Thursday, July 3, 2008

This Week at the Library (3/7)

Books this Update:
  • The Steel Wave, Jeff Shaara
  • The History of Science in the 19th Century, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Moser
  • Tales of the Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov
  • No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker

The first book I read this week was Jeff Shaara’s The Steel Wave. I’ve been waiting for it for a little over a year, or ever since I finished The Rising Tide. Strictly speaking, The Steel Wave is “historical fiction”: Shaara attempts to tell a story from history through the eyes of various historical personalities, using memoirs and such to inform his retelling. The style is informal, and quite personal. If you remember, The Rising Tide was first in a planned trilogy of WW2 books: The Rising Tide focused on the American invasion of Africa (Operation Torch) and all that followed, including the invasion of Sicily and the Italian peninsula.

Three characters from The Rising Tide return in The Steel Wave: General Dwight Eisenhower, who is now in charge of planning the invasion of continental Europe, or “Operation Overlord”; Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who happens to have been sent to the “backwater” Normandy countryside as punishment for losing Africa and being too “defeatist’; and Sgt. Jesse Adams, a paratrooper. Adams participated heavily in the invasion of Sicily, as his paratroop unit was to help tie down Axis armor in the area. General George Patton also appears in the beginning and end of the book as a viewpoint character, but he spends the overwhelming majority of the book commanding the fictitious First Army, which the Nazis believe is poised to invade northern France. Shaara also uses supplemental characters when necessary. For instance, he introduces the book with “The Commando”. whose job it is to infiltrate the area around Utah beach and collect soil samples to see if the area is sturdy enough to handle heavy equipment.

The book isn’t quite as thick as some of Shaara’s other contributions, but it’s a good read. I was never disappointed by the story, which moved quickly. While the central conflict of the book is military, we also see bureaucratic conflicts. In The Rising Tide, Eisenhower has to balance the forceful personalities of George Patton and Omar Bradley, both of whom want the glory -- while dealing with the cautious and methodical style of Bernard Montgomery, the British officer in the area who had been defending British possessions in Africa from Rommel. In The Steel Wave, Montgomery and Bradley are both nominally under Eisenhower’s command. While Montgomery’s cautious approach arguably costs the Allies’ military campaign, Eisenhower has to balance military needs with the need to keep the morale of British citizens up by keeping their hero in the fight. Eisenhower also has to deal with Patton, who has a tendency to make an ass of himself and embarrass the American side of the Allied command. Fortunately for Eisenhower, he finds the perfect place to stick Patton and keep him out of trouble.

On the German side, Rommel -- who takes his duties seriously -- has to deal with a variety of issues. Hitler is becoming more authoritarian and less competent -- a pair of traits that seem to go together. The Reich is stressed because of this, as the war in Russia is not going well. By “not going well”, I mean that the Red Army has stopped only because Stalin wanted to wait for the Allied invasion of France. Rommel can’t get the supplies he needs to adequately defend against the threat of Overlord, and Hitler’s constant interference means that Rommel has to ask the Fuhrer’s permission to even use his panzers -- a problem that will cost Hitler’s empire down the road.

Overall, the book was good. The narrative was excellently written. I didn't see anything factually wrong, although I did have exclamation point movements every time characters would mention the Luftwaffe, as in the book they seem to regard it as a credible threat. I thought that the Luftwaffe was pretty much a nonentity by this point; the Allies enjoyed a massive advantage in numbers (something like 25 to 1), and Eisenhower was confident enough about that advantage to tell the troops that the only planes they would see would be Allied ones. Because of this, it's hard for me to take these characters' concerns seriously -- but I think Shaara must have justification for writing it. Perhaps the German army officers were unaware as to how many planes the Luftwaffe was losing.

Next I read The History of Science in the 19th Century. The 19th century is huge for science. Not only are some tremendous advances made in chemistry, biology, and astronomy, but science as a discipline is really taking form -- the scientific method is beginning to be adopted, leading (pleasantly) to the partial extinction of things like phrenology and astrology -- which live only in the minds of the gullible. I learned about something completely new in this book -- spectroscopy. If you want to learn about it, you can go here. It’s a good resource for explaining scientific concepts to laypersons like myself. I found the site initially when I looked for how we know what the speed of light is, and when I looked this up again while reading The History of Science, I happened upon the above linked topic just as I was beginning to read about spectral lines, which is something of a coincidence. I said before that science as a discipline was taking form -- here we see groups like the Lunar Society, which was frequented both by Benjamin Franklin and Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather. Other groups, like the American and British Associations for the Advancement of Science, are formed in this time period. The National Academy of Science was also founded in the United States at this time, although the British, French, and German equivalents were founded two centuries earlier.

After this, I read Isaac Asimov’s Tales of the Black Widowers, the first collection of his “Black Widower” mysteries. The Black Widowers are a group of six men who meet in a New York restaurant once every month to socialize with a guest -- a guest who invariably happens to bring a mystery to the table. Tales of the Black Widowers contains twelve titular tales. In each, the Widowers attempt to find the solution to the mystery through reason. As in More Tales from the Black Widowers, the “mysteries” vary. Sometimes one of the Widowers catches something intriguing in their customary interview of the guest and wants to follow up on it: sometimes people come to the Widowers for help. One of the stories was completely different, and it is by far my favorite in either book. It’s called “The Obvious Solution”, and I think the book is worth finding just for that one story alone. As usual, Asimov introduces the book and provides lovely afterwords after each story.

Because I have a friendly and personal writing style, readers have a tendency to write to me in a friendly and personal way, asking all kinds of friendly and personal questions. And because I really am what my writing style, such as it is, portrays me to be, I answer those letters. And since I don’t have a secretary or any form of assistant whatever, it takes a lot of the time I should be devoting to writing.
It is only natural, then, that I have taken to writing introductions to my books in an attempt to answer some of the anticipated questions in advance, thus forestalling some of the letters.

For instance, because I write in many fields, I frequently get questions such as these:
“Why do you, a lowly science fiction writer, think you can write a two-volume work on Shakespeare?”

“Why do you, a Shakespearean scholar, choose to write science fiction thrillers?”

“What gives you, a biochemist, the nerve to write books on history?”

“What makes you, a mere historian, think you know anything about science?”
And so on, and so on.

It seems certain, then, that I will be asked, either with amusement or with exasperation, why I am writing mystery stories.

Here goes, then.

This is how Asimov begins his introduction to this book: as ever, I enjoy this part of his short-story collection the most. I think Asimov intended for his readers to solve the mysteries along with the Widowers, and sometimes I was able to do so. But honestly, sometimes I found myself so enraptured with the story that I just wanted to see how he ended it, brilliantly. I was only disappointed once, but I won’t mention the story lest I spoil it for someone else. As usual, I love this book. Sadly, though, my local library doesn’t carry any more of the Widower tales. I think they have one more collection of short stories, but just the one.

Next I read a recommendation: No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book is a larger one, which is fitting given that it focuses on the lives of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, two historical personalities who seem larger than life at times. FDR is far and way my favorite president, and has been ever since I can remember, so when a friend of mine brought my attention to the book, I made haste to find it. The book is about life in the United States during the Second World War, but because the Roosevelts were so involved, the book is dominated by their two personalities.

The book is essentially the story of what happened on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, beginning in the late 1930s. The author takes care to introduce subjects when they come up -- offering brief biographies of various personalities, brief histories of issues like civil rights and the labor movements -- but it moves at a steady pace through the end of the thirties and into the forties. Because FDR is my favorite American president, I knew quite a bit of it already -- but there were numerous things I didn’t know. For instance, toward the end of the book the author brings up FDR’s plans to build a new “liberal” party. According to the author, Franklin believed that the nation needed a defined liberal and a defined conservative party: as it was then, both parties were fractured. He aimed to start this process by partnering with Wendell Wilkie, the man who ran against him in 1940 -- a liberal Republican who seemed to back FDR’s policies very nearly to the letter. One can certainly see why Roosevelt would have wanted a strong liberal party, as he struggles constantly with the southern Democrats, who are vigorously opposed to any kind of social reform. (By “vigorously opposed”, I mean “beating up people for being black”). Civil rights becomes a major issue because the nation needs soldiers and it needs workers -- and blacks (the author uses the word “Negroes”, apparently so the reader won’t lose contextual focus) were being largely ignored (and beaten up). Roosevelt got his wish posthumously, of course -- the Democrats adopted civil rights as a key party platform and the southern bloc left. (Good riddance.)

Civil rights is a recurring issue throughout the book, for two reasons: the war makes the racial reckoning unavoidable, and Eleanor Roosevelt is determined to effect positive change however she can -- which causes the president some problems. The author also mentions FDR’s balancing act between helping labor and getting big business on his side to fight the war without isolating either. A few weeks ago when I was doing some temporary work for a plant, I thought to myself that it would have been most unpleasant to be a factory hand in the 1940s. I assumed (rightfully so, it turns out) that workers would be made to work long hours in uncomfortable environments -- and I speculated to myself that one couldn’t complain without being branded an enemy sympathizer. It turns out my suspicions were correct, as apparently both labor and big business accused one another of trying to use the war to assert their own primacy.

The other recurring home-front issue that bears on today’s world is that of women’s rights. As the men were being drafted to fight the war, women were running the factories -- and finding out that they rather liked the idea of being productive. Social expectation changed, and society started to change with it. It seems that the headway that was made in civil rights and gender quality was lost in the 50s, though, as I’ve never heard of any real advances in either of those areas happening until the 1960s.

This book isn’t completely about social history, of course -- but social history is one of my pet history subjects, so these three topics were the ones I paid most attention to. The author also writes about the Roosevelts’ various friendships, their hobbies, and their personalities -- but I was most interested in the social developments. While the book is mostly complimentary of Roosevelt, it does bring up one of the more infamous acts of his presidency -- executive order 9066, which allowed military commanders to define areas of the country as “military areas”, which would allow them to forcibly resettle the people living and working in certain areas -- and “certain areas” turned out to be Japanese-American farms and neighborhoods. The policy also made the military responsible for housing displaced persons, and the result was camps for people whose ancestors came from Japan. Outside of John Adam’s Alien and Sedition acts, the Red Scares, and the Military Commissions Act, the internment of American citizens is one of the darkest moments in the history of American civil liberties. The book is a lengthy read, but well worth if it you like the Roosevelts or want to learn more about social developments in the 1940s.

Lastly, I read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. It’s also a recommendation, although I think I would have gotten around to finding it myself, given my interest in neuroscience and the biological (no Freud) aspects of psychology. Pinker deals with three ideas about human nature in his book: the blank slate, or the idea that human minds are born as Play-Doh, completely malleable : the Noble Savage, the idea that human beings are essentially good creatures and are corrupted by societal pressure and needs: and the Ghost in the Machine, the idea that in each of us is some ethereal spook that makes choices independently of the biological processes of the mind. Pinker doesn’t call the book The Modern Denial of Human Nature for a reason: it is his idea that the latter two can be safely tied to the Blank Slate idea. Throughout the book, Pinker first deals with the implications of the Blank Slate as a whole, and then deals with the latter two specifically.

I found this book astonishingly interesting. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always wondered why people were the way they were. Even during high school when I was incurious about the world at large, I was still captivated by the question of why people were the way they were. This is one of the reasons I liked sociology so much when I first discovered it in my first two years of college -- and the reason I like books like V.S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain and this one. My view of human nature is naturalistic, of course, and was that way even when I was a fundamentalist Pentecostal. I still believed in an immortal soul, I just didn’t know where it went or what it did. (Since I believed then and still believe now that every aspect of “being human” is controlled by our genetic information, the idea of a soul to explain anything is really superfluous.) In high school, I was introduced to the “nature/nurture” debate where people question which has a bigger influence on why we are what we are: our genes, or our environment? Now, back then and until recently (recent years) I thought our environment had a bit more to do with it. In the past two years, though, as I read more and more biology, I realize how much our genes impact our lives. While the environment we’re raised in is very important, our genes determine how we respond to that environment.

Pinker’s view places more emphasis on genes than I have previously. After establishing this, he goes on to examine four arguments against the naturalistic view of human nature :

The anxiety about human nature can be boiled down to four fears:

If people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified.

If people are innately immortal, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile.

If people are the products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions.

If people are products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose.” (P. 137)

He then commits a chapter to each. He then examines how this idea of human nature “can provide insight into languages, thought, social life, and mortality (Part IV), and how it can clarify controversies on politics, violence, gender, childrearing, and the arts. (Part V).” (P. 3) While some of the book is pure science -- and thus will take some time to digest it -- most of the book is simply an exercise in reasoning, looking at what that science means. Pinker uses a lot of quotations to illustrate points . Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson (both biologists) are quoted heavily, but he also references the ancient Greek aristocrat Pindar and the poet Kahlil Gibran, as well as employing popular culture references (“Gee Officer Krupke” from West Side Story and comic strips, as well as bits of 1984 and Huckleberry Finn) to make his points. In my view he’s an excellent writer and the book deserves to be read -- even if it makes some of its readers, including myself, slightly uncomfortable. According to Wikipedia, Skeptic magazine criticized the book, which is interesting. I’d like to read that criticism.

Pick of the Week: A tie between Tales of the Black Widowers and The History of Science.
Quotation of the Week: There was an excellent quotation on the importance of maintaining civil liberties during war by Eleanor Roosevelt in No Ordinary Time, but I’ve not been able to find it again -- so I’ll just substitute one from her autobiography. “Life was meant to be lived, and curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.”

Next week:
- The History of Science from 1895 to 1945. I’m continuing the series, of course.
- Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor: 640 Jokes, Anecdotes, and Limericks, Complete with Notes on How to Tell Them, from America’s Leading Renaissance Man by (of course) Isaac Asimov.
- Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom by Elliot Roosevelt. When reading No Ordinary Time, I discovered that one of the Roosevelt sons wrote a series of mystery novels starring his mother. No, I’m not making that up. I decided to check one out to see what it was like.
- Portraits of Great American Scientists by various authors. I found this book when I looked up “E.O. Wilson” at my local library. Since E.O. Wilson is on the cover of this one, I’m going to take a leap of faith and say he is one of the scientists looked at in the book.
- The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel set in a world where the United States is taken over by fundamentalist Christians; a recommendation.
- Darwin, His Daughter, & Human Evolution by Randal Keynes. While moving toward the science section to pick up the history of science book, I saw this one displayed. The cover caught my eye, and it looks readable so I decided to go with it.

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