Friday, January 30, 2009

Jedi Trial

Jedi Trial: A Clone Wars Novel
2004 David Sherman and Dan Cragg

Continuing in my Star Wars kick this week, I read Jedi Trial. As you might guess from the title, it's set during the Clone Wars. Anakin Skywalker is still the Padawan of Obi-Wan Kenobi and is anxious about the Jedi Council's lack of interest in knighting him. His anxiety increases when Master Obi-Wan is sent off on a private mission, leaving Anakin to sit on his hands. Advised to put the time to good use in the library, he spends his time there studying and sparring with a disgraced Jedi knight, Master Halcyon. A Seperatist attack on a vital communications hub provides both Halcyon and Skywalker a chance to prove themselves -- hence the title Jedi Trial.

The book is essentially after that point a combat book detailing the battle surrounding this communications up, with a few minor subplots surrounding somewhat interesting characters thrown in. It's readable, but military plots don't interest me much. Anakin's character does develop in this book: it is here that he begins to become the military commander we see in Revenge of the Sith, the Clone Wars animated cartoon, and the Clone Wars movie. It's probably worth reading for Star Wars fans.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Television
1985 Neil Postman
176 pages, plus index, bibliography, and notes.

I read a couple of books by Postman during the summer, and both were mind-broadening. Postman is particularly concerned about the technological impact on our culture: in Technopoly he puts forth the idea that culture has become completely subjugated to technology, and to television in particular. This book is particularly concerned with the impact of television on our culture. This is a particularly interesting book for me, because I was raised outside of television culture: the Christian sect that my parents belong to discourages its members from owning televisions, so television was alien to me. Even though I have a television (and enjoy watching it), I don't spend a lot of time watching it and am prone to forgetting to watch it for weeks on end. Thus my perspective is more of an outsider's.

Postman begins the book with a forward that expresses his view that Brave New World -- which, according to him, depicts a world where the truth has become irrelevant and human culture has become completely trivial -- may be coming true. He begins the book proper by writing that through the United States' history, various cities have represented its cultural identity: 18th century Boston symbolizing its intellectual livelihood, late 19th century New York symbolizing the United States' growth as a melting-pot, and early 20th century Chicago representing the United States' industrial might. He then speculate that perhaps Las Vegas symbolized America today: a nation obsessed with amusement. (Interestingly, fellow social critic James Kunstler said the same thing in his lecture at my university back in the fall.) I include this because I thought the comparison apt.

Postman's introductory chapters concern his central idea that technology always shapes culture and that particularly pervasive technologies contain within them programs for changing culture in big ways. This is an idea he's written on in other books under the theme "the medium is the message". The first chapters here are "Medium as Metaphor" and "Medium as Epistemology", where he expands on this idea. Then he applies this idea to an understanding of 18th and early 19th-century America ("Typographic America", ruled by print culture). Postman characterizes print culture and uses examples from this era to back those characterizations up. One memorable example was the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which crowds gathered for hours on end to listen to the two parties discuss their ideas in very (by our standards) formal ways. Postman then asks (and I paraphrase) "Can you imagine a modern audience standing for this?"

In "The Peek-A-Boo" world, Postman describes the impact of telegraphy and photography, which both give people information and impressions about situations far removed from them. This is where the triviality begins, in Postman's view: people are beginning to be barraged by information about people who they don't even know. He applies this to the modern world, addressing people who are hooked on political talk shows, and makes the powerful point that for most people, the political ideas being discussed are utterly irrelevant to their lives. After developing this idea for a bit more, he (in individual chapters) looks at television's treatment of religion, government, sports, art, and education. Education is particularly important for him (being an educator) and he's apparently written several books on the subject.

Postman is as ever engaging and provocative. The book is well-organized and well-developed, and I recommend it if you want your intellectual nose tweaked.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Battle of the Labyrinth

The Battle of the Labyrinth
© 2008 Rick Riordian
361 pages

Continuing in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series this week, I read the last book that Riordian has published. The next book will not be released until May. The book begins, characteristically, with Percy arriving at a new school, encountering a monster, and then making a dramatic escape that lessens the school's structural integrity. When Percy arrives at Camp Half-Blood, he learns that the camp may be in more danger than he and his fellow Olympians feared: the Labyrinth, the ancient structure that once held the Minotaur, may offer the armies of the Titans a direct path to the camp. Annabeth -- the series' Hermione -- is tasked with finding Daedalus, the architect of the maze, and convincing him to deny use of the Labyrinth. At the same time, Percy is continually visited by dark dreams. In the book, the adventurers attempt to make their way through the Labyrinth, which now spans most of the United States at least, all the while encountering monsters, other demi-gods, gods, and plot twists. This book seems to be longer than the previous books and is more engaging than the others.

Unlike other series I've read, the events in this book don't completely revolve around the central character. Other characters are off doing things between books that add to the plot. On a side note, the author explains how Athena -- a virgin god -- has kids. As it turns out, they sprout off of her head, which is what I suspected. That's the way Athena was born. This book is definitely a step up from the others, at least from my view. I enjoyed reading it and look forward to The Last Olympian.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Colonization: Aftershocks

Colonization: Aftershocks
Harry Turtledove 2001
488 pages

And so after a lengthy break, I return to Harry Turtledove's Colonization series. The series is a sequel series to Worldwar, in which an invasion by reptilian aliens interrupted World War II. The aliens -- who term themselves the Race, and who are called by humanity "Lizards" came anticipating a medieval world, finding instead -- to their immense displeasure -- an industrial one with economies centered around war. Despite their technological prowess, the Lizards lacked the resources to fully annex Earth -- and humanity lacked the technological resources to completely thwart their plans. The result was a divided Earth. The Colonization series, set in the 1960s, concerns the way human cultures and Lizard culture have and are shaping the other. Political strife between human countries and between those countries and the race is growing. In the last book, relations between Nazi Germany and the Race fell completely apart, leading to a short-lived nuclear war that left Germany and parts of the Greater German Reich devestated by fallout.

Aftershocks picks up at that point. Nazi Germany has been humanity's strongest defender against the Lizards, for various reasons: the Reich's economy was strong and war-centered, and its militarisitic state lend it to playing a large role in humanity's defense, in both series. The ideology of the Nazis, however, leads it to making rash choices and squandering its opportunities, leading to its ruin. What happens to Earth after the downfall of the Nazis? In this book, Turtledove continues several themes: cross-cultural effects, exosociological efforts by Sam Yeager and Tstomalas, the ecological impact of the flora and fauna that the Race have introduced to Earth, and so on. We also see the results of a thread that was woven throughout the first two books, Sam Yeager's discovery that the United States is being naughty.

There's a lot to this book: it's very cohesive. Storylines and characters begin coming together. An example of that is the Warren Commission, a comission the Lizards set up to investigate the motives of President Warren in a particular matter that I can't reveal. (The title of that comission is one of Turtledove's hat-tips to real life.) This is a big story, but it works well. My interest never lapsed, which is more than I can say for the Worldwar series. That is to be expected, though: I like social history and sociology, not military history. This series has been quite enjoyable, and I look forward to Aftershocks.

An aside: whenever I read about the Race, I have one of three images in my mind: either this, this, or this.

This Week at the Library (26/1)

Books this Update:
  • Yoda: Dark Rendezvous, Sean Stewart
  • The Titan's Curse, Rick Riordian
  • Stoic Warriors, Nancy Sherman
  • Demon in my View, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
This week was almost chiefly speculative fiction, with only one serious book. The other three are fantasy and science/fantasy fiction. I began with a Star Wars book set during the Clone Wars, called Yoda: Dark Rendezvous. Two of the central characters are Yoda and his wayward former apprentice Count Dooku, who is leading the Separatist war against the Republic. During the fighting, Yoda receives a message from Dooku requesting a meeting in the hopes of ending the war. Yoda goes with two Jedi knights and their Padawans. The young padawans are the book's other central characters. Both have just begun their apprenticeships, and are struggling with their own private conflicts. The book covers Yoda's journey to Dooko -- with all its trials -- and their dramatic meeting on a world steeped in the dark side where everyone has gone mad. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker make appearances here, as does a dark Jedi who was Anakin's nemesis in the Clone Wars cartoon and in the most recent movie. The story is quite well written, and I really enjoyed the characterization. The author develops background and muses on Jedi/Sith philosophy. This is one of the better "Extended Universe" books I've read.

Next I continued in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series with The Titan's Curse. The book starts off slowly -- the author doesn't really connect it to the previous book and I was left wondering what was going on -- but picks up from there. As usual, the ever-growing threat from the reviving Titans affects Percy's life personally and he has to go off on a quest -- official or no. We see a few new gods arrive in this book: Artemis, Apollo, and Athena all make their first appearances. Percy and his friends - some old, some new -- must journey to San Francisco to do a bit of rescuing, stopping off at the Hoover Dam to fight some undead hordes. Fairly enjoyable despite the slow start.

Breaking the SF line with some philosophy, I read Stoic Warriors: the Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind. The author, in her words, "uses the contemporary military as a lens through which to study and assess Stoic doctrine." She introduces the reader to Stoicism in the first chapter through the story of James Stockdale, a Vietnam POW who used it to strengthen himself and others, and then explores the application of Stoicism in life, using military examples. She touches on fear, bodily control, grief, anger, and so on. She draws on Greek history, Greek literature, Greek mythology, and philosophical movements from the Greeks on to the modern day. I was impressed with the book. It was an enjoyable read that limited its use of esoteric terminology. It strikes me as well-organized and well-written: definitely worth my time.

I finished the week off with Demon in my View, a vampire story by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. I found Atwater-Rhodes when I was in high school', which incidentally is when she published her first book, Tiger Tiger. That book introduced a fantasy world of vampires with an approach that I liked. Her vampires are more believable: they can move in the sun, they are unbothered by religious symbols, and so on. The first book was dark, but in a really enjoyable way. I don't really care for horror -- Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire mostly bored me -- but I do enjoy Atwater-Rhodes. The same is true of Demon in my View, the story of a human writer who writes vampire novels -- her first being Tiger Tiger -- who is seemingly drawn into the world of her own creation. It was a quick and enjoyable read.

Quotation of the Week: "It's always easy to avoid other people's vices, isn't it?" (Yoda, Dark Rendezvous: a paraphrase because I returned the book already.)

Pick of the Week: Yoda, Dark Rendezvous by Sean Stewart.

Next Week:
  • Colonization: Aftershocks, Harry Turtledove
  • Jedi Trial, Daniel Sherman and Dan Cragg
  • The Battle of the Labyrinth, Rick Riordian

Friday, January 23, 2009

Demon in my View

Demon in my View
© 2000 Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
176 pages

During my high school years, while roaming through a bookstore, my eyes fell upon a book titled Tiger, Tiger. That sounded similar to William Blakes' "The Tygre", which is one of my favorite poems, so I picked it up. Tiger, Tiger was a vampire novel, the first I had ever read, and I found its story to be incredibly interesting and well-written. Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire let me down compared to it. Although I'm not usually much for horror, Rhodes is so readable that I decided try another book by her -- albiet many years later.

Demon in my View, like Tiger, Tiger, is named after a line in a poem -- although this is not one I recognize. This book is the story of Jessica, the teen author of Tiger, Tiger and another vampire book, both of which she has penned under the name of Ash Night. Although she is becoming a literacy success, she is an outcast at school and most everywhere else. Then one day a new student arrives and seems remarkably familiar to her: it's as if a character from her novel has become alive. She is drawn to him -- both out of personal attraction or attraction to the character he reminds her of.

The explaination for this is interesting, and I'll leave it hidden for those who would be interested in reading the book. Jessica is drawn into the world of her own creation while witches attempt to protect her from the vampires and her own self. I predicted the conclusion, but not with any confidence. What I enjoy most about Atwater-Rhodes' books is that her world is different, and somewhat more believable. Her vampires do not scorn the sun, nor do they sleep in coffins or fear Christian symbols. They can change their form at will, generally live apart from humans in their own towns, and hunt humans as prey. Like predators, they all maintain a territory and conflicts arise between powerful vampires. Their predator/prey mindset dominates them to the point that vampires see one another as either their inferiors or their superiors. Only one vampire has even hinted that he has an equal in the two books I've read. Her witches are likewise different: two of the three witches in this book are "good" people, and all three are concerned with protecting humans from the vampires who hunt them.

Demon in my View was a quick and entrancing read, and I wouldn't mind continuuing with the rest of her stand-alone books. The only issue I would have with this book is its length: 176 pages goes by fairly quickly.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Stoic Warriors

Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind
© 2005 Nancy Sherman
242 pages

This semester's schedules give me a lot of gaps between activities that lend themselves well to spending a few moments in the university library, where I do a little reading -- or napping, as the case warrants. Here I read books unavailable in the public library system, like Stoic Warriors. I picked this one up out of curiosity and found it quite readable. The author, in her words, "uses the contemporary military as a lens through which to study and assess Stoic doctrine." The book is divided into seven chapters: "A Brave New Stoicism", "Sound Bodies and Sound Minds", "Manners and Morals", "A Warriors Anger", "Fear and Resilience", "Permission to Grieve", and "The Downsized Self". There's no concluding chapter, which I found a bit odd.

The author begins by introducing the reader to Stoicism through the story of James Stockdale, a Vietnam-era P.O.W. who uses Stoicism to help strengthen himself and his fellow prisoners. Here we are introduced to Stoicism's tenants and its most well-known practitioners: namely Epictetus, who was less concerned with "theory" and more concerned with the practical matter of living and behaving rationally in an irrational world. I've been studying Stoicism since the end of last year when I decided to figure out the context of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus' works, both of which I've read here. There's a lot to it. I wouldn't want to try to sum up the whole of the phiolosophy here, but this book is really focused on the more practical side of it, and so that's what I will comment on. Epictetus said in his Manual for Living that happiness begins with the realization that some things are under our control and other are not -- and that we should only be concerned with that which we can control. This is something I realizing myself during the summer, perhaps infering it when I re-read my favorite parts of Aurelius' Meditations.

The next chapter, "Sound Bodies and Sound Minds", almost acts as a prolonged introduction in that the author uses body-training disicipline as a way of showing how our rational minds can exert control over our bodies. The same situation provides a warning against valuing disicpline for disicpline's sake. The next few chapters deal with their titular topics: morals, anger, fear, and so on. The author references Greek literature to provide cultural context while citing generously from Seneca's plays and the writings of Cicero, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. The author also connects Stoic ideas with other philosophical works of the period and even beyond the period -- referencing philosophy from other periods of history. While she is doing all this, she uses examples from the American military to illustrate and point out the usefulness of Stoic ideas (as well as their limitations, particularly in later chapters).

I was impressed with the book. It was an enjoyable read that limited esoteric terminology. It strikes me as well-organized and well-written: definitely worth my time.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Titan's Curse

The Titan's Curse
© 2008 Rick Riordian

This week I read book three in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and I must say that this was an improvement over The Sea of Monsters, at least in my estimation. The book gets off to a rough start: the author doesn't introduce the situation very well, establishing no ties to the ending of the last book so the readers don't really know what's going on. The last book saw Zeus' daughter Thalia rescued from her fate of being a tree. She joins Percy in this newest adventure, which immediately begins by their having to rescue two half-bloods from a school after being attacked by a monster of sorts. If that seems familiar, it's how the last two books began as well.

Despite this rocky start, the book soon picks up. Trouble is (as usual) brewing. Kronos' revival seems to be going well as his armies are growing larger and more dangerous. We're introduced to several more gods in this book: Artemis, Apollo, and Athena all make extended appearances. (Apollo defends his role as the sun-god while dismissing astronomy as boring. ) Percy, Grover, and Thalia -- along with Artemis' hunters -- are tasked with rescuing Artemis from the clutches of Kronos before the Winter Solstice. (Solstice deadlines are also a familiar element of this series.) The story's plot is also personal for the readers, as one of the other familar characters is placed in jeopardy. The quest takes them to San Francisco, where the citadel of the Titans is being rebuilt. The story is both fun and darkly serious at times. A lot of the drama is self-conflict, as the characters try to deal with the monsters within them.

The book ends with a temporary resolution: the ultimate conflict is still (they think) at least two years away, in which time they will double their training efforts while blocking the Titans' ascent at every turn. I will be continuing the series.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yoda: Dark Rendezvous

Yoda, Dark Rendezvous: A Clone Wars Novel
2004 Sean Stewart

The long day of the Republic had come to an end. (Pg. 1)

I've been in a Star Wars frame of mind ever since Thanksgiving when I began to anticipate enjoying my Christmas Star Wars viewing. As such, I keep wanting to read more, and so this week I did. As you might surmise from the title, the book is set during the Clone Wars, which began at the end of Attack of the Clones and which concluded at the end of Revenge of the Sith. For the uninitiated, the Clone Wars refer to the war between the Republic and the Confederacy of Independent Systems. The CIS is led by Count Dooku, General Grevious, and (secretly) Lord Sideous. Their armies consist of massive amounts of droids (who are kind enough to provide comic relief before they are destroyed) and odd-looking battle machines that look rather ungainly. The Republic's armies consists of Clone Troopers, commanded by Jedi knights. Count Dooku was once a Jedi knight, but left the order and now wars against his former brethren.

During a high point of this war, a Jedi escapes from fighting Dooku and one of his force-using minions with a message from Count Dooku. It seems he wants to parley with his former master and seek an end to the war. His former master is Yoda, perhaps best known for hitting R2-D2 with a stick. Yoda is actually one of the more recognizable characters in the Star Wars universe -- alongside Darth Vader, I would guesstimate those two are the two most well-known. Yoda, two Jedi knights, and their padawans set off in secret to meet Dooku. Meanwhile, the two young padawans are struggling with self-conflicts. One, Whie, keeps have disturbing dreams that suggest he will turn to the Dark Side, while the other -- Scout -- copes with being weak in the Force.

Dooku's plea is of course a ruse, and there's lot of political intrigue here. The book climaxes on a planet steeped in the Dark Side (there seem to be a lot of those in the Extended Universe), where Yoda and Dooku's personalities come into conflict -- first in discussing their philosophies, and then putting a finer point on said discussion. While the main characters are Yoda, the two Padawans, and Dooku, there are a number of assisting characters. Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker appear in the end, and the author weaves in foreboding passages about Anakin's character. A character from the Clone Wars cartoon series who is Anakin's arch-nemesis also appears. She's a Dark Jedi who is not apprenticed to Dooku, but does his bidding in the hopes that he'll off Sideous and they can rule the galaxy. (Say what you will about Palpatine, but he does realize the "Apprentice someone who will try to kill you" tradition of the Sith does not lend itself well to job security.)

The story is quite interesting, as is the characterization. It's a worthy addition to the EU universe, but what I really want to compliment is the author's ability to really give background: we see the Republic changing as the war wears on, in both their view of the Chancellor and of the Jedi. Given the attitudes we witness in this book, it's not hard to contemplate the public's lack of response to Order 66. Also, the ongoing discussion of Sith and Jedi philosophy is really intriguing. The author makes insightful comments about human nature through his characters' discussion of these matters. One quotation I liked was "Loyalty is stronger going up than coming down." Another -- "It's always so easy to avoid other people's vices, isn't it?"

This was an excellent book. I recommend it even over the Darth Bane books, which is saying something given how much I enjoyed them.

Monday, January 19, 2009

This Week at the Library (19/1)

Books this Update:
  • In the Presence of Mine Enemies, Harry Turtledove
  • Only Begotten Daughter, James Morrow
  • Sway, Ori and Rom Brafman

I began with a return to Turtledove. While I do plan to return to his Colonization series, I read instead this week a standalone book set in the near future, but one shaped by a past different from ours: a past in which the United States remained neutral during the Second World War. Its lack of economic and military aid to Britain and the Soviet Union led to their respective collapses and the domination of the eastern hemisphere by Nazi German, the Italian Empire, and the Imperial Japan. (Want to guess why they own so much sand? There's black stuff under it.) The United States was attacked a "generation" later with nuclear missiles and essentially knocked out, although we're given the impression that it was attacked out of fear of its economic potential, not because its leaders were starry-eyed idealists who wanted to rid the world of tyranny and oppression and so forth.

Turtledove likes to lift stories from the history books and retell them in different contexts. In his "Southern Victory" timeline, for instance, we see military campaigns that were in reality executed in 1864 being perpetuated in 1944. Instead of the Holocaust happening in Europe, it happened in the deep south. Turtledove does this again in In the Presence of Mine Enemies, telling the story of the dramatic political change of the late 1980s in the Soviet Union, changing the years and making the evolving political entity the Greater German Reich instead of the SSSR. Within that context, Turtledove uses his traditional viewpoint method to tell the story of various people as they react to these changes. What is particular about these people is that they are all Jews, their genealogies having been forged. It's an interesting book and has become one of my favorite Turtledove works.

Next I read a work of fantasy in Only Begotten Daughter. This book begins with the idea that a being resembling the Judeo-Christian god magicked up a kid in 1974. Julie Katz, who refers to herself as Jesus' half-sister, struggles with her nature, the nature of God, and the question of evil while being pursued by Satan and attacked by Christian fundamentalists as the Antichrist. Along the way, she accidentally creates a religion around empiricism and visits Jesus in Hell, where he is occupied in soothing the pains of the damned. The conversation between he and Julie about his life on Earth and the consequences thereof is one of the most interesting parts of the book. The plot is intriguing and the characterization good, but the book was far too dark for my tastes.

Lastly, I read Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior. In the book, the authors assert that human beings -- while pretending to be rational -- are really not rational at all, and in fact fall into irrational traps with disturbing ease. They use accounts of seemingly rational people behaving in irrational (and all-too familiar) ways to point out irrational traps. These aren't obvious things like not questioning beliefs or willfully believing in things with no regard to the evidence, but are rather subtle misdirections, like taking a wrong turn in the house of mirrors. The book is very informal, very readable, and begs me to recommend it -- so I do.

Next Update:
  • Dark Rendezvous, Sean Stewart
  • Demon in my View, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
  • Stoic Warriors, Nancy Sherman
  • The Titan's Curse, Rick Riordian

Friday, January 16, 2009


Sway: the Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior
2008 Ori and Rom Brafman
185 pages, plus notes and an index

I'm not quite sure how I found this one, but it was a fun little read. The authors -- brothers -- begin by asserting that while we think of ourselves as rational creatures, we're actually more irrational than we'd like to admit. Even those whose livings depend on them thinking in a rational manner -- scientists, for instance -- can be trapped into thinking in irrational ways. These "traps" are subtle: people are never really aware of them, hence their danger. Throughout the book, the authors use news events and other examples to show these irrational traps, and then to identify them. The book is very informal and quite readable, as well as thought-provoking. The authors don't use any complicated terminology, as they might be tempted to were they writing a more serious academic work. Two particular traps they identify -- just to whet your appetite -- is an obsession with stopping loss. When our plans are thrown off schedule, we tend to do everything in our power to get back on schedule, never taking time to ponder the situation and realize that the effort is perhaps futile. We see various examples of people trying to avoid the loss of time or money, only to lose more time and money in trying to recover their initial losses. One of these efforts ends with the deaths of several hundred people. Another interesting trap is what initial appearances do for us.

This book is a very interesting read, and I recommend it. The book doesn't seem to have a lot of structure to it, though: you won't find any neat introductions and summaries like in Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things. Even so, it's an enjoyable read.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Only Begotten Daughter

Only Begotten Daughter
© 1990 James Morrow
296 pages

A few weeks ago I heard of an interesting book: the story of a child of God, miraculously conceived similar to the story of Jesus. This child is born in 1974, in Atlantic City. Unlike her half-brother Jesus, Julie Katz -- the only begotten daughter -- was not born of a virgin. She appeared in a sperm bank, a miraculous conception of a far less mystic sort. Fortunately the people of the sperm bank had an "ectogenesis machine", a mechanical womb. When Murray Katz -- her father, God being the "mother" -- finds out that they plan on terminating the fetus, he opts to steal the ectogenesis machine with his daughter inside. Fortunate timing, for soon after the sperm bank would be destroyed by Christian fanatics intent on bringing about the Endtimes -- fundamentalists referred to as Revelationaists.

Murray lives by himself at an abandoned lighthouse and raises little Julie there. He is not entirely alone: a quirky woman named Georgina who he met at the sperm bank helps him. She, too, has a child. Her daughter (Phoebe) and Julia grow up together with their very eccentric parents. There are few "normal" people in this book: all of the characters we encounter are bizarre in some way or another. Julie quickly exhibits signs of her divinity -- walking on water, for instance. Murray, realizing how quickly attention will be drawn to her and how dangerous that might be, trains her not to use her divine powers. In this first part of the book, Julie struggles with both her identity as the daughter of God and with the problem of evil. She creates a temple out of one of the rooms in the lighthouse and fills it with clippings of all of the human misery in the world, in an effort to show herself that were she to take the "high road", she would overwhelmed and consumed at the task. The struggle between the "high road" -- using her powers for good -- and the low road, or simply living her life, will preoccupy her for a good bit of the book. She attracts the attention of Satan, who plays mind games with her. At the same time, the Revelationists are increasing in numbers and in their activities, and they will force Julie's hand. The story takes Julie to Hell, where she meets her half-brother Jesus (occupied with offering relief to the tortured) and then back to Earth.

Along the way, the author pokes around at the question of evil and the idea of intelligent, or even beneficiant, design. Julie is convinced that her mother is not a Zeus-type being that meddles in human affairs, but rather a God of physics: part of the fabric of the universe, too broad to be articulated in human affairs. Satan seems to be portrayed as somewhere between the Jewish idea of Satan and the Christian idea of Satan. In Judaism (as far as I know), Satan is a loyal servant of God who tempts humans in order that they might grow. In Christianity, he's arrogant, vain, rebellious, and spiteful. In this book he delights in evil and pain, but speaks of God in the manner of a contemptuous subordinate. Hell exists, with islands for the various wrong-doers (there's an Island of Methodists, an Island of Atheists, and so on). The author employs a lot of Biblical allusions, especially after Julie meets Jesus. (That particular scene is amusing: Julie has to explain Christianity to an unbelieving Jesus, who was quite sure he tried set up a godly and ethical kingdom on Earth, only to be killed for his efforts: he had no intention of establishing a religion and had never heard of original sin. "Good heavens, is that what I became? Another propitiation deity?"

The characterization is good, and the story dark and interesting. It was a bit too dark for me, though. I liked the satirical bits, and the effort by the author to explore the ideas of evil and cosmology in this context. The character of Jesus is refreshing: I was raised a Christian but the guy never appealed to me. He's a much more attractive character in this book: the author makes him more human and more "divine" than all of the gospels did, and in just a few pages.

All in all, a rather interesting story. He's written more that interest me -- Towing Jehovah, for instance, a story of what happens after God dies -- but I don't have access to them.

Monday, January 12, 2009

In the Presence of Mine Enemies

In the Presence of Mine Enemies
Harry Turtledove 2003
515 pages

This week I returned to Turtledove, but not quite yet to the Colonization series. This week I read In the Presence of Mine Enemies, a standalone book set in the early 21st century. The year is never mentioned, but it is after 2003: Leni Riefenstahl is mentioned as having died and at over a hundred years of age. She was born in August 1902 and (in reality) died in September 2003. The setting is the Greater German Reich: this is a work of alternate history wherein the Second World War wasn't quite a world war. The United States never became involved, for reasons I don't recall being explained in the book. Without its industrial support of Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and without its intervention in the Pacific (apparently) , Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were able to run willy-nilly around the globe creating empires for themselves. A "generation later", the United States was attacked with nuclear weapons, defeated, and partially occupied but not annexed by the Greater German Reich.

Contrary to the idea that the Cold War alone fueled the space age, Germany has a space program -- one advanced and funded enough to the point that an observatory is on the moon and a mission to Mars has been launched. Were I to speculate at the why of this, I would say it's an attempt at self-glorification by the Nazis. Turtledove tells his story through the eyes of various viewpoint characters, which is a common method for him. In his serials, the dozen or so viewpoint characters cover a wide range of types -- from world leaders to housewives. Here, though, we only have six viewpoint characters, and they're all in the same relative class of Germany: middle-middle class. One is a university instructor, one a computer engineer, and another one of the Reich's accountants. This is a story about Germany, and so all characters are German -- but they have something else in common. In the opening chapter, Heinrich Gimpel -- the aforemntioned accountant -- heads home after work to attend his daughter's coming-of-age birthday party. After the fesitivities, Alicia is told that she is not like most subjects of the Reich: she is a Jew.

Despite the Holocaust, a remnant of European Jewry has survived, in hiding in plain sight. With forged geneologies, several families of Jews remain living in the heart of Germany, Berlin. (Interestingly, although Berlin does gain the hubristic monuments that Hitler planned, it has apparantly survived his intention to destroy and rebuild it block by block with a "new vision" and with the new name of Germania, as the History Channel informs me he did.) In the Presence of Mine Enemies is the story of the remaining Jews in Berlin and how another story -- political changes in the Reich -- change them. At book's beginning, the Reich is as severe as depicted in various police-state novels and movies. The NSDAP controls everything, relying on fear, power, and romantic appeals to the Volk to keep the populance in order. The current Fuhrer is Kurt Haldweim, a dinosaur of the old guard. He will die shortly into the book, and the Powers that Be's search for a new Fuhrer begins a period of political turmoil in the Reich that will have consequences for everyone. Meanwhile, the Jews hide in plain sight: the males go uncircumsized, adults only tell their children when they've reached a more responsible age, and those in the know only practice parts of their traditions, most of it being lost. Their libraries are stocked with the same antisemetic literature that every Nazi household has. Somehow, even though the children are only told this when they're older (I suspect around the time of bar/bat mitzvahs), this doesn't hinder their ability to suddenly believe in YHWH and that they're part of a special breed of humans. I find this hard to believe, and was disapointed by the utter credulity of the "Jewish" children depicted in the book.

Turtledove likes to weave real historical events into his alternate history stories: writing the event in but with different characters. For instance, in his "Southern Victory" series, we see the Holocaust happen in the Confederacy, not Europe. In Worldwar, Lizard planes attack Schweinfurt and encounter the same tough resistance. I don't know why he does this: perhaps out of amusement, perhaps because it's the easiest thing to sell to a mass audience. Here he does the same thing. The new Fuhrer is Germany's Gorbachev, and the analogy goes on. A possible Yeltsin figure appears, but without a sequel I can't be sure. What happens is riveting reading.

This was a truly enjoyable book. I've only read two other Turtledove standalones, but I think this is the best so far. It beats the Worldwar series, and perhaps what I've read of the Colonization series. It's a thoughtful (in most parts) story in an interesting setting, telling a familar story in another context. If he wrote a sequel to this, I would be interested in reading what happens.

This Week at the Library (11/1)

Books this Week:

My reading this week was fairly light, as I began preparations to return to school -- and did, on Friday. I began by continuing in Rick Riordian's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series with The Sea of Monsters. In the last book, we were introduced to Percy Jackson, a Hero in the Greek sense: the offspring of a Greek god (in his case, Poseidon) and a mortal. Percy, becoming aware of his status as a hero after repeatedly being attacked by monsters and rescued by a centaur and a satyr, comes to Camp Half-Blood, a sanctuary for demigods like himself. Owing to who his father was, young Percy was caught up in divine politics between the various gods of the Pantheon, giving us our story last time: the thunder of Zeus was stolen, and He blamed it on Poseidon, while both suspect that Hades was orchestrating a frame-up job. In the last book, Percy discovered that the current cause of conflict between the Big Three was really caused by the Titans stirring. The Titans, for those who know little of Greek mythology, were once in charge. Zeus felt his father Kronos was doing a poor job of things, though, so He threw Kronos and all of his siblings into various pits. Well, after a few thousand years of that, Kronos is bored and wants to rise to resume control over the Cosmos (well, Earth) and destroy western civilization, which in his opinion is overrated. In The Sea of Monsters, Kronos' attempt to rise is on-going, and again impacting Greek politics. Percy, Annabeth, and the daughter of Ares are tasked with reclaiming the Golden Fleece in hopes of protecting Camp Halfblood while at the same time rescuing Percy's satyr friend Grover from...getting married? The story is light and fun. This isn't as good as the first book: there's less wry commentary on humanity, for instance. It's still fun, though.

Continuing with the idea of evil rising, I read Darth Bane: Rule of Two -- the second in an unfinished Darth Bane trilogy. Last time we were introduced to Darth Bane, a miner turned Sith soldier who attracts the attention of Sith lords and is trained in the Dark Side by the Brotherhood of Darkness. He was repulsed by what he saw as the Brotherhood's betrayal of Sith ideals and sought his own path. His path happened to involve finding a way to destroy all of heretical Sith and restore the old ways. His quest to realie the fullness of the Dark Side took him to various places, ending on a planet where an army of Jedi and an army of Sith were struggling against one another. The first book ended shortly after he completed his first mission and after he began to rebuild the Sith Order. Rule of Two continues from there, and documents his growth as a Sith Master, his apprentice's growth in the Dark Side, and Jedi/Republic politics. This book was quite good. It was written in only a few months, but I couldn't tell. It was a riveting story and I recommend it -- to Star Wars fans at the very least.

Lastly, I read Isaac Asimov's Atom. I wanted to read a little science, and my eyes fell upon -- as luck would have it -- Atom by Isaac Asimov. The book is an informal introduction to the world of subatomic physics, but written with a historical perspective. Asimov does not simply introduce the reader to electrons and quarks and muons and so on: he tells the history of scientific research dealing with subatomic physics and links it to studies in other fields (electromagnetism and planetary science, for instance). Even though he introduces a historical narrative into it, he is still able to explain the significance of various concepts. It is both informal and detailed. Although Asimov's style is clear and he does a good job of explaining matters, my concentration kept leaping to my impending return to university life, and so I did not give this book the attention it deserved. I will return to it, I think.

Next Week:
  • In the Presence of Mine Enemies Harry Turtledove
  • Only Begotten Daughter, James Morrow
  • Sway: the Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, Ori Brafman

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Atom: Journey Across the Subatomic Cosmos
© 1997 Isaac Asimov
300ish pages

Last week I wanted to read a little science, and my eyes fell upon -- as luck would have it -- Atom by Isaac Asimov. The book is an informal introduction to the world of subatomic physics, but written with a historical perspective. Asimov does not simply introduce the reader to electrons and quarks and muons and so on: he tells the history of scientific research dealing with subatomic physics and links it to studies in other fields (electromagnetism and planetary science, for instance). Even though he introduces a historical narrative into it, he is still able to explain the significance of various concepts. It is both informal and detailed. Although Asimov's style is clear and he does a good job of explaining matters, my concentration kept leaping to my impending return to university life, and so I did not give this book the attention it deserved. I will return to it, I think.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Darth Bane: Rule of Two

Darth Bane: Rule of Two
© 2008 Drew Karpyshyn
318 pages.

I began this year with Darth Bane:Rule of Two, the second in a yet-unfinished trilogy of books about Darth Bane, creator of the Sith order that Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine were members of. At the end of Darth Bane: Path of Destruction, the Sith lord acquired an apprentice in the form of a young girl, Zannah. The story picks up shortly the end of Path of Destruction, where all of the Army of Darkness (the Sith) and many of the Army of Light (Jedi) have been destroyed (via events in Path of Destruction). After spending a little time here, we move ten years into the future. Bane is continuing his study of the old Sith ways to further develop his power in the Dark Side while being a mentor to Zannah. We see Bane beginning to subtly interfere in politics to bring about changes more amicable to his desires: this slow sabotage may continue until Palpatine is able to realize it in the three prequel movies. Meanwhile, one Jedi is not as confident as his brethren that the Sith have been wiped out completely. There are multiple threads: Bane's growth as a Sith Master, Zannah's growth as an apprentice, the Republic adjusting itself after the Sith Wars, the Jedi Council adjusting itself along with the Republic, and the lone Jedi's quest to expose the Dark Side. The author is good at developing stories and characters and so on, but what is particularly interesting to me is the way he develops Sith philosophy. While I certainly don't agree with it, the author actually makes it coherent. Palpatine, Maul, Dooku, and Anakin all seemed to join the dark side out of "Eh, this golden rule thing blows. How about I just give myself permission to be an ass by dressing in black and glaring?" Anakin's descent is more complex than that, but the end result is the same. The case is different with Bane. He's evil, but he's principled about it. His reasons are complex, and seemingly authentic. He grows, finds meaning in Sith teachings. This is very different from the Palpatine-esque "Being evil is so much FUN!" attitude. (Zannah, however, subscribes to the "Yay evil!" school Hopefully this will change as she gets older).

All in all, a pretty good read. I enjoy the story, the characterization, the political intrigue, and especially the orbalisks. I won't spoil anything, but they're a really interesting idea and I'd like to see EU authors do something with them.

The Best of 2008

At the close of last year, I reflected on the previous years' reading and commented on some of the most memorable books. Now that another year has passed, I find myself doing the same again. The amount of commentary to reflect on has more than doubled, though, so I will not use the same approach as last time: in my first draft of this, I only got to September before realizing my review post was excessively long. Before I begin to write about the books, though, I want to say a few words about the blog itself. When I began this in summer 2007, it was a very informal affair: I wrote about my physical trip to the library in journal form, including thoughts to myself as I drove through town. As the year wore on, though, I began to make it more ordered and it eventually arrived at the form you see it now: I begin and end each entry with a bulleted list of reading, for instance, to keep things organized. Back in October I made a major format change when I started writing individual comments on the books I read, instead of having to cram everything into a weekly review post. I still write the weekly review posts, but they are only really for my MySpace readers. All in all, I'm satisfied with the way this blog has developed. I want to make my individual comments more thoughtful and more like informal reviews, but all in all, it seems my effort here has 'matured'. I am unsure as to how many people read this: I began this because I have a circle of friends with whom I exchange book recommendations, and they read it it and talk about the books with me on IM and in person. I receive many views on MySpace entries as well. For those who visit periodically, I would welcome feedback as to how you have received these changes in format and organization. Do you have any suggestions?

And, so, to the books. I begin with Harry Turtledove's so-called "Southern Victory" series, an extended alternate history series beginning in 1863 (with the confederacy winning the American Civil War) and going to 1946. This series was my reading for the early part of the year. In it, Turtledove develops the history of the world as it might happen had the confederacy won. It changes how Americans deal with one another and how they deal with European powers, which has consequences. Turtledove covers economic, social, military, and governmental changes, letting them shape the others -- it's a grand story. The series is both interesting and entertaining, and lead to me reading even more Turtledove (The Two Georges, the Worldwar series, and the Colonization series I've yet to finish).

In unrelated fiction, one fantastic book was The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer. This book is the most tragic and most beautifully written book I've ever read, I think. The title character, born in 1871, has a problem: he ages in reverse. While born a baby, he was born a very old baby, and as he grows "up" the oldness of him becomes more clear. He eventually reaches adult height in late childhood. Tivoli will throughout his life age in reverse, becoming more youthful in appearance as he grows in maturity. What dominates Tivoli is his love for Alice, with whom he falls in love as a child. Since he, as a child, looks like an adult, you can imagine the difficulty. Charles Dickins' A Christmas Carol, which I read during Thanksgiving, was one of the most captivating reads I've ever had. I love the story: not only is it written well, with humor and passion, but it's tremendously inspirational to me. Yet another captivating fiction book was The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani. The author wrote the book as a memorial to the people who wove the world's most beautiful rugs -- the Persian artisans of the 17th century. Good stuff.

Some notable science books I read this year were Darwin's Ghost, a 21st century version of Darwin's Origin of Species. I also read Darwin's original, with commentary by biologist Richard Leakey. Darwin, while writing in the 19th century, is a good writer and a remarkable methodical scientist. I also read two biographies of Darwin, who comes across as inspirational: he loved life, was entranced by the mysteries of nature, and was devoted to his family and his discipline. Of the two biographies, I recommend either. Two other science books of note were Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, which introduced me to the gene-centered view of evolution and at the same time gave culture a biological treatment, and Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, which might be his contribution to the nature/nurture argument. His argument is more gene-centered than I am comfortable with (being aware of the power of ideas), but very provocative. I can't very well comment on science books without mentioning Spangenburg and Moser's two History of Science series, both of which I read straight through -- mostly during the summer. The books made me interested in the history of science. They write well and very clearly. Thanks to them, I have more scientific literacy now that I ever have before.

Speaking of provocation, there were a couple of books that completely changed my thinking. Neil Postman's Technopoly was the most important. Fully titled, it is Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. It is a work of social criticism, as Postman examines the way technology has changed the way we think about things. He examines technology's role in human societies throughout history, labeling the current period as becoming a technopoly, where people are monopolized by ideas that have come about thanks to our reliance on machines. One is an obsession with efficiency. This book really changed my thinking and made me something of a cynic about technology and consumption when I began considering his arguments.

In a similar vein was Sharon Lebell's The Art of Living, a modern translation of Epictetus' Discourses and Manual for Living. Epictetus' practical philosophy of Stoicism has become part of my own worldview. Another book that was not quite as provocative was Frances and Joseph Gies' Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, which promotes the idea that the medieval era was not a prolonged period of complete intellectual stagnation, but that in fact that technology did continue to develop, albeit slowly, in this period. Another book is the biography of Emilie Carles, a French peasant woman who lived in the opening years of the 20th century. From her origins as a farm girl discouraged against going to school, we see her mature into a thoughtful intellectual who comments on the historically and socially busy opening decades of the 20th century. Through her eyes ,we see agrarianism give way to industrialism: we see the two world wars and their consequences. I thought it was fantastic. Also, I should mention Marx's The Communist Manifesto and Richard Pipes' Communism, both of which were helpful in understanding one of the big ideas of the 20th century.

Finally, 2008 was the Year of Asimov. Holy wow, did I read a lot of Asimov this year. I began with a a book of short stories during spring break, and I returned to them when the summer began. A lot of the short stories were science fiction, but my favorites were the Black Widower stories. After I exhausted my library's complement of Asimovian short stories, I began the Foundation series, which was tremendously good story-telling, in my opinion. Asimov does write in a grandiose style: his emphasis is on the story, not his vocabulary. The Foundation series is a political, historical, and sociological epic set in deep space. Foundation, Foundation's Edge, Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation, and Forward the Foundation were some of my favorites from this series. I also read Asimovian nonfiction, most notably his Asimov's Guide to the Bible. I only read the first volume, but I am trying to find the second volume. In 2008, Isaac Asimov became my favorite author. I read two of his biographies (It's Been a Good Life and I, Asimov) and have loved knowing the man through his works and interviews. When speaking of Asimov's Mysteries, I wrote "My only complaint is that the book ended. If I’m wrong about the existence of the gods and I die to find myself at the Elysian Fields, I hope they have a library stocked with Asimov’s complete works. Anyway, in conclusion, Asimov rocks my socks off."

It was quite a year for reading -- over a hundred and fifty books. I probably read more this year than I ever have or ever will.

Honorable Mentions:

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Sea of Monsters

The Sea of Monsters
© 2006 Rick Riordian
279 pages

I continued in the "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series this week with book #2, The Sea of Monsters. Percy Jackson is now in seventh grade, but is troubled by bad dreams. After he and a new friend (Tyson) are attacked by pyromanic cannibals and rescued by Annabeth, they head for Camp Half-Blood. Sadly, it seems to be be in trouble: the magic protecting it from being attacked by all sorts of monsters is fading. Percy's bad dreams -- involving his satyr friend Grover being in trouble -- continue. Once at camp, and after Percy and company dispatch a few monsters, Hermes pays a visit to Percy and tells him that he has to help Grover. The attack on the camp's magic and Grover's predicament -- which involves a wedding, for some reason -- seem to be connected, and soon we find that Percy must journey to the Sea of Monsters to rescue Grover and find the solution to their problem. While I won't reveal what the solution is, let's just say that Percy's full name -- Perseus -- is appropriate.

The solution to both lays in the Sea of Monsters, which is the sea that Odysseus spent so much time marooned on. It, like Olympus and Hades, moves with western civilization, and now lies in the Bermuda Triangle. To find Grover, they have to get past some of the same obstacles Odysseus faced, including Circe, who takes "Men are pigs" far too literally. They're also being accompanied by one of Ares' daughters, Clarisse, who is a bit ill-tempered. She actually takes the same journey on a Confederate ironclad, manned by dead Confederate soldiers. This is possibly the weirdest plot development I've ever seen. At journey's end, Percy encounters Polyphemus, the cyclopes who Odysseus fooled. Riordian references this repeatedly, with amusing results.

The second book in the series was another fun little book. The story wasn't as engaging as the first, but the characterization and so forth were done better. I intentionally didn't mention major parts of the book, because one of my readers is actually reading the series, and so I wanted to avoid spoilers. I will continue in the series. On one minor note, on one occasion two characters needed to find an awful noise to scare away a monster. They settled on Dean Martin, which amused me given how much I like Dean Martin. I wonder if the author is a fan, and if he included that part as a bit of self-depreciation -- or maybe he just wants to poison an entire generation of children against Italian crooners.

Monday, January 5, 2009

This Week at the Library (5/1)

Books this Update:

I began this week with a recommended book by Rick Riordian, called The Lightning Thief. The book is a work of fantasy, set in a world where the Greek gods and all of the mythology that surrounds them are real. The book is part of a series called Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and the title character is named after Perseus, a Greek hero of old who rescued the Golden Fleece. Young Percy Jackson, like Perseus and Heracles, is a Hero: a demi-god, a half-blood. His mother was a human and his father a god -- although which god is in question for the first part of the book. Jackson discovers that he belongs to a different world -- a world of magic and ideals. The Greek gods, nurturers of western civilization, are being challenged by the old Titans, who -- if you remember your Greek mythology -- were deposed by the gods and stashed into pits and under volcanoes and so on. Percy, owing to his father's identity, is caught up in this epic battle between evil and...not-evil. Aside from some odd quirks (virgin gods having children with mortals, the odd Roman name for a god thrown in here and there), I found the book to be enjoyable. It's a frivolous narrative that doesn't take itself too seriously, and is quite imaginative besides. I will be reading the rest of the series.

Next I delved into a little philosophy. The Four Agreements is a "Toltec wisdom book". The author purports to be descended a long line of Toltec philosopher-priest-kings who once had to conceal their wisdom for fear of it being improperly used. Fortunately for us, there was also a prophecy that one that the world would be ready for such wisdom, and that day is now. The result is The Four Agreements, which is a little philosophy saturated with New Age talk. His ideas, if rescued from all of the "Woo" and rhetoric, aren't actually too bad. I found some aspects of them similar to Buddhist ideas. His four agreements, by the way, are:
  • Be impeccable with your word.
  • Don't take anything personally.
  • Don't make assumptions.
  • Do your best.
It was an interesting book. Sometimes amusing (for the wrong reasons), sometimes thought-provoking. All in all, though, I'd recommend The Art of Living over this, though.

Next I read Darth Bane: Path of Destruction. It is, as you might imagine, a Star Wars book, set in the days of the Old Republic. (That would be the one whose downfall is depicted in the prequel Star Wars trilogy. ) This book is not set during the prequel period, though. According to a Star Wars wiki, it is set a thousand years before A New Hope. Here, the Sith and the Jedi are fighting for control of the Galaxy. The Sith want to destroy the Republic and set up their own government, while the Jedi defend the republic. The story is told from the eyes of Des, a young miner ("Miners, not minors!") who feels abandoned by all of the ideals of the Republic and the Jedi. The author does make Des -- who will later become Darth Bane -- sympathetic. While Star Wars fans are used to the idea of the Sith numbering two ("Always two there are. A master and apprentice."), here they number in the thousands -- to the point where an army of them can be assembled. I found the story to be very interesting. The author has a talented for characterization and for story-telling in general.

Lastly, I read Great Books by David Denby. It's the lone serious work this week, but there was a lot to it. Author David Denby, a film critic for New York magazine, returns to Columbia University to sample its Great Books courses, which examine the so-called western "canon": books like Homer's epic poems, Virgil's plays, Aristotle's philosophy, Hobbes and Locke's ideas on government, and so on. There are many threads woven into the book: he book consists of several interwoven narratives. In the primary narrative, we experience school through Denby's eyes. He writes on the teachers' approaches, the attitudes of his classmates, the stress of exams. He compares his experience in the mid-90s (which is when this book was written) to his experience in the sixties. Connected to this narrative, but distinct from it, is another story: the way these "great books" shaped him as a freshman, and how they shape him now as a member of the "bourgeoisie". (He applies the label to himself.) He recalls moments from his life and connects them to the themes of the books. The theme-based narrative is another major one. His teachers focus more on the meanings of the story, derived from the culture they were set in. They also concentrate on how the various great books shape the others: Virgil reading Homer, Marx reading Hegel, etc. Yet another story that Denby tells is a critical one: he examines western culture, looks at the way it has changed from the times of the various authors and how it has changed from his beginnings. He weaves all of the above together while at the same time examining claims that the western canon is exclusionary and doesn't represent the modern western mind or doesn't take women and marginalized political/ethnic groups into consideration. It's a meaty book, and will interest anyone that takes books and literature seriously.

Pick of the Week: Hard to say. Darth Bane: the Path of Destruction was the most fun to read, but Great Books was the most intellectually stimulating.

Next Week:
  • The Sea of Monsters, Rick Riordian
  • Darth Bane: The Rule of Two, Drew Karpyshyn
  • Atom, Isaac Asimov

Great Books

Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World
1996 David Denby
491 pages + bibliography and index

My local library has display shelves attached to the end of book cases, and the books featured there change every so often. Sometimes there is a theme to the books being displayed, other times not. These books invariably catch my eye and sometimes I check them out. Such was the case with Storms from the Sun, for instance, and such was the case for this particular book. In the book, a film critic for New York magazine returns to Columbia University to observe sections of its Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization classes, so-called "Great Books" courses that focus on the "canon" of Western civilization -- beginning with Homer and ending with Virginia Woolf. Along the way, the canon involves a little of everything -- from history to economics to sociological theory to literature.

The book consists of several interwoven narratives. Denby, upon hearing criticisms from the "academic left", decides to experience the "great books" courses again to re-examine the canon for himself. He took those classes in the 1960s, but he's forgotten most of what he learned there. In this primary narrative, we experience school through Denby's eyes. He writes on the teachers' approaches, the attitudes of his classmates, the stress of exams. He compares his experience
in the mid-90s (which is when this book was written) to his experience in the sixties. Connected to this narrative, but distinct from it, is another story: the way these "great books" shaped him as a freshman, and how they shape him now as a member of the "bourgeaise". (He applies the label to himself.) He recalls moments from his life and connects them to the themes of the books. The theme-based narrative is another major one. His teachers focus more on the meanings of the story, derived from the culture they were set in. They also concentrate on how the various great books shape the others: Virgil reading Homer, Marx reading Hegel, etc. Yet another story that Denby tells is a critical one: he examines western culture, looks at the way it has changed from the times of the various authors and how it has changed from his beginnings.

There's a lot to this book. He weaves all of the above together while at the same time examining claims that the western canon is exclusionary and doesn't represent the modern western mind or doesn't take women and marginalized political/ethnic groups into consideration. It's a meaty book, and will interest anyone that takes books and literature seriously.