Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A People's History of the American Revolution

A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence
© 2001 Ray Ralphael
386 pages

I look for some books, and some books happen to find me. This is one of the latter, as I spotted its title while meandering aimlessly through my library's shelves. (I do this a lot because it's a good way to bump into unexpected books.) As you might guess by the title, it's associated with Howard Zinn's A People's History series, although not written by him. The book reads as less politically controversial than Zinn's books, meaning that even bellowing BillO' would have to work at growing truly angry. Although this is a history of the American Revolution, it is not a military history. The course of the war is discussed, but only in relation to the declining or -- very rarely -- increasing fortunes of the common people that the book takes its title from. Separate sections concern the growing civil unrest among colonials in the pre-Revolution years, the plight of the common soldier, the changing and increasing demands on women*, native Americans, the "ideologically unsound" loyalists and pacifists, and finally freed and enslaved involuntary African emigrants, also known primly in the book as "people of color". (The section title is "African Americans", but I found the repeated "of color" reference humorously anachronistic.)

The book is written very neatly: author Ray Raphael ends every chapter with a summary to die every he's said so far together, and the final chapter of the book is a summary of the whole, with conclusions being drawn from said summary. Each section aside from the final one examines the role of its specific group within the context of the Anglo-American conflict, beginning shortly after the end of the Seven Years' War. What develops, as you might imagine, is a history of the conflict told from the "rabble's" point of view. What I didn't realize was that they're already in the history books -- they just aren't mentioned. The attendees at the Boston Tea Party were not John Adams and Thomas Paine, but roughneck cobblers and the like. Raphael gives the American Revolution a depth I've never seen before, beyond the occasional paragraph in a school textbook that might mention spinning bees or Crispus Attucks. The first section of the book, which deals with civil unrest (by which I mean "pandemonium"), was especially interesting reading for me. The history I've read depicts riots that led to the Boston Massacre as accidental and oddly consequential, but according to Raphael, it was just one in a series of confrontations between put-upon people and whoever got in their way. His section on Native Americans is similarly strong.

What I like about the book is that Raphael doesn't get very romantic -- and I wonder if he could, what with some of the people had to deal with, men who burned down people's homes to make a political point. Even George Washington, he who is more legend than man, is shown losing his cool and taking a random Loyalist citizen hostage if the murderers of rebel/patriot sympathizer do not step forward. (He is then shown to regret what he did. Bound by a code of honor, Washington can't kill the boy and can't let him go of his own accord: fortunately, Congress "officially" orders the hostage's release.) This is not a "times were tough, but the good common folk prevailed and everyone lived comfortably well off" story: times were miserable, they got a lot worse, and then they went back to miserable -- only this time with war-related poverty and death.

The glorious fourth -- again appears
A Day of Days -- and year of years,
The sum of sad disasters,
Where all the mighty gains we see
With all their boasted liberty
Is only a Change of Masters.

The above appears in the diary of a woman named Hannah Griffitts, writing in 1785. That's not the only piece of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" observation made by people writing at the time, but it is the shortest. I think the book has enough meat in it to give anyone room for thought. It's nicely written, has convenient summaries, and adds a great deal of context to a pivotal moment in western history. This book reminds me that important moments in history like this -- and I consider them important just for the Constitution, while making the way easier for those of us who follow, did nothing for the people who made them happen. That good fortune often has to be created by misery is another indicator to me that the laws of the universe were not created with us in mind.

Related Reading:
  • Jeff Shaara's Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause, historical "fiction" novels that tell the story of the political divide and war from the viewpoint of soldiers and generals. I mention it here because Shaara seems to draw from some of the same sources as Raphael. What they both agree on is that the generals of the Continental Army liked to complain about the militia's uselessness as a fighting force.

*There's one thing every woman's missed in Massachusetts Bay/ Don't smirk at me, you egotist; pay Heed to what I say / We've gone from Framingham to Boston /And we cannot find a pin / "Don't you know there's a war on?" / Say the tradesmen with a grin / Well, we will not make saltpeter Until you send us pins!"

On a final note -- and solely for your and my amusement -- when I was a kid and had only heard of the "Boston Tea Party" as having something to do with the Revolution, my mental image was of the Founding Fathers sitting at a table with British officals drinking tea and yelling at one another, leaving at some point to go start the revolution. When I saw a picture of Indians throwing tea chests off of a ship in my history book, I was confused.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Why Evolution is True

Why Evolution is True
© 2009 Jerry A. Coyne
282 pages

Evolution is actually one of my favorite science topics to read about. Back in high school, I was a young-earth creationist who wore Kent Hovind tapes out while shaking my head in self-righteous disbelief at the incompetent-when-not-evil Evolutionists. Obviously, things change. My defense of creationism was a defense of my then-identity as a fundamentalist Pentecostal, and when that identity vanished so did my fixed determination to defend Genesis. Once I began to accept the facts of evolution, I found a renewed joy in science: evolution seems to knit the world together("...beyond any untying"*), and it informs my approach to any field of study that involves humanity. It is an immensely enjoyable theory. This year may be called the "Year of Evolution" owing to it being the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Given that, I have read and will most likely read more in the field of evolution this year. (I've read Evolution for Everyone and The Reluctant Mr. Darwin so far).

What this is is a very straightforward accounting of why the theory of evolution is regarded as and used as fact by virtually every biologist save Liberty University's gardening staff. Coyne begins by explaining the six principles (which Coyne untactfully calls tenets: the word has an unfortunate religious or ideological connotation) of evolution, and then makes predictions based on those principles for what we should see in the natural world. The chapters that follow show that we do see these things: separate chapters cover the fossil record, the geographical distribution of life, and the existence of vestigial organs and what would otherwise be bad design. After setting out the evidence, he then spends a few chapters detailing how exactly evolution works, including a look at speciation. The last chapter of the book proper is an examination of human evolution. The book is finally completed with Coyne addressing the question of why evolution is so controversial. He comments that no one lies awake at night pondering the arguments for and against evolution: they like awake at night worrying about social problems. The reason people resist evolution, he says, is because they have some emotional attachment to it not being true. Acceptance of evolution will come not when the fossils and DNA have convinced people, but when they no longer fear it being true. He ends the book on the note of trying to address people's fears about morality and the value of human life and so forth.

This is a very tidy book: Coyne makes his case simply and does not bore the reader with page after page of arguments and examples. I think the ideal reader for this book is someone who doesn't know what the arguments for evolution. If you are looking for a book to serve as reliable ammunition against creationist, I would suggest looking at Eugenie Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism. Coyne's book, however readable and well-done, doesn't have the page after page of examples, arguments, and counter-arguments that thicker books have. The only attack he does make on creationism is the rather oblique look at examples of what would be "bad design" if it were deliberate design This is a definite recommendation to anyone who wants a refresher or introduction to evolution.

Related Reading:
* The quote is from the Star Trek episode "Who Mourns for Adonais", in which Captain Kirk convinces one of his crew to leave the Greek god Apollo and return to the ship. Full quotation:

Give me your hand ... your hand! Now feel that: Human flesh against human flesh. We're the same. We share the same history, the same heritage, the same lives. We're tied together beyond any untying. Man or woman, it makes no difference, we're human. We couldn't escape from each other even if we wanted to. That's how you do it, Lieutenant. By remembering who and what you are: a bit of flesh and blood afloat in a universe without end. And the only thing that's truly yours is the rest of humanity. That's where our duty lies. Do you understand me?

Socrates Café

Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy
© Christopher Phillips, 2001
241 pages

Although I have never taken a single philosophy class, I consider myself a student of philosophy. I discovered it in the autumn of 2006 after a friend asked me to listen to a Christian apologist named Ravi Zacharias. Listening to Zacharias, I found myself in the novel position of really thinking about life in a serious way. In an attempt to deal with his arguments, I would often write about the topic at hand. The result of this process was that I found myself thinking about everything, turning that principle of freethought (of which I approved) into practice for myself. Philosophy became all the more interesting when I realized through the works of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus that it could be put into practice -- could be lived. One YouTube account, "PhilosophicalMedia", contains a few episodes of a show in which the host tries to look at philosophers whose work involved a different way of thinking about life, or a different way of living. The videos have such titles as "Seneca on Anger" and "Epicurus on Happiness". One of the videos is on Socrates, and at one point in the video the host puts the Socratic method into practice by going out into the streets and badgering people with questions.

I like to see people grapple with philosophical questions: it seems to me that we are at our most human when we are engaged in philosophical inquiry. When I spotted this book in the library catalogue and skimmed through its description, I immediately became excited because it seemed as if this book would take philosophy to the streets. As it turns out, that is not quite the case -- but I was so interested in what the book actually was that I didn't realize that book wasn't what I had expected until hours after I finished it. Christopher Philips does take philosophy to people -- he just does it in a more civilized way than Socrates himself. The book is his account of hosting hundreds of "Socrates Cafés" in which people voluntarily gather to ask questions -- and discuss those questions. At first, these meeting sessions are held in actual cafes, but the author will host them in prisons, nursing homes, libraries, and schoolrooms. Each session starts out with Phillips asking people to submit a question: once someone comes forward, people begin discussing that question and asking questions about the question until hours have passed and people have immersed themselves in philosophical inquiry. The people who come are not just curious or philosophically-minded adults: some are children, and at one point Philips hosts a meeting that consists only of children and senior citizens. Through the course of the book, Phillips and his congregants discuss love, friendship, age, emotions, and all manner of things until the book ends with two questions on metaphysics.

What surprised Phillips was how meaningful philosophy and the cafes became to people. Although it is clear that Phillips has hosted hundreds of these events all around the country, he apparantly invested a lot of time in one or two of the groups, developing deep friendships and even falling in love with and marrying one of his fellow "Socratics". From what Phillips has written, the discussion groups create a lot of intellectual and emotional intimacy between people, and they regard the weekly sessions as vital, finding in them religious communion even though religion is never discussed. What Phillips aims to do with these clubs and with this book is to foster a sense of philosophy in more people, seeing the decline of intellectual life -- intellectual life being actively thinking about things, rather than just knowing facts -- as detrimental to people's mental health and to society in general. The records of the cafes are tied together with thoughts by Phillips, who attempts to connect what he and his fellow Socratics are discussing with what other philosophers have discussed. Sometimes "cafe sessions" are linked with such an essay.

The book was a treat to read, although some of the discussions toward the end were too metaphysical in nature for me to follow enthusiastically. I confess that I may have enjoyed the book more for its concept than for the writing itself: the linking essays were sometimes unfruitful reading, and Phillips sometimes repeats himself. What I like most about this book is that it shows people grappling with questions, rather than giving up and accepting trite responses.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Age of American Unreason

The Age of American Unreason
© 2008 Susan Jacoby
356 pages

Oddly enough, I first heard of this book about a year ago when author Susan Jacoby was invited on Point of Inquiry to talk about it. I remember being intrigued at the time, although I didn't imagine I would be able to access it anytime soon: my local libraries are not replete with books on skepticism or related issues. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to accidentally stumble upon The Age of American Unreason in my local library's web catalogue a month or so back. (I've been forgetting to check it out for a while, obviously.) The book is a general history of anti-intellectual movements as well as movements that profit from ignorance in the United States and an examination of those movements' causes -- including repeated looks at post-Nixon American culture. When I think of anti-intellectual movements, I think of Creationists versus Biologists -- but Jacoby's range is far broader than that. In the book's three hundred pages, Jacoby will look at America's treatment of intellectualism in its opening decades, criticize Social Darwinism, Communism, middlebrow culture, narratives of the 1960s, celebrity cults, fundamentalism, ideology both old and new, and contemporary American culture ("the culture of distraction"). What emerges is an explanation for why the United States has the anti-intellectual culture that it has now, drawing on the history of intellectual and anti-intellectual movements in the United States and an analysis of their consequences.

There's a lot going on this book, but I never found Jacoby's presentation of her material to be either limited, confusing, or overwhelming. She's a professional author who knows how to present her case. It reminds me a lot of Neil Postman, especially as television and the Internet enter her narrative. She is a cultural conservative in the style of Postman as she defends the intellectual potency of print culture against the kind of culture that constant television and Internet access generate. Media-driven culture is in her opinion one of the major contributors to a general culture of ignorance -- along with, of course, religious fundamentalism. I think Jacoby argues fairly well: she looks to try to emulate intellectuals from ages past in giving opposing opinions a voice in her narrative. As I read any book, I engage it and attempt to play the devil's advocate. There were some stretches here, but overall I think she builds her case well --- there ought to be enough in here to give everyone something to think about. Those who are not Americans need not be excluded: the US appears to be contagious. It's an informative and easy-to-follow read and a definite recommendation.

"Is it possible that American voters have learned something about the consequences of choosing an intellectually challenged chief executive on the basis of a beer test? [...] The most active candidates for the presidential nomination in both parties over the past year cannot be accused of being dumb. [...] Each of them pronounces the word "nuclear" correctly. It is a safe bet that all of them read newspapers and that none of them waits for a staff briefing each day in order to avoid being exposed to "opinions" from the outside world. It remains to be seen, as the campaign heats up and comes down to the final two, whether "elitism" will resurface as a political negative. One wonders whether any candidate, instead of trying to prove that he or she is just one of the folks, would dare to tell voters that what the nation needs not an ordinary but an extra ordinary president as president and that one crucial qualification for the nation's highest office is the intellectual ability to distinguish, in times of crisis and on a daily basis,. between worthwhile and worthless opinions."
- page 287. Emphasis added by me.

Related Reading:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

This Week at the Library (24/6)

Books this Update:
  • Jesus, Deepak Chopra
  • Bagombo Snuff Box, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller
  • Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, Stephen Hawking
  • Medical Firsts, Robert Adler

I started the week off on a fictional note with Deepak Chopra's Jesus. I read a book about Jesus by Chopra last week and didn't like it much, so I suppose it's a little strange that I checked out another. What made me do it, though, was that this was a novel -- and I thought it would tell the story of the Christian gospels from Jesus' point of view. It isn't quite what I expected. Chopra decides to focus on Jesus' journey to enlightenment during his twenties. Because there is no evidence documenting what his life was like during that time, Chopra instead uses what he refers to as a template of enlightenment -- a path that all who have realized "god-consciousness" have followed. Unfortunately, the novel never really grows from that point: it doesn't read like a real human story, it reads like some kind of spiritual Mad-Libs. Although this is set in a historical setting, that setting has no influence on the story: this book could have been written in modern-day Croatia. The characterization of Jesus seems forced after a while. I think people who find Jesus interesting and who are not attached to a particular interpretation of his life will probably find something to enjoy here, but without that I think the novel would fail to hold people's interest.

Whenever I have a book of essays or short stories, I don't read them all in one go but choose to enjoy them throughout the week instead, so the order that I comment on them may be slightly out of order from the order in which they were read. Throughout the week I read from Kurt Vonnegut's Bagombo Snuff Box, a collection of his earliest (pre-1953) work. There are over a dozen short stories here, all terribly interesting and most making sly criticisms of the culture. The settings vary: some are set during the Depression and some are set during the space age, but most of them are confined to the late forties and very early fifties. The book ends with a commentary by Vonnegut on his time as a contributor to short-story magazines. The book is a must-read for Vonnegut fans, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to people who enjoy reading in general.

Blue Like Jazz was probably the most interesting book this week, being the story of one man's life and his relationship with Christianity in various forms. The book is not organized beyond topical chapters: it seems to have been written free-form, and Miller goes from thought to thought in a way that's lively, but not distracting. Although his writing style is somewhat whimsical, he does talk about serious issues of life and I think he does so seriously. My thoughts about the book changed from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to paragraph -- Miller can be frustrating, mystical, uplifting, and funny all at the same time, and I find it hard to really get my head around the book. I can't say who I'd recommend it to: it was overall a fun and sometimes thoughtful read, but it's unpredictable and so is the way people are liable to respond to it.

Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays by Stephen Hawking is much more straightforward. The book is a collection of essays, some on personal topics and some on scientific topics -- beginning with the one and working its way forward to the other. I find it hard to be thrilled about black holes and quantum theory --which the science essays are generally about, but Hawkings isn't dull. The book ends with a transcript of Hawkings "Desert Island Discs" interview, in which he is grilled on various topics while playing the eight songs he would bring with him to listen to on a deserted island.

Lastly, I read the quite enjoyable Medical Firsts by Robert Adler. I've read Adler before -- last March, when I read his related Science Firsts. Medical Firsts contains a dozen chapters on innovative ideas and practices in medicine, all very readable and well-composed. The book is a good read about the history of medical science for even casual readers.

Pick of the Week: Bagombo Snuff Box, Kurt Vonnegut. This is easily my favorite short story collection of Vonnegut's.

Quotation of the Week: "All men are created equal, endowed with reason sufficient to manage their own affairs and even to get to the heart of abstract and philosophical matters. The miracles attributed to the greatest prophets and religious leaders are tricks, no more real than the illusions of street-corner fakirs. People do not need rules handed down and enforced from one high to form orderly societies. In contrast, blind belief in the absolute truths of religions inspires fanaticism and hatred. All authorities and accepted knowledge need to be questioned. Each generation has the opportunity to move science forward through new observations and experimentation and because of such progress, society itself often advances." - Abu Bakr al-Razi, as quoted-in-paraphrase in Medical Firsts. Razi died in Iran in the 900s.

Next Week:
  • The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby.
  • Why Evolution is True, Jerry A. Coyne
  • Socrates Cafe, Christopher Phillips
  • A People's History of the American Revolution, Ray Ralphael
  • (and perhaps) The Earl, Cecelia Holland.

Medical Firsts

Medical Firsts: From Hippocrates to the Human Genome
© 2004 Robert Adler
232 pages

A little over a year ago, I read Science Firsts, a fairly enjoyable book that prepared me well for a summer focusing on the history of science and was pick of the week in its time. I wanted to read more from the author, but I had no access to this book, which is identical in approach and different in topic. Like Science Firsts, this book consists of a dozen chapters, each written on a particular innovation or novel approach in the field. The ideas are varied: the first chapter concerns Hippocrates' patient-centered approach to medicine, another addresses the discovery of viral diseases, another is on the development of the Pill, and so on. Most of the innovations have a specific thinker attached, and so most of the book reads like Profiles in Medical History. The later chapters -- concerning topics like the worldwide coordinated effort to destroy smallpox and the human genome project -- focus more on the thing itself rather than the person driving the change. The personality-centered theme of the book isn't necessarily a weakness: these men and women are worth honoring. (I don't think I'd ever heard of Abu Bakr Al-Razi, but I'm glad I have now. According to Adler, he was a man of the Enlightenment before his time.) The chapters read well: I don't think you have to be scientifically literate to enjoy them and learn something, and indeed I think the book is aimed for more casual readers.

Related Books:

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Blue Like Jazz

Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality
© 2003 Donald Miller
243 pages

In addition to my comparative religion and philosophy studies, I'm also trying to get a handle on why one religion in specific -- Christianity -- matters so much to people. I can appreciate Christianity just fine when people approach Jesus as a moral teacher, but when they start gushing about his dying for them, I'm lost. I don't see the appeal. Christian theology on this point seems to me to be utterly arbitrary: "Okay, there was this one time when this guy named Adam disobeyed God, and got all of his relatives utterly cursed with this thing called sin. It separates us from God. But then, thousands of years later, God made a little love-child with a human and this guy let himself be killed so that you can live free of sin." And I blink. If you tell me that the guys who died in Vietnam died for my right to vote, I'll disagree but know where you're coming from. But this sin thing? It's arbitrary. You have to force belief onto a series of statements: one, that everyone is doomed to be a bad guy: two, that this is because of some taint called sin: three, that this sin can be dealt with by killing innocent beings: and that four, that Jesus was utterly innocent and was thus the ultimate sacrifice and his willing death ended sin's power over people. I cannot force belief. I cannot make myself believe in arbitrary things even if I want to -- and in this case, I certainly don't want to. Now, if Christianity actually freed people from sin, this might give some credence to what they're saying -- but as far as I can tell, in all the lives I've observed first-hand and read about, in all the various approaches and interpretations, people who believe in Christ's power over sin and who believe they are personally filled with his spirit still do bad things. Where's the power? In the religion I was raised in, getting the "holy ghost" meant that you had this source of living sin-free inside you, that if you worked at it you could live a perfect life -- but only through work. None of the forced beliefs made sense to me, and I was really concerned about the whole "most everyone is going to be tortured in a fiery pit forever" thing, so I said screw it and left organized religion. That's when I realized I could change my life myself -- so I became a self-empowered humanist and I've flourished ever since. But -- in the past year I've found myself being able to get inside the minds of religious people and see what we have in common, and why we're different, and I'm curious to see if I can get inside the head of a Saviour-Christ-believing Christian to understand. That's what brings me to Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.

Its title is a prelude to the things that come: it's confusing. Author Donald Miller isn't actually nonreligious. He's nondenominational, which means that he has his own fundamentalist but fluid grasp on Christianity. The book is the story of his life, arranged topically and written in a manner that seems freeform. Although I've read "stream of consciousness"-type literature before and disliked it, I liked this: his writing style seemed to be quirky, fun, and lively. It's like you're listening to this guy talk to you, and he's just leaning back against the wall in a cafe or restaurant and chatting about whatever comes to his mind -- with some topical restrictions. He has spent his entire life grappling with what Christianity means to him, and the book is at times frustrating, insightful, muddled, mystical, uplifting, and funny. I suppose it's like people: there are few people who you or I can say we like everything about. This book is that way, because it's a look inside his head -- and sometimes I liked what I saw there, and sometimes I didn't. I despaired for him when he inflicted dogma on himself -- fretting about having sex or drinking beer or not reading the Bible -- and I was utterly confused when he started gushing about Jesus fixing his "Sin nature" -- but there were times when I'd laugh or sit back with a smile because he'd made me laugh. I can't understand the idea of having a personal relationship with a metaphysical being, but I do get thinking about values, and I do understand his thoughts about dealing with difficult people, because that's something I think a lot about. Do I recommend the book to you? I don't know, because I can't get a firm handle on how I feel about the book. I know I like reading what other people have to say about it: I know this is the kind of book I'd like to hear people discuss and argue over, because it is a book about life and dealing with the meaning of it. What Miller says, you might not like -- but then again you may. Both conservative Christians and former-Christians-turned-skeptic who I've read from dislike the book, and they both despair over its popularity among young Christian evangelicals. One of their particular beefs is that Miller doesn't take Christianity seriously enough, but I disagree. His youth group doesn't get together to have pizza -- they go serve soup at homeless shelters. They try to live their lives with love, which I think is admirable, because it's easy to talk about but hard to do. In this line of thought they criticize him for hand-waving away logical arguments against Christian dogma: as he says, the intellectual arguments about Christianity ceased to be about God a long time ago, so he doesn't bother. While I understand why someone would think that wrong, I also suspect that religions are to the spiritual more about inspiration -- not truth. Miller's book is very much open to interpretation, I think.

Click here for a google search including the skeptical and conservative Christian viewpoints I mentioned earlier. I read the first, third, and fourth entries.

Black Holes and Baby Universes

Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays
© 1993 Stephen Hawking
182 pages

Well, this is one book that recquires very little explaination. It's a book of essays written by Stephen Hawking, most of them being on scientific topics. The beginning essays are biographical, and they work their way up to being chiefly science related: after a couple of essays about his life, he writes an essay on A Brief History of Time, which he calls "A Brief History of A Brief History". From this point, Hawking moves on to theortical physics -- black holes, quantum mechanics, free will vs. determinism, that kind of thing. After his final science essay (this one on the future of the universe, or rather potential futures), he ends the book with a transcript of an interview, the "Desert Island Discs" BBC interview. This is or was a hallmark program of the BBC, in which famous people were asked to bring eight records that they might bring with them if they were to be marooned on a desert island. The standard interview -- covering topics in line with the theme of this book, namely his life and work -- is periodically interupted by the reporter asking Hawkings to play one of his records in order. The interview ends with Hawkings being asked to choose a favorite among the records, and to talk about what book and luxury item he would plan on bringing. For those who are curious:
  1. Gloria, Poulenc
  2. Brahms Violin Concerto
  3. Beethoven's String Quartet, Opus 132
  4. The Valkyrie, act one
  5. "Please Please Me", the Beatles
  6. Requiem, Mozart
  7. Turandot, Puccini
  8. "Je Ne Regrette Rien", Edith Piaf
His book is Middlemarch by George Eliot, and his luxury item a large supply of crème brûlée. The book is written in Hawkings' usual way, although it lacks his fondness for illustrations. The science may be dated by this point, but it's probably still a good read for Hawkings fans.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bagombo Snuff Box

Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Fiction
© 1999 Kurt Vonnegut
295 pages

For some reason, I enjoy reading Kurt Vonnegut. I find his novels and most of the short stories I've read of his hard to follow, but I enjoy them still. I was delighted to find this book a collection of very readable short stories -- twenty-two, in fact, with an introduction by Vonnegut and a "Coda to my Career as a Writer for Periodicals" serving as literary bookends. He refers to them as a collection of "Buddhist catnaps". The stories seem to be of his early works (pre-1953), and their settings are diverse. One takes place in Czechoslovaka as the war ends, while most seem to be set in immediate or early post-WW2 America. There is at least one speculative fiction story covering the otherworldly results from the US military's attempt to put an intelligence operative into Earth orbit. Interestingly, three of the stories involve the same character -- a high-school band teacher whose obsession with winning every band competition he can provides fuel for conflict. There are a lot of interesting stories here --what happens a brutal Godfather-type character who pretends to be Santa Claus is one of them. Most of the stories seem to be sly commentary about some issue or another, but even without this they would be quite enjoyable. If you can find it, do give it a try.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment
© 2008 Deepak Chopra
273 pages

Yesterday I wandered about in my library's fiction section with the intention of letting something capture my eye. This "when the reader is ready, the book will come" approach didn't seem to be working, so I decided to find a book by Michael Crichton. He's been recommended to me before, but I've never read him before. Because I did not know how his last name was spelled -- thinking it had an "H" -- I found myself looking at the wrong bookshelves altogether, but while I looked my eyes saw the title Jesus. "Hmm", I thought, "Interesting." The full title was Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment. It was by Chopra, which gave me pause, but I opened it up to see Judas fretting about Romans looking for Jesus. "Ooh," I thought, "The story of the gospels related in novel form? I'll give it a go."

That is not quite the case. Chopra introduces the book by writing that we know little of Jesus' life between his birth and the beginnings of his time as a teacher, aside from one odd story about him getting separated from his family and teaching the rabbis in a local synagogue. Chopra therefore decided that someone should try to tell the story. Because we have no evidence from which to work, Chopra decided to use an "archetypal pattern" of people who have found enlightenment: I assume this is something along the lines of Campbell's "hero's journey" archetype. This may be the reason the story seems to lack historical depth or texture: although this is technically historical fiction, it's incredibly shallow in that you could write the same book but just change the name of the Romans to another villain, and the name of the Jews to the name of another downtrodden people. George Lucas used a pattern, but he made the developing story his own: that doesn't happen here.

As mentioned, the book is not a novel form of the gospels: it concerns Jesus as he was in his twenties, as a troubled and intuitive youth who feels compelled to search for answers to the meaning of suffering. This will set him on a somewhat brief journey to find answers, and he finally does in a range of snow-covered mountains when he encounters an old mystic who both introduces and ends the story. He does encounter two NT personalities who accompany him part of the way, namely Judas and Mary Magdalene. Chopra seems to be drawing on the Gospel of Judas when writing the ending, although he does paint Mary as a prostitute. My only knowledge about that subject is that one character in The Da Vinci Code called it a deceitful fabrication.

Previously I said that the book's plot is shallow, with no historical context to ground it. I think the same is true of Jesus: he appears to be a character with dimensions at the start, but about two-fifths of the way in, Chopra suddenly replaces him with a Jesus who says things that are seemingly out of character: it's like the author directly started making him say things instead of letting the character develop on his own. The character is used to say the same things Chopra said in The Third Jesus, which isn't that surprising but still seems muddled. What I can say positively about the book is that the "visions" were well done: I was very wary at first, but Chopra did them in a way that was not intrusive and even believable.

I can't say I would recommend this to someone looking for a gripping story, but if people find the titular character interesting, they will probably be able to enjoy this to some degree.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

This Week at the Library (17/6)

Books this Update
  • Third Degree, Greg Iles
  • Turning Angel, Greg Iles
  • God's Problem, Brad Ehrman
  • The Third Jesus, Deepak Chopra
  • Further Along the Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck
  • Sleep No More, Greg Iles
  • Boss of Bosses, Joseph O'Brien and Andris Kurins

Given that Greg Iles' books make up half of this week's reading -- more if you consider page numbers -- I'm going to break from format and deal with them all at once. I didn't intend to read three of his thrillers in a single week, but circumstances made it possible and a little inevitable. The three Iles books are alike in that each are southern gothic thrillers -- genuine page-turners. There's a reason I was able to go through them so quickly, and that is that they are so damned readable. When I begin reading Iles, I can't really put the book down even when I'm growing tired of him -- as was the case at the ends of books two and three when I realized I was reading too much of Iles at once. Two of the books -- Turning Angel and Sleep No More -- are both set in the same setting as The Quiet Game, in the town of Natchez, Mississippi. They all have fairly unique plots, although my chief problem with both of the mentioned books is that they seem to have more sex in them than Playboy. The focus tends to shift away from the story and to fanfiction-style depictions of intimacy. Even so, each of the three plots fascinated me: in one, a suburban housewife is held a terrorized hostage in her own home , in another the death of a promising high schooler leads to the invasion of her town by Biloxi-based gangsters, and in the third a man is haunted by a woman who claims to be possessed by the spirit of his dead lover. Interesting stuff.

After the first two Iles thrillers, I read Bart Ehrman's God's Problem, in which he examines biblical attitudes toward suffering. He identifies four general attitudes, three of which are explanations and one of which is "don't bother, it's all a mystery". Ehrman is thorough, interesting, and fair. His focus on one of the explanations helped the whole of the New Testament make sense to me, as he explains in part how Judaism changed through its exposure to Babylonian and later Persian thinking.

Next I read a book by Deepak Chopra called The Third Jesus. I am trying to understand various approaches to interpreting the life of Jesus, as he has never formerly been a personality that particularly interested me -- despite growing up in a fundamentalist home. Chopra's book was of little help. His interpretation of Jesus is of a "Transcendental Teacher" who teaches God-consciousnesses. Chopra does not explain his terms, apparently leaving them to be understand on some mystical level. Despite dealing with scientific and historical topics, he footnotes nothing and his rebuttals of various arguments for and against traditional interpretations of Jesus (Jesus as enlightened rabbi and Jesus as God-in-flesh-come-to-save-all-humankind) are almost nonexistent. The book was confusing, sloppy, and uninteresting to me.

Returning to Scott Peck was an enjoyable change from trying to read Chopra. Peck was a retired psychiatrist who attempted in his books to approach spirituality from that angle, seeing spirituality and psychiatry as interrelated disciplines. My own approach to spirituality is naturalistic, which is why I appreciate the psychological angle -- even though Peck views psychiatry and psychology as supernatural disciplines, given that their object of study is in his view a supernatural thing. What I like about Peck is that he looks at mental problems like depression, guilt, and anxiety from a "That doesn't have to be the case" perspective. Although he is most concerned with fixing these problems by examining their source and dealing with it, theoretically you could nip problems in the bud before they start overtaking your life. He deals with a lot of topics, and even though I don't agree with him on a lot of things, I find him provocative.

Lastly, I read Boss of Bosses, a memoir written by two FBI agents detailing the rise and fall of Paul Castellano, who is referred to by his men as both "The Godfather" and "The Pope". The book, written in the third person, tries to tell two stories at the same time: while its authors tell us of their initial investigations against Castellano, they often take breaks to inform us of his rise to power. Once this secondary story is finished, it renews itself in tracking his political fall. While the police investigation continues and a case is built up -- using a planted microphone to give the agents an ear inside Castellano's home -- the kingpin himself is becoming increasingly isolated from the world which he once dominated, infatuated by his Hispanic maid-turned-mistress and his "performance problems". When his career ends, it is not at the hands of the FBI agents who have come to respect his genteelness and who have sympathy for him, but at the hands of an ambitious young capo who sees Castellano as being a liability to the five families. The book tells an interesting story and offers a look into the thinking of the mob.

Pick of the Week: Third Degree, Greg Iles. The whole of its plot takes place in one day and the book is not marred by either excessive violence or sex. (There are both, but they don't dominate the book like they did the two other Iles books.)

Quotation of the Week: "We're not children here. The law is --how should I put it? A convenience. Or, a convenience for some people, and an inconvenience for other people. Like, take the law that says you can't go into a guy's house. I got a house, so hey -- I like that law. But the guy without a house, what's he think of it? 'Stay out in the rain, schnook!' That's what the law means to him." - Paul Castellano. This was one of my favorite quotations before reading the book, but its original source is apparently this book: Castellano utters those words to the authorial agents in their car after his arrest.

Next Week:
  • Jesus, Deepak Chopra. Given that I just read a book about Jesus by Deepak Chopra and disliked it, why am I reading another? Because this one is a novel.
  • Black Holes, Baby Universes, and Other Essays; Stephen Hawking
  • Medical Firsts, Robert Adler
  • Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, Donald Miller
  • Bagombo Snuff Box, Kurt Vonnegut

Boss of Bosses

Boss of Bosses -- the Fall of the Godfather: the FBI and Paul Castellano
© 1991 Joseph F. O'Brien and Andris Kurins
364 pages

A number of years ago I had a considerable interest in the Mafia, from an adolescent fascination with men of power and prestige and a less adolescent fascination with the darker side of human nature -- the corrupting effect of power, and what it can drive people to do. This is not an expired interest, but it is one that is typically latent. Still, it arises every so often, and it did so while I was going through my public library's discard bin in hopes of rescuing whatever science and history texts I could find. (I found none outside of Carl Sagan's now probably irrevelant book on nuclear winter.) The bin was full of parenting books with some exceptions -- like this, Boss of Bosses. The book is a memoir of sorts written by two FBI Agents who spent five years building a case against a real-world godfather, only to see their work rendered moot when the ambitious John Gotti decided to rid the "Five Families" of who they saw as a limiting liability.

The memoir is written in the third person, with emotional and intellectual context being given for both of the agents by themselves. The opening chapters go back and forth from the agents' attempts to build a case against Castellano (interviewing people whose lives Castellano's operations touch) to brief chapters that document Castellano's rise to power. The authors obviously feel something for their prey: they develop respect and even sympathy for him, and moreso once they are able to plant a bug in his home. They aren't cynical of their mission as government agents -- they do believe Castellano is a criminal whose time has come, but at the same time they recognize he's no hood. The character of Castellano that emerges from their book is of a gentlemanly rouge. He's a cut above men like John Gotti; he believes in the old "code of honor" that Mafiosos like Joseph Bonanno claim to have kept. Interestingly, the FBI agents seem to believe in this old code, as well -- or at least they believed it once existed in some form and that some men did keep it. Castellano, despite his attempts to legitimize the Mafia by shifting its interests to noncriminal enterprises, is depicted as a relic from days gone by.

The book has a lot to offer to anyone with any degree of interest in the Mafia: it's a history of one don's rise to power, a psychology of its members -- people so removed from their past that they have to rely on the script of The Godfather to give them answers to police questions -- and a story of how the FBI attempted to bring Castellano to justice, only to be thwarted by the "Pope's" political enemies. The book read well and I'd recommend it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sleep No More

Sleep No More
© 2002 Greg Iles
382 pages

Circumstances warranting my reading a third Greg Iles this book , which is a bit unusual. I have in times past read two books in one week by the same author, but I think reading multiple books by the same author in the same genre is a first. Iles makes it easy: his books are thrillers, genuine page turners. I can hammer through one in one day and not feel fatigued in the least. Sleep No More was the Iles book I'd intended to begin the week with, but my sister checked it out before I could and so I read Third Degree instead. As it happens, though, I'm babysitting for her and have her library books available for reading as well as mine.

Sleep No More is set in Natchez, Mississippi, as were The Quiet Game and Third Degree. Unlike the former Natchez books, however, this is not a first-person Penn Cage narrative. The book is written in the third person, and from the perspective of a husband and wife whose lives are thrown into confusion and chaos shortly after their daughter's victorious soccer game. Was it the underdog team winning that threw the universe into chaos? No. Instead, a woman named Eve Sumner walks by main character John Waters and whispers in his ear a phrase known only to him and his college love -- a woman whose passions consumed his life, in ways both good and bad. That was a love ended by her rape and death at the hands of unknown strangers in New Orleans.

Eve -- and through her his former love Mallory -- begin to haunt John. When he confronts Eve about the mystery phrase, she enrages him by telling him that she is his former love -- come back from the dead. Such was the effect of Mallory on John during his college days that Eve has resurrection his obsession with her, and together they begin an affair even as John struggles with the truth of the matter. Is she really the soul of his former -- and now present -- love, or is this some elaborate scheme? His friend Penn Cage -- hello, Penn, fancy seeing you here -- seems to think so. Cage is not a believer in the supernatural, and he believes that Waters' corrupt business partner Cole is trying to disrupt Water's life in some way for his own selfish benefit. Things only grow more mysterious after Eve dies and Waters' wife Lily begins acting like a woman posessed.

The book is a thriller: its opening premise is quite interesting, and Iles executes the tension well. I did not expect the plot to go the way it did. Like his previous offering, Sleep No More does not fail to entertain, although after three books of his in the same week, I am (understandably) growing weary of Iles' sexy southern gothics. A break may be recquired.

Further Along the Road Less Travelled

Further Along the Road Less Traveled: The Unending Journey Toward Spiritual Growth
© 1993 M. Scott Peck
255 pages

Peck is always an interesting author for me to read. He and I typically do not see eye to eye on many issues, but like Thomas Cahill, I find his work to be interesting regardless. Perhaps the interest I take in Peck is that he expresses opinions I don't agree with, but he does so in a manner I can respect -- most of the time. As mentioned before, Peck is a psychiatrist who attempts to combine it and spirituality, seeing spirituality as mental health and maturation. A note on the book identifies this as "Edited Lectures", meaning that unlike The Road Less Traveled, this may not have been written as a book in itself -- but that it consists of essays that have edited and fitted to one another. Although the lecture/essays were not written as a deliberate whole, the "space" in between them is not too jarring: the book flows fairly well, and is divided into three parts: "Growing Up", "Knowing Yourself", and "In Search of a Personal God".

One trait of Peck's writing that I like is that it tends to be widely focused. This book is an example of that, as individual essays see him writing on consciousness, forgiveness, death and meaning, mystery, self love versus self-esteem, mythology, spirituality, addiction, religion, the New Age movement, and sexuality. The strength of the essays varied for me: in general, I thought the first half of the book was strong and that it faded quickly, especially in the sexuality essay. That one was more than strange.

A good bit of the book is about religion, and it was this I enjoyed the most. I consider myself a nonreligious person, but lately I am trying to find the good in it. Admittedly, that's a tricky direction in which to go, but I am interested in religion as a human endeavor, and I think that a genuine concern for human well-being and growth lies somewhere in them. I am not convinced that it is the heart of every religion, but I think it is least least a part -- and I want to see if this is true and if so to what extent. It was the Dalai Lama that first set me on this course, but Gyatso and Peck are quite different: Gyatso's approach to spirituality is simple, direct, and is aimed at cultivating happiness. Peck is more stern and less humanistic: he focuses on fixing problems, and believes we have to depend on God for growth.

The book is typical for Peck: I found it interesting, and will probably read more of Peck in the future, but I don't recommend it to everyone. I think the book is valuable in making me consider ideas I'd never thought of before.

The Third Jesus

The Third Jesus: the Christ We Cannot Ignore
© 2008 Deepak Chopra
241 pages

I've heard the name "Deepak Chopra" before, but never in a positive light. Still, given my interest in comparative religion and philosophy, and given that I don't like having uninformed opinions about people, I decided to read The Third Jesus. Chopra's thesis is this: there are two chief ideas about Jesus, the liberal version and the conservative version. The liberal version believes in the enlightened rabbi, the human teacher. The conservative version is the "WORSHIP ME, MORTALS!" one. Chopra says that the problem with this is that the gospels, when taken in full, invalidate both. His solution to this "problem" is to propose a third Jesus, a Transcendental Jesus who teaches the way to "God-consciousness", which Chopra never really explains. Essentially, what he does is to quote text from five accounts of Jesus' life (the traditional gospels and Thomas) and uses them to support his view.

It doesn't seem to me that he's doing anything different from what Fred Phelps and Marcus Borg are doing: applying their interpretation to the story. It seems to validate Albert Schweitzer's idea that people who try to find the "True" Jesus only create narratives that satisfy their own desires. In general, I found the book to be a poor read: Chopra rarely explains his terms, and beyond the in-text verses from the gospels, nothing seems to be cited. This is particularly troublesome given that he writes on historical and scientific topics at times.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

God's Problem

God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer
© 2008 Bart Ehrman
294 pages

While gazing at the library shelves in the "Religion" section attempting to find a book by Marcus Borg, I saw the title of this book and was immediately intrigued. The book description only confirmed my interest and I was soon reading it. Bart Ehrman is a New Testament scholar and former minister, his faith having been broken by the classical problem of religions with "good" deities at their center: if those gods exist, why is there suffering? How can evil flourish so well in a world supposedly built by good and powerful entities? This question has personal relevance to me, as I was never able to really trust God after reading Anne Frank's diary and realizing how the Holocaust destroyed real people. Ehrman actually uses the Holocaust as an extended example.

This book grew out of a class he once taught about Biblical attitudes toward suffering, and the approach he takes is to identify three general explanations for evil, explain their origin and influence, and then to evaluate them from the perspective of someone who wants to believe but can't. I say "three general explanations", but this is my organization -- not his. The first two explanations -- suffering as a consequence of sin and suffering as being part of God's Mysterious Plan ™ -- need no explanation, either of what they are or of what's wrong with them. It is the third general explanation -- apocalyptic thinking* -- that I found most intriguing. Here Ehrman not only explains what that thinking is and how it applies to the suffering question, but in so doing makes the whole of the New Testament make sense. Being familiar with history and with Judaism-- having studied it in 2006 and 2007 -- much of the New Testament has confused me. If it arose from Jewish/Hellenic culture, where did the New Testament characters get some of their ideas? Why were Pharisees suddenly talking about a Resurrection when OT Hebrews had never heard of such a thing? Why did people make such a big deal of Jesus' ability to raise the dead? Fitting the New Testament into an apocalyptic context makes it make much more sense.

In addition to these three general explanations, Ehrman also points out that some of the Biblical authors felt that suffering just couldn't be explained, and he uses Ecclesiastes and Job as its source. (Ehrman believes that Job contains two conflicting explanations for evil: the first is suffering-as-penalty and the second is the inexplicable.)

Given that I am not a religious believer struggling with the problem of suffering, I cannot comment on Ehrman's ability to convince the audience. He writes well, uses familiar examples, and appears to be quite thorough: for instance, when writing on the explanation of "suffering as a penalty for sin", he shows that this view influenced the entire historical narrative in the Hebrew scriptures. I think the book bears reading for those interested in what religious people coming from a Judeo-Christian background might say in defense of their God when asked to account for suffering.

He ends the book with an elegant defense of life in the face of continuing suffering, beginning with this: "I have to admit that at the end of the day, I do have a biblical view of suffering. As it turns out, it is the view put forth in the book of Ecclesiastes. There is a lot that we can't know about this world. A lot of this world doesn't make sense. Sometimes there is no justice. Things don't go as planned or as they should. A lot of bad things happen. But life also brings good things. The solution to life is to enjoy it while we can, because it is fleeting. This world, and everything in it, is temporary, transient, and soon to be over. We won't live forever -- in fact, we won't live long. And so we should enjoy life to the fullest, as much as we can, as long as we can. That's what the author of Ecclesiastes says, and I agree. "

* In my response on my philosophy/humanities blog, I include Ehrman's explanation of apocalyptic thinking.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Turning Angel

Turning Angel
© 2005 Greg Iles
501 pages

I didn't intend to read two books by Greg Iles this week: frankly, I don't want to exhaust my library's Iles collection prematurely. As it happens, I finished Third Degree much more quickly than I anticipated and -- as I happened to be at my sister's house babysitting, and as she is similarly working her way through Iles -- I decided to read from one of her checked-out Iles books. Turning Angel, like The Quiet Game, is a first-person thriller written from the eyes of Penn Gage, Houston prosecutor-turned-novelist. Turning Angel is set five years after the conclusion of The Quiet Game, but in the same town of Natchez, Mississippi. Gage's hometown -- to which he returned after the death of his wife -- has deteriorated somewhat in those five years, as its major manufacturing employers have left, leaving the town with only tourism as its only viable source of income.

On the May afternoon that this book begins, though, such things are not on the minds of its citizens, particularly not those whose children go to St. Stephen's Preparatory school, which is approaching its graduation ceremonies. The quiet anticipation is broken, however, when the body of a St. Stephen's senior washes up on a creekbed in town -- murdered. Victim Kate Townsend was a Natchez celebrety, headed for Harvard and the darling of the preparatory school. Her death is shocking enough, but soon rumors spread that Gage's best friend and respected physician, Drew Elliot, was engaged in a romantic relationship with the not-quite-eighteen year old.

The plot-driving tension begins to build when Elliot asks Gage to once again pick up the lawyery banner and defend him against charges of sexual battery and murder -- but things are not as simple as they might appear. The book's title, Turning Angel, comes from a statue in town that seems to turn on its pedestal as pedestrians and cars pass nearby, its eyes following them. Appearances are not reality, and this Gage realizes as he sits in his car following the murder of a local police office with whom he was talking: the then-latest murder in a string of nearly a dozen murders that will result in a matter of days when the book's plot is nearing its climax. The murders appear to be drug-related -- but what does Kate Townsend have to do with drug lords from Biloxi?

While Gage investigates matters to build a defense of his friend, he finds he must contend with race politics -- a theme repeated from The Quiet Game, but unfortunately true to real life -- and the sexual nature of high school culture. The book, like Iles' other novels I've read, moves quickly and never loses my interest -- although I liked this less than the others, chiefly because the sex seemed to be gratuitous after a while. If I were introducing someone to Iles, I would recommend something else as a first read. What did impress me was how many voices Gage had to assume in writing this book: an agnostic novelist, a fundamentalist preacher, a liberal Shelby-Spong-type preacher, a high school senior trying to talk to the novelist about the role of sex in high school culture, and more. What is most striking -- especially when reading a eulogy given by the liberal preacher -- was that he does this well. Granted, Iles consults with people in writing, but that he is able to render believable impressions of people who are so different from one another speaks highly to me of his writing ability.

On page 205, Gage consults with a civil rights lawyer from the 1960s about the declining quality of leadership among American blacks, and he says something interesting. Remember that this is written in 2005:

"There's a crisis of black leadership in this country, Penn. The leaders of my era are relics of another age. A lost age, I'm sorry to say. [...] You've basically got three types of black leaders today. There's the managerial type, who pretends race isn't even an issue. He wants a large white constituency, but he also wants to keep the loyal blacks behind him. [...] Then you have your black protest leader. He's black, loud, and proud. He casts himself in the image Malcolm and Martin, but deep down he's nothing like them. He uses the ideals of those greater leaders only to get what he wants: personal status and power. Marion Barry, Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan -- the list is endless. They're flashy, powerful, and dangerous. [...] [The third type is] the prophetic leader. That's Martin, Malcolm....Ellie Baker. The current generation has produced no leaders of this type, much less of that caliber. I'm watching Bara[c]k Obama, but I'm not sure yet."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Third Degree

Third Degree
© 2007 Greg Iles
385 pages

After being utterly captivated by The Quiet Game last week, reading more of Iles was a foregone conclusion. Although I had intended to read the fantasy-like Sleep No More, my sister -- who introduced me to Iles -- currently has the book checked out, and so I went with his Third Degree. Unlike The Quiet Game, Third Degree is written in the third person. What is most remarkable about the book, I think, is that its entire plot takes place within the span of one day -- one day in a suburban household that begins on a slightly unusual note but which ends with a body floating in the river and a destroyed helicopter. The story is told primarily through the eyes of Laurel Shields -- a special needs teacher whose household will be become a warzone as the plot develops -- and Danny McDavitt, a retired combat pilot who now gives flight lessons and who has recently broken off a year-long affair with Laurel. (One other character develops a voice after the plot thickens.)

That Laurel has been engaged in an affair is one secret, but her husband Warren has skeletons in his closet as well, skeletons that will lead to arson and hospitalized federal agents -- but today is when both secrets will come to the surface with terrifying and (for some) deadly results. Iles skillfully interweaves a marital drama with a crime-and-punishment police drama to create a story that recquires both to create a "perfect storm" of sorts. The result is also something of a psychological drama, as one of the characters goes through a developing mental hell that forces the reader to constantly reform how they perceive him. The book was as riveting as The Quiet Game, if not as textured: this was shorter and felt more like a Grisham-esque thriller. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

This Week at the Library (10/6)

Books this Update:
  • Gump & Co, Winston Groom
  • The Quiet Game, Greg Iles
  • The Faith Club; Ranya Indiliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner
  • Buddha, Karen Armstrong
  • Asimov on Astronomy, Isaac Asimov
I came upon Gump & Co accidentally: it happened to be on display in the fiction area of my library, and I spotted it while headed for The Hobbit a couple of weeks ago. It is a sequel to the 1995 book Forrest Gump, which was somewhat different than the movie it inspired. Although the book is described as "satire", I read it more as a straight humorous novel that uses Gump's interaction with elements of the 1980s and 1990s as its fodder. The book begins sometime after the conclusion of the first book and movie, but things have changed. Gump is completely broke and sweeping floors in a strip joint when the book begins, although he will soon be spotted by an old schoolmate and asked to play for the New Orleans Saints. From there, Gump will stumble his way through the 1980s and early 90s, with humorously awkward results -- Gump accidentally invents New Coke, covers an entire town in pig poo, and crashes the Exxon-Valdez, for starters.The book is written from Gump's point of view and in a crude, colloquial way.

I read a recommendation next. Greg Iles' The Quiet Game was described as being somewhat like John Grisham. The description is somewhat apt in that part of this book is a legal thriller involving political corruption at the highest levels of US government influencing jurisprudence in a small town in Mississippi. This legal story ties in a number of other stories -- main character Penn Gage's struggle to come to terms with his wife's death, his father being blackmailed, the return of his first love (who will play a greater role in the book than simply "love interest"), and a few others. There's a lot going on in this book, and it makes for an incredibly riveting story.

Following a growing interest in comparative religion, I decided to read The Faith Club: a memoir written by three women who met on a regular basis over the course of several years to discuss their faith. You might think this an unenjoyable book for a secular person such as myself, and I did as well -- but I was surprised by the book. It is less a book about religion and more a book about three women exploring what spirituality means to them within the context of the traditions they were brought up in. I found the book enjoyable and touching in ways.

Next I read a sharply written biography of Buddha, titled aptly Buddha. Karen Armstrong does a good job of introducing the world that Siddhartha Gautama was born into and telling his story within that greater context. She explains his struggle to find freedom from suffering, his realization of the noble truths, and the development and early attitudes of his first disciples. I would recommend it to anyone interested in either Buddha or Buddhism.

Lastly, I enjoyed a little science with Isaac Asimov's Asimov on Astronomy. The book is a collection of essays on various topics within the general theme of astronomy. Some are straightforward explanations of questions people might ask (how the moon manages to rotate but only presents one face to Earth), but most are his playing with questions he asks himself -- like how a planet in a two-star solar system might see those two suns, and how those two suns might influence the development of mythology and science. Set within the text of the essays are brief profiles of astronomical phenomena or astronomers.

Quotation of the Week: "God, I'm trapped in a Southern gothic novel!" - character Caitlin Masters on page 205 of The Quiet Game.

Pick of the Week: The Quiet Game, far and away.

Next Week:
  • The Third Degree, Greg Iles
  • God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer, Bart Ehrman
  • The Third Jesus, Deepak Chopra (No, this isn't a joke. I know he has a reputation, but I'd like to read him for myself and this looked to be fairly benign.)
  • The Journey of Man, Spencer Wells.
  • Further Along the Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck.

Asimov on Astronomy

Asimov on Astronomy
© 1975 Isaac Asimov
271 pages

Although in the back of my mind I knew the existence of Charon was a relatively recent discovery, I did not realize how recent until I read this book and realized Asimov was oblivious as to its existence. As it turns out, Pluto's humble satellite -- or perhaps co-plutoid would more accurate -- was discovered three years after Asimov published this book of essays in 1975. In an essay on the hypothetical tenth planet, Asimov muses that "Charon" might be a good name for a moon. As mentioned, this is a book of essays written on various topics within astronomy and published in various magazines (and other essay collections) before appearing here. As I would expect from Asimov, he combines scientific explanations with humor and talks directly to the reader, sometimes making jokes. Few of the essays are directly explanatory: they tend to be the result of Asimov being curious about a topic and playing with it. Such is the case of my favorite essay in this selection, "The Planet with Two Suns", in which he writes on how Greek mythology and science might have looked if our Sun had a companion star. In other essays, he does stick with a standard explanation of the topic -- such is the case with "Time and Tides", where he writes on the way the moon and sun cause Earth's sides. Aside from a few minor things, the essays hold up well against the test of time. Enjoyable as ever.


© 2001 Karen Armstrong
205 pages

Karen Armstrong's Buddha is a concise biography of Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as (the) Buddha. The book, divided into five key sections, begins with Armstrong introducing the texts she uses as her sources -- vouching for or admitting potential weaknesses in them. Because Gautama is known solely as a religious figure, the book is written about that figure and the chapter titles reflect that. Armstrong begins by writing on the Brahmin religion and the beginnings of the Axial Age in the region that Gautama grew up in, writing on the communities of monks who had "gone forth", abandoning their homes to live in the forests or to travel through the land looking for spiritual teachers. Although she wrote of this in The Great Transformation, it's so different from the reality I know that it still strikes me. According to Armstrong, these people were not looking for bliss or contentment -- they were looking for freedom from the cycle of life. What I didn't know was that they believed even the gods yearned to be free from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth -- that the gods themselves wanted to achieve Nibanna/Nirvana. Nothing save freedom from the cycle was worthwhile.

The book records Gautama's call go "go forth" and his journey -- exploring the various traditions of the teachers he meets. According to Armstrong, he realizes early on that if he is to find Nibanna, he must find a way that is demonstrably true: accepting things on faith will not do. Eventually he realizes the way of Nibanna and the book switches to the growth of his Sangha as depicted in the Buddhist scriptures, even mentioning an attempt to seize power by one of his disciples. The book ends with his death.

Buddha was a tidy and helpful biography. Armstrong establishes the context, fits Buddha's story within it, and tells that story well, sometimes examining controversial subjects like misogyny in some of the Buddhist texts. Although most of the information in here I've gleaned from other source, I think its presentation here is sharp and reccommend it for someone curious about Buddha.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Last Olympian

The Last Olympian
© 2009 Rick Riordian
394 pages

During the late winter or early spring (depending on when you call which which), I began reading the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series on the recommendation of a friend. The recommendation stemmed from (I assume) my interest in Greek mythology, as the setting for this series is an Earth in which the Greek gods exist -- and true to the old Greek myths, they spend much of their time feuding with one another and romancing mortals. The conclusion of the first book hinted that a battle between the Olympians and the Titans -- the Olympians' predecessors, who have been stuffed into volcanoes and such for many thousands of years and who are quite grumpy about it - is brewing. An ancient prophecy hints that Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon, will play a key role in the final battle: the fate of the universe hangs on his decision.

This is quite a load for a lad of fifteen, and when The Last Olympian begins, he is with his mortal semi-girlfriend, resting up after five books' worth of fighting monsters and going on quests that feed into Kronos' steady rise, while dreading his sixteenth birthday. According to the prophecy, he will make this choice upon reaching sixteen. This respite ends when a Pegasus lands on his stepfather's car and informs him that the Titan army is on the move: the final battle is at hand.

There are no quests to go on, no magic relics to fetch, no magic landscapes to invade: this book is about the Battle for Olympus. As the titan Typhon makes his way from his former home (Mount St. Helens) to New York, destroying everything he can in his wake (an unnecessary expenditure of energy, I would think) while nearly all of the Olympians struggle to stop him, Poseidon is fighting a losing battle with the titan Oceanus and Mount Olympus itself is guarded only by Hestia. Percy is informed that it is up to him and his fellow demigods to protect Olympus (which is, by the way, at the of the Empire State Building: Manhattan is thus Percy's battleground). To make matters worse, the children of Ares are refusing to fight (their honor having been besmirched by the children of Apollo) and Hades and his army are refusing to cooperate. Hades has never been popular among the rest of the Olympians, and he has decided to return spite for spite.

Percy, Annabeth, Nico, Thalia, and the other demigods have their work cut out for them. More interesting than the battles themselves (at least to me) is the interpersonal drama and the prophecy-driven plot. What kind of choice will Percy be forced to make? What will happen? Who will die? The series and book end well, I think. In his afterword, Riordian referred to the series as the "first" Camp Half-Blood series, hinting that perhaps he will return to them. I hope so. Although this was a series written for kids, I enjoyed it and I think Riordian distinguishes himself in at least one particular way: unlike other authors, he doesn't have his main character(s) do all of the work. Based on the interstory quests they've gone on and the work they do in the novels, it seems at least two of the supporting characters could have their own book series.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Faith Club

The Faith Club: A Muslim, a Christian, a Jew -- Three Women Search for Understanding
© 2006 Ranya Indliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner
396 pages, including discussion guide and resources for starting similar groups.

The book begins on September 11. When Ranya Indilby -- a Palestinian-American who remains sensitive about her minority position -- hears of the attacks, she prays and asks that it not be Muslims who are behind them. In the post-9/11 world, she grows increasingly sensitive about her identidy, but finds solace in a story about Muhammed that seems to identify Islam as a religion that embraces other traditions. Inspired by this and prompted by her children's questions about their culture, she decides to write a children's book on the similarities between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. A Christian friend of hers -- Suzanne Oliver -- quickly jumps on board, and the two call a local Jewish children's author (Priscella) to ask if she's interested in the project.

They join together and begin to discussion their traditions' common beginning with Abraham and begin the work of selecting stories from their texts to compile together, but quickly run into trouble when Suzanne and Priscella disagree on the meaning of Jesus' execution. Suzanne sees it as crucial to understanding Jesus' resurrection -- which she sees as a vitally important part of her worldview. Tensions begin to rise, and the three women realize that a different approach is needed -- so they begin talking about what their faiths mean to them. They work through a number of issues (Israel, stereotypes, prayer, and so on) through a number of years. The book is a (self-described) memoir written by three people in the voice of the first person. While their meetings are initially structured around writing the children's book, it becomes more of a retreat for the three women, and the book itself becomes less about the relationship between three religions and more about the developing friendship between the three women -- and the relationships they have with their respective senses of spirituality. Each of their faiths undergoes a transformation in the three or so years that the memoir covers.

I had expected to grow weary of what I expected to be the book's limited focus (the Abrahamic religions), but the book quickly became more about their personal quests to find meaning -- actively reinterpreting their beliefs and making them fit to their lives. The book ends with the chapter "Awakening", in which the three describe coming to peace with their paths. After the last bits of the memoir, there is added material: an interview with the authors and information helpful to starting a "faith club", including a list of things to keep in mind -- that everyone will bring stereotypes, that secrets corrupt, that everyone can be a peacemaker, that sort of thing. It ends with information about the three Abrahamic religions. Helpfully, all of this information -- from the interview to the religious information -- is rendered in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. Turning the page to see Hebrew and then Arabic script was surprising, but interesting.

The book was surprisingly...enjoyable. It reminded me a bit of Spong's Here I Stand, and the theme -- humans standing up to amd owning religion rather than being dominated by them -- is one I like.