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.

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