Wednesday, September 24, 2008

This Week at the Library (24/9)

Books this Update:
  • Rules of Civility, George Washington
  • Foundation’s Edge, Isaac Asimov
  • Holidays on Ice, David Sedaris
  • The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
  • Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, Al Franken

I began this week with George Washington’s Rules of Civility. I spotted it while looking for another book, and knew immediately that I had to examine it. When I went to check it out, I was informed that I looked as though I already knew how to be civil. I’m not sure what that means, but I have a suspicion that it means “I notice you’re not wearing a shirt with Bill O’ on it..” The book is a collection of rules Washington supposedly followed. Many of them are holdovers from a different era -- Washington elaborates on situations with your “betters” and your “inferiors”. Some of the rules are common rules you would expect -- don’t sneeze or cough in front of company except with your mouth covered (and your head turned, preferably); don’t clean your nails or relieve yourself of body lice at the table; don’t chew your nails in front of people, that sort of thing. Here are some of the ones I liked:
  • Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.
  • Associate yourself with men of good quality, if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.
  • Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for it is a sign of a tractable and commendable nature; and in all cases of passion admit reason to govern.
  • Speak not injurious words, neither in jest or in earnest scoff at none though they give occasion.
  • Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
There are more here. Next I read Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge, the fourth book in the Foundation series. According to It’s Been a Good Life, a posthumous autobiography, Asimov was asked to pen another Foundation book a number of years after he had written the trilogy, and so had to read the trilogy again to recover his thoughts. This book mentions the robots that Asimov wrote so much about in other works. Before I read his biography, I wondered why there were no robots in his Foundation universe, seeing as it was set in the far future and robotics would have come a long way. I assumed that the rising suspicion regarding them (a theme throughout Asimov’s robot novels and stories) led to their demise. Asimov deals with that question in this book. Foundation’s Edge is a marvelously written book; it’s probably my second-favorite Foundation book, right behind the first. Excellent stuff.

Next I read David Sedaris’ Holiday on Ice, a short book themed around Christmas. Half of the book is typical Sedaris -- essays recalling memories from his life and relating them to the reader in a dry, amusing narrative. The other half of the book consists of stories written by Sedaris with a holiday theme. My favorite section of the book was “The SantaLand Diaries”, which you can listen to here. Sedaris reads the essay on “This American Life”. He starts about four minutes in.

Next I read The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The book is set in the mid-19th century -- the 1860s, precisely. During this time Italy was approaching unification, and the book is written to document the waning power of the aristocracy. The story itself is interesting: the book…wasn’t. I found it very difficult to read get through and the plot seemed to be jumpy. The most interesting chapter for me was the chapter where the Prince slowly approaches his death.

Don Fabrizio had always known that sensation. For a dozen years or so he had been feeling as if the vital fluid, the faculty of existing, life itself in fact and perhaps even the will to go on living, were ebbing out of him slowly but steadily, as grains of sand cluster and then line up one by one, unhurried, unceasing, before the narrow neck of an hourglass. In some moments of intense activity or concentration this sense of continual loss would vanish, to reappear impassively in brief instants of silence or introspection; just as a constant buzzing in the ears of the ticking of a pendulum superimposes itself when all else is silent, assuring us of always being there, watchful, even when we do not hear it.

Lastly, I read Al Franken’s Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. The book, written in 1996, purports to be satire of the growing lack of civility in American politics. Franken focuses his ire on a few personalities in particular: Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, and Pat Robertson. There are others, of course, ranging from Oliver North to Arlen Specter. I don’t have much to say about the book: parts of it were amusing; other parts not so much.

Quotation of the Week: “…and in all cases of passion, admit reason to govern.” - George Washington

Pick of the Week: Foundation’s Edge, Isaac Asimov

Next Week
  • Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures, Carl Zimmer
  • Foundation and Earth, Isaac Asimov
  • Worldwar: in the Balance, Harry Turtledove
  • Puzzles of the Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

This Week at the Library (17/9)

Books this Update:
  • The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’, Bill Zehme
  • Banquets of the Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov
  • Sinatra: the Artist and the Man, John Lahr
  • Blood of Flowers, Anita Amirrezvani

I began this week with a book I’ve not read since early 2005. Were I to commit such blasphemy as to name a favorite singer, I would name Frank Sinatra. I started listening to Sinatra in 2004 (beginning with “The Very Good Years” from Reprise) and quickly become an enthusiast, and not long after I began reading Sinatra biographies. One of them was The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’. Anyone familiar with Sinatra knows that he was a man of singular style, who lived life passionately and in his own way. The Way You Wear Your Hat is not a biography. The author explores the way Sinatra lived -- with chapters dedicated to style, women, and his drinking preferences. There are a lot of quotations from Sinatra and a lot about him. I easily recommend the book to anyone who is interested in Frank Sinatra, even vaguely so. It remains a favorite.

Next I read Isaac Asimov’s Banquets of the Black Widowers, the fourth book in his Black Widowers mystery series. The Black Widower books are all collections of Black Widower tales. Each tale is a short story -- a mystery. They are all set in the same place: every month, a group of friends who call themselves the Black Widowers meet at a restaurant. Each month, the host brings a guest -- and each month, without fail, a problem arises that has to be sorted out by the Widowers. The mystery is typically presented by the guest, but not always. I found this book to be altogether interesting. One story was a bit weak, but only the one. As is typical, Asimov provides chatty commentary at the end of each tale.

After this I went to another Sinatra biography, Sinatra: the Artist and the Man. There’s really not much to say: it’s a biography that presented its information in an organized way and told the story of his life. Half of the book is biography: the other half is page-sized pictures. The pictures are from his entire life and are of rather good quality.

Lastly I read The Blood of Flowers. I won this book during the summer in a contest hosted by a history blog I read frequently. The book is set in 17th century Persia. The author is an Iranian-American who wrote the book after she began wondering about the lives of the people who made the exquisite Persian rugs that she was familiar with: this book is an attempt to explore the lives of those people. The story is told in first-person through the eyes of an un-named narrator. You would think that it would be difficult for an entire novel to go by without a single named reference to the narrator, but Amirrezvani does it and does it well. I never realized that I never knew the name of the main character until I reached the author’s afterword. The young woman’s father dies, leaving her and her mother poor. They go to the then-capital city of Isfahan to seek out a male relative who will take them in. The narrator’s chief joy comes in knotting rugs, and her uncle happens to work in the royal rug-making workhouse. While he cannot formally teach her the craft at his workhouse, he does teach her at home. Most of the book is about the young woman’s life in Isfahan -- the ups and downs. Folk stories are interwoven throughout. I rather enjoyed the book, and found it hard to put down at times. I especially enjoyed learning about 17th century Iran, or at least this author’s presentation of it. I recommend the book. Much to my amusement, Amirrezvani often describes Europeans as “farengi”, which inspired whichever Star Trek writer who created the Ferengi -- a race obsessed with material wealth. This is not an association I made myself: I heard it years ago listening to an interview with one of Deep Space Nine’s producers, and he said that the race name came from this word. A selection from the book to pique your interest -- a selection that alludes to the author’s inspiration for writing the book.

I will never inscribe my name in a carpet like the masters in the royal rug workshop who are honored for their great skill. I will never learn to knot a man’s eye so precisely it looks real, nor design rugs with layers of patterns so intricate that they could confound the greatest of mathematicians. But I have devised designs of my own, which people will cherish for years to come. When they sit on one of my carpets, their hips touching the earth, their back elongated, and the crown of their head lifted toward the sky, they will be soothed, refreshed, transformed. My heart will touch theirs and we will be as one, even after I am dust, even though they will never know my name.

Pick of the Week: Blood of Flowers, Anita Amirrezvani (And Asimov’s streak is ended!)

Next Week:
  • Washington’s Rules of Civility, George Washington
  • Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, Al Franken
  • Holidays on Ice, David Sedaris
  • Foundation’s Edge, Isaac Asimov

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

This Week at the Library (10/9)

Books this Update:
  • Me of Little Faith, Lewis Black
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
  • Surviving Auschwitz, Primo Levi
  • Carl Sagan: A Life, Keay Davidson

I began this week with Me of Little Faith, which is a book about comedian Lewis Black’s experiences with religions and the paranormal. Black is a comedian often featured on The Daily Show who hosts his own show on the Comedy Central channel called The Root of All Evil. It’s not anti-religious, which came as a surprise to me given his comedy routines. Black was raised Jewish and considers himself a Jew even though he doesn’t follow Judaism. This makes him a “cultural Jew”, which Black says sounds like a name for some sort of yogurt. Black begins by describing growing up in a family of “cultural Jews”, then moves on. The book is a book of comedy, so there’s no real organization to it. Black describes his experiences and knowledge of various religious entities (Jonestown, Oral Roberts, Mormons, the Amish, televangelists), reflects on religions’ various effects, and provides personal anecdotes to give the reader a feel for Black’s own religious beliefs. As far as I could figure, he believes in a god, believes in ghosts, believes some people are gifted with psychic abilities, and is easily impressed by astrological coincidences. He mentions experiences he’s had -- seeing things while visiting the Farm, seeing things while being touched by a guru, etc. A large part of one chapter comes from his “Red, White, and Screwed” show; a clip of which you can see here.

Next I read David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Sedaris is a comedian, one I became familiar with thanks to NPR. He often appears on the show “This American Life”, and when he read from Me Talk Pretty One Day, I was so amused that I had to go find the book. I ended up reading all of his humor books, and I looked forward to this new one with great anticipation. It was not disappointing. Sedaris’ particular style of humor is as ever delightful. If you want to listen to Sedaris reading from one of his books -- and thus get an idea for what is included -- click here for one of my favorite readings. That’s a short version: you can watch the longer version here.

Also this week I read Surviving Auschwitz, which is the story of an Italian man named Primo Levi who was captured by fascists while hiding in the countryside of Italy. Owing to his Jewish ancestry, he was sent to Auschwitz. Because he was captured in 1944, he was only forced to spend a year in the work-camp. While the SS had suspended mass killings by this point -- wanting to maintain as much of a work force as possible to help with the war effort -- death was still common. Levi describes the work details, the infirmary, the rituals of life in the camp. It’s an interesting read.

To finish the week’s reading off, I read Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson. The book is a large biography of Sagan, host of Cosmos and an astronomer associated with the Mariner and Voyager projects. He’s one of my favorite people to learn from, and as such I enjoyed this biography very much. The book does not shy away from Sagan’s failings, which I appreciate. Reading the book is a bit like reading about science, skepticism, and psuedo-science from the 1950s to the 1960s. Here are a few Sagan-related links:
  1. Celebrating Sagan
  2. "Pale Blue Dot"; Sagan reading from Pale Blue Dot. Beautiful video.
  3. "Wonder and Skepticism", parts 1 and 2. His last lecture.
  4. Ted Turner interviews Carl Sagan, part 1. You can find the rest from there.

Pick of the Week: When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris

Next Week:
  • The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampusa. This book is another book for school.
  • Banquets of the Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov. Given how much I enjoyed the first two books in the Widowers series, I’m sure I’ll enjoy this one.
  • The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’, Bill Zehme. I read this book in early 2005 and am anticipating a good re-read.
  • Sinatra: the Artist and the Man, John Lahr

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

This Week at the Library (3/9)

Books this Update:
  • Jailbird, Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Ascent of Science, Brian Silver
  • Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov
  • It’s Been a Good Life, Isaac Asimov
  • For the Love of Life, Erich Fromm

I began this week by reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Jailbird, which I had not planned to read at first. I’ve read a little bit of Vonnegut before, although his fictional style is a unlike anything I’m used to. I picked up Jailbird and began to read through it: it seemed interesting, so I checked it out. The book is about a man named Walter F. Starbuck, a well-intentioned and little-appreciated bureaucrat in the Nixon White House, having earned a meaningless post by accidentally advancing Nixon’s career. Starbuck’s life is quite interesting, and the story of that life unfolds throughout the book as he or an author telling the story of his life recollects them -- think of the approach taken with Forrest Gump. In a very limited way, Gump and Starbuck’s stories are similar in that they are frequently and accidentally involved in the stories of history. The plot is much easier to understand than Slaughterhouse-5, although the latter is far more popular given that it’s a criticism of the Dresden firebombing. The story is quite interesting, as is the book. Oddly enough, even though it is a fiction book, it has an index. The book is described by Vonnegut through the voice of one of his characters as being about economics. Many of the characters’ lives are influenced by both the industrialists/capitalists and the socialist movement then present in the United States.

Last week I began reading Brian Silver’s The Ascent of Science, but didn’t finish it as it is rather lengthy and I was reading other books at the same time. Silver’s book is essentially a history of western science, but it is presented more as a history of scientific ideas -- the controversies they generated and the influence they had. The book, written for lay audiences, explains scientific concepts fairly well while maintaining an informal spirit. The author includes himself in the book, offering opinions and making comments. The book is written well, and Silver takes care to explain how scientific ideas influenced political and social history. Despite this, I would only recommend it over Ray Spangenburg and Kit Moser’s two series if you’re an adult who doesn’t want to be bothered with an entire series to start getting a handle on the wide world of science.

Last week I read Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation and commented that it was set far enough apart from Foundation that there was probably a novel in between. There is -- Foundation and Empire. In Foundation and Empire, we see that the Foundation has grown into a large trading empire, and its elected “Mayors” have become autocrats -- which is resented by a sizeable group on the planet, who maintain a “democratic underground”. I wonder if that’s where that’s where the website of the same name gets it from. What’s left of the Galactic Empire vanishes in this book, but before the Foundation can capitalize on the opportunity, they are toppled by the Mule, a mutant who can his mind to inflict or induce strong emotions in people -- “hypercharismatic” is the way I described him last week. The book was an interesting read, although I think it’s the weakest of the trilogy.

Quotation of the Week:
“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Go Wond’rous creature, mount where Science guides.”
- Alexander Pope, "Esssay on Man", quoted in The Ascent of Science.

This post is a little unusual because of my return to Montevallo. I read the aforementioned books two weeks ago. Last week I was unable to post about them because of computer problems, but now I am online again. This past week, I read Isaac Asimov’s posthumous autobiography, It’s Been a Good Life. The autobiography was published by his wife, Janet Asimov, from text he had written and from his letters to her. Despite of the fact that it is a loose compilation, the book is put together well. Asimov’s style is perfectly engaging and is quite conversational. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Lastly I read Erich Fromm’s For the Love of Life. Fromm was a German social critic, and I’m not quite sure how I found the book. The book is composed of essays by Fromm and interview transcripts, so the topic of the book drifts. The first part was about “Affluence and Ennui” and is essentially a critique of a society obsessed with consumerism. The book also contains a lot of psychoanalysis: Fromm maintains that various thought-systems -- the Judeo-Christian tradition, Zen Buddhism, Freudian psychology, and Marxism -- all inform his worldview. (Fromm is described as a humanistic philosopher, but I don’t think that refers to contemporary humanism: humanism means different things in different contexts, and the rational “life stance” of humanism would be a strange bedfellow to most of the systems he mentioned. I say most because I’m not that familiar with Zen Buddhism.)

My enjoyment of the book changed depending on which section I was reading. While I liked “Affluence and Ennui”, the bits on dream interpretation and the psychoanalysis of Adolf Hitler weren’t all that enjoyable. I’m very skeptical when it comes to dream interpretation and psychoanalysis. Given that our dreams are our thoughts, I’m sure they betray things about us. The level of analysis Fromm goes into is too much for me. One of the examples Fromm uses is one of Freud’s dreams. Freud dreamed about a white flower that was shriveled and behind a bell-jar. Freud wanted to give the flower to his wife, but he could not remove it from the bell-jar. This is supposed to mean that Freud had reduced sexuality -- the flower -- to a thing to be studied and so could not really enjoy it. I don’t follow the logic: is it supposed to be another instance of “unweaving the rainbow”? The analysis of Hitler was the same. Fromm’s conclusion was that Hitler was a necrophiliac and hated all living things, so he was possessed by this enormous urge to destroy.

Pick of the [Update]: It’s Been a Good Life, Isaac Asimov

Quotation of the Week: “To learn is to broaden, to experience more, to snatch new aspects of life for yourself. To refuse to learn or to be relieved at not having to learn is to commit a form of suicide; in the long run, a more meaningful type of suicide than the mere ending of physical life." - Isaac Asimov, It’s Been a Good Life.

Next Week:
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris. Sedaris is a comedian that I particularly enjoy. The title (for those of you whose curiosity has been piqued) comes from a translation error Sedaris observed while visiting Japan. I know this because he talked about it when promoting the book on The Late Show with David Letterman.
  • Me of Little Faith, Lewis Black. I like Lewis Black’s comedy, having become a fan of him via YouTube.
  • Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson. Carl Sagan is on my shortlist of “heroes”.
  • Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi. Required reading for one of my classes, but I'm reading it early as it looks interesting.