Wednesday, December 30, 2009

This Week at the Library (30/12)

Books this Update:

  • Black Edelweiss, Johann Voss
  • The Triumph of Caesar, Steven Saylor
  • China Marine, Eugene Sledge
  • Skipping Christmas, John Grisham
  • Ford County: Stories, John Grisham

I began my Christmas break with another World War 2 memoir in Johann Voss's Black Edelweiss, his account of why he joined the Waffen-SS and his description of his services there. Although the combat portions were unmemorable, the book's political commentary rivited me. It's a worthy read for those interested in German history.

After this, I returned to the Roma sub Rosa series, ending for the moment with the triumph of Caesar. As Julius Caesar settles into the post of dictator-for-life and consolidates his power,  his wife approaches the adamently retired Gordianus and requests that he investigate the potential of Caesar being assassinated. Only the news that a friend of his was murdered in this same investigation prompts Gordianus to take up the cause. This book is surprisingly subdued: unlike other books in the series, it never truly grabbed my attention. It seemed tired, which is unfortunate given how well the series developed before then.

I soon finished Eugene Sledge's China Marine, his account of his postwar experiences occupying parts of China and his return to the United States. His account of occupation duty in China dominates the book, giving me a look into a life I didn't know existed. My knowledge of the Pacific War is dominated by thoughts of airplanes and ends immediately after the surrender: I knew nothing of the United States' occupation of the Chinese coast, which I assume was done to effect the transport of Japanese troops back to Japan. Sledge's account of his return to the United States was shallow in parts, but not unenjoyable.

I then did a little seasonal re-reading with John Grisham's Skipping Christmas, his fictional account of one Luther Krank's attempt to forgo the waste and stress of Christmas when his daughter leaves the US for the Peace Corps. Krank and his wifei intend to save thousands of dollars by going on a cruse instead, but find that skipping Christmas is much more difficult than they'd anticipated. It's a light, fun read appropriate for the holidays.

I received John Grisham's latest release, Ford County: Stories, for Christmas, and immediatedy dove into it. Ford County is different from his preceding works in that it is a collection of seven short stories and not a novel.  The stories themselves have a wide range, and read very well. The book is far better than his more recent releases (The Associate, The Appeal), and will probably become one of my top three Grisham favorites.

Pick of the Week: Ford County, easily.

Potentials for Next Week:

  • Asimov Laughs Again, Isaac Asimov
  • The Gangs of New York by Herbert Ashbury.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ford County: Stories

Ford County: Stories
© 2009 John Grisham
320 pages

I was delighted to receive John Grisham’s Ford County: Stories for Christmas. I’ve been a Grisham reader since reading a battered paperback copy of The Firm years ago, and many of my favorite works (The Summons and The Last Juror, to name a couple) of his are set in fictional Ford County, Mississippi. Grisham has returned to Ford County and its county seat of Clanton for a novel approach -- a book that is not a novel. Ford County is a collection of seven short stories, most of which are written in the third-person. Grisham’s intent with this book was to spotlight some of the more varied characters in Ford County, and there are many. There are a few lawyers inside -- Grisham is known for his legal thrillers -- but the law is not a dominant theme in the book.

None of the stories failed to delight me, and the variety is genuine. Some are silly, some are serious, and most contain the mild level of author commentary typical of Grisham. He develops a new host of characters, bringing back only one character (Harry Rex Vonner) from his previous Ford County stories.This collection should please Grisham fans, particularly those who enjoy short stories and who have not been too discouraged by The Appeal or The Associate, both of which Ford County betters. I suspect it will become one of my Grisham favorites, alongside The Last Juror and The Rainmaker. Here's a preview of three of Ford County's stories:

  • "Casino": After his wife leaves him, Sidney becomes an inadvertent professional gambler and gets revenge on the man who his wife left him for by breaking the man's casino. 
  • "Blood Drive":  Three good ol’ boys pile into a pickup truck intending to drive to Memphis to give a fellow Ford County man blood. Hilarity begins ensuing when they drive past a liquor store. The result sounds like a perfect “This one time, we got so wasted….” story. 
  • "Funny Boy":  one of Ford County’s outcast sons comes home to die of AIDs. Rejected by his family, he’s taken care of in his final days by an older black woman who finds his lifestyle suspicious but learns to care for him. This one of the more heartwarming stories in the collection. 

China Marine

China Marine: An Infantryman's Life after World War 2
© Eugene Sledge 2003
192 pages

Last week I read Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed, a memoir of his experiences in the Pacific War. The memoir ranks as one of the most effective I’ve ever read in conveying the horrors of the front, so I looked forward to its sequel. His second memoir, China Marine, describes his experiences while occupying parts of China in the four-month period following the end of Japan’s surrender and his reintegration into civilian life. I knew nothing of the United States’ partial occupation of China, which I surmise was done to effect the repatriation of Japan’s soldiers there.

China serves as a midpoint for Sledge and his fellow soldiers: although they maintain the discipline of Marine life while patrolling and tending to guard duty, they are also able to enjoy the rudiments of civilization. Immediate postwar China is home to four armed forces:  the remnant of Japan’s Kwantung army, American occupational troops,  and the Chinese Nationalist and Maoist armies. Although the United States is not officially involved in the Chinese civil war, the US government does provide transport to Nationalist soldiers and American troops sometimes stumble into conflicts between the Chinese forces, sometimes dying in the process. The intermittent and wholly unpredictable dangers of guard duty do little to alleviate the mentally stressed condition of combat veterans, but Sledge’s experience appears to have been more restful than not.  This first four-fifths of the memoir was a new experience for me, having read nothing of China during this time or of American troops inside.

The remaining one-fifth of the book covers Sledge’s return to the United States and civilian life, where he is dismayed at how much his fellow citizens take for granted and how quick they are to complain about what he sees as trivialities -- laborers striking for better working conditions attack his ire within minutes of landfall*. Sledge’s believes that his introduction to academic life allowed him to recover from the war more easily: the mental rigors required to obtain his doctorate in biology keep thoughts of war far from mind. The memoir bears out the ways Sledge’s life changed owing to the war: not only did it give him a greater appreciation for the simple things in life (clean, dry, and warm socks for starters) but it ended his hobby of hunting.

Although the book is an easy read and has information worth nothing, it seems much less focused than With the old Breed and I sometimes wondered what the point of what I was reading was. The bottom fifth of the book seemed particularly rushed, but overall Sledge’s second memoir will be of interest to those interest in the lives of postwar soldiers.

* Sledge's hostility toward the laborers was disagreeable for me, but to be fair, according to him, one of them carried a sign comparing management to Hitler.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Skipping Christmas

Skipping Christmas
© 2001 John Grisham
227 pages

One of my own personal Christmas traditions is to read John Grisham's Skipping Christmas. It's a tradition I've maintained every year since owning the book, although part of the tradition is not reading all of it. Skipping Christmas was one of the first books Grisham wrote outside of the legal thriller genre, and makes for a light, fun, seasonal read.

Skipping Christmas is the story of Luther Krank, who -- after a particularly grating trip downtown to buy pistachios and an expensive brand of white chocolate for one of his wife's many holiday projects -- wonders just  how much Christmas costs him. After calculating his total expenditures -- the tree, gifts, cards, massive party -- and arriving at the respectable sum of $6100, he has a mad idea: why not skip Christmas? His daughter Blair just started a two-year hitch with the Peace Corps, so why not take himself and the wife on a ten-day Caribbean cruise for half the price of Christmas -- blowing off all of the trappings of the season? Why not say "no" to buying meaningless and often useless gifts, to parties with lechers and gossips, to the turmoil of shopping for supplies downtown?

And so, while his neighbors spend thousands of dollars on turkeys and cashmere sweaters, the Kranks work on their tans and diet to make their bodies swimsuit fit. While their neighbors invest hours of work in decorating their homes, the Kranks dance around in their living room to reggae music, knowing that on Christmas day they will be headed for warm sunshine and tropic islands -- and when they return, utterly relaxed, they will have no bills to pay, no decorations to take down, and can enjoy knowing that this year, they said "no" to being overwhelmed by the holidays: they did it their way.

The reason I typically stop reading the book 5/6s of the way through is because on Christmas Eve, Luther's beautiful plan goes awry and he must begin biting bullets. I suppose it's a story about the futility of trying to resist such entrenched traditions, but so help me if I don't root for Luther every single time. As I said, it's a fun little read -- worth reading in the next couple of weeks while Christmas songs still echo, or next year when the frenzy begins again.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Triumph of Caesar

The Triumph of Caesar
© 2008 Steven Saylor
308 pages

The Triumph of Caesar is currently the last (Saylor may yet add to it, but I can't confirm this from his website) book in the Roma sub Rosa series. I would not be surprised if it were the last book in the series, given Gordianus' increasing age and political changes in Rome that make the court system that generates so much work for Gordianus a nonenity. If the series does end here, though, it does not end with strength.

At book's opening, Julius Caesar is busy consolidating his power in Rome -- endearing himself to the masses, rewarding allies, and enjoying the humiliation of the vanquished. Although all of his enemies have been killed on the field of battle, Caesar's wife is haunted by dreams of his assassination. She asks Gordianus to assist her in ferreting out anyone who may wish Caesar ill, but he refuses -- until he learns that a friend from Last Seen in Massila was first given the job, but murdered for his troubles. The death of a friend in the pursuit of the truth again sees Gordianus hit the streets of Rome, in hopes of discovering his friend's murderer and by extension someone who might desire to assassinate the new dictator-for-life. He does this as the dictator is celebrating his four Triumphs, military parades celebrating victories granted by the Senate. Gordianus's family is allowed prime seating at these Triumphs, thanks to Meto's many years of service to the dictator -- allowing Saylor to show off his research in fairly vivid scenes.

Although the readers are promised a historically involved plot and given plenty of detail, Triumph of Caesar seems weak to me. As the story developed, it became less interesting  -- the plot twists detract, not add, from the story to me. The book never grabbed me, which is surprising given how effective Saylor has been at providing a riveting story in times past. The book seems as tired as its increasingly white-bearded protagonist.  Give it a chance if you're a fan of the series, as everyone's tastes differ, but don't introduce yourself to the series with this one.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Black Edelweiss

Black Edelweiss: A Memoir of Combat and Conscience By a Soldier of the Waffen-SS
© 2002 Johann Voss
206 pages

As the last coach slid by, it cleared the view of another train, a goods train as it appeared, slowly passing by the track behind the one next to the platform. Lost in thought, I noticed at first only the freshly-painted propaganda slogans across the wagons: WHEELS ARE ROLLING FOR VICTORY. Then, looking more closely at the wall of a wagon opposite me, however, I became conscious, with a sudden chill, of what seemed to ge fingers, yellowish human fingers clinging to a few square holes in the side wall; behind strings of arbed wire, I saw human eyes, dark and wide open, trying to catch a glimpse of the outside world. Stunned, I gazed upon the long row of wagons. Now and then one of those little hopes with fingers and eyes slowly shunted out of sight.
Strong as it was, the sight left me with mixed feelings. Vae victis! Woe to the Vanquished! Scum of the earth! Poor devils!  I hope they will be put to work in the field. This thought, however, also occured to me: Never must the dictatorship of the proletariat prevail in Europe. 

I opted to read this book to correct my ignorance of life on the Eastern front and to be able to connect a person's life to the Waffen-SS -- someone other than SS leadership. This is not the memoir of a concentration camp guard, although Voss does inadvertently encounter future Holocaust victims twice on his way to the front. The combat portions of the book are not particularly remarkable: Voss is assigned to a mountain infantry patrol in Finland and spends most of the war fighting alongside Finnish freedom fighters against the Red Army. After Finland signs an armistice with the Soviet Union and its troops become hostile to Voss's men, he and his company are tasked with fighting Americans but are captured quickly enough.

It is the book's "memoir of conscience" portions that strike me the most, for the book's initial chapters record Voss's experience during the early years of the war, detailing why he chose to support the Nazi regime. Voss is not a desperatly impoverished member of Germany's underworld that fed the Nazi party, nor does he espouse a desire to see Germany become the master of Europe. He believes in Germany, in the romantic ideals of earth, blood, and Christian duty -- but he believes in it in the same way that a Frenchman believes in France romantically, or as many Americans believe in America romantically. He comes from an educated, middle class family that nevertheless supports Hitler. What unnerves me is that they believe in him not dogmatically, but skeptically: they have extended conversations amongst themselves debating the truth value of his claims and the effacy of his approaches. They even criticize Nazi leadership while supporting it. Voss develops in much the same way: when enroute to the front  he passes by a group of Jewish prisoners waiting to be transported to the camps, he expresses dismay that anyone should be treated so poorly. The Germans in Voss's family are supporter of Hitler, but...they aren't bad, or even deluded: they're just wrong. The abuses of governments anywhere can thus be tolerated by the sanest of minds given the right approach -- a foreboding thought if ever there was one. Voss emerges as a man who believes in strong ideals, but believes in commitment to fighting for them.

Voss's "conscience" theme occurs throughout the book, typically in the sections set during his American imprisonment after the war but before Nuremberg, as the Waffen-SS was declared (via its attachment to the SS) a criminal attachment. He reflects on what he, his fellow soldiers, and his fellow citizens are responsible for -- wondering to what extent that they responsible for enabling Hitler. He ends the war with his friends and sweetheart dead and his family home destroyed, but with a clear conscience and an eerily calm sense of serenity about the troubled times ahead. It is for kind of reflection that I would recommend the book to readers interested in part of the German mind.

Have we been posioned by the radivcal fanaticism of our leadership and become an active instrument of the monstrous regime? Judging by what I read in the new German papers, the public response to the verdict is approval, if not satisfication. And what has become of our people in general?  Listening to my fellow prisoners' talk, it seems that only their own individual concerns and future matter; there is at best the indifference that results from a general weariness with all the horrible revelations during months of the trial. Defeating Bolshevism, defending the Fatherland and the Reich -- these objects of innumerable sacrifices -- seem to be of no interest anymore. Was all of that only a creation of propaganda without real bearing for the people? [..]

Our world has perished. A new world dawns, one in which our values are utterly discredited, and we will be met with hatred and distinct reserve for our past. Come on, I say, it's not without reason, let's face it! What counts is our future and what we are going to do with it. That is the terrotiroty where we will have to prove what we were really like, the territory of another probation. I only hope we will not be denied that opportunity. 

Yet there can be no release from our loyalty to our dead, from our duty to stand up for them and to ensure their remembrance and their honor will remain untarnished. They, like all the others fallen in the war or murdered through racial fanaticism, must be remembered  as a solemn warning never to let it all happen again. 

This Week at the Library (19/12)

Books this Update:

  • Living Buddha, Living Christ; Thich Nhat Hanh
  • With the Old Breed, Eugene B. Sledge
  • When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, Jeff Kinney

Although I finished my term papers last week,  Finals Week brought with it finals papers. The last, I am happy to say, has been submitted.  The week started off with Living Buddha, Living Christ, a short work that compares Buddhist mindfulness to the Christian concept of living within the "Holy Spirit" of the trinity. The book serves Christian audiences with an interest in meditative practices best, giving them a way to make the practices work inside their own tradition.

I next read Eugene B. Sledge's Pacific War memoir With the Old Breed. I've been repeatedly encouraged to do so, as Sledge taught at my university and his memoir is highly regarded. I soon found out why, for it communicates the misery of fighting and living conditions for US Marines during the conflict in such an effective style that the haunting images stay with me after finishing the book. Sledge's emphasis on the lives of the fighting men, and he paints a resigned and bleak picture, but one that demands the reader's attention. This is appropriate reading for holidays like Armistice or Veterans' Day.

I then moved on to When Religion Becomes Evil, a straightforward book examining the causes of religious brutality. The author has a varied perspective: he grew up in a Jewish/Christian home, trained in a Baptist seminary, and has done most of his life's work working with Muslims in the middle east. I was impressed by his tone: although he tends to focus on the theistic religions in talking about "religion", his treatment is fair. I never felt as though he were judging others from his Christian viewpoint or refraining from discussing the evils that religion does just to be polite. It's a definite recommendation.

Lastly, I "previewed a book for my niece" and read Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days. It's children's literature, obviously, aimed at older elementary school children who are on the cusp of feeling awkward. The book is written as a diary, with a font resembling a child's handwriting, and delivers a first-person account of said wimpy kid's summer, in which he falls in love with a high schooler, fights with his best friend, schemes to get money, and tries to stay in the house as much as possible to play video games. He has a dry sense of humor at times, one that amused me greatly. Although there's not much of a story here, it's a diversion that may make it easier for younger children to grow accustomed to reading larger books.

Pick of the Week: With the Old Breed, Eugene B. Sledge.If you're at all interested in the Pacific War and soldiers' lives, I'd call it a must-read.

Potentials for Next Week:

  • Black Edelweiss, Johann Voss. I'm knee deep in this one: it's stunning so far.
  • The Triumph of Caesar, Steven Saylor: I finally gained access to this one and look forward to seeing Gordianus again, although I'm not too happy to see the series end for now. (Saylor isn't officially done with it, but he won't return to it until after his Roma sequel is finished.)
  • China Marine, Eugene B. Sledge.
  •  The Gangs of New York, Herbert Ashbury. Ashbury has written a book on San Francisco's early history, and I'm considering reading it. I wanted to get a handle on his style, though, and went with a more accessible book first.

Friday, December 18, 2009

With the Old Breed

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa
© 1981 Eugene B. Sledge
326 pages

The recruiting sergeant asked me lots of questions and filled out numerous official papers. When he asked, "Any scars, birthmarks, or other unusual features?" I described an inch-long scar on my knee. I asked why such a question. He replied, "So they can identify you on some Pacific beach after the Japs blast off your dog tags."

I've been at my university for two and a half years now, and have heard much about Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed, largely because he taught biology at this same university for several decades. History majors in particular hear about Sledge, as our professors are quick to recommend it. They do so with good reason. With the Old Breed is titled as such because Sledge, an Alabama native, fought two major battles of the Pacific War in the oldest and most experienced division and battalion in the Marines: pride in his company and its history marks Sledge throughout the book.

The book is written in a simple narrative, as the author values communicating a sense of the grittiness of his and his comrades' life than he is about composing artistic sentences. Style is simple, and sentences are short and to the point. Sledge's personal accounts are supplemented by italicized portions of text that allow Sledge to speak as as historian, as there he explains Pacific strategy relating to his experiences as he now understands it, or offers greater detail on subjects that Sledge-as-soldier missed.This is easily the grittiest war memoir I've ever read, perhaps even the grittiest book:  I've read other Pacific War memoirs (William Manchester's Goodbye, Darkness and  Samuel Stavisky's Marine Combat Correspondent come to mind), but they don't come close to rivaling this book in terms of visceral detail. I stopped reading at several points to recover. His accounts prior to and following the attack on Shuri Castle are especially grim. One of the more miserable scenes depicted in the book is of Sledge serving as a forward artillery observer beyond the platoon's main lines: he maintained a nightly vigil over an area he describes in this way:

Everywhere lay Japanese corpses killed in heavy fighting. Infantry equipment of every type, U.S. and Japanese, was scattered about. Helmets, rifles, BARs, packs, cartridge belts, canteens, shoes, ammo boxes, shell cases, machine-gun ammo belts, all were strewn about us up to and over Half Moon.
The mud was knee-deep in some places, probably deeper in others if one ventured there. For several feet around every corpse, maggots crawled about in the muck and then were washed away by the runoff of the rain. There wasn't a tree or bush left. All was open country. Shells had torn up the turf so completly tht ground cover was nonexistent. The scene was nothing but mud; shell fire; flooded craters with their silent, pathetic, rotting occupants; knocked-out tanks and ambtracs; and discarded equipment -- utter desolation.
The stench of death was overpowering.[...] I existed from moment to moment, thinking death would have been preferable. We were in the depths of the abyss, the ultimate horrors of war. [...] [I]n the mud and driving rain before Shuri, we were surrounded by maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool.

Soon after, he is ordered to dig a foxhole -- but stumbles into the shallow grave of a Japanese soldier, not that the NCO who ordered foxholes to be dug five feet apart from one another cared. Sledge doesn't spend a lot of time talking about combat itself, although it does happen as very active background. Only in a few instances does actual combat enter into the picture, as it does when he describes his first time shooting a Japanese intruder at close range. It seemed to me that a lot of attention was paid to the absolute hellishness of the conditions. Slege also railed against the stupidity of war in general,  but ended on the grudging note that sometimes hell has to be endured for a righteous cause. The book is an invaluable resource for historians, offering dismal details on the physical and emotional conditions and suffering of Pacific War soldiers.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

When Religion Becomes Evil

When Religion Turns Evil
© 2002 Charles Kimball
256 pages

Published in 2002 before the Iraq War and the rise of the "New Atheism"  Charles Kimball's When Religion Becomes Evil seeks to preserve religion for humanity's sake by elaborating on five ways is corrupted into giving rise to evil: the adoptions of absolute doctrines, blind obedience to authority figures, and the obsession with achieving religious means -- particularly apocalpytic "ideal states" -- by any means necessary, including the declaration of holy war.

Kimball has a balance perspective: raised in a Jewish-Christian home, he attended a Baptist seminary and spent most of his life working in the middle east. Although a believing and practicing Christian, he sees other religions perhaps in the same way as Marcus Borg -- as human responses to interaction with the divine. His emphasis is on the Abrahmic religions, as their size, exclusivism, and missionary efforts make them especially suspectble to committing excesses. I was continually impressed by Kimball's tone, which is balanced without being obviously so. He doesn't need to try, it seems: he approaches the various religions on almost the same level: nontheistic religions make few appearances here. The fairness of his tone makes the book well worth the read for any religious or nonreligious person interested in religion at any level for any reason. I don't believe religion is necessary to achieve the ends he thinks it is, but if religion is here for the long haul as it seems, I am pleased with this book's effort to make it more humane.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days
© 2009 Jeff Kinney
224 pages

My niece (10) is in the process of reading through the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and enjoys it immensely, so I bought her one for Christmas. When I took it out of the shipping box to wrap it, I took a peek inside...and an hour later, I'd finished the book and laughed myself silly several times in the process. As the title might indicate, it's written in the form of a diary: the font resembles a child's handwriting, and the pages are lined as if from a notebook. Illustrations are provided by drawn cartoons. This approach reminds me of a beloved young adult's series I read while in high school, California Diaries. The intended age group here is younger: according to my exhaustive research at Wikipedia, the series begins with wimpy kid Greg beginning sixth grade.

Dog Days draws its title from the phrase "dog days of summer", those hot days of summer vacation in which nothing much gets done. Greg would like nothing more than to sleep all day and stay up all night playing video games, but his parents insist that he go outside and do things, and so the diary records some of his misadventures while being forced to walk around in open sunlight. He becomes infatuated by the pool girl (a la Wendy Peffercorn in The Sandlot), racks up a massive bill at a country club having drinks with his best friend, and then has to scheme for ways to earn the money back. It's a very...goofy book: there's no serious story as in A Series of Unfortunate Events. It's almost an extended comic strip with more text than usual.  The amount of text may be too much for smaller children to digest comfortable, so the reccommend ages of 9-12 seem well considered.

I'd recommend to to those who are in the position of buying books for children: although the story doesn't have a lot of meat in it, it may make it easier for kids to start enjoying longer books.

Living Buddha, Living Christ

Living Buddha, Living Christ
© 1995 Thich Nhat Hanh
240 pages

One interpretation of Jesus that I've grown used to seeing in books writing on the necessity for religious pluralism is his depiction as an enlightened teacher in the same manner as Buddha, hoping to improve the quality of human life radically with his teachings centered on love. This is essentially the tack Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, took in writing Living Buddha, Living Christ.  He compares the Buddhist idea of mindfulness and the Christian "Holy Spirit", regarding them as accomplishing the same thing: "being one with the spirit" translates in his opinion to being mindful. It' odd idea, but somewhat useful, I think. If Christians take it to heart, they could adopt meditation and mindfulness into their own tradition without practicing them and wondering if it makes them hellbound.

For the non-Christian reader, there's not a lot of content here other than a few contemplations that reminded me of the Dali Lama's own work in An Open Heart. The book is essentially readable, although sentences tend to be short and choppy -- perhaps a product of the translation. It focused less on the historical persons of Jesus and Buddha than I had hoped, but the book should be of some interest to Christians interesting in makming their own tradition more responsive to the needs that mindfulness meets.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

This (Month) at the Library 9/12

Books this Update:
  • The Zinn Reader and Marx in Soho, Howard Zinn
  • Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories (Volume I), Isaac Asimov
  • The Best of Robert G. Ingersoll, compiled by Roger Greely
  • Saints Behaving Badly, Thomas J. Craughwell
  • Cicero, Anthony Everitt 
It's been a while since I wrote a review post: until Thursday of last week, I was properly innundated by papers. The semester is, by and large, done with: I only have finals week to look forward to, and thus can start doing a little more reading. It's been a while since I did any science reading, so I would appreciate reccommendations from those of you who read in those areas - particularly in the fields of biology and physics.

Nearly a month ago, I read two works by historian and social activist/critic Howard Zinn -- both inspired by the documentary You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. The first, The Zinn Reader, is a large collection of articles, essays, columns, and book forwards written by Zinn over the course of his lifetime and covering a range of subjects -- history, social activism in the United States, civil disobedience, politics, and Marx-esque social criticism. Given the scope of the material,  I was able to see Zinn continually reacting to the social changes of the United States from the late thirties to the late eighties. The book is easily one of the best I've read this year, and it being the pick of the week in the next update -- this one -- became a foregone conclusion. On a similar note -- Marx-esque social criticism -- I read a bit of fiction by Zinn in Marx in Soho.  The powers that be allow Marx to return to the world of the living for an hour to defend himself and his ideas, which he does. Zinn sought to portray Marx not just as a professional intellectual, locked away in his office writing about economics, but as an on-the-ground-revolutionary in his own sense. There were a few choice quotes in there, but I can't share any at the moment as I've lent the book to a friend. You can look up performances of the play on YouTube.  (I've linked to a couple of my favorite performances here.)

After this, I read a selection of quotations from Robert Ingersoll entitled The Best of Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll was a late nineteenth century personality -- a celebrity of sorts in his day, drawing massive crowds to hear him lecture. He was an extraordinarily gifted speeches: even reading the text of them rivets me. I've been meaning to share some of the quotations on my philosophy/humanities blog: one of them will eventually be inserted into this post the next time I access the book. Although the book doesn't contain any full speeches by Ingersoll, it contains an abundance of pithy quotations that will be appreciated by skeptics, atheists, rationalists, skeptics, the liberal religious, science supporters, and especially humanists.

At the beginning of this month, I finished Asimov: the Complete Stories, volume I. It contains two of his short-story collections (Earth is Room Enough and Nine Tomorrows) and is a mix of fantasy and science fiction pieces, with science fiction dominating.  It contains some of my favorite pieces by Asimov, but I can say little more about the stories than I have about Asimovian stories in the past. They're readable, typically contain interesting ideas, and do not bother the reader with gratituous violence, sex, or slams against people Asimov disagreed with.

Saints Behaving Badly is a collection of short chapters about various Catholic saints, attempting to entertain  and encourage traditionally Christian readers who fear their lives aren't up to snuff compared to the saints. The book was rather poor: sources (sometimes legends and rumors) were never criticized, and some of the "sins" seem silly to make a fuss over. The most entertaining thing about this book was the cover art.

Lastly, I read a biography of Cicero, a pleasant high note to end the week (month) on. The book presents a balanced view of Cicero's life and gives the reader plenty of historical and political context to understand the drama of Cicero's life, and the information is presented in a well-paced narrative.

Pick of the Week: The Zinn Reader, as mentioned before.
Quotation of the Week: "Is life worth living? Well, I can only answer for myself. I like to be alive, to breathe the air, to look at the landscape, the clouds, the stars, to repeat old poems, to look at pictures and statues, to hear music, the voices of the ones I live. I enjoy eating and smoking. I like good cold water. I like to talk with my wife, my girls, my grandchildren. I like to sleep and to dream. Yes, you can say that life, to me, is worth living." (Robert Ingersoll, The Best of)

Upcoming Reads:
  • Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hanh. I think it's meant to establish dialogue between Buddhists and Christians, which may become increasingly important if Americans continue to leave traditional western religion behind for more philosophical worldviews like Buddhism.
  • The Triumph of Caesar  by Steven Saylor: I intended to read this last week, but forgot which library it was in. 
  • Black Edelweiss: A Memoir of Combat and Conscience by a Soldier of the Waffen-SS, Johann Voss. The Waffen-SS, for those not well-versed in World War 2 information, was the military arm of the SS. They saw a lot of action in Russia, and helped maintain the concentration and death camps. I've read about the leaders of the SS before and am interested in what led men to join the darkest part of the Nazi state.
  • When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs, Charles Kimball


Cicero: the Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician
© 2001 Anthony Everitt
359 pages

I've been intending to read this for a few months now, but other books have always gotten in the way. As I plan on continuing in Robert Harris' biographical novel trilogy of Cicero's life, it seemed proper to read a standard biography of Cicero for comparison's sake.

I'm rather taken by the book. It's written in a narrative style, increasing reability and keeping the reader interested. The title is accurate, for Everitt not only writes about Cicero's life, but establishes plenty of context about Roman history,  Roman government, and Roman lifestyles. The emphasis on Cicero's historical context continues throughout the book: the Republic's waning years and death are covered in detail, given Cicero's role in attempting to preserve it, even as Marc Anthony and Octavian's armies clashed.Thus, the book functions not only as a fairly thorough treatment of Cicero's life, but allows the reader to get a handle on late-Republic politics.

The portrayal of Cicero seems balanced, on the whole: Cicero's politics only slightly overshadow his philosophical and literary contributions, while Everitt seems neither unjustly cynical or romantic about Cicero's life, but generally portrays him in a positive light with a few caveats. On the whole, Cicero is readable and informative treatment not just of Cicero, but of late-Republican Rome itself.

Saints Behaving Badly

Saints Behaving Badly: the Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints
© 2006 Thomas J. Craughwell
208 pages

This is a short little number intending to amuse and perhaps reassure people that they're not all bad, compared to people who have become saints. It made for very light, and -unfortunately -- not enjoyable reading. Perhaps the expectations I brought with me to the book -- namely, that it would point out self-righteous hypocrisy in the lives of people who are supposedly a cut above the rest of us -- hampered my enjoyment of it, but I have my doubts. The book is not about hypocrisy: although the book's short chapters each tell of the "sins" committed by the Catholic church's many saints, all these sins took place before they "got religion". The book is definitely written from the perspective of a committed Christian, and I doubt anyone else would enjoy it:  the author is utterly uncritical of his sources, drawing on legends for some of his facts, and sometimes -- as in the case of St. Patrick -- the chapters aren't even based on legends, but mere rumors. The chapter on St. Patrick also reflects another of the book's weaknesses, namely that many of the so-called "sins" aren't going to bother very many people. St. Patrick's alleged sin is that sometime in his youth, he may have participated in a pagan rite.On the basis of this utterly undefended claim, the author labels Patrick a 'devil worshipper'.  There's nothing in here about the medieval popes living in splendor while peasants starve outside the gilded gates of the Vatican: nothing at all substantial, and very little to amuse. Frankly, the only enjoyment I got out of this book was looking at the cover art .

Monday, December 7, 2009

No Less than Victory

No Less than Victory
© 2009 Jeff Shaara
449 pages

This was released only a month ago, and completes Shaara's WW2-Europe trilogy, the previous titles being The Rising Tide and The Steel Wave. The books are historical fiction, although most characters -- perhaps all in this book -- are historical personalities. Shaara borrows from his father's style in writing the book in a way that depicts the soldiers' and generals' reactions to the war as it develops around them: sentences are often styled to convey the thoughts of each chapter's viewpoint character. Eisenhower and Patton have been viewpoint characters throughout the whole of the series, but they are the only two carry-overs: grunt soldier George Benson joins the cast on the American side to give readers both an overview of the war (the generals' chapters often serve as exposition and move the plot along) and the soldiers' view on the ground. As is typical of Shaara, viewpoint characters are drawn from both sides of the conflict, and at least two German officials make their prescense known throughout the book. An elderly German general who is expected to take the blame for the Wehrmacht's defeat in the west serves the same function as Rommel in previous books, -- giving the reader a "good" German who loves his country and is frustrated by Hitler's refusal to listen to reason, -- while Albert Speer serves as the reader's eyes into late-war German government given his role as one of Hitler's familiars.

The book opens in December 1942:  in the past sixth months, the Allies have liberated most of France, but have slown down to a near-stop as winter visits Europe. Rather than sit and twiddle its thumbs all winter while  American and British bombers continue to bomb them, the Wehrmacht launches a counteroffensive against American lines, resulting in what history will call the Battle of the Bulge. This conflict consumes over half the book, since it is the last gasp of German military capability. The book's plot is much slower in the first half of the book, and varies from chapter to chapter depending on the viewpoint character:  soldiers experience plot minute by minute, while months can pass by during a general's chapter rather quickly. Shaara's books are expressly about American history, drawing as they do from American sources, so readers hoping to visit the eastern front will be disappointed. Narrative flows more slowly than it might in say, Harry Turtledove's works, but it doesn't bog down too much -- and it picks up swiftly after the book's halfway point, when American troops begin marching into Germany proper and seeing the ravages of war.

Shaara sometimes seems present in the book. Unlike Steven Saylor, he doesn't mention to the readers what his sources were, or how extensively he drew from them, so -- except in the case of Albert Speer, whose work I am familiar with -- I do not know which of the characters' opinions belonged to their historical personalities or which belong to Shaara. At one point,  Winston Churchill pays Eisenhower a visit and gripes about the Yalta Conference: England was largely ignored, to his believable annoyance, but what really gets Winnie's goat is that Roosevelt wrote Poland off. It's difficult for me to believe Churchill cared for the people of Poland, although in a more cynical light I can easily believe in his being outraged at Russia growing in strength. Interestingly, Shaara's characters often compare and contrast Allied and Nazi morality, particularly after Dresden but before the discovery of concentration camps. While Shaara's narrative isn't too romantic, it's definitely friendly to warm and gushy patriotism. Perhaps that's appropriate: the reader must decide.

No Less than Victory is definitely a fair read. I enjoyed it as much as I've enjoyed Shaara's other works, and I suspect those interested in American military history would eat it up. I read the book mostly out of loyalty to Shaara: I've been reading him since high school, and it would seem strange to stop, particularly in the middle of a series. I understand he's planning on writing about the end of the war in the Pacific.

Asimov: The Complete Stories, Volume I

Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Volume I
© 1990 Isaac Asimov
614 pages

I finished this book over a week ago, but academic responsibilities have seen my writing limited to papers for class and my creativity beyond that slightly dampened. I acquired this book a few months ago and have read from it ever since, little by little. The set it is part of was never completed: only two of the three planned books were ever released. Volume I contains two of Asimov's short-story collections, Earth is Room Enough and Nine Tomorrows. The former is a mix of science fiction and fantasy, while the latter is straight science fiction with humorous and -- as always with Asimov, self-depreciating -- poetry rounding things out. This collection contains some of my favorite pieces by Asimov, and of course I would recommend it to any fans of the good doctor or to classical science fiction fans. Here are a few of the stories you might be interested in:

  • The classic "Nightfall", a short story about a world with six suns and a history of civilization-destroying madness. Scientists and cultists both predict the end of the world is at hand. 
  • "The Feeling of Power" depicts Earth in the future, where reliance on computers has grown to the point that humans can no longer do simple arithmetic: computers themselves design and manufacture the newer generations of computers. A technological historian sorts out how to work through simple mathematical formulas and begins teaching them to his fellow citizens, only to be horrified when the military realizes math's uses.
  • "Profession" is one of the more interesting stories, at least for me, and shows an Earth similar to the Earth in "Feeling of Power". Technology is used to teach children to read and to train them for their professions, but when one man tries to beat the system and learn on his own, strange things happen.
  • "The Last Question", one of Asimov's favorites: can entropy be beaten? 
  • "The Fun They Had": children in Earth's far future puzzle over the existence of books and communal classrooms in an age where they are taught by robotic tutors.
  • "The Immortal Bard": William Shakespeare is plucked from his own time and finds himself in an English class devoted to analyzing the collected works of Shakespeare.
  • "The Gentle Vultures": Aliens puzzle over why Earth has not yet destroyed itself in a nuclear war.
  • "All the Troubles of the World" features Asimov's "Multivac", the ultimate computer that knows all...which turns out to be too much.
  • "Breeds There a Man?" is another interesting one, also involving aliens and nuclear physics. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Best of Robert Ingersoll

The Best of Robert Ingersoll
© 1993 Roger Greely
175 pages


This week, I was able to read through a collection of quotations by Robert G. Ingersoll under the title of "best of". The quotations are introduced by a biographical essay of Ingersoll, then organized by alphabetical topic and take up most of the book, with a few short speeches -- one for his brother's funeral and others honoring recently deceased poets, scholars, and other men whom Ingersoll admired -- near the end. The book's appendices are written by the editor of the book and concern the history of his birthplace museum and various things said about him by contemporaries after his death. The book is shorter than I expected, and did not contain the text of larger lectures as I anticipated before seeing the page count. The quotations included, however, are some of his best -- and even included some I have never encountered before. The image of Ingersoll that comes forth through these selections is one of a passionate and intelligent man, every bit the "preacher of humanity". His quotations regarding religion are particularly strong, displaying why I like Ingersoll so much: he doesn't just roar at orthodoxy, he celebrates humanity and exhorts his listeners to think for themselves and live more deeply in love. He is the quintessential Humanist.

The book is an obvious recommendation to Robert G. Ingersoll fans, but should have strong appeal to skeptics, atheists, rationalists, skeptics, the liberal religious, science supporters, and especially humanists.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Marx in Soho

Marx in Soho
© 1999 Howard Zinn
88 pages

"Oh, ja -- 'capitalism has triumphed!' -- but over whom?" - Marx, Marx in Soho

Although The Zinn Reader held a near-monopoly on my attention last week, there was a brief thirty-minute timeframe in which I visted my post box, discovered to my happy surprise that a book had come in early, and excitedly read through it. As you might guess from those comments, Marx in Soho is not a lengthy work: it is not even a book in the usual sense, but a play written by Howard Zinn. I came to Marx in Soho by the same means I came to The Zinn Reader:  You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train,  a documentary on Zinn's life.  Film from a production of Zinn's speculative play in which Karl Marx visits the present day from the "beyond" featured in the movies, and it intrigued me enough that I started looking for recordings on YouTube. Those were well-done enough to merit my looking for the book, which I did.

As said, the play's premise is one of speculative fiction. Karl Marx, annoyed that his name and life's work are being slandered in the modern world, is able to badger the Powers that Be into letting him visit the living world just for one hour -- although, due to a bureacratic mix-up, he finds himself in Soho, New York instead of Soho, England. The play is a monolouge, although we hear from other characters through Marx's reflectings on the past. Most of his attention is focused firmly on the present, as he admits that his predictions of class revolution and Communism were off, muses on why, and applies his criticisms of capitalism in the 19th century to capitalism in the 20th. Marx is portrayed not as a sage-like Gentleman Scholar in this play, but as an ordinary human who loved his wife and children, endured a bad cough,  turned his home into a salon for the dicussion of economic and political matters, and who is passionate about his work. Zinn's Marx has a sense of humor, sometimes making wry comments to the audience after his more spirited rants have attracted negative attention from "Heaven" -- lightening flashes whenever Marx becomes too animated.

Marx in Soho is a fun little read. It's almost a modern Communist Manifesto, communicating Marx's ideas to a lay audience. It's nowhere near as thorough as the Manifesto, but the 21st century's attention span may be too short to endure even the short work that is the Manifesto.  Marx in Soho is fairly well done -- it's readable, presents the Manifesto's basic tenents, entertains, and humanizes a figure who is more legend than man. My only raised eyebrow comes from Marx speaking in Zinn's voice toward the end.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Zinn Reader

The Zinn Reader
© 1997 Howard Zinn
668 pages

When I pulled this book from the shelf, I did so with the intention of checking it out and reading it over the Thanksgiving holiday. I did not anticipate the book monopolizing my interest from the moment I peeked inside on my way downstairs to the circulation desk to check it out until the minute I finished it. That a book of nearly seven hundred pages, often about politics, never lost my interest is impressive indeed.

Last week I watched a biographical documentary about the life of author Howard Zinn, a historian whom I read in the early spring. His People’s History of America and People’s History of American Empire were historical narratives with political messages, wholly interesting to me.  The man who emerged from the documentary and from this book is fascinating: he grew up poor, in the slums of New York, back when the United States had its own labor and socialist movements. He was part of a B-17 crew during the Second World War, and afterwards became a historian and political activist, a combination of roles he sees only as natural. By chance he was sent to the South just as the Civil Rights movement began in earnest, and has written commentary on seemingly every major social and political event of the sixties, seventies, and eighties. This book contains a large sampling of articles, essays, newspaper columns, book introductions, and other literature he produced during the period, and it is a staggeringly communicative book.  Zinn is easily the most captivating political author I’ve ever read, communicating not just history, but the emotional effect of history. Zinn’s indignation, sadness, and anger are obvious, but never overwhelming.

The Zinn Reader is one man’s commentary on his and the United States’ history and development. Zinn is a character in a larger story, responding to the historical events that unfold around him. Zinn is very much involved with history: for him, the idea that the historian is and must be  neutral is wrong, fallacious even.  Historians, and scholars in general, have the right and duty as human beings to respond to what is happening in their world -- to champion the causes they see as righteous and to attack with fervency what injustice and lies they can. He doesn’t write simply on the major events of his life -- World War 2, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam -- but on the minor parts as well (Boston University’s “battleground” role during the rise of the student left) - -and on the whole scope of American history, from Columbus to the Gilded Age and beyond.

The highest praise I can give to any book is that it added depth to my life in making me think: Zinn addresses questions of mine in regards to civil disobedience (when is it “right”, namely), and makes me examine old ideas and new ones alike. The book swept me away, and I imagine it will be holding sway over my mind for a good long while, in the manner of Neil Postman. I don’t know if I’ll read anything more memorable this year -- I doubt I could. I recommend this to you utterly.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

This Week at the Library (12/11)

Books this Update:
  • A Gladiator Dies Only Once, Steven Saylor
  • The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins
  • Off the Books, Sudhir Venkatesh
  • Caesar's Judgment, Steven Saylor
  • An Honorable German, Charles McCain
  • Robert Ingersoll, David Anderson
In this past two weeks, I have been continuing in the Roma sub Rosa series, first with A Gladiator Dies Only Once -- a collection of short stories set in the beginning of the series -- and Caesar's Judgment, one of the last books in the series proper.  Both books are examples of Saylor at his best, putting together interesting stories, believable characters, and a lively historical setting. Caesar's Judgment is more of a political thriller than a mystery novel, but this certainty doesn't detract from the experience. A Gladiator Dies Only Once in particular is now a favorite.

The Roma sub Rosa series wasn't the only bit of historical fiction I read, as just recently I finished the excellent An Honorable German, one of the finest WW2-era novels I've read. Author Charles McCain's main character is a German naval officer named Max Brekendorf, and the story follows him as he matures both as a military officer and a person. Characterization is particularly strong in this book, and it tells a story that should be more known -- that of Germans who were neither Nazis nor helpless and impotent bystanders.

In terms of nonfiction, I read Richard Dawkins' latest release -- The Greatest Show on Earth, a rather thorough and quite readable case for evolution complete with Dawkins' usual wry humor and fantastic color plates, following it up with Sudhir Venkatesh's Off the Books, a detailed look at the underground economy of urban slums, that gives the reader a grim look at what people do to get by in the absence of job opportunities and effective law enforcement.  I finished with a biography of "beloved Colonel Bob", Robert G. Ingersoll. I started the biography in the spring but wasn't able to finish it before summer arrived and I lost convenient access to my university library, but the book gave me plenty of background information about the life of a man I find admirable, and made my mental image of him a bit more polished, as author David Anderson doesn't shy away from Ingersoll's faults.

Pick of the Week: I'm leaning toward either A Gladiator Dies Only Once or An Honorable German.

Quotation of the Week: "Gentlemen -- we are arguing about words, not reality." - Richard Dawkins, pointing out the problems in scientists, historians, and others who attach themselves too strongly to labels and descriptions that may limit their perceptions. The necessity of breaking label-boxes is especially salient for me as a history and sociological student.

Upcoming Potentials:
  • No Less Than Victory, Jeff Shaara: the final book in his WW2-European Theatre trilogy. It's a new release, so I may have trouble getting it from my local library...
  • The Best of Robert G. Ingersoll: Selections from his Writings and Speeches, ed. Roger Greely. Guess why I decided to finish that Ingersoll biography this week?
  • The Triumph of Caesar, Steven Saylor. This is the last book in the Roma sub Rosa series: it's also the only book I'm sure I'll be reading next week.
  • Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Volume 1.  I'll be reading this in the next week, but I probably won't finish it for a while: like my Black Widower collections, I prefer to read this a little at a time.

Robert Ingersoll

Robert Ingersoll
© 1972 David Anderson
141 pages

You may have never heard of Robert Ingersoll before, but you've probably seen him: I use a portrait of him as my "user picture" here on blogger. As you may be able to guess, I hold him in high esteem -- enough to have written a tributary essay in his honor. I encountered quotations from him at Humanism by Joe, went to his Wikiquote page to find more, and have in the years since started collecting his speeches on my computer, re-reading favorites like "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child" or "Why I Am Agnostic".

After an intruductory chapter exploring Ingersoll's childhood and historical context,  Anderson committs different chapters to exploring Ingersoll's role as a lawyer, politican, and -- finally -- orator. Anderson approaches Ingersoll the same way I would approach Cicero: carefully, wanting to comment on a remarkable personality but also wanting to be fair about it. I use Cicero as an example because Ingersoll  reminded me of him in his early adulthood while functioning as lawyer and politican. He's a master orator,  but uses his gift as a tool to accomplish his job. My own affection for Ingersoll not withstanding, I don't think he's bad as Cicero in regards to being a mouth for hire.  According to Anderson, Ingersoll was especially gifted at "waving the bloody shirt", stirring up emotional support for his cause by referencing heroic deeds of men gone before who endured much to accomplish what they did. Ingersoll as occassional demagouge is a somewhat disturbing image for me, but one believeable and perhaps predictable. Oratory is a powerful tool. Anderson takes time to comment on especially notable speeches of the Ingersoll canon, exploring what they reveal about Ingersoll's political and religious convictions -- as well as his literary preferences. A number of Ingersoll's speeches are tributary in nature: he praises such men as Abraham Lincoln, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Diderot.

The book is well written, and fair. Although Anderson often compliments Ingersoll, he does not hestiate to criticize him, often rather sharply. When referencing "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child", for instance, Anderson writes that Ingersoll was too narrow in his focus. Rather than attacking broad social issues, he only commented on matters of concern only to his own middle class, and conservatively so at that. I don't know if it's fair to critcize Ingersoll for not being a feminist before his time, although he was such a radical personality in other areas, pehaps it is. Ingersoll was in his way a very conservative man, very much attached to the idea of the family and a "classical liberal" in the ecnomic sense. What Ingersoll often earns praise for  from Anderson -- and what I love him most for -- is his humanistic passion. I have never heard a more passionate defender of the human spirit than Ingersoll.

I would reccommend the book to those interested in Ingersoll, either as fans or as those who simply think him an interesting historical figure worth finding more about.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Honorable German

An Honorable German
384 pages
© 2009 Charles McCain

I saw this book on special display at my university, and decided to read it given my interests in Germany and naval stories. (The latter is not an interest that has surfaced here, although it probably will in the future.)  An Honorable German is the story of Max Brekendorf, who begins as an officer aboard the Admiral Graf Spee, a German battleship operating in the Atlantic in the opening months of World War 2. Germany's naval fortunes being what they were during that war, informed readers will be not be surprised that the Graf Spee is not Brekendorf's only posting during the conflict. Two stories develop here, each running beside the other: the first is Brekendorf's development as a naval officer in a conflict that he and his comrades are destined to lose, and this constitutes the military-driven portion of the story. More fascinating for me was the development of Max's character. His opinions, prejudices, and values are challenged and change throughout the course of the novel -- not only at sea, where the "right" course is often difficult to discern, but with successive visit home to Germany, where he witnesses the consequences of war and the ever-tyrannical totalitarian state.

The book was a splendid read. It never failed to hold my attention, and the narrative filled with little details that gave the story life and made the setting more interesting for the readers, as well: I learned a few things in the novel I may have never encountered elsewhere. Characterization seemed well-thought out:  Brekendorf begins the book as an essentially decent man. He isn't an unrealistic epitome of grace who makes every other character in the book look like a dengerate schmuck by comparison: he's just a man with his own prejudices and values, some shared by his countrymen and some not. Even though the reader may disagree with his opinions, they may still be able to sympathize with why he thinks as he does. What is remarkable about Brekendorf is how he maintains his integrity even his life is put more in peril everyday and rasher decisions would be easier to make. I also got a sense of what Germany was like during this period from the perspective of people living there: the story made me think of the horrors people visit upon one another in war, a meditation imminently appropriate for this Armistice Day.

I enjoyed the book immensely and reccommend it to those interested in German history, naval stories, or the human side of war.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Caesar's Judgement

The Judgment of Caesar
© 2005 Steven Saylor
352 pages

When we last left Rome under the rose,  the civil war between Caesar and Pompey began to slowly conclude as Pompey's ranks dwindled and his history of victories was rendered meaningless by a long string of defeats to Caesar. Saylor moved his attention from the conflict back to Rome and its many mysteries, and we saw Gordianus attempt to solve the mystery of a young woman's murder. He was quite close to the deceased, and The Judgment of Caesar opens with his family traveling to Egypt to put her remains to rest in the Nile. This is not the only matter that brings Gordianus to Egypt, nor is it his primary concern: his wife Bethesda has been ill for some time now, and they have come to Egypt primarily in hopes of finding a cure for her in the Nile.

Gordianus' timing could have stood improvement: as his ship draws near Alexandria, it is captured by Pompey's forces. The last time Pompey and Gordianus stood on a ship together, Pompey attempted to strangle our protagonist with his own bare hands -- and his regard for Gordianus has not improved since. Caesar's arrival complicates matters, and Gordianus soon finds himself dumped unceremoniously in the ocean while the two great fleets manuever -- lost to his family and friends. Fate will bring them back together again, of course, and Gordianus will find himself in the thick of political manueverings between Julius Caesar, the boy-king Ptolemy, and his sister/wife/queen Cleopatra.

Caesar's Judgment, like Catalina's Riddle, is more political thriller than mystery. The book's mystery -- the attempted murder of Caesar and Cleopatra -- appears two hundred pages in and is resolved within twenty. Although Caesar is "judge" in the matter, taking Gordianus' investigations into account, his most important decision lies in which of the Egyptian monarchs he intends to support. As is common with Saylor, he supplements the book with historical notes, explaining how he worked the clay of historical facts into the crafted work that is this altogether riveting political historical fiction.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Off the Books

Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor
© 2006 Sudhir Venkatesh
426 pages

In the spring, I read Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day, an analysis of gang life in one of Chicago's more prominent street gangs, which Venkatesh referred to as the "Black Kings". Although the book's focus was on the gang, its relationship to the local community showed me how difficult was for people living in that area to simply get by: in the abcense of any federal or municipal help, the people of the community had to make do with what they had, and that often meant relying on the gang for some services even though many community leaders despised them. Another work by Venkatesh, Off the Books, came up in a lecture on urban poverty in a sociology class, and I knew it was a must-read for me.

Off the Books shifts Venkatesh's focus to the community of "Maquis Park" and the unofficial economy that undergirds it.With so few jobs in the area, people make a living however they can. Some of the methods chosen are conventional, but with a twist: an automechanic may pay a fee to a local landowner to use his parking lot or adjoining alleyway as a place to work on cars. Others are unique and defy easy labeling, like the information broker or opportunity realtor who helps hopeful hustlers find a safe streetcorner, parking lot, or alleyway to start working and directs customers to them. Everyone in the community participates in this off-the-books exchange, which involves a fair bit of for-kind or bartering agreements. A more legitimate automechanic with an actual garage may accept payments in the form of appliances, for instance, which he then sells. Venkatesh approaches the underground economy from five angles: he looks first at what families do to get by, then examines the roles business owners, street hustlers, religious leaders, and the local gang play in it. Because these players are typically interacting with another -- a homeless man may be paid by a business owner to sit outside his door at night to keep burgulars away, and he might also be paid by a gang leader to keep an eye out for members of a car theft ring that are cutting into the Black Kings' profits, while religious leaders often mediate conflicts between the gang, hustlers, and residents -- there's a fair amount of reundanancy. I read about the same interactions from different angles, but enough new information was gained from each angle that I don't think this is a mistake on Venkatesh's part.

What strikes me most about the book is what originally drew me to it: these are people doing the best they can to survive a socio-economic situation. Municipal leaders overlook the impoverished communities, so they must take matters into their own hands -- relying on themselves to police the streets, keeping excesses to a minimum. The "us" and "them" roles change frequently: the gang or the homeless may be the problem in one instance and the solution in another. Poverty and the lack of responsive government has lead to a self-governing society of poverty, with its own leaders, courts, police, and "taxes". I'm further interested in what Chicago leaders are trying to do to help the situation, and want to find out what Barack Obama's role was as a "community organizer": as I said in my comments on Gang Leader for a Day, being a community organizer in Chicago's southside is for me an uniminagable challenge. The book is compelling, its stories told well, and its substance educational -- particuarly for me.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution
© Richard Dawkins 2009

470 pages

2009 is the "Year of Darwin", giving us nice round anniversaries for both Charles Darwins' birth and the publication of his most famous work, The Origin of Species. Accordingly, books, magazine articles, and television specials have been produced to take advantage of the increased attention on Darwin and his life's work. Author Richard Dawkins is a forceful but genteel proponent of both evolution via natural selection and atheism, meriting him praise and contempt from various parties. I rather enjoy interviews with Dawkins, although I sometimes struggle through his popular science works. Struggling was not the case with The Greatest Show on Earth, in which Dawkin puts forth the evidence for evolution.

Greatest Show on Earth is -- based on my experience -- one of Dawkins' more readable works.After arguing for the importance of evolution, he begins to lay out his case, covering various lines of evidence -- fossil records, mutation rates, the age of Earth, evidence of evolutionary change in contemporary animals' biology (vestigial organs, organs that have changed uses, bone structure adapting from one purpose to another), so-called "missing links", -- before wrapping things up. He argues well, using vivid examples and analogies. Although Jerry Coyne's book may be more tightly focused,  Dawkins is perhaps more thorough. On a final note, the color pages in this book are absolutely gorgeous, by far the best-done illustrative pages I've seen in all my reading, topping even Thomas Cahill's magnificent offerings in Mysteries of the Middle Ages. The pages are absolutely stunning: even if you can't  buy the book, I'd recommend finding it in the bookstore and looking for the colored photograph sections. They're intense. The book is well written, sharply argued, and overall well done. It's an obvious reccommendation to those interested in biology, evolution, or Dawkins.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Gladiator Dies Only Once

A Gladiator Dies Only Once: The Further Investigations of Gordianus the Finder
© 2005 Steven Saylor
269 pages


Although the meat of the Roma sub Rosa series is its novels, Steven Saylor also enjoys writing short stories set within it, as these allow him to explore elements of Rome that don't justify an entire novel. They also allow him creative leeway, demonstrated nicely in The House of the Vestals, his first story collection, where he told a ghost story and used Egypt as the setting several times. This is the second and as far as I know final short story collection in the sub Rosa universe, with stories set between the Sullian dictatorship of Roman Blood and Cicero's consulship in Catalina's Riddle. Most of the stories are set very early in Gordianus' career, before he and his wife were married and had established a family.

House of the Vestals established a patrician friend for Gordianus in the rotund shape of Lucius Claudius, and he appears in most of the nine stories here. The length of the stories varies: some, like "If Cyclopes Should Vanish in the Blink of an Eye" are short, while others are long. Through the course of them, Gordianus rubs shoulders with the best and worst of Rome, and does a little traveling (to Sicily, for instance) along the way. All of the stories were quite enjoyable, although a couple seemed a bit short -- "The White Fawn" is an example of that. It is set in Spain, where Pompey the Great is attempting to subdue the last remnants of Marian's forces, leftovers from the Roman Civil War who intend to make Spain the home of a new Roman republic. The "white fawn" is said to be a manifestation of the goddess Diana, who whispers advice into the rebel general's ear. The stories are not only enjoyable, but paint vivid and informative pictures of historical Rome. This may be one of my favorites of Saylor's works.

This Week at the Library (27/10)

Books this Update:
  • A Mist of Prophecies, Steven Saylor
  • The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Mark Forstater
  • For Everything a Season, Philip Gully
  • Darwin Awards III, Wendy Northcutt
  • The Cosmic Connection, Carl Sagan

This update is a bit unusual in that it covers two weeks: I think I've updated once a week since spring 2008, but reading has been slower than usual because of papers and a difficult read, one that I've not finished yet -- a formal translation of Epictetus' Manual for Living and Discourses. Two weeks ago I continued in the Roma sub Rosa with Mist of Prophecies, which breaks the emerging pattern of stories against war by taking us to Rome in a period of relative peace. Gordianus takes it upon himself to investigate the murder of a seeress called Cassandra, for reasons made clear to the reader near the end. Mist offers more characterization on Gordianus' part, but isn't quite as riveting as novels that precede it.

Next I read a partial translation and commentary on the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Author Mark Forstater updated the language of a more conservative translation, then organized sections of the Meditations into themes ("Cultivation of Death", "Oneness of Nature", etc.). This text follows an extended introduction on Forstater. The book is an obvious recommendation for those interested in ethical philosophy: it makes the Meditations more accessible, and may give those who have read it a more filling experience through background.

I followed this with Quaker pastor Phillip Gully's For Everything a Season, stories about his and his town's life organized into chapters that follow Ecclesiastes "For everything there is a season" passage. (If you're bored, click that and read verses 19 through 22 and tell me you're not surprised to read such heathery in the bible.) The book is rather charming, and makes for enjoyable reading. The stories show people living the simple life, relatively unspoiled by modernity.

I followed that up with a little levity in the form of the third collection of Darwin Awards, "honors" given to people to improve the human gene pool by offing themselves in stupid ways before breeding. The collection wasn't as strong as the first, but there were a couple of amusing tales. Interestingly, one of the Darwin awards in this book just featured in a article -- entry #6.

Lastly, I read Carl Sagan's The Cosmic Connection, a series of essays written about astronomy and space exploration in the hopes of expressing Sagan's own enthusiasm for those objects and cultivating them in readers. Although some essays are more technical than others, they should be appreciated by most lay readers. I recommend the book to science buffs and Sagan fans.

Pick of the Week: The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Mark Forstater

Potentials for Next Week:
  • A Gladiator Dies Only Once, Steven Saylor. This is Saylor's second collection of Roma sub Rosa short stories.
  • The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins. This was the surprise entry from last week.
  • Discourses, Epictetus. (I wouldn't count on it.)
  • Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, Sudhir Venkatesh. I'm rather looking forward to this one: Venkatesh penned the fascinating Gang Leader for a Day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Cosmic Connection

The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective
© 1973 Carl Sagan
273 pages

Carl Sagan penned The Cosmic Connection in the interests of communicating his own exhilaration at the human exploration of space. He begins by expressing his appreciating for being alive when he was, at such a unique point in history when human beings were capable of and willing to explore the solar system: no other generation will visit the planets Sagan and his colleagues did for the first time. The book almost seems a collection of essays at times, united only by the common topic of astronomy and space exploration, but Sagan does weave inter-essay references into a few of them, particularly towards the end. Although some essays are more technical than others, the book should be readable for even lay persons. I would recommend it particularly to astronomy buffs and Sagan fans.

Darwin Awards III

Darwin Awards III: Survival of the Fittest
© 2003 Wendy Northcutt
304 pages

The Darwin Awards are tongue-in-cheek "honors" given to adults who remove themselves from the gene pool by killing themselves in extraordinarily stupid ways, thus improving it. The home of the Darwin Awards is online, but from time to time awards find their way into collections such as this. I figured I'd check the book out for a few laughs. The stories in this book are not quite as funny as the original, but usually manage to be amusing, even if only mildly so. There are a few that are staggeringly funny, though. If you're interested in the book, I'd first suggest you visit the website and sample a few of the wares first.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

For Everything a Season

For Everything a Season: Simple Musings on Living Well
© 2001 Phillip Gully
220 pages

I don't recall what lead me to reading this book, although I'm sure my fondness for the Hebrew book of Ecclesiastes had something to do with it. I also have a soft spot for Quakers, so a book of stories about the simple life set to themes from Ecclesiastes might have been appealing. An oft-quoted passage of Ecclesiastes, and one perhaps known better for its having been turned into lyrics by Pete Seeger, maintains that in life there is a time to sow, a time to reap, a time to laugh, a time to weep, a time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together (on the Sabbath, to bean the guy sweeping his porch), and so on. Each of the "A time to" qualities is given a chapter here, consists of a short story about author Phillip Gully's life that in his opinion demonstrates that there is indeed a time for all these things.

Gully is a Quaker minister, hence my earlier reference, any many of the stories reference his experience as a minister in his community. He lives in a small Indiana town, one that seems to have held a get-out-of-change-free card, for most of the simple pleasures he enjoyed as a boy are enjoyed in turn by his boys, with a few exceptions like the lamented Royal Theatre, a teacher of everything that was good in life -- Gully's life, anyway. The stories are very charming -- folksy, but not annoyingly so. Gully has a delightfully dry and self-depreciating humor, and his gentle and kind voice endeared him to me: only once did he border on growing overly preachy.

Although the book and chapter titles come from the Christian scriptures, this is not a religious book: it is more a book about a man and town who are more moved by religion than most people, and in more good ways than bad. Gully is very conservative in his way, but at the same time he has moral values that break conservatism's hold on him. In "A Time to Hate", he writes that he believes hate is to be cast away, that we make a choice to hate just as we make a choice to love.

In short, it's a charming little book of stories about life in a small Quaker town, one where humanity still flourishes without regard to too much of modernity's excesses -- a place the reader might wish to live, so that they might sit on Gully's self-built stone patio and listen to him talk, or simply enjoy the silence. It's a lovely little book.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius

The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius
© 2000 Mark Forstater
288 pages

I first encountered Marcus Aurelius in November 2007, reading his Meditations during Thanksgiving. Although I did not mention it any detail here, the Meditations have stuck with me ever since, often providing me with a source of strength during troubled times. Aurelius' words provoked an interest in Stoicism, an interest that would lead me to visit sites such as the Humanist Contemplative and Humainism, two blogs/essay repositories focused on the intersection of Humanism, Stoicism, and Buddhism. DT Strain of the Humanist Contemplative has a "suggested reading" list, some titles of which I've read already and others I intend to track down. The first new book I read from this list is The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius, functioning as a partial translation of the Meditations with preceding commentary.

After author Mark Forstater became interested in Stoicism, he decided to visit the Meditations in their most conservative translation, one promised to be as close to the literal meaning of the Greek as possible. He then began updating the language for easier reading while maintaining the original meanings of the word and Marcus Aurelius' tones. I was able to compare Spiritual Teachings' passages with my copy of the conservative translation I read two years ago and can say with reasonable authority that Forstater succeeded in his goal: while these passages read easily, they have abandoned the first text. I say this not because I believe conservative translations are better, but because while some readers are interested in the general message, others might be more interested in the way Aurelius expressed that message. This is the difference between those who love Sharon Lebell's modern interpretation of Epictetus in The Art of Living and those who loathe it. For stater has produced more of an edited translation than an interpretation.

Spiritual Teachings is not the meditations in whole: Forstater focused on specific passages and groups them into themes ("Cultivation of the Self" and "Death" are two), sometimes repeating passages or portions of passages when they address multiple ideas. The passages constitute the bulk of the book, being preceded by commentary from Forstater in the beginning. I would recommend the book to those who have heard of the Meditations but who don't want to dive head-first into the Roman emperor's biography and more esoteric references, or to those who have read the Meditations and are interested in a pocket-sized book containing their favorite passages.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Mist of Prophecies

A Mist of Prophecies
© 2003 Steven Saylor
304 pages

Gordianus the Finder and Rome have been through much turmoil in the past two preceding books, Rome having been plunged into civil war by the ambitions of those two men and Gordianus having been dragged behind history's wake by his family -- one son serving as Caesar's aid, and a son-in-law kidnapped into Pompey's service. A Mist of Prophecies provides a respite: after becoming more important and then directing the plots of the books, the historical background has become once more background. Gordianus the Finder has returned to Rome to rest, while Caesar and Pompey have their battles in Greece, Spain, and elsewhere. Rome is far from a peaceful sanctuary, however: although Caesar left a government to manage the city, it is now largely ruled by the creditors. Mob action against the creditors features into the book's plot.

The book opens with a young seeress called Cassandra collapsing into Gordianus' arms in the market as he and his wife shop for radishes to cure said wife's illness. Cassandra lives only long enough to tell Gordianus that "she did it, Gordianus...she poisoned me". The death of this purportedly half-mad seeress from parts unknown has a strange effect on Gordianus: despite being in debt himself, he arranges to have this stranger to Rome properly buried, complete with a funeral process. As her body is being burned in the necropolis, Gordianus happens to see the hill lined with Rome's matrons -- the leading ladies of Rome's patrician class are all in attendance, watching from their litters with guards in tow. Gordianus is at once puzzled: what is their connection to the deceased?

Cassandra's memory will haunt Gordianus until he is told to stop moping and solve the mystery of who killed her. Cleverly, Saylor uses Gordianus' recollections of his encounters with Cassandra while he moves through the city interviewing the matrons to catch the reader up on Rome's political happenings since Last Seen, as Mist is set about a year since then. Saylor thus avoids giving the reader an extended lecture, as the order in which Gordianus sees the matrons coincides with his recollections. We thus get two stories running with one another: one political, one a mystery. What is unusual about this book is that rather than Gordianus tell it in person, he seems to be recalling it from the future, referring to even events set in the present as "In those days...". Usually Gordianus narrates the story as he lives it, and the reader is given a sense of following in his footsteps. This is a tale to be told to us, although as the book progresses the feeling of the usual format becomes more pronounced. The plot wraps things up nicely, giving us an answer to why Gordianus felt impelled to give the young woman a funeral -- and giving us a look into continuing character development on his part.

Although Mist of Prophecies isn't the most riveting of the sub Rosa series, it's still a fine addition. Next week I may continue in the series proper or take a break to read through a collection of short stories set within the series as a whole, in the same vein as The House of the Vestals.

Friday, October 16, 2009

This Week at the Library (16/10)

This Week at the Library:
  • I Sold My Soul on eBay, Hement Mehta
  • Last Seen in Masillia, Steven Saylor
  • The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton
  • Humanist Anthology, ed. Margaret Knight and James Herrick
  • Love and Death, F. Forrester Church

This week I learned that I am not always the ardent follower of wisdom that I would like to be. I was given a week to write a seven-page essay articulating my opinion on the Meiji Restoration and how it might be best described (coup or revolution). I committed the same folly that the unnamed character from Kokoro did when working on his thesis: I thought about it a good bit, but I didn't begin doing the work until it was almost too late. I finished a paper due at 5:00 at 4:45, making me feel rather foolish. Because the latter part of the week was occupied by my note-taking and writing, I didn't do a week-in-review as promptly as I usually do.

As far as books go, this was a gorgeous week. All five works I read would have been "pick of the weeks" in an ordinary week, and for that reason I'm not doing to do a "pick of the week" this week, which I usually do to spotlight a book that was particularly well-written or which made a powerful impact in my mind. I began with Hemant Mehta's I Sold My Soul on eBay, his account of visiting several dozen Christian churches of varying sizes and doctrines over the course of a few months. He did so partially out of desire to learn about Christian culture and as a consequence of auctioning off his own church attendance. A man interested in improving Christian outreach won the auction and asked Mehta to attend a variety of churches, take notes, and report back with his thoughts on what they did poorly and what they did well. I Sold my Soul on eBay is a result of this. While it seems to be aimed at Christians, the novelty of someone alien to Christian culture immersing himself in it and giving his objective reflections is enjoyable by anyone.

I next continued in Steven Saylor's series about Rome under the rose. The historical background of the books has becoming the plot's driving force, and in Last Seen in Masillia, the plot brings Gordianus and his son-in-law to a town that will be later known as Marseilles, to investigate a rumor about his son Meto's death. The town is under siege by Caesar's forces, making it difficult to get into and impossible to get out. Gordianus is soon stranded in the town and occupies himself by investigating a death he witnessed within hours of stepping foot inside Marseilles, when a young woman plunged off of "Suicide Rock" into the sea below. The young woman's father wants Gordianus to ascertain if her death was murder or suicide. There are plenty of plot twists here, as well as information for military history readers on ancient sieges.

Next, I was able to read Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy, in which he addresses the everyday concerns of six famous philosophers -- Socrates, Epicures, Seneca, de Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Rather discussing the whole of their philosophical output, de Botton labors to show how some of their thoughts can be applied to help everyone in responding to unpopularity, poverty, inadequacy, heartbreak, and hardship. Despite the book's title, these philosophical principles are not simply consoling band-aids: if taken to heart (or to one's mind, which a more proper expression), they are preventive measures. To use Socrates' section as an example: if you ground your beliefs in reason and do your utmost to ensure that they are in line with reality, when you should have no fear of faltering when people oppose your ideas. Even if your opinions are wrong, they were honestly come by and there is no shame in an honest mistake. (On a final note, this book was actually cited in last week's The Wisdom of Harry Potter.)

I then moved on to Humanist Anthology, although I commented on Love and Death first. Humanist Anthology is a collection of humanistic views throughout the ages, beginning with the ancients (Confucius and Epicurus) and ending with modern personalities like Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough. Themes include ethics, god-belief, religion, wonder, idealism, and the primacy of reason. The thoughts collected are generally civil, although criticism of religion can be quite sharp (particularly in Mark Twain's case). The average length of collected material may be about a page, as there are longer essays and shorter quips both. I highly recommend it to all readers, especially humanists, but sadly it will not be easy for you to find as it is out of print. Perhaps in the future a revised edition will come out.

Lastly, I read cancer-stricken Unitarian minister Forrester Church's account of his relationship with death -- death as a concept, the death of his loved ones, and his own looming death. Church sees death not as a foe to be fought, but the punctuation point of a well-lived life. He believes death to be the cradle of religion, as he defines religion to be our response to the twin realities of being alive and having to die. The book acts as ministerial advice to those who have recently experienced the death of a loved one or are dying themselves: reading it was quite a thought-provoking and emotional experience, one I would recommend to others.

Quotation of the Week: Although Humanist Anthology had plenty of winners, it may merit its own full-length post on another blog, so I'd like to share this quotation from Love and Death:
"It is not in our words, but in our life that our religion must be read." - attributed to Thomas Jefferson's letters.

Potentials for Next Week:
  • Epictetus' Discourses, as translated and edited by the classics club. It's much more formal than The Art of Living, but I wanted to read a more conservative translation/interpretation of Epictetus for comparative reasons.
  • The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Mark Forstater. This is on the recommended reading list at the Humanist Contemplative.
  • A Mist of Prophecies, Steven Saylor. The last book saw Gordianus make a staggering decision, one promising interesting but tormenting character development.
  • The Darwin Awards, volume something or another. After reading two books on Stoic philosophy, I may want a little levity.
  • The Cosmic Connection by Carl Sagan. Not sure what this one is about, I just like the author.
  • Mystery Entry, Mystery Author

Hint: the mystery entry was released this month. Additional hint: it is obliquely related to another book on the list.