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.

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