Thursday, September 17, 2009

This Week at the Library (16/9)

Books this Update:
  • Death by Black Hole, Neil deGrass Tyson
  • Murder on the Appian Way, Steven Saylor
  • Waiter Rant, "The Waiter"
  • Taming the Mind, Thubten Chodron
  • Pebble in the Sky, Isaac Asimov
  • Dark Force Rising, Timothy Zahn
  • The Philosophy of Humanism, Corliss Lamont

This was an unexpectedly busy week for reading, although I had read most of two of these before finishing them this week. I began by finishing Neil deGrass Tyson's Death by Black Hole, a collection of popular science essays and edited for continuity purposes -- largely so that the essays refer to one another. The 42 essays are divided into seven sections: "The Nature of Knowledge", "The Knowledge of Nature", "Ways and Means of Nature", "The Meaning of Life", "When the Universe Turns Bad", "Science and Culture" and lastly, "Science and God". Tyson is definitely entertaining to read: popular science readers should give this one a go if they can.

I then returned to Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series. What stands out most about this book is that history is becoming a more powerful force in the books. Before it was just the setting: when commenting on Roman Blood, I said that Gordianus could just as easily be a streetwise detective in the gritty streets of New York back in the thirties or fifties. As the series has progressed, this has become much less true. The murder of a populist politician, Publius Clodius, has outraged the common people of Rome. The book begins with rioting in the streets, rioting that will see houses of any stature looted and the Senate house burned to the ground. Gordianus escapes this chaos when he is asked by several people to find out the details of Clodius' murder in the Roman countryside. Unfortunately for Gordianus, politics extend far beyond the city walls, and he will find himself in the thick of things. The book ends with the dictatorship of Pompey the Great, meaning -- for students of Roman history -- that the death of the Republic isn't too far off.

I next read Waiter Rant: Confessions of a Cynical Waiter, a semibiographical book consisting of essays recounting the author's near-decade of waiting tables and serving as front-area manager. I said before that it reminded me of This American Life in that it uses the stories of some people in society to both entertain and provoke to response. The Waiter isn't just interested in making the reader laugh or wince: he muses on political and sociological topics that relate to why their lives are the way they are.

I also finished Taming the Mind by Thubten Chodron on various elements in Buddhist religion and philosophy. I wasn't too happy with the book: it was more dogmatic than other Buddhist books I've read, even Zen Buddhism for Beginners. It also seemed to lack focus. (No pun intended.) It covers a little bit of everything but doesn't go into a lot of detail: only one section of the book seemed to deal with the topic's title, and I think had it been expanded the book would have been better for it.

I picked up Triangle on Sunday for some lunchtime reading. It contains all three of Isaac Asimov's Empire books, and despite having had it for a year or so I've never read any of them. I read through Pebble in the Sky that Sunday, though, and found it enjoyable enough. The book is set in the galaxy's far future, when humanity has populated most of the galaxy and been unified under a central empire ruled by Trantor. So much time has passed that no one really knows of humanity's origins on the lowly planet of Earth. It is viewed by the galaxy as you or I might view a wretchedly small town in the middle of a fetid swamp populated by violently superstitious people. On Earth, the reigning theocrats believe that in times past, Earth was strong, mighty, and ruled the galaxy. This opinion has led to their outright revolt several times, and when a time-traveler from 1949 is accidentally thrust into the future, the secret police believe he is an imperial agent sent to uncover their plans for future galactic domination.

I next continued in the Thrawn trilogy by reading Dark Force Rising. The new Republic continues to struggle with its place in the galaxy, and political intrigue makes things all the more worse. Grand Admiral Thrawn is continuing to strengthen the Empire under his leadership, and is enjoying a growing reputation for unfailing cunning. A very interesting element of this book is the Dark Force, a ghost fleet of sorts lost years before the clone war. The ships' crew went mad and destroyed themselves, but not before launching into deep space with no known coordinates. If found, its two hundred ships could give either the Empire or the New Republic a decisive tool to eradicate the other. This is not quite as strong as the first book, but it is strong enough to keep the story going.

Lastly, I read an introduction to the philosophy of humanism by Corliss Lamont, former president of the American Humanist Association. I read it more for historical information, which I was able to find here. I don't know that the book's purpose is to convince those who do not associate themselves with the label: I think it may be more suitable for those looking for information about Humanism, like those who are already drawn to its values. It's recommended reading for humanists an those interested in nonreligious philosophies of meaning.

Pick of the Week: Murder on the Appian Way was too strong to ignore.

Quotation of the Week: I read a fun little ditty in The Philosophy of Humanism that I'll share next week, but what I liked most this week was an excerpt from Taming the Mind:
By ourselves is evil done;
By ourselves we pain endure.
By ourselves we cease from ill;
By ourselves become we pure.
No one can save us but ourselves;
No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path,
Buddhas only point the way

Potentials for Next Week:
  • Constantinople: The Forgotten Empire, Isaac Asimov
  • Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, John F. Buehrens, F. Forrester Church
  • Rubicon, Steven Saylor
  • Flim-Flam! Psycics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions; James Randi
  • In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed, Carl Honore
  • The Last Command, Timothy Zahn

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