Sunday, March 23, 2008

This Week at the Library (23/3)

Books Included in this Update:
The Great War: Breakthrough by Harry Turtledove
Blood and Iron by Harry Turtledove
Science Firsts by Robert Adler
Darwin's Ghost by Steve Jones
Palestine: Peace not Apartheid by Jimmy Carter
The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov
Star Trek Academy: Collision Course by William Shatner
The Making of the Middle Ages by R.W. Southern

I’ve just returned from spring break, having spent the last week in Selma. I purposely did not bring my computer with me, and so was able to get a great deal of reading done. Most of my reading came from the Selma/Dallas County public library, but I also had a book from the university library and a couple lent to me from a friend. As I strolled through the stacks last Saturday, I saw many books I read last year. Two old favorites were Theories for Everything and Carl Sagan’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. I did not check those out, though: this week’s reading is as ever all new.

I began and ended the week with the next two books in Harry Turtledove’s “Southern Victory” alternate history series. The first, entitled The Great War: Breakthrough, ended the Great War of the series. Turtledove’s Great War saw the United States, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire face off against Great Britain, France, and the Confederate States of America. After enjoying decades of global dominance, the three allied powers declare war on the “Quadruple Entente” and find themselves surprised by the military readiness of the United States and German Empire. Both the United States and Germany make great strides in the beginning of the war, but it like our own Great War develops into trench warfare. Turtledove develops the various powers’ technologies essentially the same way they were developed in real life, but I noticed some differences. In the real Great War, air bombing had no real effect. The Germans bombed London with their Gothas, but those raids did no actual damage. In the books, though, Richmond is mentioned as being gutted by American bombers.

The “breakthrough” mentioned is an American/German breakthrough. This is not a spoiler, as an American/German victory is nearly guaranteed by virtue of their preparedness and superior numbers. The Great War: Breakthrough is the story of how the Great War came to an end. A week later, I read Blood and Iron, the next book in the series. Blood and Iron picks up at the conclusion of the Great War. The United States gain Canada (except for Quebec, which the US Government declares free), and the German Empire gains some portions of France. (Those portions aren’t mentioned, but I’m assuming Alsace-Lorraine and France’s colonies.) Both victorious powers impose massive reparations on their defeated foes, and the Confederate and French economies tank. This allows for the rise of extremists. A student of history can easily see the patterns that Turtledove has picked up from real history. The books continue to entertain me. As mentioned prior, the story is told through the eyes of viewpoint characters -- a Canadian farmer, a Confederate artillery sergeant turned political reactionary, a Union airman turned lawyer, a Southern aristocrat trying to find a place for herself in the new industrial world, and so on. Some of the characters (like the Canadian farmer Lucien Galtier ) are favorites, while I root for misfortune to visit others (like Roger Kimball, formerly a Confederate submarine commander and war criminal). My opinion toward some characters has changed as those characters have developed. Gordon McSweeney, for instance, is a Union -- that is, American -- officer who I initially despised because he was such a religious fundamentalist who constantly judged and lectured the people around him based on his religious beliefs. As the books wear on, though, I find myself impressed by some of the things he does. I think a character like this -- who can inspire both loathing and admiration -- is an indication of good writing. He’s hardly Severus Snape, though. I should mention that Turtledove depicts his characters’ sex lives rather explicitly, reminding me of Jean M. Auel’s “Earth’s Children” series, which are sometimes described as “caveman porn”. Auel is far more sensual, though -- when Turtledove’s characters go at it, they go at it like crazed chimps most of the time.

When I visited the Selma library, I decided that I wanted to read some science. I’ve been immersed in history since August, and while I have read a few science books since coming to Montevallo, I haven’t read nearly as many as I would like. As I browsed for books, I came across Science Firsts. I have checked this book out before, though I did not manage to read the book, for whatever reason. Its full title is Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation. The book, written by Robert E. Adler, was published in 2002. The book is composed of dozens of short chapters: each chapter is about a person who made a great contribution to scientific theory. (Carl Sagan, sadly, is neglected. His first wife is mentioned, though.) Some of the names -- Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Einstein -- are familiar. Some are lesser known, like van Leeuwenhoek and Lavoisier. Others I had never heard of before -- Mendeleev and Raymond Dart are two unfamiliar names that I wrote down. The book is concerned only with contributions made only to western science, so aside from one Islamic scholar all of the names are European or classical. To be able to explain each scientist’s contribution must require a broad general knowledge of science in general, so I am impressed with the book’s author. Some chapters were easy for me to digest, but others -- those about my weak points (chemistry and genetics, primarily) were more difficult. I can recommend it easily, though.

Next I read a little science fiction -- Isaac Asimov’s The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories. I checked this book out because I like Asimov’s short story collections so much. In the editions that the Selma library has, each story is introduced by Asimov in a few paragraphs, as he explains how it came to be and so on. I’ve mentioned this before, but Asimov’s wonderful personality comes through in these introductory passages, and makes the book so very pleasant to read. This particular collection is chiefly concerned with robotics; the majority of the stories are about robots and androids. Incidently, the book’s title story -- “The Bicentennial Man” -- was made into a movie about eight years ago. It starred Robin Williams, and being the fan of Williams that I am I was quick to watch it. Afterwards I checked out the book I thought the movie was based on, called The Positronic Man. The book turned out to be different, but very enjoyable. That was one of the first Asimov books I ever read, although I did read one or two of his books relating to astronomy and cosmology in high school. I’ll mention some of the stories to pique your interest: one, “Waterclap”, is about a feud between a city on Earth’s moon and a city on the ocean floor of Earth competing for funds from the council that governs the Earth. “The Winnowing” looks at an attempt by some scientists to avoid massive starvation and war by introducing a virus to the Earth’s population -- a virus that causes a pleasant, sleep-like death. “Tercentenary Incident” is set in 2076, where the United States is celebrating its 300th birthday. The President and his android lookalike are both attending the festivities, and then one of them is disintegrated -- but which?

My next book was also in the realm of science fiction. I happened upon this book purely by accident -- I was looking for another, and happened to see Star Trek Academy: Collision Course by William Shatner. Shatner -- famous for portraying Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek and its related movies -- has written other science fiction books, a number of them set in the universe of Star Trek. His Star Trek-related books center around Kirk, which I can hardly blame him for. Some fans label Shatner’s Trek books as being set in the “Shatnerverse”. I enjoyed Shatner’s previous contributions well enough, though. Shatner undoubtedly wrote this book to take advantage of renewed interest in the Kirk/Spock era, which is the result of the upcoming Star Trek movie set in that same era. The book is about James Kirk and Spock, whose lives intersect for the first time in San Francisco. As they pursue their own individual goals, they happen to come across one another and are forced to work together. It’s also very Shatnerverse-y: Kirk and Spock steal the Enterprise in part of the book. This seems almost gratuitous to me. The book ends as their friendship begins, but it looks to be part of a series. The book itself was published only very recently -- at the end of 2007 -- so it may be a while before the second book arrives in store shelves.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, classics are books that people praise but don’t read. As I paced through the library stacks looking for a book to read, I kept stopping at the shelf holding Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. On various occasions, I picked the book up and read portions of it, only to put it back up. It is a classic book that I do want to read, but since it is a science book it will be well out of date by now and I do not see the point in reading it if that is the case. When Darwin wrote the book, he had no idea of genetics --how useful can a book on evolution be without genetics? What I needed, I thought, was a book like The Origin of Species that was more up to date. My eyes fell upon Darwin’s Ghost, another book on the shelf. I pulled it out. It read: Darwin’s Ghost: Darwin’s Origin of Species, Updated.

Well, hot damn. Take that, people who don’t believe in coincidences. I poked my head in and was informed that the author was regarded as “the British Carl Sagan”. Well, that did it. I checked the book out and immediately began to read it. Darwin’s Ghost was written in 1999 by Steve Jones and is an attempt to present The Origin of Species’ argument using modern language and arguments. Darwin’s layout and chapter titles and so forth are preserved -- Jones even uses Darwin’s closing arguments to end his own arguments, a sign of how close the two books are supposed to be. I found the book fascinating, and was encouraged by the fact that I was familiar with some of the examples used -- and that I could indeed understand a great deal of the book. Given my inability to understand anything beyond basic genetics -- a fault of mine that must be remedied, and soon -- my being able to understand a text on evolution cannot be taken for granted. If I were to recommend a book to someonearguing for evolution, I’ll stick with Eugenie Scott’s Evolution Vs. Creationism -- but this book was easy to read and quite understandable. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in science, and particularly evolutionary theory. There are a few brilliant quotations in here, two of which I wrote down. The first is from the book’s author, and the second is a quotation from Darwin:

“Evolution is to the social sciences as statues are to birds: a convenient platform upon which to deposit badly digested ideas.”

“The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.”

After this, I read President Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid. President Carter introduces the characters in the Palestine conflict (Israel, the PLO, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt) and then gives a brief history of the conflict. The history section of the book is separated by US presidencies, which makes sense given Carter’s perspective. At the end of the book, Carter lists obstacles and solutions to achieving peace in the middle east. I wrote down some of it. The two chief obstacles are (1) Israel’s belief that seizing Palestinian land to avenge terrorists attacks is just or reasonable and (2) Palestinians turn terrorists into heroes. Carter’s solution: Israel’s right to exist must be guaranteed, internal strife in the Israeli government must stop, and the rights of Palestinians must be respected. That’s not all he said, but my notes aren’t legible.

I disagree with Carter when he lists chief obstacles. I’d like to see what the effect would be on Israel’s attitudes toward its neighbors if the United States were to stop giving them so much money. I suspect maybe that Little Abrahm might learn to play well with others if Little Abrahm weren’t constantly indulged and supported by Uncle Sam. The book was readable -- Carter’s style isn’t boring -- but as a secular person I was bothered by the very religious tones that pervade the book. I’ve read other books by Carter where religiosity was present but not annoying. I suppose with a book on Israel it couldn’t be helped, since the whole reason they’re THERE is because the Magic Book says they belong there and have a perfect right to kill people who won’t leave. As you can imagine, I take a rather dim view toward that attitude.

Moving on, though. The last book I read was R. W. Southern’s The Making of the Middle Ages. The book was published in 1958, which is well before historians and scientists started trying to popularize their books by presenting the materials in a way comprehensible to those who are not experts on the subject. While Southern’s style isn’t boring, it’s not all that readable either. After spending several days plodding through, I was afraid I was becoming burnt out on history. I tried reading other history books (ones I own) and found that this was not the case. The culprit was The Making of the Middle Ages. Southern explores Europe from 972 to 1204. He covers the organization of the Christian church, the introduction of logic to Christian theology, and the rise of serfs and knights. The chapter on serfs and knights -- entitled “Social Bonds” -- was interesting, but I found the ones on monasteries and theology to be quite dull. I don’t think is because I am not a religious person -- even as a fundamentalist I would have found chapters on theology boring. That’s probably why I’m no longer a fundamentalist, heh. The book seems to be well-received by people who read it, which is a bit worrisome. What did I miss? This is especially worrisome given that I’m to write a review of the book for my historiography class.

Pick of the Week: The decision is between Science Firsts and Blood and Iron. The former is a collection of delightful stories about science. The other is an alternative history tale where the United States and Germany triumph over the Confederacy and the European Powers that helped the traitorous Confederacy leave the Union in the first place. This is hardly fair. I will choose Science Firsts, however, because of my preference for nonfiction.

Next Week:
I will be reading more of the Turtledove series and probably starting on John Grisham’s latest novel, The Appeal. That reminds me: I read his next-to-latest novel (Playing for Pizza) over Christmas but neglected to write about it here -- I think.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

This Week at the Library

'Twas in the days of '76, when freemen young and old
All fought for independence then, each hero brave and bold…
'Twas then the noble Stars and Stripes
In triumph did appear,
And defended by brave patriots,
The Yankee volunteers.

Books in this Update:
1776, David McCullough
- The Jerk with the Cell Phone, Barbara Pachter and Susan Magee
- Why Lincoln Matters, Mario Cuomo
- The Great War: Walk in Hell, Harry Turtledove

This week's reading began with David McCullough's 1776. This book's cover art caught my eye as I strode through the library one evening, and I paused to examine it. A quick perusal betrayed that the book had a readable tone and seemed interesting enough, so I checked it out along with a few others. 1776 is a book dealing a critical year of the American Revolution. McCullough tells the story of this year using source materials from American soldiers, loyalist civilians, and British officers. It is a very readable book, in my opinion -- I was able to finish it during a weekend away from the university. The book is divided into three parts (much like Gaul): The Siege, Fateful Summer, and The Long Retreat. For those unfamiliar with the way the Revolutionary War proceeded, it was actually a rather bleak affair for those hoping for an American victory. Washington spends much of the early part of the war either in retreat from the British army in an effort to keep his army intact or dealing with the American bureaucracy. What I appreciate about this book is that it shows both Washington's failings and his triumphs. I recommend 1776 heartily.

My next read was a very light one -- The Jerk with the Cell Phone: A Guide for the Rest Of Us, by Barbara Pachter and Susan Magee. This, as you might imagine, is a short book that complains about cell-phone addicts and offers tips for how to deal with them. The book explains the various types of cell-phone jerks and then offers vary information. There's really not that much to the book, but it is enjoyable enough to read if you find people yelling in their phones during dinner to be a tad disruptive.

My next book was a bit more serious. Why Lincoln Matters explores Lincoln's heritage and attempts to make connections between Lincoln's policy decisions and the policy decisions of presidents that claim to follow in his footsteps. The book is by Mario Cuomo, and the name struck me as being familiar for some reason -- a good reason, it turns out. He was once the governor of New York. Cuomo examines Lincoln's record on war, liberty, civil rights, the role of government, religion, race, and more. He then compares these to other president's records -- F. Roosevelt and George W. Bush are the two names that are mentioned most, and Bush most of all. Lincoln is not without his flaws, and this is the reason I enjoyed the book so. People tend to deify the man. In all I found the book to be quite interesting, and I recommend you give it a go if you are at all interested in the politics of Abraham Lincoln.

My last read for this week was Harry Turtledove's The Great War: Walk in Hell. Walk in Hell is third in a series of alternative history books. In the first two, the Confederacy succeeded in seceding with the help of Great Britain and France. When the Confederacy attempted to expand, the United States objected and the two European powers again intervened. Having learned its lesson at the end of the first book --- get allies, plan for wars carefully -- the United States adopt Prussian-style militarism and overall readiness, creating a General Staff of its own. The General Staff represented the German military elite. Only 40 officers a year were invited to join its ranks, and those invited had to enroll in a "War Academy" where they were trained to think like strategists. In the second book, the United States and Germany are thrown into war when their mutual ally (Austria) declares war on Serbia for it not completing kowtowing to Austrian demands. The Great War begins essentially as it began in real life, but this time the United States declare (not declares; US government has evolved differently) war on the Confederacy and the Dominion of Canada. The south is also weakened by a socialist revolution (the socialists being the heavily-abused blacks). As mentioned prior, technology advances in almost the same way in Turtledove's books.

I am shamelessly rooting for the United States and Germany, having absolutely no love for the Confederacy. As such, I was pleased to read of the south's woes and the United States' progress against its southern foe. The story is told through the eyes of viewpoint characters, all fictional. The viewpoint characters are varied -- Canadian farmers, southern aristocrats, socialist revolutionaries, United States navy men, and so on. Very few infantrymen are used as viewpoint characters, presumably so because they have such a high rate of mortality. The story is enjoyable, although some readers may object to the historically used terminology. I look forward to the next book in the series, Breakthrough. That will end the "Great War" series -- I'm trusting in the American-German alliance's favor.

Pick of the Week: David McCullough's 1776. As much as I liked Why Lincoln Matters, with me it's difficult to beat a good historical narrative.

Next week: I'll begin reading R.W. Southern's The Making of the Middle Ages and Turtledove's Breakthrough. I make no other guarantees -- while I will be doing research for my paper on the European Union (specifically, France's role in creating it), I doubt that I will read entire books on the subject like I did last semester for my papers on Jeanne d'Arc and the Luftwaffe.