Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Through a Window

For now we see as through a glass, darkly...

Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe
© 1990 Jane Goodall
267 pages

I've always been fascinated by the behavior of our fellow apes. Unlike ants or birds, they behave in ways similar to us -- in ways we can understand. And because of their similarities to us genetically, their behavior can give us insight into our own history. I realized this latter observation in reading Carl Sagan's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Jane Goodall is a name I've heard of many times before, but have never been able to read until now. As you may be able to discern from the title, the book is her account of the thirty years she has spent observing a chimpanzee community in Tanzania.

She begins it frankly in "The Mind of the Chimpanzee" by commenting on the difficulties in analyzing chimpanzee behavior.We can't know chimpanzees are experiencing anger or depression: we can only allow their responses to what happens to them to guide us, giving us information that we can infer such a conclusion from. The same is true -- although she does not use this as an example -- of hierarchies within chimpanzee communities. From here she comments in general on chimpanzee intelligence as we have been able to detect it. Next she introduces "The Research Centre", describing how she came to Gombe and what she and her fellows attended to accomplish.

The bulk of the book consists of chapters on a particular subject -- "Mothers and Daughters", "War", "Sex", "Mothers and Son" -- as well as chapters concentrating on particular individuals within the chimpanzee community that contributed much to its history. As the book covers thirty years, we see leaders rise and fall -- some to rise again. Goodall, through these various chapters, not only relates information about the structure of their community, but gives it a history, as well. There was sense of time passing as I read, bringing with it highs and lows. This is supplemented by pictures -- mostly black and white, but some in color. The black and white pictures generally accompany the timeframe of the chapter they are set in, but the color photographs -- set in the middle of the book -- reflect a much broader period. Goodall writes very well: the praise I've heard about her is duly given.

In the antepenultimate* chapter, Goodall uses her observations to reflect on similarities and differences between humans and chimpanzees in regard to war, compassion, parenting,and other social issues. Next, in "Our Shame", she informs the reader of the dire state of chimpanzees in the world today: not only are their habitats receding rabidly, but they are being poached in the wild. Many are stolen and subject to severe mistreatment. This reminds me of the Primates of the World book I read back in the summer, with almost every chapter ending with a section on how that chapter's animal was in grave peril. The last chapter includes finishing thoughts, including musings by Goodall on how chimpanzees might write their own history.

And so to end: the book was well-written, quite interesting, and entirely worthy of reccommendation.

* I read today that this word -- meaning second-to-last -- is no longer used. Because it's such an interesting word, I'm going to use it when I can.

Monday, March 30, 2009

This Week at the Library (30/3)

Books this Update:
  • Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
  • Roman Blood, Steven Saylor
  • Rubicon: the Last Years of the Roman Republic, Tom Holland
  • Transforming the Mind, Tenzin Gyatso

I began the week with the strangely-titled Freakonomics, work done by Steven Levitt and written by Stephen Dubner. The original work was apparently quite popular, as it merited a "revised and expanded" edition. The original book's contents -- a series of essays on social questions analyzed using economic principles -- have been supplemented by a number of shorter essays in a similar vein, as well as a number of "blog" posts rendered in print form. Beyond using economic principles, there is no unifying theme to the book and none is intended. Its specific topics include cheating, real estate, the economics of crack trafficking, the decline of crime in the 1990s, and the impact of gun control. Although economics is not a strong subject of mine, the book was fun to read and easily understandable.

Next up, a little fiction: I read Steven Saylor's Roman Blood, a mystery novel set in the latter days of the Roman Republic. The era's equivalent to a private eye -- Gordianus the Finder -- is commissioned by a young advocate, Cicero, to help him build a case defending a man accused of killing his father. What begins as a simple murder mystery expands to a tale of political intrigue that threatens the life of Gordianus. The book is a bit over four hundred pages long and fairly captivating, although there are some purely gratuitous sex scenes that seemed to add little to the actual story.

Staying in the same topic but moving to a different genre, I read Rubicon by Tom Holland, a narrative history work depicting the twilight years of the Republic and the beginnings of the Empire's long night. Although the book is principally concerned with the political conflicts that lead to the Republic's crumbling -- the civil wars between Sulla and Marius, for instance -- Holland fits those conflict into particular themes. Sulla and Marius' conflict, for instance, is grounded in the same patrician versus populist politics that will see the rise of both Pompey and Caesar. Men like Cicero and Cato also receive their due. The book reads quite well, although the author did use modern terminology more than I would have liked. Describing Roman affairs using World War 2 terminology may convey ancient ideas to modern readers, but I have the feeling that they cheapen those ideas as well.

Lastly I read a transcription of a series of lectures delivered by the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, about the power of mental transformation. The lectures seemed to be more about Buddhist doctrine and less about ethics. I think his An Open Heart is better at explaining how his religious principles influence mental discipline, and that Ethics for the New Millennium and The Art of Happiness are better for ethics purposes.

Pick of the Week: Rubicon: the Last Years of the Roman Republic, Tom Holland

Quotation of the Week:

More than two millennia after the Republic's collapse, the "extraordinary character" of the men -- and women -- who starred in its drama still astonishes. But so too -- less well known perhaps than a Caesar, or a Cicero, or a Cleopatra, but more remarkably than any of them -- does the Roman Republic itself. If there is much about it we can never know, then still there is much that can be brought back to life, its citizens half emerging from antique marble, their faces illumined by a background of gold and fire, the glare of an alien yet sometimes eerily familiar world.

from Rubicon

Potentials for Next Week:
  • Through a Window, Jane Goodall
  • The Ghost, Robert Harris
  • The Great Warming, Brian Fagin
  • The Words of Martin Luther King Jr
  • The Moscow Option, David Downing, a recommendation.

Transforming the Mind

Transforming the Mind: Teachings on Generating Compassion
© Tenzin Gyatso 1999
168 pages

This book was not written as a book: it is, rather, the transcript of a series of lectures Gyatso gave in London. According to its introduction, many people asked for a print form of the material and Transforming the Mind is that. Because this was not meant as a book on its own, it can't really be compared to Ethics for a New Millennium or The Art of Happiness. It reminds me of An Open Heart in that it focuses more on religious practices and less on secular ethics. Gysato explains the Four Noble Truths and their relation to transformation, and one of the book's three parts features commentary on an eight-verse prayer related to the subject. The text of question and answer sessions is also included, as is a brief lecture titled 'Ethics for the New Millennium". I think this book would mainly appeal to those who wanted the lecture transcription, as the book's religious material is dealt with better in An Open Heart and its ethical material in Ethics for a New Millennium.


Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic
© 2003 Tom Holland
407 pages, including index

As a student of history, Rome holds a particularly strong fascination for me. Having been brought up in western civilization, Roman history is my history. I can see echoes of it in my everyday life, from the words I use to the ways in which I think. Despite its importance, it has been quite some time since I refreshed myself in its history, and so this week I read Rubicon: the Last Years of the Roman Republic. The author begins by stating that narrative history is starting to come back into vogue now, and that is the style in which he intends to write. For my part, I prefer narrative history to any other kind I know about.

More than two millennia after the Republic's collapse, the "extraordinary character" of the men -- and women -- who starred in its drama still astonishes. But so too -- less well known perhaps than a Caesar, or a Cicero, or a Cleopatra, but more remarkably than any of them -- does the Roman Republic itself. If there is much about it we can never know, then still there is much that can be brought back to life, its citizens half emerging from antique marble, their faces illumined by a background of gold and fire, the glare of an alien yet sometimes eerily familiar world.

- from the preface

Holland begins with "The Paradoxical Republic", where he examines the character of the Republic itself, telling the reader of its many contradictions: that it urged its citizens to care for glory above all, but that it also also tried to corral that zeal for glory into purposes that would increase the stature of the state: that its citizens were both free and tyrannized, and that despite all of its problems there existed "an almost religious sense of community". Here he introduces about the growing influence of populist politics versus patrician politics -- a theme is woven throughout the book. In "The Sibyl's Curse", Holland addresses a kind of morbid fear that Roman citizens had about the splendor of their Republic, that one day its own citizens would destroy it. I was unaware of the "prophecies of Sibyl", but according to Holland three books of prophetic sayings were hidden in one of the temples and consulted during moments of great crisis.

Beginning with the third chapter, the book becomes less background and more narrative. Like all narratives, this is one driven by characters, and the first is the character of Sulla. Holland puts to pen Sulla's rising fortune and influence and his conflict with Marius, leading to the civil wars, the existence of which surprised me the first time I heard about them so many years ago. Sulla, Crassus, and Marius all dominate the first part of the book. Sulla is perhaps the most difficult to put one's finger on, Crassus perhaps the easiest. Given that Sulla and Crassus were both characters in the Roman fiction I've been reading, my interest in them was particularly heightened. In "Fame is the Spur", Holland introduces the young character of Caesar, who will return -- obviously, given the book's title.

Caesar emerges as Sulla and Marius are passing way into death and as the Republic is now driven by the likes of Pompey and Crassus. Holland is not just interested in political power, however. He also visits men like Cato and Cicero, who will be voices questioning the way the Republic is crumbling until the end of the book. (Holland mentions two trials of Cicero's: one was in Imperium, and the other was in Roman Blood. Holland's description holds firm with both Harris' and Saylor's, increasing my appreciation for both. They seemed to have been able to render a story while keeping it true to the facts at hand, assuming all three of them are not engaging in an authorial conspiracy. The latter third of the book begins with the First Triumvirate, and the beginning of the end for the Republic. We can see the Republic's old ideals fading even as they are championed.

The book does not end with the Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon. Holland continues, describing the war between Marc Antony and young Octavian. Holland titles this "World War", and this is typical. The narrative is somewhat informal, and Holland has a tendency to impose 20th century terminology on the history of the past. He refers to Marius' putsch, calls Pompey the "Generalissimo", and describes Caesar's war in Gaul as consisting of a "blitzkieg". The latter is somewhat amusing given the location (Gaul being France), but I didn't enjoy the "imposition". This is a matter of taste, of course, but it seemed to detract from the purity of the text for me. Overall, though, I found the book to be quite enjoyable. It raised a lot of issues for me, personally.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Roman Blood

Roman Blood: A Novel of Ancient Rome
© 1991 Steven Saylor
401 pages

They had an awful lot of sex in ancient Rome. Not quite as much as the Cro-Magnons in Jean M. Auel's Earth Children series, but a good part of this book is people trying to further people the Republic. The same friend who told me about Robert Harris' Imperium and Pompeii also told me about the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor, an apparent mystery series set in ancient Rome. That may seem like an unlikely setting, but it's working so far. Roman Blood is the first in said series, and begins with Tiro -- the loyal servant of Cicero who penned who told us the story of Imperium -- arriving at the door of Gordianus the finder, the ancient Republic's version of a private eye. Young Cicero -- who is just beginning his career as an advocate -- has been assigned a troublesome case, one involving patricide. Given Cicero's limited experience and the short time in which he is to build a case, the soon-to-be master orator hires Gordianus to help him find evidence that Sextus Rosicus -- the accused -- is innocent.

What begins to unfold is a gritty detective novel that could be just as easily set in 1930s New York as in the Roman Republic. Gordianus quickly receives threats to his life as what began as a simple murder investigation takes on hints of political corruption. Together, Tiro and Gordianus will travel throughout Rome, visiting urine-soaked plebian alleys as well as luxurious palatine estates -- with a brothel thrown in. As the story continues to unfold, though, it becomes more than just a detective novel, and the whole story does not become apparent until after the trial is over. I found Saylor's prose to be enjoyable, and his descriptions sometimes waxed on poetic, especially when describing the city of Rome. The story is told through the first-person, although Gordianus seems to be aware of the reader following behind him: some of his comments seem to be made for our sakes. Because Cicero and Tiro are main characters of this novel and of Imperium, the urge to compare the two is almost irresistible. It seems somehow unjust to compare one author's work to another as if one were authoritative, but I will say that Saylor's depiction shows a different side of Tiro than Harris. We first see it in a brothel. The rate at which we see characters engaging in sexual intercourse seems to increase in intensity as the trial approaches, and then vanishing soon afterwards. In my experience reading fiction, I've found that depictions of sex are really hit and miss. Sometimes they work well and fold into the story, but more often than not it seems as if the author is writing on sex gratuitously. That became the case for me in the middle of the book, and is essentially my only negative comment.

Because my knowledge of Roman life is still fairly limited at this point, I cannot comment with any authority on its historicity. I did notice -- and here I am comparing Saylor to Harris -- that Saylor's depiction of a trial was quite different from Harris'. In Harris', the trial wore on for days while the candidates gave arguments and rebutted their opponents. In Saylor's trial, the event takes place in one day and with only two arguments. This may be because the two proceedings took place in different courts. In the afterward, Saylor writes that the trial in the book was a real trial and that Cicero's arguments were used in the book with some alterations to make them fit into a narrative. He makes further comments on his sources and how he used them, which I appreciate. Reading historical fiction set in such a world apart from ours can make it difficult to discern what liberties the author has taken with the truth. I found the novel to be enjoyable overall and may continue in the series.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Freakonomics: Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Revised and Expanded Edition)
© 2005 Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
320 pages

I gave little thought to choosing to read this book this particular week. I'd heard of the book before, and decided to give it a go. I am generally not so casual with my reading -- I'm actually very picky. Going in, I wasn't sure what to expect. Economics is not a favorite subject of mine beyond how it shapes society and influences history. I can remember various terms from my economics courses in my freshman year -- "elasticity", "oligopoly", and "opportunity cost" among them -- but mostly what I remember is that my professor had a knack for explaining various economic situations through his passion for pints of BlueBell ice cream.

It pleased me, then, to see that this is not a book about economics: it is more a book of applying economic principles, namely seeing situations in terms of incentives, to various questions. Beyond that, there is no unifying theme to the book. The authors acknowledge this and almost seem proud of it, stating in the "expanded" parts of the book that there's no reason books should have to have a unifying theme. They see the book as a collection of essays applying the same means to answer varying questions, and since other collections (like short story collections) can only own a very general theme, the authors are not particularly worried. Steven Levitt is the "rogue economist", while Dubner is the writer.

Some of the essays have whimsical titles, like "What Do School Teachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?", while some are slightly more serious -- "What Makes a Perfect Parent?" The essays -- constituting the original book -- take up about two-thirds of the book's overall volume. The first chapter introduces the idea of incentives, and uses it to examine the behavior of schoolteachers regarding classroom performance on standardized tests and the ranking systems of sumo wrestlers. What schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common is a willingness to cheat, provided that they are accidentally given incentives to do so. In "How is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents," Levitt argues that "nothing is more powerful than information, especially when its power is abused". Chapters three and four address the economics of drug trafficking and the decline of crime, while the last two chapters deal with parenting issues -- from the naming of children to value of "good schools".

While it is difficult to make generalizations on the contents' book*, I can say that reading it was fun. I would not expect to be entertained by economic principles, but I was. The information was also thought-provoking and sometimes disturbing. For instance, in "Where Have All the Criminals Gone?", Levitt critiques various explanations put forth for the decline of crime in the United States during the mid-late 1990s -- a growing economic, capital punishment, gun-control laws -- and puts forth a few ideas of his own, namely fluctuations in drug trafficking and the Roe v. Wade case. That last one may give you pause, as it did me. The idea is that abortions, happening disproportionally among low-income families in situations that promote contempt for the legal system and greater opportunities in criminal activities -- lower crime in a passive way. Although I find the idea repulsive and sinister, the chain of events seems to work. Levitt acknowledges the same revulsion. If this is true, it only supports my idea that good can come from evil and evil from good: not that I view early-term abortion as evil, but I do view the need for it as a social problem. The last third of the book consists of various newspaper articles written by and about Levitt, as well as print forms of his blog entries. These, too, have no general theme outside of Levitt looking for economic principles at work behind social questions.

Although I chose the book rather randomly and its suggested topic does not appeal to me, I found the book to be an enjoyable read. If you can find it, I think it would be a solid and quick read.

* I noticed this mistake in proofreading, but it amused me so I kept it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

This Week at the Library 22/3

Books this Update:
  • The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell
  • An Open Heart, Tenzin Gyatso
  • Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup
  • Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
  • The Naked Sun, Isaac Asimov
  • Real-Life X-Files, Joe Nickell
  • Ten Discoveries that Rewrote History, Patrick Hunt
  • Frontiers II, Isaac and Janet Asimov
  • Ethics for the New Millennium, Tenzin Gyatso
  • Archangel, Robert Harris

The week of spring break was busy for me. Although I was able to spend time with my extended family and watch a host of movies, I also managed to read a little bit. I began with Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates, a curious book that is hard to describe. Vowell's subject is John Winthrop, leader-ruler of the Massachusetts Bay colony of Puritans. While telling us of the Puritans' commitment to build a shining city on a hill, their struggles settling, Winthrop's numerous personal conflicts with fellow Puritans, and the Pequot War, she comments on the contemporary United States. It's not a history book, a biography, or a work of political commentary -- but it is a little of each.

Next I read An Open Heart by Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. This book builds somewhat on his The Art of Happiness while explaining some tenets of Buddhism and providing some specific meditative techniques for cultivating compassion. The explanation of religious principles was somewhat informative, but I prefer a more natural approach to dealing with other people: rather than engaging in mental exercises where I "take on" someone else's pain and give them mine. The book didn't seem to have the life that The Art of Happiness did.

In a similar vein, I read Here If You Need Me, a book by Unitarian Universalist minister and chaplain Kate Braustrup. She entered that service after the accidental death of her husband, a Maine state trooper who had planned to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Reverend Braustrup mixes stories of her current service with stories from her past. Some of the stories are happy and some tragic, but they all have a point to them -- or Braeustrup has found meaning in them. She shares the meaning of those stories with the reader, all the while reflecting on ideas of life, compassion, and religion. I found the book to be very enjoyable as well as intensely moving. I definitely recommend it.

Staying in the general neighborhood of religion, I read C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. I've heard much of these book and began reading it with the anticipation that I would find much to grapple with. This was not the case. The first thirty pages did give me something to think about -- here Lewis claims that human beings are aware of a Natural Law of Morality that they are supposed to be following, but don't -- but I realized in writing in my journal that I've dealt with that topic before in my own essays on philosophy. Past this, Lewis makes no arguments: he makes no case for Christianity, even though part of the book is labeled The Case for Christianity. He never explains why he believes that the originator of his supposed natural law is the god of the Hebrews -- never tries to justify his faith in the divinity of Yeshua of Nazareth, a character around whom a legend has been cobbled based on second-hand information. If I put myself into the role of a Christian believer, I can see how Lewis' explanations might give me some rational basis for bothering with the "mystery of the Trinity". Lewis seems wholly credulous. If this book is the height of Christian apologetics...I don't know what to say.

Getting away from religion, I enjoyed another novel by Isaac Asimov, this time The Naked Sun. It is second in his Robots series, and is again a detective novel starring Elijah Baley and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw. Baley, who has never been exposed to the open sky of Earth, living in the enclosed domes and boxes of Earth's "Cities", leaves Earth to solve a mystery on one of the "Spacer" worlds. The Spacers are humans who settled fifty planets in systems ringing Earth many hundreds of years ago, who do their utmost to keep Earth from expanding any more into space. Their cultures are quite different from Earth's, and have no history of crime. Thus, when a citizen of Solaria is murdered, they call Baley and Olivaw in to deal with the crime. The book is completely enjoyable.

Next I read Joe Nickell's Real-Life X-Files, forty-seven accounts of his attempting to find reasonable explanations for supposedly supernatural phenomena like weeping statues and crop circles. I found Nickell through Point of Inquiry, a skeptical podcast I catch on a weekly basis, and enjoyed the book. Nickell writes well, explaining the problem, his approach, and the history and science behind matters.

Moving from skepticism to history, I read Patrick Hunt's Ten Discoveries that Rewrote History. AHunt takes us on a tour of the world, visiting ten sites important to archeology and history -- ten places that changed the ideas people had about the cultures or time to which they belonged. The ten are: the Rosetta Stone, Troy, Nivenah’s Assyrian Library, King Tut’s Tomb, Machu Picchu, Pompeii, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Thera, Olduvai Gorge, and the Tomb of 10,000 Warriors. After giving an account of how these various sites were discovered, Hunt then dives into their importance and the background of the subject they influenced. Such is his attention to detail that my appreciation for sites that I was familiar with -- like Troy and Olduvai -- was increased. This was a very enjoyable book.

I next read Frontiers II, a collection of science essays by Isaac and Janet Asimov, collected and published after his death. I'm sure Asimov would be amused to know his bookcount (over five hundred) continued to grow even after his passing, thanks to his wife Janet. There are a hundred and twenty-five essays in here covering a range of topics -- from robots to atomic physics to dinosaurs. Regardless of specialized interest, a student of science will find something to enjoy reading in here. The essays are not long, are are written to the general public. Quite enjoyable.

I returned to philosophy with the Dalai Lama's Ethics for the new Millennium, written and published in 1999. Gyatso believes the modern world to be in trouble, stricken by diseases born of our societies -- stress, loneliness, self-hatred, and psychological misery. Despite this, he believes all human beings can achieve happiness, that it is ours for the having. All we need be is serious about cultivating it. He sees the cause of happiness as compassion, as wrapped up within that is tolerance, empathy, patience, forgiveness, reason, and other virtues. Some of the book treats the same material as The Art of Happiness, but here is focus is on the natural life of human beings -- with no religious doctrines or practices present. It is authentically and purely human. It is difficult to compare this to The Art of Happiness, but I am almost tempted to say I enjoyed this one more. I would enjoy returning to both.

I finished the week with a spot of fiction in Robert Harris' Archangel, a mystery thriller set in Yeltsin-era Russia: a time of declining standards of living and growing levels of crime and misery. It is a nation in want of a leader, and some of the western historians visiting Moscow for a symposium on Soviet history fear that Russia's plight may be an echo of the Weimar's republic -- with the same disastrous results if the leader Russia rallies behind is sufficiently intent on reviving his empire with no regard to anyone else. Our main character is "Fluke" Kelso, a British historian who arrives intending to give a speech on Stalin, but who quickly finds himself involved in a mystery involving the supposed last testament of Joseph Stalin -- his private papers, written in his declining years and which vanished shortly after his death. Kelso's curiosity and financial circumstances compel him to risk his life at the hands of old Soviets and devotees of the new Russia, both of whom do not want a westerner involved unveiling their secrets. Kelso's hunt for the the journal quickly turns bloody and climaxes in the frozen and economically devastated city of Archangel, where Kelso faces a madman who is the answer to the riddle of what Stalin's testament contains.

Quotation of the Week:
There is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine, or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter what or who they are: ultimately these are all we need. So long as we practiced these in our daily lives, [...] there is no doubt we will be happy.
- Tenzin Gyatso

Pick of the Week:
Ethics for the New Millennium, Tenzin Gyatso

Next Week:
  • Transforming the Mind, Tenzin Gyatso
  • Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
  • Rubicon: the Last Years of the Roman Republic, Tom Holland
  • Roman Blood, Steven Saylor (I've an abundance of Steves this week!)

Having to plan my reading two weeks in advance meant that I had to make some random grabs. Roman Blood was reccommended to me, and I'll probably enjoy Transforming the Mind, but I can never be too sure. In any case, I may not finish even those four as I have a sociology paper to plan for involving Weber, Simmel, and a few other theorists.


Archangel: A Novel
© 1998 Robert Harris
432 pages

No one can accuse Robert Harris of same-ness in his settings: after one alternate history mystery novel set in 1975 Nazi Germany, two novels set in ancient Rome, and another set in 1943 Great Britain, his Archangel is set in Yeltsin-era Russia. Western museums are vying for the purchase of Russia's soviet archives, much to the disgruntlement of loyal Bolsheviks. British historian Fluke Kelso is one of the historians visiting Russia for a symposium, but immediately has more to deal with than simply delivering a lecture and listening to his colleagues' own. An old Soviet employee approaches Kelso, hinting that he knows the location of the secret writings of Joseph Stalin -- his "Testament", which vanished shortly after his death. The book opens with the old Soviet telling his story in flashback form to Kelso, who is utterly intrigued after he verifies elements of the old man's story. He begins an inquiry as to where Stalin's papers might be found, attracting the attention of an old KGB man who is committed to restoring the Soviet Union and of Russia's current security police. Blood is shed and the mystery sees Kelso racing to the miserable town of Archangel near Siberia with angry men with guns right behind him. While the book is a fairly enjoyable mystery thriller, it is also a partial commentary on Yeltsin-era Russia: a nation experiencing declining standards of living and rising crime. One of Kelso's colleagues believes that Russia is a new Weimar Republic, needing only a charismatic strongman to lead it and the world to further ruin. The contents of Stalin's "testament" may reveal such a man. Although it was hard to get into at first, the book developed into a fascinating read.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ethics for a New Millennium

Ethics for a New Millennium
© 1999 Tenzin Gyatso (the XIV Dalai Lama)
237 pages

Every so often I encounter an author who I find to be delightful, and the Dalai Lama is one of them. I was somewhat dubious about reading this, as An Open Heart was something of a let-down -- lacking the personality of The Art of Happiness -- but Ethics for a New Millennium is just as enjoyable as The Art of Happiness, and perhaps more so. Ethics is a frank address to the reader: the "bookishness" of An Open Heart is nowhere to be found. Some of this book repeats The Art of Happiness. He begins by claiming that all human beings want to be happy, and that the cultivation of it amounts to spirituality. He sees the world at the turn of the millennium suffering from diseases of cultural environment: just as "third world" countries suffer from disease and immense poverty, "first world" countries suffer from loneliness and distress. The nature of our societies has removed us from the human contact that we depend on for happiness:

It is possible today to be far more independent of others than ever before. But with these developments, there has arisen a sense that my future is not dependent on my neighbor but rather on my job, or at most, my employer. This in turn encourages us to suppose that because others are not important for my happiness, their happiness is not important to me.

We are increasingly unable, he says, to express affection or communication with our fellows. This is further agitated by the "contemporary rhetoric of growth and ecnomic development which greatly reinforces people's tendency toward competitiveness and envy." He calls for a spiritual evolution. His spirituality is not one of ritual and doctrine, however: it is concerned with the qualities of the human spirit: love, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, responsibility, and harmony. He believes that all these are wrapped in compassion and that the practicing of them leads to happiness. I cannot disagree, as his spirituality is the very same I worked out for myself. It is the "grand religion" I have begun to suspect behind the words of people as varied as Epictetus, Robert Ingersoll, Anne Frank, Zelig Pliskin, and the Dalai Lama: the religion of human happiness.

He does not simply repeat what he said in The Art of Happiness, however. The Dalai Lama explores the practical aspects of this spirituality in our individual lives and as it relates to society. He comments on crime, education, economics, and religion. This commentary is somewhat lacking in that I do not have the book with me or my notes, so I cannot look at the table of contents and organize my thoughts to convey to you everything he says. What I can say is that I enjoyed this book immensely. This is pure human spirituality, completely bereft of forced belief and doctrine. It was an excellent read -- quite edifying.

There is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine, or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter what or who they are: ultimately these are all we need. So long as we practiced these in our daily lives, [...] there is no doubt we will be happy.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Frontiers II

Frontiers II : More recent discoveries about life, Earth, space, and the universe
© 1993 Isaac and Janet Asimov
369 pages

Given Isaac Asimov's deliberate attempt to be famous for sheer volume in terms of books, I think he would be amused beyond words to know that he wrote books even after his death. Frontiers II is a collection of science essays penned for newspapers by Isaac and Janet and published after his death. Most of the essays come from Isaac's typewriter, but Janet's articles were also quite enjoyable. The book is organized into four parts: "Life: Past, Present, and Future"; "Our Planet and Our Neighbors"; "Science and Technology"; and "The Universe from Quarks to the Cosmos."

Because there are so many articles, there are many topics to choose from. The essays are not long -- they were penned for a newspaper syndicate -- so even if the reader has no interest in one topic, another is not far away. Although the articles on biochemistry were not as interesting to me as the articles on planetary science, I was able to get through them. They are neither technical nor simplistic: this is science for anyone who has achieved a high-school level of literacy and an interest in science. Some of the information is dated, given how long ago this was published, but much of it holds true. Very enjoyable -- if you want to relax with a little science reading, I'd recommend this if you can find it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History

Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History
© Patrick Hunt 2001
226 pages

I spotted this while ambling through the history section of the Selma library, and it turned out to be a splendid read. Archaeologist Patrick Hunt takes on a tour of the world, visiting ten sites important to archaeology and history -- ten places that changed the ideas people had about the cultures or time to which they belonged. The ten are: the Rosetta Stone, Troy, Nivenah’s Assyrian Library, King Tut’s Tomb, Machu Picchu, Pompeii, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Thera, Olduvai Gorge, and the Tomb of 10,000 Warriors. I was familar with all but two (the Assyrian Library and Thera), but Hunt was able to increase my apppreciation for even those I was quite familar with, like Olduvai Gorge.

Hunt is a storyteller and a teacer. He begins each chapter by telling how each discovery was made, and he does this well enough so that we are with Henrich Schliemann as he stands on a hill in Turkey, reading Homer and and matching his descriptions to the landscape. We scale the mountains of Peru and see Machu Picchu appear through the mist as if by magic: we walk the dusty valley basin of Olduvai and see the same strange bone at the same time as the Leakeys do. Hunt takes us past this discovery to its reception, writing on the importance of it and showing how it completely changes to the perceptions we once had. He is an enjoyable writer, and even after finishing I enjoyed a nice history buzz -- the type I get when reading really good stuff.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Real-Life X-Files

Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal
Joe Nickell 2001
326 pages

Joe Nickell is a frequent guest of Point of Inquiry, a podcast I listen to weekly. Past readings have come from Point of Inquiry, and this is another. Nickell examines paranormal claims. He does not set out to "debunk" them, only to examine the cause of the reports. He claims to be open to admitting to supernatural activity in the advent that no natural explanation can be found. This book contains forty-seven episodes in his experience as a paranormal investigator, each meriting its own chapter. Some of these paranormal events are familiar to almost everyone: Roswell, crop circles, the Shroud of Turin*, and the Oak Island "money pit". Other chapters do not deal with particular episodes, but a type of phenomenon: snake oil, for instance, or haunted inns. According to the inside flap, Nickell was a "former private investigator and forensics writer". Judging by his numerous interviews, he's also quite civil with people he disagrees with. He cites numerous other books and provides pictures (many taken by him) when necessary. He does a good job (in my estimation) of explaining why he believes what may be the case, and I didn't observe any leaps in logic. There is one of his explanations I can't accept, though. In chapter 28, "Ghostly Photos", Nickell states his believe that the "ghostly" images are simply caused by the camera's "hand strap getting in front of the lens". Their sheen, he says, "enables them to reflect brightly the flash from the camera's self-contained flash unit". He shows photographs of his own and observes that the photos look very similar. The problem with that explanation, at least regarding one of the "ghostly" photographs that he is trying to explain, is that I can see through the ghostly part. If it were a reflection of the band -- the solid band -- how can I see through it? I believe there may be another explanation behind that particular photo. You can see the "ghostly" photos here. The two in the book are figures 1 and 2, while some of Nickell's work is below. What do you think?

The book is generally well-written and interesting. It's always interesting for me to see how the human mind can play tricks on us, but in some cases people don't care. In "Adventure of the Weeping Icon", one woman said to Nickell "I don't care if there's a pipe and a hose behind that picture. I don't care if the Virgin Mary jumps right out of the painting. You either believe in miracles or you don't. I believe." The ability to believe in a obvious lie is unfortunate. While that woman's belief was relatively harmless, what of those who spend their money in schemes or trust obviously unfit politicians like Stalin?

*I didn't comment on this at the time, but Thomas Cahill seems to place faith in the Shroud of Turin in his Desire of the Everlasting Hills. Cahill's such an interesting author -- skeptical one moment, credulous the next.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Naked Sun

The Naked Sun
© Asimov 1957
187 pages

A note to readers: I have been avoiding reading science fiction because I don't like it rivaling my history reading. Being in Selma gave me access to The Naked Sun, though, and so I seized the opportunity. The Naked Sun is the second in Asimov's "Robot" series. In this novel's preceding work, The Caves of the Steel, we readers were introduced to detective Elijah Baley and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw. We were also introduced to the universe that Baley lives in. Fifty or so planets have been colonized by Earth, although these "Spacer" worlds have quickly surpassed Earth in technological prowess and have been engaged in a policy of keeping Earth down. The Spacer worlds are lightly populated by our standards or anyone else's. The Spacers have cleaned themselves of Earth's germs and want little to do with Earth people. When one of their number is murdered, however, they have no choice but to resort to Elijah Baley, who in The Caves of Steel helped solved the murder of a Spacer on Earth.

Baley and his partner Olivaw travel to Solaria, a very sparsely populated world where the inhabitants are very keen on their privacy. They have intimacy taboos and are never in the company of other humans in their adult life, save for the occasional visitation by a spouse. They do their visiting through what amount to holographic images. Given their intense taboo against being in the company of another, and given that robots in Asimov's universe cannot kill a human being (given the Three Laws of Robotics), Baley has quite a problem. If the humans couldn't do it, and the robots couldn't do it,....whodunit?

The novel is excellently written. I was able to derive the solution by myself, but that's probably thanks to the volume of Asimov I've read. As usual, very enjoyable.

Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity
© 1952 C.S. Lewis
191 pages

This is a little book I have heard an awful lot about. While friends and readers may know of my interest in philosophy, few know that it stems from a period back in late 2006 when I found a teacher in Ravi Zacharias. Zacharias is a Christian philosopher and apologist, and he shaped my worldview. In attempting to articulate why it was I disagreed with him on various points, my principal of freethought became a practice: to deal with his conclusions I found I had to question his premises and the assumptions that they were built on. I found I enjoyed thinking about philosophical matters, and so as a consequence of listening to Zacharaias, I became both a freethinker and a philosopher. Zacharias quoted from C.S. Lewis a lot, and many of my devout Christian friends have Mere Christianity on their "favorite books" list. Two of them have requested that I read the book, and so I have.

The book combines four books, although the cover lies and says there are three. The books included are The Case for Christianity, Christian Behavior, and Beyond Personality. (There's a fourth, between the first two, but I'm writing this at the library and sans notes.) According to Zacharias and alluded to by Lewis, he was an ardent atheist who became England's "most reluctant convert". I saw very little reluctant in Lewis' writings here. I am, I must admit, disappointed. I had expected my assumptions to be challenged, my philosophical nose to be tweaked, my worldview to be aided. This did not happen. The first thirty pages did give me something to grapple with, but I realized when writing in my journal on the ideas that Lewis was presenting that I'd dealt with these issues before. Zacharias repeated them in his lectures, and my philosophy/humanities blog started as a way of storing my responses to Zacharias online.

Lewis actually never makes a case for Christianity. He tries to raise some questions*, and then says "Christianity is the best answer to this questions". He never defends his new-found belief in the inerrancy of the bible, the divinity of Yeshua, or anything else. While the later books may be of use to Christians trying to to justify their faith, this is a book written to believers. Lewis admits in one book -- Beyond Personality, I think, which is his attempt to deal with the "mystery of the trinity" -- that some things just must be believed.

Although the first twenty or so pages allowed me to revisit my old ideas, I was disappointed in this book. I expected much better. Last year a friend told me that this may give me something to think about, or just be "more fuel for the fire", but it's really neither for me. Perhaps if I'd not heard Ravi Zacharias I would have found it more admirable, but I doubt I would be in a frame of mind to read this book without having been schooled in philosophy and freethought by Zacharias, my accidental and probably unwilling teacher.

* Lewis' entire theology seems to be based on the assumption that there is a Law of Good Behavior that humans disobey and know they're disobeying, but yet want others to obey. Some of my essays on this subject include "Relativity andMorality" and "Relativity and Absolutes". "God's Loophole" may address some questions but I've not read it in a while and so cannot be sure.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Here If You Need Me

Here If You Need Me: A True Story
© 2001 Kate Braestrup
211 pages

Here If You Need Me is the story of Kate Braestrup, a Unitarian Universalist minister and game warden chaplain who went into that service after the death of her husband, a Maine State Trooper who had planned on a double career as a Unitarian minister. In a sense, I suppose she converted her pain into a way to honor her husband and help others -- and in so doing, helped herself. Reverend Braustrup mixes stories of her current service with stories from her past. Some of the stories are happy and some tragic, but they all have a point to them -- or Braeustrup has found meaning in them. She shares the meaning of those stories with the reader, all the while reflecting on ideas of life, compassion, and God. I found the book to be very enjoyable as well as intensely moving. I definitely reccommend it.

An Open Heart

An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life
© 2001 the XIV Dalai Lama
191 pages

Because I enjoyed The Art of Happiness so much, I decided to continue reading the Dalai Lama's thoughts. An Open Heart is considerably more short than The Art of Happiness, but its singular topic is much more narrow. The book repeated a lot of what was in The Art of Happiness, but this book is different in that it focuses more on ideas to meditate on to cultivate feelings of compassion for everyone. He combines the material from The Art of Happiness and these meditative techniques with explainations of Budhhist concepts like karma, no-self, and reincarnation and of how they apply to what he is teaching. I had a fairly simplistic understanding of karma (what goes around comes around), but the idea he espouses is more severe. If you steal, he says, not only will you suffer the consequences in this world, but when you are reborn you will be reborn lower and will have to fight a greater urge to deal while being stolen from. I imagine if you steal again you'll be reborn lower and will have a still greater urge to steal, which to me sounds like a negative feedback loop. I still don't see how the idea of "no soul" works with reincarnation. What exactly is being "reincarnated"?

It was an interesting read, but inferior to The Art of Happiness from my view.

The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates
© Sarah Vowell 2008
254 pages

I am a regular listener of NPR's This American Life, and one episode a couple of years ago called "What I Learned From Television" featured an author named Sarah Vowell commenting on the late CBS show Thanks, which attempted to portray -- in sitcom format -- a Puritan family. Vowell also managed to comment on the contemporary United States, much to the laughter and embarrassment of the live audience she was addressing. I liked her enough to read one of her books (Assassination Vacation), but The Wordy Shipmates -- about the same subject she addressed in that show -- had then not yet been released. I decided to give the book a ago this bring break.

The book is actually similar to Vowell's spot on This American Life. Vowell tells us the story of John Winthrop and the early years of his Massachusetts Bay colony: their commitment to build a shining city on a hill, their struggles settling, Winthrop's personality conflict with Roger Williams, his role in the Pequot war, and so on. While relating the story of the Puritans who settled with Winthrop, she connects what she writes to the contemporary United States and throws in a bit of a travel diary as well. The book was quite enjoyable.

This Week at the Library (16/3)

Books this Update
  • Frank Sinatra: An American Legend, Nancy Sinatra
  • The Sun Shines Bright, Isaac Asimov
  • The Art of Happiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
  • Enigma, Robert Harris
  • I to Myself, Henry David Thoreau

Friday the 13th began spring break at my university, and subsequently I will be away from the computer for a little over a week. While I will have intermittent Internet access, the every-other-day or so posting I typically do will probably not be possible. When I am able to post my comments, they will be backdated slightly. I am also unsure as to which books I will actually be reading this next week, so next week you may be in for a surprise.

I began with a biography of Frank Sinatra, although Frank Sinatra: An American Legend is not a biography in the traditional sense. It is more of a timeline with commentary and pictures -- a great deal of pictures, as a matter of fact. The book, compared to the other biographies I've read, offers a pretty fair depiction of Sinatra's many faces although -- being his daughter -- Nancy Sinatra doesn't really address his negative side.

Next I read The Sun Shines Bright, a collection of science essays by Isaac Asimov. The essays cover a variety of scientific topics, although about half relate to astronomy or physics in some way. Outside of those topics, Asimov also writes on demographics, the scientific method, and the possibilities of cloning. His style is enjoyable.

I returned to philosophy with The Art of Happiness by the 14th Dalai Lama. The Art of Happiness is a dialogue between himself and a psychiatrist based in Arizona, the book being written from the psychiatrist's point of view. The book begins with the simple assertion that all human beings seek and deserve happiness and that it is perfectly within our grasp if only we are willing to practice and learn patience, tolerance, compassion, and mental disicpline. Along the way the Dalai Lama explores romance, suffering, anger, difficult people, and spiritual practices in general. I found the book to be excellent. It is mostly free from religious constructions like karma and reincarnation (although he does mention both once or twice). The book is wholly practical and very much based on reason and empathy. Although I may not agree with some of his opinions (that human beings are basically good, for instance), I found much to reccommend this book to anyone who is serious about personal growth.

After the science and philosophy I engaged myself in a little light reading in Robert Harris' Enigma, a novel set in the darker days of World War 2. Our main character is Tom Jericho, a mathematician in the employ of the British government. His job is to help crack the Enigma code used to protect U-boat transmissions -- a code that may mean the difference between the Allies losing or winning the war. While Jericho and his comrades worry themselves over this, Jericho also has to deal with the loss of an old flame -- who may just be a Nazi spy. It was fairly enjoyable, although not nearly as much as his Roman books.

I ended the week by finishing I to Myself, selections from the journal of Henry David Thoreau. The selections are organized by decade and year and track the life of an uncommon man as he ages in a time of great change. Throughout this change -- industrialization's first impact upon America -- Thoreau holds himself to higher truths and purposes. He is above petty things like society and organized religion and prefers to spend his time strolling through the woods, reflecting on the beauty of life and helping his neighbors intermittently. He is a private man -- or so the journal makes him out to be -- so reading the book felt like infringing upon his privacy. The book was quite helpful in understanding the man and gave me food for thought as well.

Pick of the Week: Thoreau would have won easily in an ordinary week, but this week he was competing with the Dalai Lama. The Art of Happiness deserves my unqualified reccommendation.

Quotation of the Week: In my journal I have quotations from Frank Sinatra, Isaac Asimov, Henry David Thoreau, and the Dalai Lama: all gleaned from this week's reading. Because there is so much from which to choose, I shall go with the shortest and simplest: "Be resolutely and faithfully what you are; be humbly what you aspire to be." - Henry David Thoreau

Potentials for Next Weekish:
  • Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis. A request from a friend.
  • Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal, Joe Nickell. Nickell is a frequent guest of the skeptical podcast Point of Inquiry.
  • Archangel, Robert Harris
  • The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell.
  • Here If You Need Me: A True Story, Kate Braestrup
  • The Naked Sun, Isaac Asimov
  • The Associate, John Grisham
If you think that's a little too much for one week, I remind you that I will be without television or internet distractions and largely away from school until the 22nd. Potential distractors include German and and sociology work.

Friday, March 13, 2009

I to Myself

I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau
© 2007 editor Jeffrey Cramer
429 pages

I've known the name Henry David Thoreau since high school, when I gazed up at Walden. I did not read from him, however, until this past summer when I read On Civil Disobedience, which I found to be thought-provoking. I decided to read a little more of Thoreau this week and went with annotated selections from his journal. The actual collection of journals spans fourteen volumes, according to the editor of this book, which is quite impressive. Although Thoreau begins the book as a twenty year old, his thoughts are much different from the thoughts I wrote in my own journals at that age. His thoughts and how he expresses them are deeper and more eloquent than any others I have read or can imagine reading. I imagine this is a result of a more literary society.

The selections from his journal are organized by year, and comments by the editor on every page explain allusions Thoreau is making or add more detail. The editor was thorough enough to include reproductions of drawings Thoreau made in his journals. The character who rises from these pages is interesting: the editor comments that he is a man of contradictions. He writes to himself that the value of our thought-life is more valuable than the value of our emotional life, as emotional states are transitory -- yet he exults reason and scoffs at science. His distaste for science especially emerges in his forties. Thoreau is often a man alone: he seems to spend the majority of his time outside in the woods, walking and contemplating life. He cares little for company on this walks, although he does seem to admit it in small amounts once he returns. Money seems to be of secondary importance: every so often he will reference doing building work for someone, or surveying land, but the Thoreau in this book is a man of the wilderness. I can see him in my mind's eye, his hands clasped behind his back, strolling through the woods with a funny gait and a curious expression on his face. Here is a man who spends a lot of time in thought, but who doesn't hesitate to fold his arms into a shape resembling that of a chicken's so that he may more properly imitate a bird call when he is vocalizing.

Through Thoreau's life, we can see life changing. Railroads intrude into the woodlands: men wielding axes approach Walden Pond, his sanctuary. The great tide of immigration from Europe will sweep through Concord: he often mentions Irish immigrants. Although these things trouble him, he seems to rise above them, taking heart in thoughts of greater truths. "There is nowhere any apology for despondency," he comments, "[As] always there is life which rightfully lived implies a divine satisfaction." Religion, like society, is of little concern to him. Although he seems to see religious philosophy of all kinds as divinely inspired, he heaps contempt among preachers and organized religion. At a younger point than that, he comments that "I do not prefer one religion or philosophy to another. I have no sympathy with the bigotry and ignorance with make transient and partial and puerile distinctions between one man's faith or form of faith and another's. [...] I pray to be delivered from narrowness, partiality, exaggeration, bigotry. To the philosopher, all sects, all nations, are alike."

The book was quite a read. Thoreau is an interesting character to contemplate, and I do believe this annotated selection helped me to get a better feel for who he was -- as well as providing me with a few quotations. I will end this entry with a prayer Thoreau wrote down.

"May I go to my slumbers as if expecting to arise to a new and more perfect day. May I so live and refine my life as fitting myself for a society ever higher than I actually enjoy. May I treat myself as tenderly as I would treat the most innocent child whom I love; may I treat children and my friends as my newly-discovered self. Let me never go in search of myself; never for a moment think I have found myself; be a stranger to myself; never a familiar, seeking acquaintance still."

Thursday, March 12, 2009


© 1995 Robert Harris
320 pages

Publishers are fond of affixing swastikas to book covers when they involve Nazi Germany in any way. Enigma is one such book, as it is a historical action-mystery story set in the grim days of 1942 when U-boat wolf packs patrolled the waters of the Atlantic, destroying convoys of supplies bound for the British isles. In Britain, groups of men are assigned to crack the cipher code that the Nazi government uses to protect its transmissions to and from the U-boats. Being able to crack the code will give the Allies a tool they need to stay alive. Tom Jericho, the central character of Enigma, is one of those men. With a photographic memory and a mind for mathematics, Jericho is an important asset of the British armed forces, but the stress of his job recently led to fainting spells. The abrupt ending of his relationship with a mysterious and attractive woman working in the same area as he does not help.

The book begins with Jericho's return to the project. He attempts to pick up the pieces of his old life, but finds that increasingly hard to do. The victories he once earned have been overturned and his old flame is impossible to find. A series of convoys from the United States make the issue of cracking the U-boat codes a necessity, but Jericho discovers evidence that may prove his old flame a German spy. Such is the story that Harris tells. I found it moderately enjoyable, although not nearly as much as other books I've read by him. That may have something to do with the math-centered plot. At any rate, it has not dulled my enthusiasm for Harris, and I look forward to reading whatever else he's written.

The Art of Happiness

While poking my nose in the religious philosophy section of my university library, I spotted a book with an interesting title. Seeing that it was by the (fourteenth) Dalai Lama, I decided to see what it was about beyond the title. The book is a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and a psychiatrist who is interested in the Lama's thoughts on happiness. Happiness, says the Dalai Lama, is the desire of every human being and our right. ("I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we are all seeking something better than life.") He believes that happiness is attainable through the practices of compassion, patience, tolerance, and mental discipline. Happiness, reports Howard Cutler -- the psychiatrist -- is determined more by one's state of mind than by external events.

The above is a very rude summation of what is a very enjoyable book. The pair begin by exploring what it means to be happy: examining elements and practices of our lives that supposedly bring happiness. According to the Dalai Lama, happiness is a consequence of pursuing activities and emotions that lead to it -- compassion being one of those -- and avoiding activities that detract from it. Hate is an example of the latter. He believes that human nature is essentially good, and negative emotions and actions result from our search for love are thwarted. (This is one of the points where I disagree with him, although I do believe basic behaviors like compassion that we call "good" are the kind that result in joy and contentment, regardless of one's cultural upbringing.) In some ways, his philosophy reminds me of Stoicism.

After addressing happiness and its source (love through compassion), he addresses human relationships and explores the various kinds of love that we feel for one another. Here he comments on romance. In the next chapter, he addresses various aspects of suffering. He draws a distinction between physical pain induced by nerves and suffering, which he sees as the mental side of physical and emotional pain. Hatred is seen as suffering in his view. He then addresses obstacles: how they can be put to use and how they can be overcome. The last chapter consists of reflections on spirituality, which he separates from religion. In his opinion, most of the world is nonreligious: only two billion people, in his estimation, actually practice spirituality. For the rest, religion is just part of their cultural background and it does very little for them.

I enjoyed the book tremendously. The Dalai Lama does not bother with religious concepts: only once does he mention reincarnation. His focus is not on ritual and religion but on the art of living every day in the pursuit of happiness. (I should note that he uses "pleasure" to refer to fleeting enjoyment and "happiness" for steady enjoyment: I personally use "happiness" to refer to fleeting enjoyment and "joy" for the latter.) When I read his comments on spirituality -- how he describes the practice of being compassionate, tolerant, patient, and so forth -- I cannot help but think of Anne Frank, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Robert Ingersoll, and others who have taught me through their words. As Frank noted, "We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same." This, not religion, is the focus of the book. I found his advice to be quite useful and will share a few quotations from him on my philosophy/humanities blog. I very much recommend it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Sun Shines Bright

The Sun Shines Bright
© 1981 Isaac Asimov
250 pages

It's been a while since I've treated myself to a little Asimov. I've purposely held back on my Asimov reading given how much of it is science fiction and I don't want my posts labeled "science fiction" to surpass those labeled "History". It's a trivial thing, admittedly, but it doesn't seem proper for my history reading to be taken over by any other kind -- except for philosophy or science. This book is a compilation of scientific essays penned on a variety of topics and categorized into the following sets: "The Sun", "The Stars", "The Planets", "The Moon", "The Elements", "The Cell", "The Scientists", and finally "The People". His essays range from the discovery of uranium, the idea of cloning, and neutrinos to the scientific method. He begins each essay rather informally, working his way to the subject of his essays within a few paragraphs. Some topics interested me more than others: his essays on the viability of altruistic behaviors, or comments on the various secret weapons of history interested me more than neutrinos. This was enjoyable over all, although given the date in which the essays were generally published -- the late 1970s -- I imagine some of the information is dated.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Frank Sinatra: An American Legend

Frank Sinatra: An American Legend
© Nancy Sinatra 1995
368 pages

Those who know me well know my fondness for Frank Sinatra -- not only his music, but his life. He was to me an inspiration when I was very much in need of being inspired. His sheer willfullness and self-confidence -- created out of nothing, but creating an icon -- helped me then, and I enjoy reading Sinatra biographies. This is not a biography in the usual sense: there is no connected narrative. His daughter Nancy simply begins with his grandparents' arrival in the United States and moves through the course of his life in a series of short entries. She refers to him variously as "Frank Sinatra", "Dad", and "FS". I assume this is to avoid potential motony. For instance:

December 2, 1948: Dad staged a return engagment on Spotlight Review.
December 1948: FS confided in Manie Sacks, his friend and mentor at Columbia Records, that so many things were going wrong that he flet like he was all washed up. Sacks replied that life is cylical, and that he was too talented not to b ounce back. 'In a few years', he said, 'You'll be on top again.'
January 1949: The Downbeat poll listed Frank Sinatra as number five among male singers -- his first rating below the top three spots since the thirties.

The entries are framed by pictures on each page, and they are presented well. Sometimes she sets off a page or a paragraph in a box to write about a particular issue, such as his changing politics and so on. Given how many biographies I've read of Sinatra, the information here was not that new to me, but the pictures were quite enjoyable and I was able to extract a few quotations. One in particular comes from an essay he submitted:

Why do innocent children still grow up to be despised? Why do haters' jokes still get big laughs when passed in whispers from scum to scum? You know the ones I mean -- the 'Some of my best friends are Jewish' crowd. As for the others, those cross-burning bigots to whom mental slavery is alive and well, I don't envy their trials in the next life. *[...]
I do claim enough street smarts to know that hatred is a disease -- a disease in the body of freedom, eating its way from the inside out, infecting those who come in contact with it, killing the dreams and hopes of millions of innocent with words, as surely as if they were bullets.
Take a minute. Consider what we are doing to each other as we rob friends and strangers of dignity as well as equality. For if we don't come to grips with the killer disease of hatred, of bigotry and racism, pretty soon we will destroy from within this blessed Nation."

Having grown up in a region with neighborhoods divided by religiosity and ethnicity, Sinatra was especially passionate about tolerance and equality. There's really not all that much to say about the book: it does provide a wealth of pictures and would give a first-timer an impression of Sinatra's life, but the information was not new to me.

This Week at the Library (9/3)

Books this Update:
  • Lost on Planet China, J. Maarten Troost
  • The Compleat Gentleman, Brad Miner
  • Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Thomas Cahill
  • Evolution for Everyone, David Sloan Wilson
  • Pompeii, Robert Harris

I began this week with a travelogue by J. Maarten Troost, who humorously describes his adventures in China. Maarten, upon hearing repeatedly that China is "the future" and upon witnessing signs that China has changed from the China of his youth and is still changing, decides to visit the Middle Kingdom. In between accounts of stumbling over dead pigs in the street, visiting Tibetan monasteries, and haggling with Chinese merchants for the "real" price of everything from sex to Little Red Books, Troost reveals a China still establishing its own identity, but seemingly copying the United States in its unrestrained embrace of materialism. The book is quite funny.

Next I read a recommendation from a friend in The Compleat Gentleman by Brad Miner. The book purports to be an examination of the historical roots of chivalry as well as thoughts for how to apply it to the lives of men -- and that's men with an XY -- in the modern era. The book strikes me as being overly romantic and self-congratulatory, and the code of honor promoted to be hypocritical. I did not enjoy the read.

I then continued in Thomas Cahill's "Hinges of History" series with Desire of the Everlasting Hills, a book examining "the world before and after Jesus". Cahill begins in the age of Alexander, exploring the absorption of Judea into the Hellenic and Roman empires and its consequences. We see Judaism growing, splitting into various traditions. Although Cahill does not comment on Greek philosophy's effect on Judaism here, he did in Mysteries of the Middle Ages. The book is not a stern chronology: Cahill explores the way Jesus was perceived by different people at different periods in the sect's growth, and consequently does portray a picture of the evolving church, but it is not a staid history. It's more personal than that, and this is Cahill's gift: he knows how to connect the reader to the lives of his subjects. While I enjoyed the first five-sixths of the book, the remainder -- the lasting effects of Jesus -- seems as forced as The Gifts of the Jews did. He maintains his integrity for the most part, though.

Moving from history and religious philosophy to science, I read Evolution for Everyone, in which author David Sloan Wilson states that evolution ought not be to seen as controversial or difficult to learn. The problem in his view is not that evolution is not accepted, but that it is not acted on by people who study various aspects of humanity. He quickly and effectively explains the basic principles behind evolution and then launches into the heart of his book, in which he applies evolutionary thinking to all manners of topics from medicine to beauty to religion.

I ended the week with a little light reading in the form of Robert Harris' Pompeii, a novel set in the last days of that Roman city. As you may know, Pompeii was depopulated and partially destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius -- but the eruption helped preserve much of the city. After it was rescued from the layers of ash and rubble on top of it, Pompeii's death proved to be a source of information about what Roman towns were really like. It is from the details preserved by the volcano and from accounts written about its eruption that Harris builds a story. Our main character is Marcus Attilius, an aquarius of the Roman Empire. He has been ordered to oversee the Aqua August and investigate the reason as to why the water has stopped flowing south. As he investigates, tension in the Earth builds -- as does tension in the town of Pompeii, where Attilius' investigation into where the former aquarius went has attracted the ire of Pompeii's resident robber-baron. I thought the book was excellent reading, considering that it began with an engineering problem.

Pick of the Week: Pompeii, Robert Harris

Next Week:
  • Frank Sinatra: An American Legend, Nancy Sinatra
  • The Sun Shines Bright, Isaac Asimov
  • Enigma, Robert Harris
  • I to Myself: Annotated Selections from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, Jeffrey S. Cramer

Friday, March 6, 2009


Pompeii: A Novel
© 2003 , Robert Harris
274 pages

In May 2007 I read Fatherland, an mystery book set in an alternate history setting in which Nazi Germany prevailed in World War 2 and the S.S. Holocaust is largely unknown. Last week I read Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome, by the same author, and commented that I would not expect two books in such different settings to be from the same author. I enjoyed Imperium tremendously, though, and this week continued with Pompeii. Pompeii, you may know, was a city depopulated, partially destroyed, and partially preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. I am not giving anything away here: it is fairly common knowledge, and the book itself has an erupting volcano on the cover.

The book is set four days before the eruption, in the general region surrounding Pomepii. The book holds a map in the beginning that shows the ancient towns that dotted the countryside, along with old roads and -- more related to the plot -- the old aqueduct. The book is told in the third person and is chiefly concerned with Marcus Attilus, the new aquarius of the region -- replacing the old aquarius, who stopped believing in the zodiac. An aquarius is someone who is concerned with the Aqueduct, and Attilus is very concerned with his. His family have worked with the aqueducts for at least a century, and the duct to which he has been assigned has stopped running -- and the man whose job he now holds has vanished. Although Attilus is the central character of the story, Harris also takes time to depict a local businessman and Pliny the Elder, among other characters.

For most of the book, there are several dramas unfolding. Attilius is anxious to find out why the water flow has been broken, but he can't resist poking around and trying to find out where the former aquarious has vanished to. His questions draw the ire of a local businessman, who is an ex-slave and apparently the progenitor of John Gotti. Much of the action takes place in Pompeii, and Harris paints a detailed picture of it, rendering a breathing city. What is eerie is that while I read about the half-finished baths and the graffiti on the walls, I know in the back of my head that these details have been preserved by the lava. All of the characters know that something is going to happen: they can smell sulfur, hear the rumbles of the Earth.

Although a friend of mine who enjoys Harris as much as I prefers Imperium over this, I am not so sure. While set in the same general time period as Imperium and being about more anonymous characters, it has an interesting quality all of its own. It read very well until after the actual eruption: it is more difficult to render the devastating eruption of a volcano than it is what passed before. I can't really picture what it was like in my head. I enjoyed the book immensely. Harris has earned my devotion, and I will read the other two books he has published.

To end, a picture from Civilization III that I took many months ago. I titled it "Tempting Fate".

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Evolution for Everyone

Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives
© 2007 David Sloan Wilson
390 pages

It's more difficult to look for science books on an online catalouge than any other, partially because I can't access the book to see how readable it is. Consequently I don't order many online and those I do tend to fall into the same category. As it happens, books on evolution are easy to come by. The author -- who, as it turns out is not related to E.O. Wilson -- begins the book by stating three things: one, science and religion are not necessarily foes; two, that the principles of evolution are actually easy to understand; and three, that those principles can be used to understand life in far broader ways than just biology.

I agree with the author that evolutionary principles are easy to understand: I am wholly self-taught in that field, gaining my literacy by reading library books. He does a good job of explaining them, and then suceeds (I think) in justifying his assertion that evolutionary principles can be applied on a broader context. The rest of the book, save the conclusion, uses evolutionary princples to address a number of issues: just a few are beauty, cooperation, ecology, religion, and egalitarianism. One of the examples he used that sticks in my mind is that of morning sickness. While we think of morning sickness as an abberant state that should be "cured", Wilson begins with evolution: if morning sickness can exist, there must be a reason why susceptibily to it is part of the human genome. He then writes on an exploration of the subject and reveals that "morning sickness" is the body rejecting foods with elements that adult bodies can tolerate but that could kill babies. He then establishes a correlation between mothers who had morning sickness and the health of their babies and ends by pointing out that miscarriages rise when anti-morning-sickness pills are consumed in a population.

The book is very readable, quite informative, and interesting.