Monday, April 20, 2009

This Week at the Library (20/2)

Books this Update:
  • Persian Fire, Tom Holland
  • Shattered Mirror, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
  • Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade, Brian Fagan
  • The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu, Henry Wei
  • The Moscow Option, David Downing

Although I read most of Persian Fire last week, I didn't quite finish it before my weekly trip to the library. Tom Holland writes on the development of the Persian Empire and its extended period of conflict with the Greek powers of Athens and Sparta. He employs the same narrative approach he used in Rubicon, much to my enjoyment -- I prefer my history written as a story. The book is quite thorough, and I think Holland does a good job of not only writing about the material causes of the war and the political development of the various powers, but gives the reader an impression of how these people so far removed from us thought. One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that Holland frames the war from the Persian perspective as a religious conflict between those who serve Truth and those who serve lies.

Next I returned to Amelia Atwater-Rhodes' fiction in Shattered Mirror, the third of her books and one set in the same universe as In the Forests of the Night and Demon in my View. While the protagonists of the former books were respectively a vampire and a human, this book (written from the third person point of view) focuses on Sarah Vida, a young witch. Her family and kind serve to protect humanity from the vampires who prey on them -- but Vida's moral and familiar obligations come into question when she accidentally befriends two pacifistic vampires. I enjoyed the book -- perhaps more than Demon in my View -- but it seemed quite busy after the half-way point. There are more principle characters involved here.

Brian Fagan's Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade was next, in which I read about many various cultures of the Americas before Columbus. Although I had expected to read about the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca, Fagan's approach is more broad: he writes on those three, but he also dwells with small tribes living in South America's desert and everywhere else -- from Inuit to Moundville people in Alabama. He writes on societal structure, religion, history, and agriculture. The last topic also constitutes the bulk of his last chapter, in which Fagan explores the agricultural and medicinal contributions of the Americans to the Europeans who vanquished them. The book is quite well written and enjoyably illustrated by hundreds of photographs.

Next I moved from history to religion and read Henry Wei's The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu, a book written on the Tao Teh Ching, the basis of Taoism and written by Lao Tzu. The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Wei introduces the reader to Taoism and writes on specific topics within Taoism, such as the possibility of the afterlife and the benefits of meditation (including time travel). The Tao Teh Ching itself is reproduced in the second part of the book, with commentary from Wei. The book's organizational scheme works well: thanks to Wei's interpretive essays in the first section, I was not as confused by the Tao Teh Ching's more mystical passages. I've not read enough about Taoism to say if this book is apt: it was fairly enjoyable to read, for whatever that is worth.

Lastly, I read The Moscow Option, on loan to me from a coworker. The book is alternative history, although it does not present a "Nazi victory" scenario: when the book closes, the war is still on-going. Author David Downing focuses rather on how the war would have proceeded differently had two little things been changed, changing both the War in the Pacific and Hitler's invasion of Russia. The book begins with the Russian campaign, hence the "Moscow option". Some reviewers at Amazon took offense to how the campaign is presented in the book, but the day people aren't arguing on the Internet is the day there is no Internet. I don't know enough about the "orders of battle" to comment on the historicity of most of the book: what was written seemed to be plausible. The style of the book is a different story: at times it seemed like a popular history book from an alternate universe, and at times it seemed like a military report. Sometimes the author invents fictional characters and has us see what is happening through their eyes, but they never linger long and are mostly forgotten by the time the reader has moved on. Although it's not a crime for history books to not be written in narrative form, I thought the writing -- more so in some parts than in others -- was choppy. Sentences that should have been tied together were left alone, and some that were stuck together were not done so well. It's as if the editor read over those passages and forgot to change them.

Pick of the Week: None of the books I read this week demand special recognition (as some do), but I could be pressed into recommending either Persian Fire or Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade.

Next Week:
  • The House of the Vestals, Steven Saylor. This is a collection of short stories written under his Roma sub Rosa series and featuring Gordianus, ancient Rome's private eye.
  • Out of my Life and Thought, Albert Schweitzer. This is one of the books I saw mentioned in The Book that Changed my Life.
  • A People's History of American Empire: A Graphic Adaption, Howard Zinn.
  • Abounding Grace: An Anthology of Wisdom, ed. M. Scott Peck.
  • The Associate, John Grisham. I'm finally getting around to reading his latest, which I received for Easter a few weeks back.

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