Monday, April 13, 2009

This Week at the Library (13-4)

Books this Update:
  • Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh
  • Arms of Nemesis, Steven Saylor
  • The Universe in a Single Atom, Tenzin Gyatso

This week's reading started off on a high note, with Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day, an account of how he spent six years spending time in a Chicago in the midst of a gang of drug traffickers, making their base the Robert Taylor housing projects. Although the book does serve to give the reader an idea of what life is like for gang members, it isn't really a work of voyeurism. It reflects his dissertation in that it does show how impoverished people are struggling and adapting themselves to their situation. In a place where the federal government doesn't exist and the city government is negligent when not impotent, people make due with what they've got, leading people to make what an outsider would see as morally questionable choices. I found myself both sympathizing with and slightly put-off by some of the people who emerged. At the same time Venkatesh is writing about this community in the projects, he also labors to connect it with the greater context of the late 20th century and especially the early 1990s. It was a very readable book.

Next I read Steven Saylor's Arms of Nemesis, another mystery novel set in ancient Rome starring the classical detective Gordianus the Finder. After being pulled out of bed in the middle of the night and offered enormous amounts of money to take a job, he finds himself on a ship leaving Rome and headed for the "Cup" of Italy, where all the patricians keep their villas. One particular patrician, Marcus Crassus, has recently lost a family member: his brother, who manages one of his estates, has gotten himself killed. Two slaves have also vanished, and a message on the floor near the fallen body implies that they have revolted and run off to join Spartacus. Crassus, who wants the Senate to grant him an army to destroy Spartacus with, declares that in five days his remaining slaves in the villa will be put to death if Gordianus does not find that they are innocent. Gordianus soon realizes that Crassus neither expects nor wants the slaves to be vindicated: he is in fact disturbingly anticipating the opportunity to show how tough he is by putting them to the death. When Gordianus finds hidden piles of weapons and gold in the villa's port, he begins to suspect that something larger is happening -- and it may be large enough to get Gordianus himself killed. The book was quite enjoyable, more so than Roman Blood in my opinion.

Lastly, I read the Dalai Lama's The Univere in a Single Atom, in which he attempts to connect Buddhist ideas like "emptiness" and "the beginningless universe" to quantum theory and the big bang. He also reflects on Buddhist and scientific ideas concerning consciousness and writes about possible problems with genetic engineering. The chapters on consciousness were interesting, but overall I could have given the book a pass.

I almost finished with Persian Fire, but my busy schedule -- tests and papers -- stopped me from that.

Pick of the Week: Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh

Quotation of the Week: "Decapitation has a way of making even the most powerful men irrelevent." - Steven Saylor, commenting on Crassus' eventual fate in his epilogue.

Potentials for Next Week:
  • Persian Fire, Tom Holland. I'll finish the last fifty pages or so.
  • The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu, Henry Wei
  • Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade: the Americas Before Columbus, Brian Fagan
  • Shattered Mirror, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
  • Embroidered Textiles (I thought this would be a book on world religions for some reason.)
  • The Moscow Option, David Downing

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