Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Gladiator Dies Only Once

A Gladiator Dies Only Once: The Further Investigations of Gordianus the Finder
© 2005 Steven Saylor
269 pages


Although the meat of the Roma sub Rosa series is its novels, Steven Saylor also enjoys writing short stories set within it, as these allow him to explore elements of Rome that don't justify an entire novel. They also allow him creative leeway, demonstrated nicely in The House of the Vestals, his first story collection, where he told a ghost story and used Egypt as the setting several times. This is the second and as far as I know final short story collection in the sub Rosa universe, with stories set between the Sullian dictatorship of Roman Blood and Cicero's consulship in Catalina's Riddle. Most of the stories are set very early in Gordianus' career, before he and his wife were married and had established a family.

House of the Vestals established a patrician friend for Gordianus in the rotund shape of Lucius Claudius, and he appears in most of the nine stories here. The length of the stories varies: some, like "If Cyclopes Should Vanish in the Blink of an Eye" are short, while others are long. Through the course of them, Gordianus rubs shoulders with the best and worst of Rome, and does a little traveling (to Sicily, for instance) along the way. All of the stories were quite enjoyable, although a couple seemed a bit short -- "The White Fawn" is an example of that. It is set in Spain, where Pompey the Great is attempting to subdue the last remnants of Marian's forces, leftovers from the Roman Civil War who intend to make Spain the home of a new Roman republic. The "white fawn" is said to be a manifestation of the goddess Diana, who whispers advice into the rebel general's ear. The stories are not only enjoyable, but paint vivid and informative pictures of historical Rome. This may be one of my favorites of Saylor's works.

This Week at the Library (27/10)

Books this Update:
  • A Mist of Prophecies, Steven Saylor
  • The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Mark Forstater
  • For Everything a Season, Philip Gully
  • Darwin Awards III, Wendy Northcutt
  • The Cosmic Connection, Carl Sagan

This update is a bit unusual in that it covers two weeks: I think I've updated once a week since spring 2008, but reading has been slower than usual because of papers and a difficult read, one that I've not finished yet -- a formal translation of Epictetus' Manual for Living and Discourses. Two weeks ago I continued in the Roma sub Rosa with Mist of Prophecies, which breaks the emerging pattern of stories against war by taking us to Rome in a period of relative peace. Gordianus takes it upon himself to investigate the murder of a seeress called Cassandra, for reasons made clear to the reader near the end. Mist offers more characterization on Gordianus' part, but isn't quite as riveting as novels that precede it.

Next I read a partial translation and commentary on the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Author Mark Forstater updated the language of a more conservative translation, then organized sections of the Meditations into themes ("Cultivation of Death", "Oneness of Nature", etc.). This text follows an extended introduction on Forstater. The book is an obvious recommendation for those interested in ethical philosophy: it makes the Meditations more accessible, and may give those who have read it a more filling experience through background.

I followed this with Quaker pastor Phillip Gully's For Everything a Season, stories about his and his town's life organized into chapters that follow Ecclesiastes "For everything there is a season" passage. (If you're bored, click that and read verses 19 through 22 and tell me you're not surprised to read such heathery in the bible.) The book is rather charming, and makes for enjoyable reading. The stories show people living the simple life, relatively unspoiled by modernity.

I followed that up with a little levity in the form of the third collection of Darwin Awards, "honors" given to people to improve the human gene pool by offing themselves in stupid ways before breeding. The collection wasn't as strong as the first, but there were a couple of amusing tales. Interestingly, one of the Darwin awards in this book just featured in a article -- entry #6.

Lastly, I read Carl Sagan's The Cosmic Connection, a series of essays written about astronomy and space exploration in the hopes of expressing Sagan's own enthusiasm for those objects and cultivating them in readers. Although some essays are more technical than others, they should be appreciated by most lay readers. I recommend the book to science buffs and Sagan fans.

Pick of the Week: The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Mark Forstater

Potentials for Next Week:
  • A Gladiator Dies Only Once, Steven Saylor. This is Saylor's second collection of Roma sub Rosa short stories.
  • The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins. This was the surprise entry from last week.
  • Discourses, Epictetus. (I wouldn't count on it.)
  • Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, Sudhir Venkatesh. I'm rather looking forward to this one: Venkatesh penned the fascinating Gang Leader for a Day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Cosmic Connection

The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective
© 1973 Carl Sagan
273 pages

Carl Sagan penned The Cosmic Connection in the interests of communicating his own exhilaration at the human exploration of space. He begins by expressing his appreciating for being alive when he was, at such a unique point in history when human beings were capable of and willing to explore the solar system: no other generation will visit the planets Sagan and his colleagues did for the first time. The book almost seems a collection of essays at times, united only by the common topic of astronomy and space exploration, but Sagan does weave inter-essay references into a few of them, particularly towards the end. Although some essays are more technical than others, the book should be readable for even lay persons. I would recommend it particularly to astronomy buffs and Sagan fans.

Darwin Awards III

Darwin Awards III: Survival of the Fittest
© 2003 Wendy Northcutt
304 pages

The Darwin Awards are tongue-in-cheek "honors" given to adults who remove themselves from the gene pool by killing themselves in extraordinarily stupid ways, thus improving it. The home of the Darwin Awards is online, but from time to time awards find their way into collections such as this. I figured I'd check the book out for a few laughs. The stories in this book are not quite as funny as the original, but usually manage to be amusing, even if only mildly so. There are a few that are staggeringly funny, though. If you're interested in the book, I'd first suggest you visit the website and sample a few of the wares first.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

For Everything a Season

For Everything a Season: Simple Musings on Living Well
© 2001 Phillip Gully
220 pages

I don't recall what lead me to reading this book, although I'm sure my fondness for the Hebrew book of Ecclesiastes had something to do with it. I also have a soft spot for Quakers, so a book of stories about the simple life set to themes from Ecclesiastes might have been appealing. An oft-quoted passage of Ecclesiastes, and one perhaps known better for its having been turned into lyrics by Pete Seeger, maintains that in life there is a time to sow, a time to reap, a time to laugh, a time to weep, a time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together (on the Sabbath, to bean the guy sweeping his porch), and so on. Each of the "A time to" qualities is given a chapter here, consists of a short story about author Phillip Gully's life that in his opinion demonstrates that there is indeed a time for all these things.

Gully is a Quaker minister, hence my earlier reference, any many of the stories reference his experience as a minister in his community. He lives in a small Indiana town, one that seems to have held a get-out-of-change-free card, for most of the simple pleasures he enjoyed as a boy are enjoyed in turn by his boys, with a few exceptions like the lamented Royal Theatre, a teacher of everything that was good in life -- Gully's life, anyway. The stories are very charming -- folksy, but not annoyingly so. Gully has a delightfully dry and self-depreciating humor, and his gentle and kind voice endeared him to me: only once did he border on growing overly preachy.

Although the book and chapter titles come from the Christian scriptures, this is not a religious book: it is more a book about a man and town who are more moved by religion than most people, and in more good ways than bad. Gully is very conservative in his way, but at the same time he has moral values that break conservatism's hold on him. In "A Time to Hate", he writes that he believes hate is to be cast away, that we make a choice to hate just as we make a choice to love.

In short, it's a charming little book of stories about life in a small Quaker town, one where humanity still flourishes without regard to too much of modernity's excesses -- a place the reader might wish to live, so that they might sit on Gully's self-built stone patio and listen to him talk, or simply enjoy the silence. It's a lovely little book.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius

The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius
© 2000 Mark Forstater
288 pages

I first encountered Marcus Aurelius in November 2007, reading his Meditations during Thanksgiving. Although I did not mention it any detail here, the Meditations have stuck with me ever since, often providing me with a source of strength during troubled times. Aurelius' words provoked an interest in Stoicism, an interest that would lead me to visit sites such as the Humanist Contemplative and Humainism, two blogs/essay repositories focused on the intersection of Humanism, Stoicism, and Buddhism. DT Strain of the Humanist Contemplative has a "suggested reading" list, some titles of which I've read already and others I intend to track down. The first new book I read from this list is The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius, functioning as a partial translation of the Meditations with preceding commentary.

After author Mark Forstater became interested in Stoicism, he decided to visit the Meditations in their most conservative translation, one promised to be as close to the literal meaning of the Greek as possible. He then began updating the language for easier reading while maintaining the original meanings of the word and Marcus Aurelius' tones. I was able to compare Spiritual Teachings' passages with my copy of the conservative translation I read two years ago and can say with reasonable authority that Forstater succeeded in his goal: while these passages read easily, they have abandoned the first text. I say this not because I believe conservative translations are better, but because while some readers are interested in the general message, others might be more interested in the way Aurelius expressed that message. This is the difference between those who love Sharon Lebell's modern interpretation of Epictetus in The Art of Living and those who loathe it. For stater has produced more of an edited translation than an interpretation.

Spiritual Teachings is not the meditations in whole: Forstater focused on specific passages and groups them into themes ("Cultivation of the Self" and "Death" are two), sometimes repeating passages or portions of passages when they address multiple ideas. The passages constitute the bulk of the book, being preceded by commentary from Forstater in the beginning. I would recommend the book to those who have heard of the Meditations but who don't want to dive head-first into the Roman emperor's biography and more esoteric references, or to those who have read the Meditations and are interested in a pocket-sized book containing their favorite passages.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Mist of Prophecies

A Mist of Prophecies
© 2003 Steven Saylor
304 pages

Gordianus the Finder and Rome have been through much turmoil in the past two preceding books, Rome having been plunged into civil war by the ambitions of those two men and Gordianus having been dragged behind history's wake by his family -- one son serving as Caesar's aid, and a son-in-law kidnapped into Pompey's service. A Mist of Prophecies provides a respite: after becoming more important and then directing the plots of the books, the historical background has become once more background. Gordianus the Finder has returned to Rome to rest, while Caesar and Pompey have their battles in Greece, Spain, and elsewhere. Rome is far from a peaceful sanctuary, however: although Caesar left a government to manage the city, it is now largely ruled by the creditors. Mob action against the creditors features into the book's plot.

The book opens with a young seeress called Cassandra collapsing into Gordianus' arms in the market as he and his wife shop for radishes to cure said wife's illness. Cassandra lives only long enough to tell Gordianus that "she did it, Gordianus...she poisoned me". The death of this purportedly half-mad seeress from parts unknown has a strange effect on Gordianus: despite being in debt himself, he arranges to have this stranger to Rome properly buried, complete with a funeral process. As her body is being burned in the necropolis, Gordianus happens to see the hill lined with Rome's matrons -- the leading ladies of Rome's patrician class are all in attendance, watching from their litters with guards in tow. Gordianus is at once puzzled: what is their connection to the deceased?

Cassandra's memory will haunt Gordianus until he is told to stop moping and solve the mystery of who killed her. Cleverly, Saylor uses Gordianus' recollections of his encounters with Cassandra while he moves through the city interviewing the matrons to catch the reader up on Rome's political happenings since Last Seen, as Mist is set about a year since then. Saylor thus avoids giving the reader an extended lecture, as the order in which Gordianus sees the matrons coincides with his recollections. We thus get two stories running with one another: one political, one a mystery. What is unusual about this book is that rather than Gordianus tell it in person, he seems to be recalling it from the future, referring to even events set in the present as "In those days...". Usually Gordianus narrates the story as he lives it, and the reader is given a sense of following in his footsteps. This is a tale to be told to us, although as the book progresses the feeling of the usual format becomes more pronounced. The plot wraps things up nicely, giving us an answer to why Gordianus felt impelled to give the young woman a funeral -- and giving us a look into continuing character development on his part.

Although Mist of Prophecies isn't the most riveting of the sub Rosa series, it's still a fine addition. Next week I may continue in the series proper or take a break to read through a collection of short stories set within the series as a whole, in the same vein as The House of the Vestals.

Friday, October 16, 2009

This Week at the Library (16/10)

This Week at the Library:
  • I Sold My Soul on eBay, Hement Mehta
  • Last Seen in Masillia, Steven Saylor
  • The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton
  • Humanist Anthology, ed. Margaret Knight and James Herrick
  • Love and Death, F. Forrester Church

This week I learned that I am not always the ardent follower of wisdom that I would like to be. I was given a week to write a seven-page essay articulating my opinion on the Meiji Restoration and how it might be best described (coup or revolution). I committed the same folly that the unnamed character from Kokoro did when working on his thesis: I thought about it a good bit, but I didn't begin doing the work until it was almost too late. I finished a paper due at 5:00 at 4:45, making me feel rather foolish. Because the latter part of the week was occupied by my note-taking and writing, I didn't do a week-in-review as promptly as I usually do.

As far as books go, this was a gorgeous week. All five works I read would have been "pick of the weeks" in an ordinary week, and for that reason I'm not doing to do a "pick of the week" this week, which I usually do to spotlight a book that was particularly well-written or which made a powerful impact in my mind. I began with Hemant Mehta's I Sold My Soul on eBay, his account of visiting several dozen Christian churches of varying sizes and doctrines over the course of a few months. He did so partially out of desire to learn about Christian culture and as a consequence of auctioning off his own church attendance. A man interested in improving Christian outreach won the auction and asked Mehta to attend a variety of churches, take notes, and report back with his thoughts on what they did poorly and what they did well. I Sold my Soul on eBay is a result of this. While it seems to be aimed at Christians, the novelty of someone alien to Christian culture immersing himself in it and giving his objective reflections is enjoyable by anyone.

I next continued in Steven Saylor's series about Rome under the rose. The historical background of the books has becoming the plot's driving force, and in Last Seen in Masillia, the plot brings Gordianus and his son-in-law to a town that will be later known as Marseilles, to investigate a rumor about his son Meto's death. The town is under siege by Caesar's forces, making it difficult to get into and impossible to get out. Gordianus is soon stranded in the town and occupies himself by investigating a death he witnessed within hours of stepping foot inside Marseilles, when a young woman plunged off of "Suicide Rock" into the sea below. The young woman's father wants Gordianus to ascertain if her death was murder or suicide. There are plenty of plot twists here, as well as information for military history readers on ancient sieges.

Next, I was able to read Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy, in which he addresses the everyday concerns of six famous philosophers -- Socrates, Epicures, Seneca, de Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Rather discussing the whole of their philosophical output, de Botton labors to show how some of their thoughts can be applied to help everyone in responding to unpopularity, poverty, inadequacy, heartbreak, and hardship. Despite the book's title, these philosophical principles are not simply consoling band-aids: if taken to heart (or to one's mind, which a more proper expression), they are preventive measures. To use Socrates' section as an example: if you ground your beliefs in reason and do your utmost to ensure that they are in line with reality, when you should have no fear of faltering when people oppose your ideas. Even if your opinions are wrong, they were honestly come by and there is no shame in an honest mistake. (On a final note, this book was actually cited in last week's The Wisdom of Harry Potter.)

I then moved on to Humanist Anthology, although I commented on Love and Death first. Humanist Anthology is a collection of humanistic views throughout the ages, beginning with the ancients (Confucius and Epicurus) and ending with modern personalities like Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough. Themes include ethics, god-belief, religion, wonder, idealism, and the primacy of reason. The thoughts collected are generally civil, although criticism of religion can be quite sharp (particularly in Mark Twain's case). The average length of collected material may be about a page, as there are longer essays and shorter quips both. I highly recommend it to all readers, especially humanists, but sadly it will not be easy for you to find as it is out of print. Perhaps in the future a revised edition will come out.

Lastly, I read cancer-stricken Unitarian minister Forrester Church's account of his relationship with death -- death as a concept, the death of his loved ones, and his own looming death. Church sees death not as a foe to be fought, but the punctuation point of a well-lived life. He believes death to be the cradle of religion, as he defines religion to be our response to the twin realities of being alive and having to die. The book acts as ministerial advice to those who have recently experienced the death of a loved one or are dying themselves: reading it was quite a thought-provoking and emotional experience, one I would recommend to others.

Quotation of the Week: Although Humanist Anthology had plenty of winners, it may merit its own full-length post on another blog, so I'd like to share this quotation from Love and Death:
"It is not in our words, but in our life that our religion must be read." - attributed to Thomas Jefferson's letters.

Potentials for Next Week:
  • Epictetus' Discourses, as translated and edited by the classics club. It's much more formal than The Art of Living, but I wanted to read a more conservative translation/interpretation of Epictetus for comparative reasons.
  • The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Mark Forstater. This is on the recommended reading list at the Humanist Contemplative.
  • A Mist of Prophecies, Steven Saylor. The last book saw Gordianus make a staggering decision, one promising interesting but tormenting character development.
  • The Darwin Awards, volume something or another. After reading two books on Stoic philosophy, I may want a little levity.
  • The Cosmic Connection by Carl Sagan. Not sure what this one is about, I just like the author.
  • Mystery Entry, Mystery Author

Hint: the mystery entry was released this month. Additional hint: it is obliquely related to another book on the list.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Humanist Anthology

Humanist Anthology
© 1995 ed. Margaret Knight and revised editor James Herrick
220 pages

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world! - Alexander Pope

In a creative mood a few months back, I began assembling a personal anthology of sorts -- collecting philosophical articles, essays, quotations, and poetry that I have found to be inspirational, highly informative, or otherwise helpful in my philosophical-spiritual journey. Thus, I was quickly interested by this book's title, as it seemed similar to what I was doing with my own reading. Humanist Anthology collects religious, scientific, philosophical, political, and literary essays and quotations with a humanistic theme ranging in time from what Karen Armstrong called "the age of transformation" to the end of the 20th century. Authors included exhibit a good deal of diversity: there are obvious choices like Voltaire and Robert Ingersoll, not-so-obvious choices in Seneca and deists, and at least one questionable choice in Herbert Spencer. (I will be cautious in criticizing this: I associate Spencer with the inequality-justifying ideology of Social Darwinism that soils Darwin's name, but Spencer's own views might not have reflected the view of the robber barons and neo-conservatives who espouse it under a different name.)

Themes and some contributing authors to them include:
  • the necessity of free Reason as a means of finding the truth and guiding our lives. (Voltaire, Thomas Paine)
  • the feasibility and indeed superiority of ethical systems based on reason and empathy instead of "revealed" and supernaturally-based premises. (the Stoics, Jeremy Bentham, Charles Darwin, G.E. Moore)
  • criticism of organized religion, particularly Christianity given that the majority of authors included were western thinkers (Mark Twain, Bertrand Russell)
  • criticism of the idea of a benevolent god (Robert Ingersoll, Mark Twain)
  • criticism of pro-deity arguments (T.H. Huxley, Robert Ingersoll)
  • the role of wonder (Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell)
  • the importance of idealism (Sir Julian Huxley, M.N. Roy)

There's a fair bit of balance here. Contributions are sometimes short, sometimes long: a scoffing paragraph by Twain on religion may follow a passionate plea by Ingersoll for the liberty of thought, again followed by a more serious and involved essay on the substance of ethical living and how one may define "good". Although there are many famous names here, there are also more anonymous ones whose words reveal fascinating lives -- like a French abbot (Jean Meslier) who for years had been a closet skeptic, who used his death to apologize to his flock. The book itself is not self-congratulatory: it doesn't just offer a humanist more eloquent expressions of his or own beliefs. The works here often made me reflect on my own views, and I felt reproached more than once -- mostly by Seneca. The inclusion of humanistic politics was particularly interesting. I think highly of the book, for it is such a marvelously Humanist work -- collecting not only the views of religious skeptics and curmudgeons but of passionate idealists like Ingersoll. Today's humanism could do with more passion.

I would recommend the book to any reader with a high-school reading level, including to religious moderates. Alas, I fear you will be unable to find the book, for it is out of print and used copies on Amazon are being offered for perhaps too high a price. I will be working with the book over the weekend and hope to produce a list of authors included and the works cited for the benefit of those interested who cannot find the book. The results will be posted on my philosophy and humanities blog.

Oh, unhappy human kind
In those grim gods, your own creation,
What anguish for yourselves you find,
For babes born what tribulation!
Not palms in prostrate prayer outspread,
Not all the blood on alters shed
Is piety, but that calm mind,
Whose fruit is tranquil contemplation. - Lucretius, translated by J.S.L. Gilmour and R.E. Lantham

Love and Death

Love and Death: My Journey Through the Vally of the Shadow
© F. Forrester Church 2008
145 pages


"Want what you have. Do what you can. Be who you are." - author's personal motto

When typing my comments for Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, I visited the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations website and saw that one of the book's co-authors, F. Forrester Church, had recently died from cancer. I learned from his obituary that before his death he penned a book on death and dying called Love and Death. I was immediately interested in what a dying man had to say about the subject and decided to read it as my way of paying respects.

The theme of love and death was a common one for Church, having sermonized about it many times. He wrote in this book that when he was diagnosed with cancer, he became strangely anticipatory, describing himself as a student who had long studied for the examination of dying and wanted to see if he would prove worthy. Church believes that death is an essential part of the human experience, one that defines us and gives rise to religion -- which he defines as the human response to the twin truths of both being alive and having to die. After introducing the book, he delves into his history of death, reflecting on the deaths of friends and family that have marked his personal life and his service as a minister. He does this to establish why he views death with the grace he does, and once it is established he begins to speak as a minister -- offering meditations and advice.

The book appears to be written for those who are or who have loved ones who are dying, as well as to those who have recently lost loved ones. Neither of these categories apply to me, at least not to my knowledge, but still I was able to receive a great deal from his message. The book is very personal: it's not something one should read on the subway. The book isn't just read, it's experienced. I don't think I'll soon forget my own time spent reading it, and as a result of it I intend to read more of Church as I am able and recommend Love and Death to you.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Consolations of Philosophy

The Consolations of Philosophy
© 2000 Alain de Botton
278 pages


A number of months ago, I stumbled by chance upon a fascinating television series called Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness. Host Alain de Botton addressed the everyday concerns of six famous philosophers in the show’s six episodes, demonstrating on video his and others’ attempts to take the advice of thinkers past to heart. I’ve mentioned here and other places innumerable times, so taken was I with the idea -- and when I found out that the shows were based on one of de Botton’s works, I knew I would someday read it.

Like the show that it spawned, The Consolations of Philosophy is divided into six sections focusing on the works of Socrates, Epicures, Seneca, Michel de Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. The focus of the book chapters tends to be more broad than the television episodes on them, and present philosophy as a salve to eliminate our distress at being stressed, angry, unpopular, or heartbroken -- just for starters. De Botton integrates pictures directly into the text: while they sometimes serve as garnish for the text, more often than not they are directly used in the course of de Botton’s discussion. Consolations is Epictetus’ kind of philosophy: it’s street wisdom, to be employed anyone. Our author writes plainly and candidly, with the kind of self-revelation he finds so endearing in reading de Montaigne’s Essays.

The book's contents, in brief:
  • Socrates' Consolation for Unpopularity, or his view of self-esteem, is that people should draw their self-image not from what others think about them or their opinions, but from the assurance that their beliefs and actions are guided by Reason. The section includes an explanation of the Socratic method, and it is this de Botton believes to be the basis for Socrates' grace in accepting his imposed death sentence.
  • Epicurus' Consolation for Not Having Enough Money is realizing that happiness is the ends and money is not necessarily the means. He advocates a life filled with simple pleasures, and believes we buy things in a misguided attempt to find fulfillment. True fulfillment, Epicures says, lies in freedom, friends, and self-reflection. Epicures is a personality who comes to mind whenever I read about simple living, the slow movement, and anti-consumerism.
  • Seneca's Consolation for Frustration is Stoicism, and de Botton focuses on Stoicism's treatment of anger as well as addressing questions of theodicy. de Botton places more emphasis on what we cannot control than what we can.
  • Michel de Montaigne's Consolation for Inadequacy is twice as long as any of the other sections and is difficult to summarize, but it may suffice to say that Montaigne believes we humans live far too much in our heads: we are embarrassed by our "animal" functions of sex and defecation and arrogant about our opinions not because our opinions are great and truthful and our estimation of ourselves is deserving, but because we are deluding ourselves. Thoughtful humility seems to be in order.
  • Similarly, Schopenhauer’s Consolation for a Broken Heart is that we’re animals, driven to procreate, and this business of falling in love is our genes’ way of screwing with us. It’s not our fault we fall in and out of love and find ourselves stuck in hopeless relationships: forces within our bodies impel us to seek out viable genetic mates, and they do not care if those mates are compatible with us in the long term.
  • Nietzsche brings up the rear by offering a Consolation for Hardship: it’s the struggle up the mountain that leads to fulfillment. Life is hard, and we must persevere if we are to make anything of it.
Although de Botton’s emphasis is on the everyday applicability of these ideas, he does establish background as necessary to understand where these men are coming from. He doesn’t go into a system of thought like Stoicism in a great deal of detail, for instance --- but does so enough that we understand Seneca’s basis for saying what he says. This is the kind of thinking that Epictetus thought needed to be “rescued” from the high-tower academics and brought down to everyday life. I’ve found the television series and the book to be ever helpful. This is what philosophy, the love of wisdom, should be going for: making sense of life. I imagine this is one I shall return to for future reads, and it is of course a recommendation to you.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Last Seen in Massilia

Last Seen in Massilia
© 2000 Steven Saylor
277 pages

When I last visited Rome under the rose, I followed Gordianus as he experienced Rome at war. Pompey the Great fled Rome and then Italy when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and Gordianus was present to see Pompey’s last stand on Italian soil -- having gone their to rescue his son in law Davus from his de facto indentured servitude in Pompey’s army. Although Gordianus and Davus have returned to Rome safely at the opening of Massillia -- a Rome now governed by Marc Anthony on Caesar’s behalf -- a letter informing Gordianus of his son Meto’s death brings him to the south of Gaul. The city of Massilia, now Marseilles, is close to breaking under a Roman siege. Through audacious guile and divine (or authorial) favor, Gordianus is able to sneak inside the city, where he is told that his son Meto was exposed as a spy and plunged to his death from the city’s sea-facing cliffs.

Gordianus is thus stranded in the city with miserable news plaguing his mind, but he is not the only man in Massillia to experience misery. The constant cry of babies attests to the beginnings of famine, and Gordianus himself witnessed a young woman plunge to her death in the same spot as Meto just hours after his arrival. A citizen of the city delivers Gordianus from his mental anguish when he asks him to ascertain the truth about his missing daughter, who he presumes was the cloaked woman whose death Gordianus witnessed.

As is usual in Roma, things are not as they seem: Gordianus and the others are in for many surprises, some dark and some relieving. Saylor's narrative is as strong as ever, and dominated by the historical context more than in novels prior. As I mentioned while reading Rubicon, the historical context is moving more and more of the books' plots in its wake. Saylor's focus is on the besieged city, but Gordianus' private mystery manages to keep its own in terms of vying for the reader's attention. The book has surprising character development in store for Gordianus, heightening my interest in how future events will shape him. The book is more poignant than most of Saylor's previous works: while I have often felt Gordianus' anger, indignation, satisfaction, pride, joy, and political weariness, Massilia forces the empathetic reader to experience sorrow and deep self-doubt. I am captivated by the drama of the Finder's life, but anxious as to what the consequences of the book's final pages will be for him. Eight books in, Saylor still manages to surprise me.

Readers interested in ancient military struggles will find Saylor's account of the city's siege to be particular interest.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I Sold My Soul on eBay

I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith Through An Atheist's Eyes
© 2007 Hemant Mehta
210 pages, with discussion-group guide.


"If Christianity is right in saying God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then God is the ultimate judge of my character and my life. So I don't understand why some Christian groups seek to fulfill that role in [the United States]". - p. 168

Recent years have witnessed the rise of "The New Atheism", promulgated by books by authors like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, as well as blogs. One of the more popular blogs is that of The Friendly Atheist*, maintained by celebrity skeptic Hemant Mehta. Mehta is such because he offered his time on eBay to the religious: they could bid and send him to whatever church they wanted, for however long they wanted, providing they were willing to pay. The proceeds went to a skeptical foundation. The winning bid was made by one Jim Henderson, who asked Mehta to attend a variety of different churches and comment on his experience -- what churches did right, what they did wrong, -- and on the Christianity presented there in general.

I Sold My Soul on eBay is Mehta's attempt to organized his thoughts hermetically. After introducing himself as a Jain-turned-atheist who has his doubts about religion but is willing to confront any evidence against his beliefs, he begins commenting on his period of regular church attendance. The first three chapters in this section of the book focus on similarities Mehta noticed in similarly-sized churches -- small, mid-sized, and large or enormous. The fourth chapter pays special attention to three churches Mehta visited and particularly enjoyed. One of them was Joel Osteen's church, which surprised me: I harbored a bit of prejudice against the man because of his appearance and rumored reputation, thinking him just another televangelist. Mehta believes him to be sincere and views his approach -- dismissed by other Christian pastors as "pop psychology wrapped in bible verses" --more relevant to the lives of people than biblical ideology. The last chapters fulfill Mehta's job in pinpointing what churches are doing right (community outreach, relevant lessons, ministers who know how to speak) and what they're doing wrong -- indulging in overly lengthy song sessions, being aggressive and intolerant of those with different opinions, and so on. With this list is, Mehta focuses more on what the congregations themselves are doing -- coming to church late and not taking it seriously when they do arrive. "If you don't like church, then don't go to church," he says.

What makes the book interesting beyond the novelty of an atheist and an author alien to Christian culture immersing himself in it and offering candid opinions is that it seems to have truly been written in he spirit of creating a dialogue. The book has a forward from one of the ministers who Mehta befriended, and a guide for the reader seemingly intended for small church groups who want to discuss and use the book to improve their ministries finishes it off. Mehta manages to be candid and civil without being obnoxious or patronizing. Some nonreligious readers may find it entertaining, whole the religious who want to make their religions more viable could benefit from it.

* The copyright mark in this book proves how faulty memory can be. When putting my memories together, I thought that I started reading Friendly Atheist in 2006, the year I became a skeptic -- but, if the book itself was only released in 2007, I must not have started reading there until later.

This Week at the Library (7/10)

Books this Update:
  • The Last Command, Timothy Zahn
  • Beautiful Minds, Maddalena Bearzi and Craig B. Stanford
  • Kokoro, Natsume Soseki

This was a quiet week for reading, as most of my energies were committed to a paper for my senior seminar. I began it by finishing the Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn. When the series began, the Empire was a devastated shadow of its former self -- but the initial two books saw the rise of Grand Admiral Thrawn, who rallied the troops, dealt the Republic devestating defeats, and laid the groundwork for eventual Imperial victory. Only decisive action taken by our heroes -- the original trilogy crew and two additions -- can defeat the grand admiral and save the Republic from being strangled in the cradle. I thought the book was quite strong, moreso than Dark Force Rising. It was a fitting if almost unexpected end.

Next I touched a personal reccommendation from a friend called Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Dolphins and the Great Apes. The book's two authors each write on their respective field experience within a theme (intelligence, sex, politics, interaction with humans) and allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about similiarities for the most part. The book also warns against the impending exinction of the subject animals. What makes the book most fascinating is that similairies between dolphins and the apes have arisen through convergent evolution -- they are not closely related to one another the way humans and chimpanzees are.

Lastly, I read assigned reading for a Japanese history course in Kokoro. Kokoro is set at the turn of the 20th century. Japan, under the Meiji emperor, has seen rapid modernization. In my experience, books and papers concerned with "modernity" often emphasize human feelings of alienation and loneliness, and this is very much the case with Kokoro -- dominated by a sense of melancholy. Each of the main characters' lives are motivated by their responses to their own loneliness. It was an interesting read, one readers might consider taking up if they have access to the novel.

None of the three books particularly dominated the other two this week -- not the first time that has happened.

Potentials for Next Week:
  • The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton.
  • I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith Through an Atheist's Eyes, Hemant Mehta. I've been a reader of Mehta's "Friendly Atheist" blog for a few years now and am about to read the book that made him famous.
  • Last Seen in Massilia, Steven Saylor. Caesar and Pompey have left Rome without a government and at war with itself: within this context, Gordianus the Finder will need to keep his family safe.
  • The Different Paths of Buddhism, Carl Olson. For my Japanese history paper, I am anticipating researching Buddhism's evolution in Japan, particularly exploring why or how it could be adopted for military means. (I would appreciate reccommendations for those more familar with Buddhist history than I.)


© 1957 Natsume Soseki
248 pages


A favorite history professor of mine typically assigns novels as part of his required reading, and for his Modern Japanese History course, I read a novel set in the last years of the Meiji period. The title refers to "the heart of things". My instructor introduced it as being one of his favorite historical novels, and one that doesn't seem foreign in the least. Despite this disclaimer, the novel does not fit western conventions of what a novel "is": the formula of conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution do not easily fit the work. This by no means detracts from the reading experience: it makes it different. The book is divided into three unequal sections: the first two are narrated by a never-named college senior who describes his growing friendship with a resident of Tokyo, a man he refers to only as "Sensei". Their friendship is developed in the first section, and the second section sees our narrator graduate from the university in Tokoyo and return to his parents' home. Although he wants to return to Tokyo to begin his life -- hopefully one like Sensei's, involving no job and plenty of leisure time to putter around and read books -- his father's ailing health prevents him from doing so. As the Meiji period and his father's life come to their end, our narrator receives a long letter from Sensei -- unusual, because Sensei is not in the habit of writing letters, long or otherwise. That letter, "Sensi's Testament", constitutes the bulk of the book and makes him the effective main character of the novel. The book ends with Sensi's revelations, making me wonder how the initial narrator might have reacted or responded to them.

What strikes me most about Kokoro is its sense of melancholy: whenever scenes from the books wrote themselves into my head, the skies were forever grey.The characters moved slowly under them, beset by frowns on their faces. A few characters try to remain chipper, but they can only "whistle in the graveyard". Discussions from a sociological theory class came to mind: the author's focus seems to be on human reactions to increasing modernity, and the resulting sense of alienation and loneliness. Fighting loneliness is a preoccupation of most of the book's characters: the narrator seeks Sensei out as part of that fight, and Sensei's own life has been altered dramatically by his own fight and his role in others' fighting.

I would reccommend the book in the same way I would reccommend an interesting strain of tea: I think it should be experienced, and it leaves a thoughtful aftertaste.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Beautiful Minds

Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins
© 2008 Maddalena Bearzi, Craig B. Stanford
368 pages

As this was a personal reccommendation from a friend, I opted to read it before continuuing in Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series. I'm interested in both primate and cetacean intelligence, making the recommendation rather spot-on. Beautiful Minds functions primarily as a comparison of primate (chiefly chimpanzee) and cetacean (primarily dolphin) biology and societies. The authors do not make the comparisons themselves: as experts in their respective fields, they split related chapters and each discuss that topic (intelligence, politics, sex and gender roles) within their own field. The reader is left to see the similarities and differences for himself for the most part. The book quotes from books I've actually read this year -- Frans de Waal's Our Inner Ape and Jacques-Yves Cousteau's Dolphin. What makes the primate-dolphin similarity so intriguing is that their respective ancestors were not similar: we come from different areas of the mammalian line, and so what similarities there are, particularly in the case of intelligence, represents convergent evolution. I think this helps the case that intelligence has evolved in part to deal with larger social groups, as the great apes and cetaceans are such social creatures. The book also serves as a warning, as nearly all of the animals discussed are in danger of going extinct within another human generation.

I definitely recommend it to those interested in primates, cetaceans, biological causes of culture, intelligence, or anthropology.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Last Command

The Last Command
© 1991 Timothy Zahn
496 pages

In The Last Command, Timothy Zahn draws the Thrawn trilogy to its close. As the book opens, the Republic is in dire straits: the Empire has been strengthened by both its capture of an abandoned fleet from the Clone Wars era and the fact that hidden cloning cylinders under the control of Grand Admiral Thrawn have are now fully operational -- giving the Empire trained crews to man those ships. Thrawn's military genuis is further supplemented by an intelligence source within the a dark Jedi using the Force to coordinate imperial movements using "battlefield mediation". In order to survive, the New Republic has to survive Thrawn's first full-frontal assault against their borders, find and and eliminate the intel source, and somehow destroy the cloning centers inside the Emperor's secret mountain hideout.

The cast includes all of our heroes -- Luke, Leia, Han, Threepio, Artoo, Lando Calrissian, and Wedges Antilles in addition to "Emperor's Hand" Mara Jade and Talon Kardde, the smuggler who helps the New Republic a bit more often than a truly neutral character might. Jade's characterization is one of the more interesting elements of the book: the last command given to her by the Emperor was to kill Luke Skywalker, which makes their working relationship interesting. The lead characters are maturing more, Han Solo in particular. The series' end was unexpected, but the third book reads much better than the second and the trilogy ended on a high note.