Sunday, August 30, 2009


Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome
© 2007 Steven Saylor
555 pages


When I first saw this book's full title, I was amused by what seemed to be presumption. The novel of ancient Rome? Really? Its plot summary -- a thousand years of Roman history as seen through the eyes of one family's many generations -- immediately caught my interest, though, and soon enough I was caught up in the epic story told here. Eleven story sections tell Rome's story from 1000 BC to 1 AD, beginning with the tale of a tribe of salt-traders who encamp on the Tiber's banks once a year during their annual treks up and down the Italian peninsula and ending with the beginnings of Empire. In that very first story, the progenitor of all our future antagonists acquires a lump of gold with a hole bore through it so that it might be worn as a necklace. The lump is said to possess the essence of Rome's first god, Fascinus -- the winged phallus. Worn on the neck, it is said to provide protection powers for women in childbirth and against the evil eye. The amulet is passed from generation to generation, giving the reader a "ground" of sorts.

As said, there are eleven stories here, and while the gaps between them are not overly large, sometimes history happens in between them and two stories may deal with radically different circumstances, so Saylor has to set the stage -- several times. Exposition is handled mostly by the narrator (who is not very intrusive), although sometimes characters step up. They don't always do it well, but given how much exposition Saylor does have to deliver, it's impressive to me that it only seemed weak a couple of times. Readers should note that since we are dealing with eleven stories set in eleven different periods, there is a wealth of characters to adjust to -- but it only took a page or two before getting the feel of them. Our eleven antagonists present a wide range of characters, although they don't always keep the same family names: a thousand years of history isn't kind to many families. Our family splits into two families in the beginning, for instance, and one of them eventually vanishes while the other experiences rising and falling tides of fortune. The antagonists are different from Saylor's sub Rosa character of Gordianus the Finder: some of them are downright despicable. Although the book's text consists of eleven stories, I wouldn't call this a book of short stories: they're too tightly connected to really exist on their own. All of them are well done, connecting to the reader early. Some chapters in the books' early middle set my blood boiling. Most of them deal with political matters, but there's at least one horror story here and at least one romance. It should be noted that the book is about Roma, the city, and not the empire that you and I may think of when hearing "Rome" -- that syllable that manages to convey so much meaning. The stories are set strictly in Rome, with the map not expanding beyond the Field of Mars and the seven hills.

There is a strong sense of history that is delivered in this book, on several levels. History as we know it happens to the amulet-bearers: at times they can only respond to it, and at other times they are active participants in it. If the amulet had eyes, it would have seen Rome turn from a crude village into a mighty empire: it sees an army approach the city intent on burning it, only to be stopped by the lamentations of the city's mothers; the Gauls, making a mess of the city while a few defenders watch from the heights of the Capitoline hill; and the persistent collisions between the patricians and plebeians, leading to the Gracchi, Sulla, and eventually Caesar. At the same time, history as you've not heard it also comes into being. In the beginning, Saylor gives many of Rome's early legends plausibility, and I had to stop reading many times just to look up the character on Wikipedia to marvel at what Saylor was doing. (The story of Cacus was especially memorable.) Saylor's invented history becomes part of the book's "real" history, and it gave me some nice moments. When a character in the middle of the book scales the steps leading to the Capitoline, I couldn't help but think of why those steps were built -- to make sure in the future no terror could hide itself in the now-long-forgotten caves. I knew, too, whose head had been unearthed to give the hill its name. The facts of the early stories become the legends of the latter stories: a example of this is Julius Caesar presiding over the Lupercalian Games with great solemnity (as he's refusing the crown offered by Mark Antony, yet!), games that began with the actions of three mischievous boys very early on. One of those mischievous boys was Romulus, Rome's first king. The grounding amulet is another example: it begins the book as a simple lump of gold, is later forged into a winged phallus, only to lose its shape as the years wear on and become a lump of gold again* -- its significance lost to memory.

This book has a lot to offer to historical fiction fans, but especially to those fascinated by Roman history. Not only does it deliver eleven stories of men and women riding history's wake, but it comments on human history in general: the significiance of legends, the various uses of religion (some noble, some not), and most prominently on politics and power. I definitely recommend it. This will probably go down as one of my favorites.

A video of Saylor discussing the novel can be found here.

* It's not a round lump, but a cross-looking lump given what it used to be. This leads into the Christian era appropriately.

Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers

Becoming the Answer to our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals
© 2208 Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
124 pages


"As a beautiful flower that is full of hue but lacks fragrance, even so fruitless is the well-spoken word of one who does not practice it." - Siddhartha Gautama, quoted in What the Buddha Taught

Over a month ago, reader Pom Pom suggested that I look into Shane Claiborne. While my library held one of his books, it was then checked out and remained so until last week. In the time since, I've listened to various sermons/talks by Claiborne and find him to be a very interesting personality -- as well as a symphatetic one. Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers is written for praying Christians, and would best be deceived by them. While a more naturally-centered person like myself can make Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove's message applicable, the book is focused on the text of three Christian prayers found in the Gospels and Epistles.

The two authors both write in the first-person in an informal matter. Content wise, they are most concerned with wedding faith with action: faith is less believing-in-things and more doing things based on beliefs. Instead of bickering over healthcare, for instance, Claiborne tells the story of a community that paid tithes to provide a common pool of money for members who needed it. In the decades that this pool has been in operation, he says, it has provided millions in healthcare support. While prayers are often prayed to God in the expectation that he will fulfill needs, the expectation here is that people step up and take a more active role in living their values. The great mystery, Claiborne says, is that God allows himself to be limited by the actions of people: he chooses to work through people by inspiring them to action rather than by doing it himself.

I like Claiborne for the same reason I like this book to whatever extent I like it: I believe in fulfilling worldviews. I can't separate my philosophy from my politics, or my 'spirituality' from science, or my beliefs from my actions -- and I appreciate movements built on similar commitments Claiborne's approach reminds me of Buddhism's eight noble truths, emphasizing "right livelihood" and "right action" right alongside mindfulness.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Alternative American Religions

Alternative American Religions
© 2000 Stephen J. Stein
156 pages


Maurice: Pastor Richards, as a human being, I have to say I find your philosophy or cult or whatever it is utterly and completely appalling.

Richards: Why thank you! I knew you'd understand.

Maurice: I mean, you seem to want to build a religion around yourself and some 1950's vision of America. It's the 1980's, man! And one man worship-me cults are not allowed, my friend! (Maurice Chavez, VCPR, GTA: Vice City.)

Curious about marginalized religious movements, particularly those of the pacifistic brand, I decided to check this book out. The book is a straightforward and very brief history of cults, sects, new religious movements, and similarily-labelled movements, beginning with the Pilgrims and ending with the demise of the Heaven's Gate cult. The chapters are arranged thematically, with plenty of chronologlical overlap, but the end of every successive chapter brings us closer to the present. Movements mentioned include the obvious (Scientology) and the obscure ("The Vermont Pilgrims", a band of asectics who ate nothing but wheat and flower gruel and never bathed) -- including the sect in which I was raised*, the United Pentecostal Church International. The book's beginning is stronger than its end: there are fewer movements to mention, so they get more attention and thus stick in the reader's imagination more. The movements toward the end of the movement get a paragraph or two if they're fortunate. Despite how quickly the book moved, I was able to learn more about various religious movements I've heard about but knew little of.

The book is suitable for most readers: strangely curious children could read through it with ease. My general ignorance makes it difficult for me to comment on the book's factual worth, but given the starkness it's not as if there's much to debate: there are no interpretations here. All is very straightforward. I did notice he referred to the Flavor Aid used by Jonestown's late inhabitants as "Kool-Aid", but I don't know if that says more about the author or me, frankly.

* But which I left in 2005 after discovering the Association of Former Pentecostals and subsequently realizing that I was no longer trapped. If you want a slightly less sterile take on the UPCI than the Religious Tolerance page, I describe its doctrines and practices here.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Are We Rome?

Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America
© 2007 Cullen Murphy
262 pages


Lead poisons our wine and makes us stupid / Gladiators keep us entertained / More votes cast for idols than for Caesar / The end of empire’s easily explained / It’s carved there in plain Latin, the inscription on the wall: / “Welcome one and all to the decline and fall” / And if your Latin's rusty, here's the writing on the wall: / “Welcome one and all to the decline and fall” - "The Decline and Fall", Fire Aim Ready

The author of Are We Rome begins his work by acknowledging the problems inherent in drawing comparisons between Rome and America: not only that it is overdone and typically done for ideological reasons, but that despite popular opinion, history isn't so easy to draw lessons from. A state's strengths and weaknesses are the result of its unique historical situation, and such specific situations don't typically repeat themselves. At the same time, he maintains, the relationship between America and the ghost of Rome is not a newly-purported one, and there are some lessons that may be learned.

The next five chapters examine five common traits of the American and Roman republics, among them hubris, military matters, privatization of government functions and accompanying corruption, citizens' relationships with "barbarians", and "borders". The last is not chiefly about political borders, but includes cultural influence as well. Murphy comments intelligently on both American and Roman history, and he writes well -- and prudently. I tried to be overly sensitive while reading the book to notice any far-fetched or questionable comparisons, and there weren't any that made themselves obvious. There is no apparent agenda behind Murphy's writing, and his suggestions in the Epilogue are similarly cautious. The author takes both his subject and his readers seriously, which leads me to recommend it to general readers interested in American politics -- whether they are Americans themselves or just mice trying to be wary of the elephant they share close quarters with, if I may use a humorous metaphor I read only recently in a forum.
The cover features George Washington dressed as Cinncinatus, giving his sword back to the People. Murphy comments that modern tourists who spot the statue are probably oblivious to the Washington/Cinncinatus comparison and think it's a depiction of George Washington in a sauna reaching for a tower.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

This Week at the Library (26/8)

Books this Update:
  • Casebook of the Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov
  • The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama
  • Who Needs God?, Harold Kushner
  • The Japanese Experience, W.G. Beasley
  • Catalina's Riddle, Steven Saylor

I started the week with an old favorite by returning to the Black Widower series -- again reading a collection of stories set at the Milano restaurant where the Black Widower club has its monthly meeting, accompanied by the (seemingly) monthly puzzle to reason through. I don't know what else to add: the book was as charming and witty as I expect, although there are stronger Widower collections.

Next I read Barack Obama's political philosophy in The Audacity of Hope. While the book is typically classified as a biography, it is at its essence a political book that uses biographical anecdotes to show the reader how Obama's life has informed his views. His approach is one of moderate pragmatism combined with determined optimism that we do have the ability to make things work. He seems to want to bring common sense and empathy back to the political sphere , seeing them as having been lost somewhere in the past few decades. The author's tone seemed honest, approachable, and more moderate than I would have expected. I liked and recommend it.

Who Needs God? was next, written by Harold Kushner and addressing the ethnically nonreligious. Kushner uses the book to defend religion, not the idea of God, but his idea of "religion" is far more broad than you might expect. I liked the author, but I can't say I agreed that religions alone satisfy the needs they meet in this book.

Moving on to history, I read W.G. Beasley's The Japanese Experience, a short book spanning most of Japanese history (ending in the 1990s). Although its scope was considerable, the book was more successful than Albert Hourani's similar History of the Arabs: Beasley seems to have found the right balance between details and narrative, managing to convey a sense of what has happened without ignoring detailed information altogether.

The week ended strongly with Steven Saylor's Catalina's Riddle, a mystery-turned-political-thriller set in ancient Rome, during the time of the "Catalina conspiracies". Populist and exiled patrician Catalina has attracted the fury of Cicero, whose rhetoric toward him is so acerbic that it became the final straw for our main character, Gordianus. Gordianus, having created a successful career for himself as a detective of sorts, decides to move to the country to get away from Roman politics. Unfortunately for him, Rome follows him and Gordianus is dragged into the heart of the conflict -- giving Catalina safe haven in his home at Cicero's request. This is probably my favorite of the Roma sub Rosa books.

Pick of the Week: Casebook of the Black Widowers, Audacity of Hope, and Catalina's Riddle are all strong contenders, but Catalina's Riddle was utterly riveting. Perhaps it has advantage in being the last book I read, but it's definitely memorable.

Next Week:
  • Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, Shaine Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I'm finally able to follow up on a recommendation from reader Pom Pom: the book has been out of the library since June or so, and finally reappeared.
  • A History of God, Karen Armstrong. I tried reading this in 2006, but I didn't get far.
  • Roma, Steven Saylor. I'm taking a break from the Roma sub Rosa series to read a similar but unassociated novel by Saylor, this one recounting the thousand-year history of Rome through the eyes of one Roman family.
  • Are We Rome?, Cullen Murphy: a comparison of the United States and Rome.
  • Alternative American Religions, Stephen J. Stein. The book has what appears to be two Amish women holding saxophones and looking mischievous on the inside cover. How I could I resist?
  • The Irony of American History, since I didn't finish it last week.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Catalina's Riddle

Catalina's Riddle
1993 Steven Saylor
430 pages

Returning to Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series was a treat last week, but I did not expect to be as riveted as I was this week while reading Catalina's Riddle. Our principle character is Gordianus the Finder, and the story is set in between The Arms of Nemesis and The Venus Throw: a friend of Gordianus' has died and left him his farm. Discouraged by the political corruption and vileness of Rome, Gordianus has eagerly left his modest home in the city to his son Eco and become a farmer. The change in pace has not left him wholly satisfied: life in the fields is hard work, especially when blight renders the wheat harvest worthless and your neighbors hate you and headless bodies keep showing up on your property.

Although Gordianus tried to leave Rome behind, he soon learns that Rome is inescapable. A rider from the city comes to Gordianus and asks him to give service to Cicero -- a small service, given that it was Cicero's rhetorical abilities that won Gordianus' farm for him after his neighbors -- family of his late benefactor -- sued for it. Gordianus is asked to give refuge to Catalina. That Catalina, a rabble-rousing patrician whose political ideas make the "Optimates" -- the leading aristocracy of Rome -- froth at the mouth -- would need a safe harbor is not surprising. That Cicero would ask for a favor on Catalina's behalf is puzzling, as Cicero has become the aristocracy's mouthpiece. Indeed, Cicero's tactics to discredit Catalina were the final straw for Gordianus in leading him to decide to leave the city.

Unlike the other sub Rosa books, Gordianus is not playing the part of detective. For most of the book, he tends to his farm while the great political battle between Cicero and Catalina takes place in the city. This book almost seems a political thriller: while previous books have connected Gordianus' various hired work to political events at the time, none of those events were as big as the "Cataline Conspiracy". Catalina is accused of planning an insurrection while everywhere ambitious men plot and fill other men's pockets with silver. While Gordianus is morbidly contemplating the decay of the Republic, he is also contemplating the decaying and beheaded bodies that keep appearing on his property. Who is attempting to intimidate him, and to what end? There is no stability in Rome -- no one is completely reliable.

Catalina's Riddle is nicely done: as usual, Saylor brings historical artifacts and people to life. Rome is a living city: its fear is palpable. That this became a thriller of sorts instead of a mystery was not expected, but very enjoyable. I'd say it's my favorite of the sub Rosa books thus far. Unfortunately, I won't be able to complete the series: I only have access to two of the books (Rubicon and Caesar's Triumph), and those two have several books separating them.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Japanese Experience

The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan
© 1999 W. G. Beasley
299 pages, including glossary and index.

I checked this book out in April 2007. I remember this well, because I tried reading it on April 22. It was Earth Day, and I decided to spend the late afternoon in a field, laying on my back and watching the clouds while occassionally reading from the book and talking to friends. It was a glorious afternoon that ended when I accidently rolled into a patch of stinging nettles. I'd checked the book out then for the same reason I checked it out last week -- to prepare myself for a Japanese history class. I didn't take that class in 2oo7 because it was a night class and I wanted to avoid such a thing, but in the years since I've had two night classes with the same instructor and have found them to be mildly tolerable -- and this next semester, I will be studying Japanese history on Thursday nights from 5 to 7:30.

Although I have performed well in previous classes with the same instructor, I had the advantange of knowing my subject: European history. My knowledge of Japanese history, or of anything relating to Japanese culture, is extremely limited. I know, for instance, that Shinto and Zen Buddhism were once strong there, that Japan went through a period often described as feudral (to the chagrine of another one of my instructors, a medieval historian who insists feudalism is a uniquley western affair), that it adopted modernization to catch up with the west, and that it was hard-hit by the Depression. Outside of this, though, I am unknowledgable, and so Japan seems as foreign to me as a race from Star Trek. Indeed, there were passages in this book where I might as well have been reading background information for a fantasy story: the names and places have utterly no significance to me. I don't want to go into class wholly unprepared, though, so I've decided to do a little background reading before classes start. (Mine do not start until next week, for those curious. We seem to start later than other universities.)

Beasley offers a short history of Japan from the beginnings of its imperial age to the recession of the 1990s. That's a lot to go over in only 300 pages, so Beasley doesn't go into a lot of detail. He tracks political, economic, and cultural changes throughout those hundreds of years, focusing on especially notable leaders and movements. A dominant theme is Japan's place in Asia -- first dominated by China and its culture, and later attempting to reverse the relationship in creating the "Co-Prosperity Economic Sphere". Despite the breadth of information he has to cover, Beasley delivers a fairly readable narrative that -- while having to ignore lots of specifics, I would assume -- gives the reader a general impression of how things have proceeded. The book is supplemented with two sets of plates, mostly consisting of artwork: the two lone photographs are from the late 1930s and mid-1940s.

For those who know little of Japan and wish to know a bit more, I reccommend the book.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Who Needs God?

Who Needs God?
© 1989 Harold Kushner
208 pages

In God's Problem, author Bart Ehrman reccommended Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People and Kushner in general. I decided to follow up on the recommendation and read the strangely-titled Who Needs God this week. I say "strangely titled", for while Kushner is writing to two audiences -- those who have a "spiritual life", but spurn organized religion, and those who live ethically without regard to ideas of god -- the book seems to be aimed more at the former. For Kushner, the ideas of God and religion are one -- even though he sees religion as a human construction, formed to meet human needs and doing so through community.

The book consists of chapters detailing religion's contributions to human happiness, although allowing plenty of room for mentions of its excesses. Some themes include: providing a worldview that makes sense of the world; giving people something to revere, thus allowing for mystery; accounting for suffering; providing community; providing a source of inner strength, and a few others. My problem with this book was not that I don't think these things aren't valuable, but that I don't see them as being the sole property of religion. Confusing the matter is the nebulous definition of religion. If naturalistic humanism does what Kushner claims the world religions do, does that mean it is a religion?

Although I disagree with Kushner on a number of issues in the book, I rather liked reading him: he seems like a kindly old grandfather author. His "mistakes" seem honest, not blind ones made by adherence to ideology. He is definitely more concerned with spirituality, personal growth, and community than he is with perpeutating old ideas, but he does think they have their place in keeping people grounded to their culture. (The extent to which we "need" to associate with our culture is a matter for further thought.) I think if Kushner had defined terms at the beginning, this book would have made a lot more sense. As it is, all I can say is that I disliked some elements and liked some elements. The problem is that they're so mixed together that I can't point them out.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Audacity of Hope

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
© 2006 Barack Obama
375 pages

Knowing my interest in political speeches, a friend of mine asked me in 2005 if I'd ever heard of Barack Obama, who spoke at the 2004 DNC. I hadn't, of course, but American Rhetoric had a copy of said speech and gave it a listen. I don't recall my political views at the time: I know I was shifting from a fundamentalist Pentecostal and rabid Republican to questioning the former and not caring about the other. Whatever they were, I enjoyed listening to the speech, and I began watching him. In 2006, I was happy when he announced his decision to run for the office of President: I expected him to be a long-shot candidate, and planned on voting for him. I was surprised by his popularity, and bewildered by the fact that people were singing songs about him on YouTube. Wow. I grew tired of politics last summer, and was uncomfortable with some of his decisions, but I continued to watch his campaign -- and when it was announced that he was the winner, I was elated. I stayed up long after my usual bedtime watching speeches and shivering in anticipation the way I used to on Christmas morning. Despite my political cynicism, Obama has a hold on me. He makes me question my jaded assumptions -- he tempts me to believing in "America".

That's what The Audacity of Hope is principally about, although I expressed the above thoughts to myself weeks ago when writing in my journal, attempting to give voice to the thoughts swirling around in my brain. Its very title appeals to the idealist I once was -- and still am, judging by my susceptibility to the president's message. The book is less about idealism and more about common sense, for the most part. What dominates this book is not his urging the reader to believe in America -- although he does -- but his attempt to reintroduce common sense and empathy to politics, something that has been missing since ideology began driving political discussion in the late seventies or early eighties. Obama begins the book with a chapter on how things got to the point that they are today, going over political changes from the fifties to the present day. He brings up common sense and empathy, and applies them in following chapters to discussions of values, the Constitution, economic matters, religion, race, political campaigning, foreign affairs, and family matters.

Although the book is classified as a biography, I think this is erroneous. With the exception of "Family", the chapters are dominated by his discussion of what is -- not the story of his life. He does use personal anecdotes to introduce chapters and as occasional illustration, but they aren't the bulk of the book. The epilogue gives the book its title, as Obama reflects on a sermon he once heard using the phrase 'Audacity of Hope':

"The audacity of hope. That was the best of the American spirit, I thought -- having the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary that we could restore a sense of community to a nation torn by conflict; the gall to believe that despite personal setbacks, the loss of a job or an illness in the family or a childhood mired in poverty, we had some control -- and therefore responsibility -- over our own fate. It was that audacity, I thought, that joined us as one people. It was that pervasive spirit of hope that tied my own family's story to the larger American story, and my own story to those of the voters I sought to represent."

When I see that phase "despite all the evidence to the contrary", I'm given pause. It's certainly idealistic, and therein lies my uncertainty. I believe in idealism -- it motivates me. At the same time, I don't want to be deceived by it. This is an honest book, I think: it may get the biographical label because the author is so present in the book, plainly agonizing over difficult decisions that aren't so easy to make when the standard is reason and empathy. I can appreciate that -- I dislike books written with that sense of moral satisfaction, books like Bush Country and Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. I think people who read this book -- who sit down with its author and think about these things as he's thinking about them -- will get a lot out of it. You'd have to approach this book with hostility in mind to come away from it poorly. It is at its heart an honest discussion and I recommend it. At the very least, it will allow the reader to get into the mind of the US President.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Casebook of the Black Widowers

Casebook of the Black Widowers
© 1980 Isaac Asimov
222 pages

Readers who have been with me since last summer know how delighted I was to find the Black Widower mystery series. In the year since, I have checked out of a library or purchased through Amazon every Widower collection I could find. With Casebook of the Black Widowers, I have come to the series' end for myself, having read the others before. This is not to say I won't be enjoying them in the future: I chronically re-read my books and Widower solutions are frequently esoteric enough that I can be puzzled all over again.

Although it is last for me, Casebook is actually the third of the collections that gather stories of the Black Widowers social club -- a group of intellectuals seven strong (including the waiter, Henry) who meet monthly at the Milano restaurant in New York. Every month's meal is hosted by a different Widower, and it is customary that he bring a guest. The guest is treated to a fine meal and an evening of "hopefully edifying conversation" for the price of an interview: after the meal is done, the host appoints an inquisitor who "grills" the guest. In the Black Widower tradition, the guest invariably presents a puzzle for the Widowers to reason out a solution. Someone may approach the seated six for help, like an aspiring author did here in "The Backward Look". At other times, one of the Widowers may spot an unanswered question in the lives of their interviewees, as was the case in "The Cross of Lorraine". Whatever the question, the Widowers will hash it out, exhausting all of the possibilities until everyone save Henry is stumped. Although the stories all follow this same formula, including Henry seeing the solution that no one else saw, they do not grow tiresome.

The stories are written with Asimov's characteristic wit and are happily followed by a short afterword. It was as ever enjoyable.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

This Week at the Library (19/7)

Books this Update:
  • Dolphins, Jacques Yves-Cousteau
  • The Force Unleashed, Sean Williams
  • A History of the Arab Peoples, Albert Hourani
  • The Venus Throw, Steven Saylor
  • The Essential Koran, translated and edited by Thomas Clearly.

I began this week with Jacques Yves-Cousteau's accounts of his dolphin studies onboard the Calypso, including his thoughts on dolphin intelligence and dolphin-human relations, supplemented by plenty of pictures. I found this to be more interesting than his Whales -- not because of the topics, but because Cousteau spends more time here writing on what the information means and less of simply recounting the information.

I finished Sean William's The Force Unleashed next, it being a Star Wars novel set five or so years before A New Hope. The principle character of the novel is Starkiller, Darth Vader's secret apprentice. Vader has trained Starkiller for many years to be his accomplice in overthrowing the Emperor. The Force Unleashed is part of a multi-media release: this story is also being told in graphic novel and video game form. Although slow at first, it became more enjoyable once the main character was thrown out of an airlock.

Moving on to history, I read A History of the Arab Peoples. Author Albert Hourani begins with Muhammad and ends in the late 1980s, attempting to mention everything in between. There's a lot of scope here, so detailed information is hard to come by -- especially after the rise of the Ottoman Turks. Hourani deals not only with political and religious history, but with geography and social history as well -- devoting specific sections to describing what life in the cities was like for people at various periods. I think the book is most suitable for general reference.

I returned to Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series starring Gordianus the Finder, a private eye of sorts. The book's plot concerns the trial of Marcus Caelius, accused of murdering an Alexandrian philosopher who had come as part of a delegation to lobby on Egypt's behalf in the Roman senate. The theme of the book is the power of Venus, as nearly every major character in the novel is thrown into the plot through the madness of eros in some way or another. Gordianus, in contrast to the rest of Rome, is driven not by power or lust by by the pursuit of truth -- which may or may not feature into the actual trial. As usual, Saylor takes the transcripts of an ancient trial and breathes life into them while giving the readers an enjoyable story.

Throughout the week I read from The Essential Koran, selected readings from the Islamic text. The poetic verses concern the glory of God, urge humans to live justly, and promises justice (and judgement) when the final reckoning comes -- and it will, soon. The Arabic may lose something in translation, as most poetry does. It was helpful for me to see some of Islam's "primary source".

Pick of the Week: The Venus Throw, Steven Saylor

Quotation of the Week: "The water is always freshest at the mouth of the spring." - Gordianus the Finder, as written by Steven Saylor in The Venus Throw. This is an idiom similar to "Get it straight from the horse's mouth."

Next Week:
  • Casebook of the Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov. Guess who bought this on Amazon last week for $5?
  • The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr. Over the weekend I listened to a podcast on this man, a Christian theological and political thinker who has inspired both President Obama and Senator John McCain. Niebuhr came up in other podcasts from the same source, so my curiosity was picqued.
  • The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan, W.G. Beasley. I'm checking this book out in prepration for a Japanese history course I'm taking this fall.
  • The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama.
  • Catalina's Riddle, Steven Saylor
  • Who Needs God?, Harold Kushner. A Conservative rabbi writes to people who are "spiritual, but not religious".

The Essential Koran

The Essential Koran -- the Heart of Islam: An Introductory Selection of Readings from the Koran
© 1994 trans. and edited by Thomas Cleary
202 pages

I was somewhat reluctant to include this as a TWATL post given its nature -- poetic verse, rather religious or not, seems as if it should be appreciated bit by bit over a long period of time rather than "consumed" all in one go -- but decided to comment on it regardless. I read it bit by bit over the course of a week, as I've done with some poetry and short story collections in the past. Although I've read a few books reading Islam, I've never read the Koran itself. It seemed appropriate that I remedy that situation.

Although the Koran is often compared to the Judeo-Christian bible, its format is very different. Rather than being a collection of many works (mostly prose), the Koran is a collection of poectic verse that -- as the stories go -- an Arab named Muhammed heard delivered from an angel and repeated for the benefit of his people, eventually converting the verse into written form and thus producing the Koran. Like most poetry, I suspect it loses a lot in translation, claims to the majesty of Arabic aside. The Essential Koran is composed of bits and pieces of the Koran, so I'm probably not getting the full effect.

The verses encourage humanity to worship God and love wisdom while promising retribution for those that do not. The religion that emerges in this is one similar to that promoted by some of the Hebrew prophets: both urge people to purify their inner life by believing only in the religion of God -- not in "man-made" beliefs like the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus or asceticism. Most of the verses in The Essential Koran either praise God or urge humans to live justly. Those who love the truth and walk in the light will see their reward in a Garden of Paradise, while those who spurn it will be punished with fire. (Middle-eastern dieties and fire...) At times it seems the eternal Fire is reserved only for the fantastically evil, those who realize what Goodness is and decide to do evil just to be spiteful -- but then there are verses that say God is blinding people to light and that these people are beyond help.

Most of the book is lost on a theistic skeptic like myself, but I could enjoy some of the aesthetic quality of the verse and the ideas behind some of them. Some of the references confused me all together, like the sura that says Rome is defeated but will emerge victorious in a few years' time. What does this mean? Why is Muhammed concerned with Rome? Overall I'm satisfied that I read this, as it serves as prime-source material for things I've heard about Islam but have never proven for myself, like Mohammad's opinions on Jesus.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Venus Throw

The Venus Throw
© 1995 Steven Saylor
308 pages

Back during the spring I began enjoying Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series, depicting life during Rome as it passes from republic to empire through the adventures of Gordianus the Finder, ancient Rome's private eye. This book is set some 20+ years after the last story in The House of the Vestals, which I read last: young Eco, who was once a teenager, is now a man in his thirties following in his father's footsteps. Gordianus' family has expanded in the meantime: he has another adopted son in the Roman army, serving as secretary to Julius Caesar in Gaul, and a daughter by his slave-turned-wife, Bethesda. Gordianus has retired from his detective work, although he takes the odd case now and then to keep himself busy.

The book begins with an old Alexandrian philosophy showing up at Gordianus' door: he wants Gordianus' help staying alive. He is the only survivor of a delegation once a hundred strong that sailed from Egypt to Rome to lobby on Egypt's behalf, hoping to keep it free from growing Roman domination. After barely surviving a massacre upon landfall, he and his compatriots have been picked off one by one -- even after arriving in Roma itself. Gordianus is in no shape to help him: he has no influence in the Senate beyond being on friendly terms with Cicero, and the philosopher's enemies are powerful indeed. Before the night is over, he will be dead. A scandalous patrician woman (Clodia Pulcher Tertia) comes to Gordianus and insists that she knows who the murderer was -- and she wants him to find the evidence that will convince the courts. Pressured by her feminine wiles, her silver, and -- more notably in Gordianus' case, since he is the epitome of Roman virtue -- his guilt at having turned the old philosopher away, Gordianus agrees. Thus begins the plot of our novel.

There is a strong theme in this book, that of the power of Venus -- love, or more specifically eros: passionate love that drives mortals and gods alike mad. With the exception of Gordianus and his family, every major character in this book is pushed into the plot through eros. It is not an accident that the plot is set during a religious festival about the same subject. Venus, not philosophic virtue, dominates the minds of these Romans: one of the main characters keeps a massive statue of Venus in her backyard -- the same that graces the cover of the book, which made the elderly librarian volunteer give it a double-take when he checked it out.

Gordianus keeps different statues in his yard, notably a beautiful statue of Minevera -- the goddess of wisdom, justice, and in Gordianus' case, truth. He is neither a patrician nor a philosopher, but he keeps himself true to his own sense of virtue -- one that is properly pious for his time, but admirable to 21st century readers. For all of the silver Clodia offers him, he seeks the truth of what happened -- even if what happened isn't what he or anyone else would have suspected. As usual, Saylor has delivered a very enjoyable narrative that makes ancient Rome live once more, blending historical details with a fascinating story.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A History of the Arab Peoples

A History of the Arab Peoples
© 1991 Albert Hourani
565 pages, including appendices, maps, notes, and index.

I picked this up (with both hands) to add historical context for my reading of The Essential Koran and to fill in the gaps of my knowledge of Arab history, which are as vast as the sands of the Arabian desert. Hourani's History is an expansive work, covering Arab history from the arrival of Muhammed to the late 1980s. The work is general history, with seperate sections within a chapter covering political, social, and economic change. There is a wealth of information here, although that comes at a price: some sections, particularly political history after the first part of the book, feel rushed. Sixty pages after the Ottoman Empire rises, it is the sick man of Europe and the Young Turks are attempting to seize control. Although it is readable, I think the book better serves as a reference than a popular history read, especially given the way Hourani divides the book -- most notably, his pause from the general political history of the first part of the book to deliver several chapters on the geography of the Arab world and life in its cities and countrysides.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Star Wars: the Force Unleashed

Star Wars: the Force Unleashed
© 2008 LucasFilm & Sean Williams
319 pages

Jar Jar Binks: Where wesa goin?
Qui-Gon Jinn: Don't worry. The Force will guide us.
Jar Jar Binks: Ohh, maxi big 'da Force'. Well, dat smells stinkowiff. (The Phantom Menace)

When I saw this in the library catalogue, I blinked -- wasn't The Force Unleashed a video game? Indeed it is, but it's also a book. LucasFilm decided to do something they've done before, which is to present a story told across multiple mediums. I'm assuming Williams took a general plot from one of LucasFilm's creative types and turned it into a book.

Star Wars legend has it that Luke Skywalker's original last name was Starkiller, but Lucas changed it to prevent damage being done to his hero's "feel". That our main character here - a young apprentice who has been raised as a child to be Darth Vader's protege -- has the name "Starkiller" is no accident. I wonder if this is the story that would have been told had Luke Skywalker been not hidden away on Tatooine, but raised by Vader in secret. Our protagonist is being raised to help Vader overthrow the Emperor, which Anakin was already thinking about on Mustafar, when he told Padme that they could rule as an imperial couple and "make things the way [they] want them to be".

When the book begins, Starkiller is nearing the end of his training. To test him, Vader dispatches him on a number of assassination missions in which he is to fulfill Order 66 by killing a few Jedi masters who have been hiding in the ten or fifteen years that have apparently passed since Revenge of the Sith. He is joined by a young pilot named Juno Eclipse (Darth Vader evidently forgetting the effect spending a lot of time in dangerous situations has on young people who are attracted to one another) and a droid named PROXY who is able to project holographic images of various dead Jedi and mimic their fighting styles. PROXY has been Starkiller's nursemaid and friend, although his primary programming is to test Starkiller's saberfighting by attempting to kill him periodically.

The first 77 pages or so are a bit tedious: they remind me most of a video game in that Darth Vader shows up only to say "Go here, kill him" and the main characters fly off to dispatch their foes within a few pages. Things pick up once the Emperor discovers Vader's secret apprentice and Starkiller is thrown out of an airlock. I haven't read very many novels in which the main character is killed within eighty pages, but this is one of them. That's not the end of it, as you might imagine, but I won't spoil anything. After this, the novel picks up strength and becomes a fairly enjoyable read for Star Wars fans. Additionally, the book feeds into A New Hope: the Alliance to Restore the Republic, hinted at very strongly in Revenge of the Sith's deleted scenes, will feature in the plot.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


© 1975 Jacques-Yves Cousteau
304 pages

In every color, there is the light. In every stone sleeps a crystal. Remember the shaman, when he used to say -- "Man is the dream of the dolphin." - "The Dream of the Dolphin", Enigma

"It is obvious that dolphins are often motivated by curiosity, and especially by curiosity about man. One can literally see it in their eyes. This is a fact that can be doubted only by someone who has never really looked a dolphin in the eye. The brilliance of that organ, the spark that is so evidence there, seems to come from another world. The look which the dolphin gives -- a keen look, slightly melancholy and mischievous, but less insolent and cynical than that of monkeys -- seems full of indulgence for the uncertainties of the human condition. Among primates, one sometimes detects what appears to be sadness at not being human. This sentiment is alien to the dolphin." - pg. 27-28

Back in 2007 I read Cousteau's Whales, consisting of recollections of his years spent on the open seas tracking whales (organized topically) replete with plenty of pictures. Dolphins is very much the same: like Whales, it's a translation from the original French and consists of informational recollections about dolphins. There isn't an obvious organization behind the way chapters are arranged: a chapter on dolphin biology may be followed immediately by a chapter recounting human-dolphin interactions throughout history. Nothing other than the subject (and the binding) holds the book together, but given how interesting the subject is to most people, I doubt that it is very much hurt by this.

Despite how familiar dolphins seem, Cousteau writes, we know very little about them. What little information we posses has been collected by observing dolphins in captivity, where their behavior has been "deformed", to use the word his translator likes to use so often. There's a lot of information in here, especially in the chapter focusing on historical interactions between humanity and dolphins. A story from Pliny detailing how fishermen used to fish with dolphins, allowing the dolphins to drive fish toward the shore is followed by Cousteau's account of visiting a tribe in Mauritania that has subsisted on fish caught with the aid of dolphins for untold generations. This section has some of the more interesting pictures, in my view: historical depictions of dolphins. Apparently Jesus has been presented as a dolphin before.

Although the book's subject is interesting, some of the information contained therein might be dated: this was written in 1975, when technological limitations made it impossible to gather detailed information on dolphins in the wild. Today, palm-sized cameras and equipment like this probably make marine biologists' jobs a lot easier.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

This Week at the Library (12/8)

Books this Update:
  • Gold, Isaac Asimov
  • Aristotle's Children, Richard Rubenstein
  • Footprints of God, Greg Iles
  • Anthropology for Dummies, Cameron Smith
  • Securing Democracy, ed. Gary Gregg III
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
This was a well-rounded week, I think: history, politics, essays, short stories, intelligently-written novels, and a guide to anthropology. Isaac Asimov's Gold was first, consisting of essays relating to and stories with the theme of science fiction. I've not seen the essays or short stories in any other collection, and they were classic Asimov: funny, charming, and intelligent. In a few of the stories he pushes his creative envelope: one in particular sees a robot named Cal realize that there is something driving him that may override the Three Laws: the yearning to create.

Aristotle's Children is a work of medieval and church history that focuses on the effect of Aristotelian thinking in the Catholic church's ever-evolving theology. It's a very readable narrative featuring characters like Thomas Aquinas and Peter Abelard prominently. Its success may be limited by its topic: the intellectual life of the Catholic church isn't a topic that enjoys a wide readership.

Greg Iles' Footprints of God is a gripping science fiction and fantasy thriller that builds off of the US Government's attempts to create a superintelligent computer -- one that combines the processing speed of a supercomputer with the creativity and reasoning abilities of the human brain. When main character David Tennant and his friend Dr. Fielding attempt to suspend the project so that side-effects of the projects' human testing can be investigated, Dr. Fielding suddenly dies of a stroke -- and Tennant is given a strong impression by his coworkers that if he doesn't play nice, he will be next. In no time at all, Tennant is running through the woods being chased by government helicopters while having dreams that he is Jesus or God. Iles combines science fiction with metaphysical speculation while doing both well. I enjoyed more than most of Iles' works to date.

Anthropology for Dummies is an introduction to the obvious field. Like most for Dummies books, it is heavily organized and written informally, introducing the reader to the field itself as well as to its areas of interest: biology, language, history, sociology, and a litany of other fields relating to the study of humanity. The book was very helpful and nicely written: I may purchase it in the future for my personal library.

In order to determine how the Electoral College functioned, I checked out a book of essays intended to explain its function to Americans like myself who have very little idea of what it was meant to do or how it works. I was particularly interested in the role of delegates. The book was very informative -- a feat easily done considering how little I knew on the subject. The essays do their job well, explaining both the College's function as it was meant at its inception and now after reforms have made the United States more democratic than it was in its beginnings.

Lastly, I read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a science fiction novel set in a dystopian world where human happiness is pursued at the expense of human culture. Although it does have a story, there's no strongly developed plot that I saw and I suspect the book functions more as a peek into a world meant to raise questions about our own than it does as an entertaining story.

Pick of the Week: Gold, Isaac Asimov.

Next Week:
  • The Essential Koran, the heart of Islam : An introductory selection of readings from the Qur’an; Thomas Cleary. I'm reading this for cultural literacy purposes.
  • History of the Arab Peoples, Albert Hourani. This will give me context for the above read, although I had planned on checking it out for itself.
  • Dolphins, Jacques Yves-Cousteau. Back in 2007 I read his Whales.
  • The Venus Throw, Steven Saylor. You may remember me reading a number of Saylor's historical fiction mystery novels set in republican Rome: it's been a while, but I'm returning to them.
  • The Force Unleashed, Sean Miller. A novelization of a video game, although not one I've played.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Brave New World

Brave New World
© 1932 Aldous Huxley
270 pages

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman introduced the book with his suspicion that Brave New World's predictions were coming to fruition -- namely, that human happiness will be pursued by destroying human culture, or to put it in more ironic terms, all that makes us human. It's a book you've probably heard of: I was introduced to it through a Star Trek novel. The story is set in the future, where Earth is controlled by the World State, which dominates the lives of its wards. Every human institution you know and love -- or despise-- is gone. Even the most basic, the parent-child relationship, has been removed: the opening chapter has a group of teenagers being taken on a tour of a hatchery. As the guide gleefully tells the story of how human beings come to be in this world, she also explains how the World State arose in the after math of a nine-years war.

Humans are now biologically engineered and socially conditioned to fall into caste systems, ranking from administrators (Alpha++) to brute labor (Epsilon--). Pavlov-like conditioning is implemented throughout a person's lifetime to keep them loyal to their caste, to their job, and to the ideals of the world state. When emotional distress occurs, it is dealt with through soma, a drug of some sort. The World State doesn't control everyone: there are "savage reservations" where people still live off the land, and WS people sometimes tour these areas for their own amusement.

The book's story shows that despite all of this conditioning, the human animal has still not created a society in line with its nature: several of the main characters are frustrated by it, and some by their inability to fit in as well as they would like. One of them -- Bernard Marx -- takes a female acquaintance of his to a Savage Reservation, where he meets a World State citizen named Linda who was lost on her outing here -- and who has in the meantime become a mother, an act which is obscene in the extreme for World-Staters. Her grown son John ("John the Savage, typically referred to as The Savage") has grown up trying to behave like a man of two worlds: he tries to please his mother, who has been conditioned to live in the world state, and he tries to live like those on the reservation. He can do neither well, so he asks Bernard if he might join him on a trip back to the World State.

From the Savage's reaction to what he finds in the world state -- not the utopia his mother described but a shallow, sterile, and shockingly indecent place where no one cares about anyone else -- where the joys and miseries of human existence are absent, replaced by self-indulgent human-sized infants. He eventually confronts a world controller (a top bureaucrat), and the two talk for a few pages as the controller explains why science, art, religion, and the family had to be destroyed -- and the Savage defends them.

I don't know a lot about the book's historical context. I'm more familiar with HG Wells' idealistic notions. It's certainly thought-provoking. One question it raises is the source of human happiness: does it come from avoiding unpleasant things and enjoying as many pleasurable sensations as possible? Or do we as sentient creatures really need things like wonder, art, and family to feel fulfilled? Again, I don't know the context Huxley was writing, and I'd like to know more about the social developments that led him to write this to see what their long-term implications might mean. I think it, like Ibsen's A Doll House, could be a "discussion" work, rather than one you just read for the story.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Securing Democracy

Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College
© 2001 ed. Gary Gregg II
171 pages

"The Framers of the Constitution would have been appalled at the notion that over time the presidency would become an objection pf partisan ambition, that candidates for the Electoral College would be identified on the ballot as supporters of particular candidates or pass unmentioned altogether, that in some states the electors would be required by law to vote for the candidate to whom they were pledged, and that for all intents and purposes the President of the United States would be directly elected by the people." - p. 61, author Paul Rahe

I collect recordings of political speeches, and there's one from 2004 that tends to bother me. It's either former President Bush's address to the RNC or his victory speech, but in one of the two he addresses party members, citizens, and "delegates". That one word makes me raise an eyebrow. Delegates? I've had a basic understanding of the Electoral College's function since high school, I suppose, but when I heard "delegates" and remembered that people don't actually vote for the president, I was instantly bothered. What's going on here? I know that the winners of a given state's election get that state's electoral votes, and it those votes that count in the national election, but I was bothered by the fact that there were people who cast those votes. Who's to say they won't just vote how they see it, instead of how the people see it? I decided to read this book to sort out these questions -- to figure out where delegates fit into the system. Humorously, I found the answer to those questions in the introduction -- but I read the rest of the book, too, and I'm glad I did.

The book is a collection of essays from various authors published as a result of the drama following the 2000 election, when people started calling for the abashment of the College. Concerned, Gregg began looking for contributors for a book meant to explain and defend the electoral college. The themes in the various essays are by and large the same: the Constitution was written to create a series of checks and balances not only in the central government, but between the government, the states, and the people themselves. In his introductory essay, Gregg writes that the founders did not intend to create a wholly democratic country: they intended to create one that created good laws, and to this end they attempted to create means through which laws and presidents would be decided on with great deliberation -- not drummed in through majority rule, which is susceptible to growing wildly passionate about one issue or one man. (I suppose an example of that is people in Alabama voting for a ban on same-sex marriage: no gay person in their right mind would come to Alabama to get married. That's like going to Saudi Arabia as a woman to feel the sun on your face.)

According to Gregg and the other authors, the states were to send delegates -- prudent statesmen with no government role and well-respected citizens -- to a convention, where they would all talk together and decide on what man was best for the job. Also according to the authors, this worked twice: once to elect George Washington, and once to re-elect him. After that, the formation of party politics changed the nature of the electoral college. Interestingly, although the College no longer works the way it was intended, it works still to moderate the two-party system. Many of the authors elaborate on this.

The book reads well: since the authors were not working in concert with one another, they sometimes repeat one another on general statements, but there's a general variety of topics here. Often they will mention the same facts or refer to the same situations, but use them to discuss different sides of the issue. The book gives me a lot of think about, as my own political opinions in regard to ideal democratic systems are mixed. It did help me understand the function of the College, both today and as it was intended. The book includes several relevant articles from the Constitution and from the Federalist Papers.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Anthropology for Dummies

Anthropology for Dummies: From Archaeology to Linguistics -- Your Plain-English Guide to the Study of Humankind
© 2008 Cameron Smith with Evan T. Davies
360 pages

"The human species has found many ways to be human." - p. 259

I don't think I've commented on a for Dummies or Complete Idiot's Guide book on here before, although I posses perhaps a dozen of them, all history-related. I've found them to be useful guides for finding out general information and they serve nicely as introductions to subjects I know little about. Although some people do not take them seriously, the television show Jeopardy! has shelves of them in their library: take that as you will.

This book follows the pattern of most for Dummies books: it is highly organized for readers looking for specific chapters and sections, written in an informal matter (the author referring to himself with "I" and to the reader with "you") that incorporates joking statements and witty section titles ("My Career is in Ruins" covers archaeology, for instance), and ends with two "Top Ten" chapters. One contains the top ten things the reader must remember about anthropology if nothing else, and the other contains the top ten movies and books with an anthropological theme, including one of my favorites, Carl Sagan's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. The impersonal and simple language make the book easy to read through, although some readers may object to the author offering personal opinions that may not be warranted. (A case can be made for the author referring to the most probable of hypothetical situations, but there were other instances in which I didn't think his opinions had place in the text. This may be personal taste, however.)

Given the book's subject - anthropology being the study of humankind here -- there's a lot to cover. Anthropology and the book incorporate history, linguistics, biology and evolution specifically, sociology, sociological theory, economics, agriculture, religion, and more. Dr. Smith's own speciality seems to have been archaeology, but he explains the other disciplines well, too. Before "The Part of Tens", which is a hallmark of the for Dummies book, Smith ends the book proper with a chapter on how anthropology can be used to inform and plan public policy. I enjoyed the experience, found it helpful to read about the development of the field itself, and may purchase it in the future for my own library. It's a recommendation to those interested in the included subjects or humanity in general.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

In the Footprints of God

In the Footprints of God
© 2003 Greg Iles
459 pages

The saying Deus ex machina, literally translated as "god from the machine", refers to a plot device in which a superman power is used to suddenly resolve the conflict that drives plot. This could refer to all manner of things, but by extension it happens when the characters suddenly reveal something that stops the plot cold. In a way, it renders the entire story preceding it pointless. But literally, "god from the machine" -- that's an interesting phrase.

David Tennant is in quite a situation. He's been asked by the President of the United States, a friend of his brother's, to provide ethical oversight to a government program that will dwarf the Manhattan Project in importance if its goals are realized. The Trinity project seeks to create artificial -- nay, super-intelligence. By combing the reasoning and imaginative powers of the human mind with the processing speed of a supercomputer functioning at quantum levels, the Trinity program intends to create a computer that will make existing computers look like like abacuses in comparison. Given the controversy over the Manhattan Project about the use of nuclear weapons, the US President has decided to cover his posterior here by having ethical oversight.

So what happens when people start dying for trying to suspend the project so that problems of a serious nature can be investigated? You end up with a classic Hollywood movie plot: the compassionate doctor who knows too much being chased through the country, hounded by an amoral Government Agency and nearly killed by German mercenaries who only show emotion when they want to terrify you. If that sounds typical or even generic, keep reading: that isn't the end of the story. That only sets up the bulk of the novel, and it will bring Deus ex machina to mind -- but not yet.

David Tennant's story is told through the first-person, and his voice tells most of the story -- although curiously enough Iles does switch to third-person limited and focuses on the amoral government agency's security chief to tell the first part of the story from the vantage point of both pursued and pursuer. Later, she will fade, but the third-person will be used for two other characters. Tennant and his friend Dr. Fielding are responsible for stopping one of the most expensive government programs to date (save for wars) on the basis that scanning equipment related to the plot is causing brain dysfunctions among test subjects, including our own David Tennant -- who frequently dreams that he is seeing the history of the world through the eyes of God, and the history of Jesus through the eyes of Jesus. What makes this interesting is that Tennant is nonreligious: he's an atheist who would probably attach the humanist label to himself in the same way that Penn Cage did in The Quiet Game and Turning Angel.

This and the potential of the planned supercomputer (Deus ex machina) make a science fiction novel address metaphysics, but not in a "New Age" way. In Turning Angel I was impressed by Iles' ability to render characters of various skeptical bents and religious affiliations believable, and this continues here. Although Iles' characters do talk about God and the God-idea does feature in the plot, it is close to Contact. While I've never read The Tao of Physics, I've gotten a sense of its reputation from skeptics and my own skeptical sensibilities were not offended.

The book is quite strong: Iles has rendered another thriller, this one most interesting in touching on metaphysical issues. Unlike some of his previous works (Turning Angel again), violence and elaborate descriptions of sex are fairly absent. Although Iles could have easily shot himself in the foot writing about sensitive issues such as these -- religion, namely -- I don't think he does. This may be his most riveting book yet.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Aristotle's Children

Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and illuminated the Dark Ages
© 2003 Richard Rubenstein
368 pages

That title is a touch misleading. While Rubenstein will mention Christians, Muslims, and Jews rediscovering ancient wisdom, he only does so in one chapter. What this book is really about is the growth of intellectual life in western Europe after Aristotle's works begin filtering into the continent -- and subsequently, the development of Catholic theology as it resists, co-opts, and is finally changed by Aristotelian thinking. This is presented in a very readable narrative, often focusing on key individuals whose names are typically well-known, with some exceptions. Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas are two examples of characters who feature prominently.

Much of the book concerns the growing intellectual life of the Catholic church. Some readers may find it unusual that the Catholic Church served to make Aristotle a part of the culture, but as far as I know, the church was the only way any intellectual idea could have made its way into the culture. The universities themselves developed from cathedral schools: for a long while, the Church was the only culture-producing entity in Europe. As a result, the Church is the subject throughout the bulk of the book with the exceptions of its first and final chapters. Rubenstein keeps the narrative grounded in more material history, weaving political and economic stories in with the intellectual history.

Rubenstein uses the last chapter -- in which Aristotle's logic is used to disprove his ideas about the geocentric universe -- to call readers to question traditional narratives written about science and religion that pit the two always against one another, as well as to recognize that modern science, despite its depth of knowledge, does not have what Aristotle had in a unified view in which science, ethics, and metaphysics were one. That's a discussion for another time, I think. As said, the book reads well and if you're interested in the influence of Aristotle or the growth of intellectual life in the Church during the time period of the opening centuries of the second millennium, this is for you and you'll find it a worthy read, I think.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


© Nightfall, Inc. / The Isaac Asimov Estate
345 pages

"At present, when there are a great many writers attempting to scale the mountainside of science fiction, it must be rather annoying for them to see the peak occupied by elderly has-beens who cling to it with their arthritic paws and simply won't get off. Even death, it seems, won't stop us, since Heinlein has already published a posthumous book and reissues of his old novels are in the works." - p. 146, from "Inventing a Universe".

Frequent readers know how big a fan I am of Isaac Asimov, and how much I especially love his short-story collections, so I was very much looking forward this to collection of previously uncollected work. The book is possibly a companion piece to Magic, as both were published in the same year, both share the same format, and both have similar cover art. Like Magic, Gold is a collection of short stories and essays by the late and great Isaac Asimov. Like Magic, Gold is devided into three sections: stories, essays, and more essays. The difference here is that the first set of essays deal with science fiction in general while the second set of essays deals with writing, and writing science fiction in particular.

The stories rate as some of the best I've read from Asimov so far, although to be fair my enjoyment may have been heightened by anticipation. The titular piece, "Gold", is especially good: Asimov tells the story of an artist in the future who composes "compudramas" -- works of art that seems to be somewhere between Pixar-type animated works that are serious, IMAX experiences involving both music and etheral images, and a holodeck. The artist is best known for bringing King Lear to life for his "modern" audience despite the cultural gap, and is approached by a relatively unknown science fiction writer who wishes our artists to create a compu-drama based on a very esoteric work of "hard" science fiction where the lead characters are so far from normality that the artist has to push his creative boundaries to make them alien yet relatable to the human audience. Asimov takes us through the artist's process -- something that seemed to me would be difficult to do even for a seasoned author such as Asimov. Some of the stories are elaborate pun setups, and one of them in particular -- "Cal" -- features a robot who discovers something greater than the Laws of Robotics.

The second section consists of essays on science fiction as a genre and seems to pull from anthologies that Asimov edited, using his introductory essays. These are unedited, meaning the reader will experience Asimov referring to volumes of stories they have no access to. At first this seemed clumsily done -- why not edit the references out? -- but it doesn't retract from the essays too much. Some essay topics include the problems with proposed ways to travel the galaxy, robots, women and science fiction, psychohistory, "golden ages", flying saucer literature, and the influence of science fiction. The third and final section seems to consists of editorials from one of Asimov's magazines in which he writes in response to readers' questions (as he does in "Religion and Science Fiction") or muses on his own subject. These concern the writing process -- plot, use of metaphor, and the importance of dialouge.

The collection was a true joy to read: Asimov is as ever funny, lovable, intelligent, and inspirational. Here was a man who loved life, loved his craft, and loved his readers. Gold is a a fitting tribute to him.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

This Week at the Library (5/8)

Books this Update:
  • Lemony Snicket's The Carniverous Carnival, The Grim Grotto, The Slippery Slope, The Penultimate Peril, and The End.
  • Walden, Henry David Thoreau
  • To Have or To Be?, Erich Fromm

This week I finished Lemony Snicket's series of unfortunate events. By this point the children have decided to strike out on their own and find answers -- why does Olaf keep chasing them? Who is VFD, and what do they have to do with Count Olaf? And where is that mysterious ticking noise coming from? * Even Count Olaf will be overshadowed by plot elements as the books draw near series' end. Rather than repeating what I said in the series comments, I shall simply link to it.

Next I read Henry David Thoreau's Walden, his account of a year spent living on the shores of Walden Pond, living off of six weeks' worth of labor and spending much time communing with nature. Although the book is dominated by Thoreau's accounts of watching the seasons pass and the forest-dwellers live their lives, there is considerable social criticism and philosophical musings. Those familiar with Thoreau's transcendentalism will see it here. Many of his criticisms seem perfectly valid, particularly those endorsing simple living. The effect was somewhat subdued for me, having read excerpts from his journals beforehand.

Lastly I read Erich Fromm's To Have or To Be?, which is a straight work of social criticism. Fromm sees humanity as having trapped itself in a "having mode" of existence: according to him, we build our sense of identity on what we have. This is not limited to material possessions: it extends the way we view relationships, religion, and intellectual ideas. Although this leads to psychological distress, Fromm writes out of a sense of greater urgency -- for he believes this problem will lead to utter disaster for humanity and the planet. The problems caused by this having-mode of existence cannot be remedied through government legislation or the adoption of ideologies: only a change in the human character can save us. Fromm proposes a way to change our characters, deliberately modeling it on the Four Noble Truths (and perhaps to an extent the eight-fold path) of Buddhism. The book does not go into as much detail in the "offering a solution" phase as The Sane Society, but I think it will serve to make those who read it think.

Pick of the Week: The End for fiction, To Have or to Be? for nonfiction.

Books Next Week:
  • Gold, Isaac Asimov.
  • Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College, ed. Gary Gregg. This is a book of essays on the electoral college system in the United States. I don't understand where "delegates" fit into the system, although I get its function well enough.
  • Anthropology for Dummies, Cameron Smith. I've found the for Dummies books to be adequate introductions to their subjects, and I'm enduring a science drought.
  • The Footprints of God, Greg Iles. The novel appears to be a thriller set in the context of what happens when scientists attempt to create a computer that is superior to the human brain in all respects -- not just processing speed.
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley.
  • Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and illuminated the Dark Ages, Richard E. Rubenstein.

It's doubtful that I'll get to all of these, but you never know.

To Have or To Be?

To Have or to Be?
© 1976 Erich Fromm
215 pages

Society was sick when Erich Fromm penned The Sane Society in the fifties, and it hadn't gotten any better by the 1970s when he was asked to participate in a series of books called "World Perspectives". Back in the fall of 2008, I think, I read his For the Love of Life, containing an essay on "Ennui and Affluence in Our Society". Fromm believes that human beings today have trapped themselves in "having" mode: they define their sense of self based on what they own. This sense of ownership is not limited to the mindset of consumerism: according to Fromm, we also try to posses other people and ideas. That this leads to unhappy boredom and psychological distress is not bad enough: Fromm believes that if this continues, humanity will destroy itself. It could be through nuclear war or ecological collapse, but one way or another the desire to consume and possess for ourselves will destroy us in a physical as well as psychological sense.

At first, Fromm explores how the having-mode effects so much of human experience, including religion. Fromm is a humanist in a slightly more classical sense of the word: he ties Karl Marx, Albert Schweitzer, Jesus, and Buddha together. (Fromm's For the Love of Life drew from Marx, Freud, and Zen Buddhism just for starters.) After comparing this to the being-mode -- which isn't as well defined, but which he refers to as attempting to be fully human, cultivating ourselves through art and literature, and enjoying life -- he then looks as "New Man" and "The New Society". It is Fromm's opinion that having-mode cannot be remedied by legislation: to ensure our happiness and livelihood, the character of humanity must be changed itself. That's a tall order, but his outline for effecting this in our lives is a deliberate echo of the Four Noble Truths.

The book doesn't go into as much detail as The Sane Society, but I don't think it is meant to. It was published a part of a series of books perhaps meant to make people think about their lives and if the way things are now is a way we can be satisfied with. Although I was familiar with the essence of this from "Affluence and Ennui", he builds on it a great deal here. It's worth the read if you can find it, but that may be hard to. It's something of a miracle that my local library has it.