Wednesday, July 15, 2009

This Week At the Library (15/7)

Books this Update:
  • The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window; Lemony Snicket
  • The Time Machine, H.G. Wells
  • Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein
  • The Beginner's Guide to Zen Buddhism, Jean Smith
  • Jennifer Government, Max Barry
  • Jesus, Marcus Borg

I started this week with the first three books in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, which detail the troubles that befall three orphans -- Violet, Klaus, and Sunny -- after their parents perish in a fire and they are sent from one inept adoptive parent to the next while being pursued by the incorrigibly evil Count Olaf, who wants the children’s money. I read the first three -- as opposed to the first two or the first four -- because they constitute the movie, which is what made me interested in the series to begin with. Although the books are written for kids, the tone makes it very readable for adults as well. The books were a delight, and I shall continue.

I also read H.G. Well’s classic The Time Machine, which happens to be the first science fiction story I ever read and which surprised me this week for its utter readability. The novella -- concerning the Time Traveler’s tale of his trip some eight hundred thousand years in the future -- was published in in 1890, but lacks the formal language classic works are prone to have. The concepts the story relies on are explained by the Time Traveler to his friends. While the work is an enjoyable piece of early science fiction, it also captures the mindset of its time -- particularly the Traveler's utopian predictions.

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar was next, it being an attempt to combine philosophy and humor. Despite its small size, the authors attempt to cover philosophy as a whole -- from metaphysics to art to social philosophy. They devote a chapter to each particular division of philosophy and work jokes into the text. Perhaps because of the size, the book doesn't do justice to the content covered: I found their treatment of many topics to be silly to the point of shallow and dreadfully flat. Some of the jokes are clever, and some not so. I would not recommend this book as an introduction to philosophy.

I then read Jean Smith's The Beginner's Guide to Zen Buddhism, a very readable and fairly thorough introduction to Zen practice, ritual, and history. She explains not only Zen itself but Buddhism as a whole, stating that Zen and the other Buddhist schools of thought differ chiefly in which of the Eight Noble Truths they emphasize. Illustrations are used directly by the text, and Smith includes suggested reading and addresses of Zen centers for those interesting.

Max Barry's Jennifer Government was next, and it was quite an entertaining read. The novel takes place in the possible near future (although published in 2003, the book is dated: some scenes feature people fighting over VCRs.) in a world where American corporations rule supreme, dominating the world -- not just its markets -- and subjugating the American people in a way that not even the most paranoid Green party member could imagine. People take their very identifies from their place of employ and corporations have access to artillery for what you might call "aggressive negotiations"*. The American government is almost a nonentity. The story that unfolds begins when fourteen teenagers are murdered by Nike-hired assassins in an attempt to prove that their new shows are worth dying for. Federal agent Jennifer Government attempts to track down the perpetrators while a host of other characters bound around pursuing their own agendas that fit into the main story. The novel is light-action that doubles as a criticism of corporate greed, consumer culture, and libertarian philosophy.

Lastly I read Marcus Borg's Jesus, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. Borg's account is an attempt to find the human Jesus. He tries to build on a foundation that everyone can agree on, typically referring to the original "Q" source. He also builds on appropriate context -- namely, Judea's political, social, and religious reality that Jesus was surely shaped by and moved it. In emphasizing this context, Borg keeps his Jesus' feet firmly on the ground: he never floats like a puppet whose strings are being pulled. Rather than rely on or deny supernatural interpretations, Borg relies heavily on pointing out metaphorical language -- saying that while the words themselves might not be true, what they mean is. Rather than seeing the gospels as a collection of stories gathered for future generations -- existing solely for the sake of those who follow -- Borg points out that these stories must have had some importance for the people who collected them, and he writes much on this. After establishing background, he goes through the Gospels commenting on story after story and looking for both the literal and metaphorical meanings. In his epilogue, he comments further on traditional -- that is, relying on holding certain beliefs -- and emerging Christianity, the latter being following Jesus on "the Way", just as a Taoist or Buddhist follow the "Way". It is worth noting that Borg believes the major religions to be entirely human creations that develop in response to interactions with deity. I like what this book says about Borg as an author: never at any point did he insult my intelligence or make stretches of the imagination that weren't mostly implausible -- but never too does he lose touch with the fact that he's dealing with texts that have a lot of emotional connection to people. I think fundamentalists and skeptics alike can enjoy this book, and recommend it.

Pick of the Week: Marcus Borg's Jesus.

Next Week:
  • The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy, and the Ersatz Elevator; Lemony Snicket. As mentioned, I'm continuing this funny little series. (Apparently he likes alliteration.)
  • The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity aside, Lewis has such a reputation that I'm going to read a little more and see if I can see what the fuss is about.
  • Company, Max Barry. I enjoyed Jennifer Government to the point that I will be reading more from the author.
  • Medieval Lives: Eight Charismatic Men and Women of the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor. It's been a while since I read any history, and the medieval period is always interesting.
  • Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-worshippers, and Other Pagans in America; Margaret Adler. Back in the late spring, I read a book on Wicca. I found it to be an interesting religion or lifestyle, and I want to continue reading on it.

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