in. So far it's fantastic.

This week, I plan to read Richard Dawkins' The River Out of Eden. Despite my enormous affection for Dawkins, I have actually only read three of his books -- Unweaving the Rainbow, The Ancestor's Tale, and The God Delusion. I've tried twice to read The Selfish Gene, but genetics bores me. With that in mind, it seems ridiculous that I am reading another of his books about genetics. I plan to read the book largely because of the fact that I'm familiar with and enjoy reading Dawkins' works. I love watching interviews with the man, and I'm hoping that this book is as engaging as he is in interviews.

Dawkins was featured in a panel of interviewees that I watched a few days ago. Another of the panelists was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote about her experiences as an ex-Muslim emigrant to Europe in the book Infidel. I'm interested in her story, so I'll be reading the book this week.

So, this week:
- Only Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen
- The River Out of Eden, Richard Dawkins
- Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Saturday, September 1, 2007

This Week at the Library (1/9)

Current Music: "Never There", Cake

I had hoped to delay this week's update until I was able to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but getting my hands on a copy of the final book has been harder than I thought it would be. Most of this week's reading -- well, last week since I'm late -- was Harry Potter-related, but not all of it. There were two non-Harry books I checked out last week -- Storms from the Sun and The Germans. I didn't finish The Germans because I was caught up with the Potter books. Shelters of Stone suffered a similar fate; I was halfway done with it, but Harry interfered.

I found Storms from the Sun to be both informing and entertaining. While I usually enjoy the books I check out, this week was no guarantee given that I picked the book up because of its cover. In effect, I judged the book by its cover. Take that, conventional wisdom. As you can imagine, the book is about how the activity of the Sun affects those of us on Earth. At the beginning of the book, in the second chapter, the author tells a story about Columbus. Columbus' men were relying on the natives for food and supplies, but they soon wore out their welcome by treating the natives in an obnoxious fashion. Being a deeply religious man, Columbus knew just what to do -- sic God on them.

By consulting astronomical tables, Columbus was able to threaten them with a lunar eclipse. He told his hosts that God wasn't very happy that the natives were no longer allowing the Spaniards to treat them like doormats. They would either continue to feed his men and tolerate their boorish behavior, or God would take the moon away. The eclipse showed up as predicted and the Spaniards were able to obtain more free food. I thought this story was funny; it pretty much sums up the best use humanity has found for religion -- exploitation. Most of the book is about solar activity's effect on Earth's electromagnetic field. I found it interesting, but then I like astronomy.

So, two weeks ago when I checked out Storms from the Sun, Shelters of Stone, and The Germans, I planned to return to the library whenever the second and third books of the Harry Potter series were returned. A week later, they were not returned. I had watched the first movie by this point and was quite anxious to resume my reading of the series, so this annoyed me greatly. That Saturday, I came to Montevallo for Spruce-Up day. While I was here, I picked up the second and third books and the third movie. I then drove home and "settled in for a Hogwarts' weekend".

On Saturday, I read Chamber of Secrets and on Sunday I read The Prisoner of Azkaban. The Chamber of Secrets is about Harry's second year at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I have actually read some of this book before, in tenth grade. A friend from school was reading the book and asked me if I had read them. I said no, and she was surprised. She let me read some of the book during class, and I did enjoy what I did read. I read the first two chapters, I think. I remember Dobby quite well. Dobby is this little house-elf, and he shows up to tell Harry not to go back to Hogwart's, because trouble is brewing there. Harry doesn't heed his advice, of course, and goes anyway. As Dobby predicted, trouble starts. The students start showing up "petrified"; they're alive, but not living. They're frozen.

Harry, of course, having his name on the cover, sets out to solve the mystery. I halfway expected Hermione to say "Doesn't it strike you a bit odd that during our second year here, we've encountered a second mystery?". The Boxcar Children did this; every so often they'd say 'You know, mysteries seem to pop up wherever we go!". If you aren't familiar with The Boxcar Children series, you should be. Anyway, back to Harry and his mystery. It seems that one of the founding members of Hogwarts', a fellow named Slytherin, was quite the snob; he only wanted pure-blood wizards to attend the school. The other members (Gryffendor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw) were against this, so Slytherin left the school. Before he did, thought, he built a secret chamber in the school, the "Chamber of Secrets". He said it would unsealed once his heir showed up. When the second year at Hogwarts' starts, a blood-painted message appears on the school walls that says the Chamber has been opened and that the enemies of the Heir should beware. The book is about Harry trying to figure out who the Heir is, where the Chamber is, and who is petrifying the students of Hogwarts'. I was surprised by the answers to the last two questions.

After this, I watched the second movie and started on the third book. If I had any doubts about finishing the series, the third book would have completely done away with them. I love the third book; it was a fantastic read. It had all the elements that make for good fiction. It is called The Prisoner of Azkaban. Azkaban is a wizardry prison where bad wizards go. It's an island prison, which doesn't help people who might confuse the title and read it as The Prisoner of Alcatraz. I figured out the basics of the ending well before I got to it, although I didn't anticipate all of the endgame plot developments. One thing that puzzled me was that Ron and Harry were clueless about how Hermione was taking multiple classes during the same hours and apparently missing none of them. During the book, Hermione "pops" into the classroom, surprising people. She insists she's been there the entire time, but Ron and Harry puzzle over her behavior the entire book. Clearly, neither of them has ever watched an episode of Star Trek.

On Monday I checked out Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I would be leaving for Montevallo in a few days, but I was quite looking forward to continuing the series. Goblet of Fire is when the series' overreaching arc really begins to unfold, and it is the first "big" novel in the series. I liked Goblet of Fire, but not as much as The Prisoner of Azkaban. In Goblet, Harry is chosen by the Goblet of Fire (a talking goblet) to serve as a "champion" in the Triwizard Tournament, this competition between the three largest European magic schools. Each school is represented by a champion, and they compete in three trials that involve magic. The Goblet picks two champions from Hogwarts -- Harry and a young man from Hufflepuff by the name of Cedric Diggory. Harry's inclusion in the championship results in Harry being isolated from almost everyone in the school, who think he is an attention-seeking brat. The book ends with a newly-alive Lord Voldemort attempting to kill Harry, who (obviously) survives.

The next book is The Order of the Phoenix. By this point, the war between the forces of good and evil has already started. The Order of the Phoenix is an order of wizards and witches who are fighting against Voldemort. They're the only ones fighting, because the Ministry of Magic refuses to see that there is a problem. Harry -- who narrowly escaped death in Goblet -- is seen again as a brat who cooks up wild stories to catch everyone's attention. Dumbledore backs Harry, and this results in his being ousted from the school. A new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (Dolores Umbridge, who I dislike even more than Draco Malfoy) is named Headmistress, and she attempts to undermine all of Dumbledore's and Harry's plans to defeat Lord Voldemort. She's quite wretched. Voldemort in this book is seen as trying to find a prophecy about him and Harry, and he tricks Harry into going to the Department of Secrets at the Ministry of Magic to fetch it. Voldemort's forces then attack Harry. While they do lose, they claim the life of Harry's godfather, Sirus. I thought Order of the Phoenix a good read, but I disliked the parts that included Umbridge.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the sixth book in the series, and the last one I've read at the moment. I think this book's purpose is mainly to prolouge the final book, as there's really not that much conflict. The main characters grow in magical ability and personality and Dumbledore begins training Harry for the inevitable final battle against Voldemort. To kill him, they must locate and destroy four Hocruxes, which are objects that contain some of Voldemort's soul. The book ends with an attack by Voldemort's supporters on the castle. I enjoyed this book quite a bit, more so than I have any book since Prisoner of Azkaban.

Pick of the Week: Prisoner of Azkaban

So that ends last week. This week, I'm reading Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot and plan to pick up the final Harry Potter book tomorrow. I'll read it over the weekend and hopefully be done on Monday or Tuesday. School studies will probably limit my weekly reading to one or two books a week, depending on how busy I am kept.

I am now a convert to Pottermania -- like C.S. Lewis, "England's most reluctant convert". My conversion started with the first movie and was cemented by the third book. One of my friends is a severe Potterhead, and she has seen fit to introduce me to some elements of Potterfandom -- like Wizard Rock and the Potter Puppet Pals. (I especially enjoy "The Mysterious Ticking Noise".) My conversion to Pottermania was helped by the fact that I'm given to geeky fan behavior anyway. There's no limit to the amount of things I can associate with Star Trek, and when I approach an automatic door I make a "Force Open" gesture a la Obi-Wan Kenobi out of habit. I think maybe that I knew I would be sucked into this and wanted to stave it off for as long as I could.

And so I end. Tomorrow I'll pick up the last book (assuming the library is open, anyway). I'm also interested in reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, which is about her experiences growing up in various Muslim countries and leaving them for Holland, eventually becoming an atheist and a critic of Islam. I'm going to figure out a way to obtain the DVD of The Goblet of Fire, and then await Order of the Phoenix's release on DVD. Pity my friends didn't convince me to start the series a week earlier; I could've caught Phoenix in theatres!

Monday, August 13, 2007

This Week At the Library (13/8)

Smellincoffee003: I read my first Harry Potter book today.
Potterhead: excellent
Potterhead: and?
Smellincoffee003: I kinda liked it.

Potterhead: muhuhahahaha

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They're out to get me! This is the library I have gone to all of my life, by the way. I literally grew up with this library, as it added a new wing when I was in seventh grade. If you look at the second chimney, you can see where the library used to end. Everything to the right of that chimney is new, as is the courtyard below. The nonfiction and reference sections are in the upstairs of the older part, and the adult fiction is downstairs. The children's section is in the upstairs of the new wing, and the downstairs is mainly offices and conference areas. The inside hall facing the courtyard serves as an art gallery.

My first read last week was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which is first in the seven-book series. The majority of my online friends have been insisting (with varying degrees of intensity) that I read the the first book. Annoying as this was, it did prompt me to investigate. The Sorcerer's Stone is an enjoyable book. I enjoyed the storytelling, although I didn't really like "Lord Voldemort's" backstory. Too much supernatural weirdness for me, what with the "talking out of the back of other people's heads" thing. He'd better get his own body pretty quick-like.

There's little point in writing about the plot of the book, seeing as everyone who reads this has probably already read the Potter novels…but I will anyway. This is the story about a young boy named Harry Potter who is orphaned and sent to live with his relatives. His relatives don't like him and they mistreat him as he grows up. When Harry is very scared or angry or whatever, strange things happen -- like a large snake being released from its cage. Harry is magical, you see.

In this, the book reminded me a lot of Roald Dahl's Matilda. Matilda is about a young girl who is raised by obnoxious relatives who mistreat her as she grows up. When they are making her life miserable, however, strange things the television blowing up. Matilda has telekinesis, you see. Both Harry and Matilda get to escape to school. Despite having trouble there with other students and teachers, Harry and Matilda are both enormously helped by school. Matilda is adopted by her teacher, Miss Honey, and Harry gets six more books.

The Sorcerer's Stone also reminded me of The Sims: Makin' Magic, which I never bought for a number of reasons. I have read numerous reviews and Sim-stories, so I know what the game is like. Magic is treated the both way in both the novel and the game expansion. Overall, I enjoyed the book. My favorite part was the interplay between Ron Weasely and Hermione and Wizards' Chess. Much better than three-dimensional chess from Star Trek.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Turtles and Tortoises was wholly devoted to the subject of turtles as pets. I have given thought to how my life will be after university and such, and I figure I'll have a few pets -- a cat if I can, plus a smaller pet like a hamster or turtle. After reading the book, I am now certain that turtles deserve more care than I may be able to give them. I had already come to this decision a few weeks ago. Of course, if I move to a place where cats are prohibited (and that will factor in, as I want one), I may rethink this issue. The book is informative, but doesn't get into the behavior of wild turtles so its appeal is limited.

The Rising Tide is a novel of the Second World War, written by Jeff Shaara. I've read everything else Shaara has written, and had high expectations for this book. Those expectations were met; I think this is one of his better works. Shaara writes about the war through the eyes of the men who fought it. He writes in the same style as his father -- a style that attempts to convey the character's thoughts as they would think them. It's a curious style, but effective. I was pleased to learn that The Rising Tide is in fact first in a three-part series about the second world war. This one concentrated on North Africa, moved to the invasion of Sicily, and ended with the deposition of Mussolini and the invasion of Italy. The principal characters were General Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and two enlisted men named Logan and Adams. Logan was a tank gunner in Africa, and Adams was a paratrooper. I don't recall their first names. I found this book, like all the others written by the Shaaras, to be both informing and entertaining, and I look forward to the second and third books of the series. Both are as yet unwritten, but the first is supposedly centered around Operation Overlord -- the invasion of Normandy.

I checked out Blood and Iron thinking it was a novel of German history, focusing on one particular family. It turns out that this is a novel of genealogical history, focusing on one particular family, with German history providing the setting. I'm not all that interested in familial histories; I wouldn't even read a book on the Roosevelts.

The last book I finished was Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-5", a work of fiction inspired by his experiences as a POW in Dresden when it was firebombed. It is a rather curious book. It was very interesting and entertaining, but it was such a peculiar read that I'm really not sure what to say about it. Vonnegut tells his story through the character of a man named Billy Pilgrim. Pilgrim isn't Vonnegut, but he is supposed to have been one of Vonnegut's fellow POWs. The book tells about Pilgrim's war experiences, but it also tells about what happens after the war, even covering his death. The book doesn't do this in a chronological fashion, though. Pilgrim thinks he has been abducted by aliens and they allow him to experience all of life all at once, so that he can be in 1964 in one minute and in 1934 in another. While Vonnegut is telling this story, he's also commenting on greed and war. However peculiar a read this was, I think I may read more of Vonnegut's fiction in the future.

Pick of the Week: The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara.

This week, I didn't really make a reading list. I had two books I knew I would get, but I hadn't gone beyond that. First, I was planning to check out Shelters of Stone to finish the Earth's Children series (as it is written so far; Auel hasn't finished the sixth book yet). Secondly, I decided to read the second Harry Potter novel.

Last week, I visited the children's section first to covertly check out the first Harry Potter book. I was more than a tad uncomfortable being present in the children's section, seeing as I haven't fit that label for quite some time. I felt the same way when I sneaked in there to check out a Redwall book, but not as embarrassed as I felt to be walking around with Left Behind novels. After I checked out the book, I placed it my car and re-entered the library through the main doors. That way, no one saw me walking about with a "kiddy" book. This week I decided to check out my adult books first, then exit the library through the children's section and pick up Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on my way out. After I picked up Shelters of Stone, I had no real idea what to get upstairs. I thought I should get another book on Germany, so I picked out The Germans. Then I saw a book called Storms from the Sun that looked interesting. After that, I decided to dart inside the children's section.

As it turns out, the librarians were having a meeting right beside the shelf where the Harry Potter books were. I'd be spotted by two of the main librarians! I stood there dumbly for a minute, then realized they could see my head over the short shelves and went to get the book. It wasn't there. I kneeled there listening to them speak, but the book wasn't there. I thought maybe they had isolated some of the books and put them in a special display. I went to get the movies -- I was checking out the first two movies as well -- but still couldn't find the books. Eventually one of the librarians noticed me wandering about (looking uncomfortable) and asked me if I needed help.

It turns out the web catalog was showing the book as "in" when it was really "out" and due in tomorrow. She gave me a "hold request" to sign, so they're going to call me tomorrow to come fetch the book. I chatted a bit with one of the librarians, and she says lots of adults check out books in the children's section. It was really a moot issue by then; I had been wandering about the children's books for so long by this point that whatever "adult dignity" I had was gone. I felt as comfortable as I felt when I was little and one of the founding members of the Goosebumps Fan Club.

So, the reading for this week:

  1. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (if it's returned on time)
  2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (I'll pick it up when I pick up the second.)
  3. Shelters of Stone, Jean M. Auel
  4. The Germans, by Gordon Alexander Craig
  5. Storms from the Sun by Michael J. Carlowicz

I'll also be watching the first two movies. I actually already watched the first movie today, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Special thanks to Mikado, for spotting the errors that I miss. I've gone a lifetime thinking Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was written by "Ronald" Dahl!

Monday, August 6, 2007

This Week at the Library (6/8)

It didn't take me long to zip through this week's reading for whatever reason; the gods directed me to a select some very readable books, I suppose. The first book I read was Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. I had wanted to read something by Franken, but the main reason I picked this one up was because it featured Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter on the front cover. Bill is pointing his finger and shouting, presumably "SHUT UP!". I used to listen to W-MRK, this local AM station that plays fifties/sixties rock and features a lot of conservative talk radio hosts. I sometimes listened to O'Reilly, but I thought he was an abusive ass and only listened when I wanted to be amused by his antics. I can't even laugh about Ann Coulter, though; listening to her is like walking in a graveyard and seeing the grave of a child who died in a fire. It's sad, you know?

When I picked up the book, I wanted to read about those two being taken to task, and Franken does it quite well. Franken and I are both liberal idealists, so I don't think we'd have much to argue about. The book does put President Clinton a bit of a pedestal, though. I generally like Clinton, but I'm wary of a book that doesn't mention any failings of his. Then again, Clinton wasn't the subject of this book and he's mentioned only when Franken is addressing lies about him. This book was written before the '04 election, and so references Bush's "Not Really Elected" status more than a few times. I found the book to be informative and hilarious. One similar book I want to read is Soulless. You can probably guess who that one is about.

After the book on Franken, I read Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country. The initial few chapters don't seem to have a common theme, but the latter half of the book drifts toward idealism and sticks there. I have to say that the hour I spend reading this book was one of the most enjoyable hours I ever spent alive. The title of the book comes from Vonnegut's conviction that the America he loves has started to pass away in recent years. He does say this, though:

"While on the subject of burning books, I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength, their powerful political connections or great wealth, who have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and destroyed records rather than to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desk of our public libraries."

You might notice in that quoted section that Vonnegut uses commas a lot. I don't know if that's his literary style or if it's common of writers in his generation, but I noticed it throughout the book. He never uses semicolons as a matter of principle, which I find to be an interesting quirk. I enjoyed reading Vonnegut's words so much that I copied down a number of his quotations into my journal. You can browse his WikiQuote page to see others. I also have some of my favorites in my blog for those of you in the know. Vonnegut has been described this century's Mark Twain, which is funny considering that he asks where this century's Mark Twains and Abraham Lincolns are. I like reading this book, will look for other nonfiction works by him, and may even give his fiction another try.

Rickles' Book was the third I read this week. I said last week that the most memorable part of Don Rickles' appearance on Letterman was the fact that he kept insulting Dave throughout the course of the interview. As I read the book, I learned that insult humor is Rickles' shtick. That's how he makes a living; people pay him to come to their hotel or show, and he insults the audience and host. The main reason I checked this book out was to read anecdotes about Frank Sinatra. They were there as promised; in fact, Rickles opens and closes with stories about Frank. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a passionate fan of Frank Sinatra; his music, his movies, the man himself. There are plenty of stories about Frank in this book, and I hadn't heard any of them. Rickles describes Frank's voice as "the best voice in the history of music", which of course I agree with. I had personally never heard of Rickles before I saw him on Letterman, but I found this book to be enjoyable because the stories about the Ratpack and Johnny Carson alone.

Next up, I read President Carter's Our Endangered Values. In it, Carson addresses contemporary issues and explains his stance on them as it is informed by his faith and such. I've been meaning to read some of his books, and when he mentioned this one in an interview I decided to go with this one. President Carter explores issues like science (evolution, Big Bang), fundamentalism, the death penalty, abortion, environmentalism, and nuclear disarmament. I must admit that I used to harbor sort of a grudge against Carter for beating President Ford in the '76 election. It was a rather silly reason. I am a fan of Carter because of his activities in his post-presidential years; for a while my computer wallpaper included a picture of him working with Habitat for Humanity. Some of Carter's stances, as explained in the book:

  • Evolution & Big Bang, science in general: No problem. He says biblical authors didn't know what we know. He doesn't explain how Original Sin factors in to this. I think maybe he doesn't believe in Original Sin. I googled around to see if I could find out, but I didn't turn up anything conclusive.
  • Homosexuality: Considers it a sin based on Paul's writings, but also supports civil unions.
  • Death Penalty: Inhuman. He doesn't even argue against it, really; he quotes some statistics, mentions that the penalty is still on the book and still used, and expresses the thought that there needs to be a better effort to get rid of it. He discusses it in the same tone as you or I would anti-miscegenation laws.
  • Abortion: Against it; he said he supported Roe v. Wade because it was his duty as the chief executive, and he couldn't allow his religious convictions to interfere with his job as a secular leader. He believes that all babies should be wanted babies. Because of this…
  • Birth Control: Very supportive.
  • Stem Cell Research: Supportive; based on Carter's seemingly contradictory stances on abortion and stem cell research, It would seem that he doesn't believe fertilized eggs are really human yet. That would also make sense given his stance on birth control, as some methods of that are abortive anyway. Stem cell research may not be an issue in the future; I heard that we may have found a way of using skin cells to supply the same benefits as stem cells.
  • Fundamentalism: Opposed; claims it's against Christian ideals.
  • Church/State Separation: Very supportive.
  • Left Behind: Bizarre.
  • Pretty much policy decision made by George W. Bush: Wrong.
Carter's tone throughout the book is perfectly civil, even when talking about people who are past civility. That's one of the things I like about him; he's unfailingly polite. The closest he comes to making fun of or insulting anyone is when he comments that Left Behind's influence on American politics in Israel is "bizarre". On a similar note, I am again recommending Slacktivist's running commentary on Left Behind. I read it religiously, and the author never fails to amuse me. An example of Carter's genteelness:

"Although we often had discussions about the meaning of weekly lesson texts (divided equally between the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures), there was no thought of questioning the standard theology that characterized our devotion."

Notice what he does there? It's subtle; he refers to the Hebrew scriptures -- the Torah and Prophets and such -- as the Hebrew scriptures. He doesn't call them "The Old Testament". Why? Because oddly enough, Jews are mildly insulted when Christians refer to their Torah as "old", like it's "outdated" or "defunct". I discovered this a year or so ago when I began to research Judaism out of curiosity, although it should have been common sense. Another example: in a chapter on subservience of women in Christianity, President Carter uses a translation of the Bible that says "humankind" instead of "mankind". That's less subtle given the context, but still nice. He did amuse me when he mentioned "The War Between the States". I can almost hear him saying "Well, you know, there was nothing really civil about it."

The last book I read was The Plains of Passage. This describes Ayla and Jondolar's journey from the summer camp of the Mamutoi to the camps of the Zelandonii, who are Jondolar's people. It reminded me a lot of The Valley of Horses. Ayla spent most of Valley sitting in her cave learning to be self-sufficient, but Jondolar went on a journey with his brother and half the book was devoted to exploring his and his brother's travels as they walked across the landscape and met various people. That's what this book is about; Ayla and Jondolar walking from Asia Minor to France, meeting various people along the way. (The books my local library has feature maps that allow the reader to track what's going on.)

This book actually introduces the closest thing I've seen to villains since Broud. The first and most interesting is a psychotic feminazi named Attaroa. She murders the leader of the camp she lives in (her husband) and shoves all of the males into a caveman concentration camp. She's doing this because she thinks if only female spirits "mix", then only females will be born. She manages to capture Jondolar and tie him to a wooden stake used for target practice. Ayla shows up just in time, although to my disappointment she hails from the Jean-Luc Picard school of confrontation. (That is, talk the villain to death until their own character flaws do them in. It's poetic justice and that makes for nice literature, but in real life Ayla probably would've greeted Attaroa by killing her.)

The author, Jean M. Auel, often takes time while writing the books to describe what the landscape is like, what the animals are like, and how exactly humans are altering their environment to suit their needs. Sometimes this approach is interesting; sometimes it isn't. I enjoy learning about the mammoths and aurochs and onagers, but I couldn't stay interested in flint knapping. (Although I did pick up the word "knapping".) I think this is the reason some people (judging by reviews on Amazon and iRead) lose interest in this book. We're already familiar with most of the people Ayla and Jondolar encounter, so things can get a little bit tedious.

The most interesting part of the book for me came near the very end, when Jondolar and Ayla rescue a man and woman of the Clan who are being attacked by a band of thugs. I was very glad to see the Clan again; I like them. The Others aren't all that interesting, because there's no real difference between Cro-Magnons and modern humanity except that Cro-Magnons were a bit bigger. That makes sense considering that they live during the Ice Age and needed to be made of sterner stuff. I suppose we've atrophied since.

What I didn’t like about the book (and the series) is that things fit together too well. Ayla is almost a Mary Sue character; she's too perfect. She was raised by two people who were considered the best in the fields; one of them is a legendary figure who people across the continent know about. Her moral integrity is beyond reproach. She's wonder woman: she's the Ice Age version of Benjamin Franklin. Horseback riding, dogs, sewing name it, Ayla of the Mamutoi invented it.

Plains of Passage ended my reading for this week. I'm going to guess in the next book that her new family throws a fuss over her being raised by the Clan, and Jondolar will have to choose between the Family He Returned For and the Woman He Loves.

Pick of the Week: I'm going to go with Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country.

So that ends last week. This week, I wanted to get a book on turtles, as I've always liked turtles and frogs. Turtle biology in particular has always intrigued me. What's with the shells? I did some background reading in case whatever book I pick up is technical, and it seems that the shell is essentially the turtle's ribcage, but has been fused together. The book I want (which covers turtles, frogs, and lizards) is checked out, so I go with Turtles and Tortoises For Dummies. It's focused more at people who want to keep turtles as pets (something I've considered in the past), but I think I will learn from it anyway. I trust the for Dummies books.

In fiction, I plan to read Jeff Shaara's The Rising Tide. Back 2002 or 2003, my folks and I went to Kentucky. At my behest, we went to a Abraham Lincoln museum there. I thought ol' Abe was overrated (and still do, as far as civil rights is concerned*), but was nonetheless interested. While there, I saw a book called The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and a movie called Gettysburg. I realized while watching the movie that the movie was based largely on the book, and follows it almost word for word. Gettysburg is one of my favorite movies, and I can still quote large portions of it from memory -- especially scenes with General Pickett. While Gettysburg was being filmed, someone told Jeff Shaara -- Michael's son -- that he should write a sequel to his father's book. So he did; he wrote Gods and Generals, which is a prequel. He then wrote The Last Full Measure, which is a sequel. He must've found this line of work to be most interesting, because he continued writing books that take place during American wars. I've read all of them but his last one, which was based on World War 2. It's called The Rising Tide.

On a similar note -- the second World War -- I plan on reading Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-5". I say "on a similar note" because Vonnegut says it is an account of his experiences as a POW held by the Germans during the Dresden bombing. Brief history lesson: the British had to bomb cities at night because the RAF was so small and Nazi Germany's air defenses so stellar. Since precision bombing at night was impossible back then, the British adopted the strategy of carpet-bombing whole cities to ensure that damage was done. Fire-bombing was introduced to make even more of an impact, and Dresden was one city targeted in that fashion. The United States also indulged in firebombing. The USAAF's most well known experience with that is the Tokyo firebombing. I'm looking forward to encountering more of Mr. Vonnegut's personality. I share some of my favorite quotations from the book here.

In keeping with my studies, I plan to check out another book on German history -- Blood & Iron. The secondary title is "From Bismarck to Hitler, the von Moltke Family's Impact on German History". That makes three books this week that are somehow tied to Nazis, so I think next week I'll check out something cheery and light.

Against my better judgment and good taste -- and solely at the behest of numerous friends -- I am planning to read the first Harry Potter novel. I'm not into magic and fantasy, but my friends keep asking me to read these. One of those friends is likewise disinterested in magic, and he described the first book as "charming". We'll see. I'll read the book with an open mind and a straight face; if I could read all sixteen Left Behind books, I can surely read one Harry Potter novel. This way, if I read the first book and don't like it, I'll have a legitimate reason to not have read the series. I think I'll probably like it, but not enough to become a "Potterhead". (I have another friend who refuses to read the Potter books, and that's the way he referred to Potter fans when he threatened my life in the event I became a fan. )

That gives me five books, and I check them out with no problems. While in the library, I see a book written against James Dobson. I'm very much interested in reading, but I don't know how long it will take me to read the Shaara novel. I'll save it for next week. I'm also saving the final Earth's Children novel for next week. I'll miss Wonder Woman, but Auel is working on a sixth and final book.

So, this week:
  1. Turtles and Tortoises for Dummies by Liz Palika.
  2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling
  3. Blood & Iron by Otto Friedrich.
  4. The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara.
  5. Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut.

[*] I've read a lot of Lincoln's own words, and firmly believe Lincoln's "civil rights" achievements were inspired by political strategy. He was firmly in the "necessary evil" camp until the Civil War, then realized he could use slavery against the South as a strategic advantage. That doesn't detract from what he accomplished, but I tire of people making him out to be a saint.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

This Week at the Library (2/8)

Last week's reading was primarily nonfiction, as half my reading pertained to the classes I'm going to be taking. The other two books -- Theories for Everything and The Mammoth Hunters -- were unrelated to my classes. The first book I read was The Mammoth Hunters, which is third in the Earth's Children series. The author, Jean M. Auel, continues to tell the story of Ayla to us. This book concentrates on character development primarily because there's little else to concentrate on; the first book had to explain the culture of the Clan to the readers, and the second had to introduce and explain the "Others" by way of telling Jondolar's backstory. Jondolar's people -- the Zelandonii -- are not that different from the people Ayla and Jondolar live with in this book, the Mamutoi. Because of this, the book focuses on how Ayla fits in with the Mamutoi. Their camp is quite different from the camp of the Clan, as they are a completely foreign culture to her. Throughout the book she adapts and picks up an additional love interest. The conflict between her and her two suitors builds throughout the book. The effect for me was ruined because I accidentally read the first page of this book's sequel and knew how the conflict was resolved. This book series has more romance than I am accustomed to reading through, but given that most of my reading is nonfiction and science fiction, that's not all together suprising. I thought the book's ending was rushed, though -- and very anticlimactic. I was expecting a bit more drama, but…nothing. The book just ends in a sort of a "bythewaythisistheend" fashion. I knew what was coming, though, and I suppose it was wise of the author to not bother dragging the conclusion out out.

Theories for Everything would constitute the bulk of my reading for last week, and would be the reason I didn't finish The German Empire on time. Theories is an overview and history of science. It isn't dull, but there is a lot of material to be covered and it took me a while. Theoriesis one of those books I wish I had in my private library, because it's a handy resource that I'd like to return to again. It's a bit like a popular science book and a bit like a science textbook. The book has multiple authors, experts in their respective fields. I found the book to be most enlightening, especially the chapter on medicine. I didn't know much about medicinal history, and had no idea that there were competing theories in that field as well that caused contention throughout the course of history. The book increased my appreciation for Hippocrates, which is saying something since I already liked him a good deal. The book does a good job of informing the reader, and no technical knowledge in any of these fields is required. The only chapter that didn't hold my attention was the one on brains, which is interesting given how much I loved reading Phantoms in the Brain a month or so ago.

The Middle Ages by Dorothy Mills is a splendid little history of the medieval era in Europe. Mills tells the story of history as if she's telling a story, and I enjoyed it considerably. The use of "Mohammedan" caught my eye; like "coloureds", it's one of those words that betrays the time in which the book was written. I checked out the book's copyright, and it was written in 1935. That makes it the oldest first-print edition book I've ever read; before this it was The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. "Mohammedan" is used to describe members of the Islamic faith, and they don't like it because it implies they worship Mohammed. Considering how some Muslims acted last year during the Danish cartoon controversy, I'd say the implication is justified -- but I would only use it to describe those Muslims who go apeshit when their prophet's image is depicted. Mills doesn't use the word pejoratively.

The last book I read this week -- and the one I didn't finish until this week -- was Michael Stürmer's The German Empire. It's not a long book; in fact it's small, short, and thin. It took me longer than expected to finish Theories, though, so I didn't finish the book until early this week. I need more background in German history to really appreciate this book; that the reader would have some knowledge about Germany's history is implied. I do have some background into German history (through The Complete Idiot's Guide to Nazi Germany, which had to establish how Nazism managed to take hold in an "enlightened" country), and the parts of this book that I was able to understand built upon that background. There were some parts of this little book that I didn't quite understand, but I'll keep reading on German history and one day return to this book and it will be old stuff.

Pick of the Week: Theories for Everything

That ends last week. This week I came to the library with a short list of promising titles. I like it when I can come with a list, because wandering around the library waiting for books to catch my eye is fairly hit-and-miss. Generally, books arrive on my list through shows like This American Life and friends' recommendations. This week's list:

[*]Our Endangered Values by Jimmy Carter. I heard an interview with President Carter and when he was asked a few difficult questions, he deferred to the book. I can understand that, because the questions he was asked were the kind that need explanations; explanations you don't want to leave at the mercy of an audio engineer who to produce an hour-long show. I decided to pick the book up; I've been meaning to read some of Carter's books for a while now.

[*]The Plains of Passage. This is fourth in the Earth's Children series.

[*]A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is a name I heard a bit about after he died, and apparently he was this century's Mark Twain. I checked out one of his books a few weeks back -- Cat's Cradle -- but didn't really get into it because it was a bad week for reading and I wanted to be reading about history and science anyway. A Man Without a Country is one of his nonfictional works.

[*]The Truth (with Jokes) by Al Franken. I've forgotten how I came to want to read this book. I've never watched his show, as I grew up in a home without television. When I went to the library, I was able to find all of these except for The Truth (with Jokes). The library's webcat said that the book was there and checked in, but I searched and couldn't find it. I suppose it was on the reshelve cart or that some patron had it and was walking around with it. I wanted to read something by Franken, though, and so found myself looking for Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them. The book's cover featured Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, George Bush, and Dick Cheney. I knew then that it was promising. I didn't like Coulter and O'Reilly when I was a conservative back in high school and I don't like `em now.

While at a computer terminal accessing the library's webcat, I noticed a familiar face in the Featured Books section. The Featured Books section of the library in my hometown is near the main desk, and they put books there every two weeks (I think that's the schedule) that relate to a particular theme. One week the theme is local history, another week it's the paranormal (kudos to my library for including Carl Sagan's A Demon-Haunted World among the books about alien abductions and such; gotta keep the voice of reason in there); the theme varies. I don't know what the theme was this week, but I saw a face I recognized from The Late Show with David Letterman. It was this guy named Don Rickles, and I remember him because he has a unique face and insulted Letterman throughout the course of the interview. I remember that he was supposed to have palled around with Frank Sinatra and that he included some stories in the book -- so I check it out. My reading for this week, therefore, is as follows.

  1. A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
  2. Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right by Al Franken
  3. The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel
  4. Rickles' Book by Don Rickles.
  5. Our Endangered Values by President Jimmy Carter.