Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Best of Robert Ingersoll

The Best of Robert Ingersoll
© 1993 Roger Greely
175 pages


This week, I was able to read through a collection of quotations by Robert G. Ingersoll under the title of "best of". The quotations are introduced by a biographical essay of Ingersoll, then organized by alphabetical topic and take up most of the book, with a few short speeches -- one for his brother's funeral and others honoring recently deceased poets, scholars, and other men whom Ingersoll admired -- near the end. The book's appendices are written by the editor of the book and concern the history of his birthplace museum and various things said about him by contemporaries after his death. The book is shorter than I expected, and did not contain the text of larger lectures as I anticipated before seeing the page count. The quotations included, however, are some of his best -- and even included some I have never encountered before. The image of Ingersoll that comes forth through these selections is one of a passionate and intelligent man, every bit the "preacher of humanity". His quotations regarding religion are particularly strong, displaying why I like Ingersoll so much: he doesn't just roar at orthodoxy, he celebrates humanity and exhorts his listeners to think for themselves and live more deeply in love. He is the quintessential Humanist.

The book is an obvious recommendation to Robert G. Ingersoll fans, but should have strong appeal to skeptics, atheists, rationalists, skeptics, the liberal religious, science supporters, and especially humanists.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Marx in Soho

Marx in Soho
© 1999 Howard Zinn
88 pages

"Oh, ja -- 'capitalism has triumphed!' -- but over whom?" - Marx, Marx in Soho

Although The Zinn Reader held a near-monopoly on my attention last week, there was a brief thirty-minute timeframe in which I visted my post box, discovered to my happy surprise that a book had come in early, and excitedly read through it. As you might guess from those comments, Marx in Soho is not a lengthy work: it is not even a book in the usual sense, but a play written by Howard Zinn. I came to Marx in Soho by the same means I came to The Zinn Reader:  You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train,  a documentary on Zinn's life.  Film from a production of Zinn's speculative play in which Karl Marx visits the present day from the "beyond" featured in the movies, and it intrigued me enough that I started looking for recordings on YouTube. Those were well-done enough to merit my looking for the book, which I did.

As said, the play's premise is one of speculative fiction. Karl Marx, annoyed that his name and life's work are being slandered in the modern world, is able to badger the Powers that Be into letting him visit the living world just for one hour -- although, due to a bureacratic mix-up, he finds himself in Soho, New York instead of Soho, England. The play is a monolouge, although we hear from other characters through Marx's reflectings on the past. Most of his attention is focused firmly on the present, as he admits that his predictions of class revolution and Communism were off, muses on why, and applies his criticisms of capitalism in the 19th century to capitalism in the 20th. Marx is portrayed not as a sage-like Gentleman Scholar in this play, but as an ordinary human who loved his wife and children, endured a bad cough,  turned his home into a salon for the dicussion of economic and political matters, and who is passionate about his work. Zinn's Marx has a sense of humor, sometimes making wry comments to the audience after his more spirited rants have attracted negative attention from "Heaven" -- lightening flashes whenever Marx becomes too animated.

Marx in Soho is a fun little read. It's almost a modern Communist Manifesto, communicating Marx's ideas to a lay audience. It's nowhere near as thorough as the Manifesto, but the 21st century's attention span may be too short to endure even the short work that is the Manifesto.  Marx in Soho is fairly well done -- it's readable, presents the Manifesto's basic tenents, entertains, and humanizes a figure who is more legend than man. My only raised eyebrow comes from Marx speaking in Zinn's voice toward the end.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Zinn Reader

The Zinn Reader
© 1997 Howard Zinn
668 pages

When I pulled this book from the shelf, I did so with the intention of checking it out and reading it over the Thanksgiving holiday. I did not anticipate the book monopolizing my interest from the moment I peeked inside on my way downstairs to the circulation desk to check it out until the minute I finished it. That a book of nearly seven hundred pages, often about politics, never lost my interest is impressive indeed.

Last week I watched a biographical documentary about the life of author Howard Zinn, a historian whom I read in the early spring. His People’s History of America and People’s History of American Empire were historical narratives with political messages, wholly interesting to me.  The man who emerged from the documentary and from this book is fascinating: he grew up poor, in the slums of New York, back when the United States had its own labor and socialist movements. He was part of a B-17 crew during the Second World War, and afterwards became a historian and political activist, a combination of roles he sees only as natural. By chance he was sent to the South just as the Civil Rights movement began in earnest, and has written commentary on seemingly every major social and political event of the sixties, seventies, and eighties. This book contains a large sampling of articles, essays, newspaper columns, book introductions, and other literature he produced during the period, and it is a staggeringly communicative book.  Zinn is easily the most captivating political author I’ve ever read, communicating not just history, but the emotional effect of history. Zinn’s indignation, sadness, and anger are obvious, but never overwhelming.

The Zinn Reader is one man’s commentary on his and the United States’ history and development. Zinn is a character in a larger story, responding to the historical events that unfold around him. Zinn is very much involved with history: for him, the idea that the historian is and must be  neutral is wrong, fallacious even.  Historians, and scholars in general, have the right and duty as human beings to respond to what is happening in their world -- to champion the causes they see as righteous and to attack with fervency what injustice and lies they can. He doesn’t write simply on the major events of his life -- World War 2, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam -- but on the minor parts as well (Boston University’s “battleground” role during the rise of the student left) - -and on the whole scope of American history, from Columbus to the Gilded Age and beyond.

The highest praise I can give to any book is that it added depth to my life in making me think: Zinn addresses questions of mine in regards to civil disobedience (when is it “right”, namely), and makes me examine old ideas and new ones alike. The book swept me away, and I imagine it will be holding sway over my mind for a good long while, in the manner of Neil Postman. I don’t know if I’ll read anything more memorable this year -- I doubt I could. I recommend this to you utterly.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

This Week at the Library (12/11)

Books this Update:
  • A Gladiator Dies Only Once, Steven Saylor
  • The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins
  • Off the Books, Sudhir Venkatesh
  • Caesar's Judgment, Steven Saylor
  • An Honorable German, Charles McCain
  • Robert Ingersoll, David Anderson
In this past two weeks, I have been continuing in the Roma sub Rosa series, first with A Gladiator Dies Only Once -- a collection of short stories set in the beginning of the series -- and Caesar's Judgment, one of the last books in the series proper.  Both books are examples of Saylor at his best, putting together interesting stories, believable characters, and a lively historical setting. Caesar's Judgment is more of a political thriller than a mystery novel, but this certainty doesn't detract from the experience. A Gladiator Dies Only Once in particular is now a favorite.

The Roma sub Rosa series wasn't the only bit of historical fiction I read, as just recently I finished the excellent An Honorable German, one of the finest WW2-era novels I've read. Author Charles McCain's main character is a German naval officer named Max Brekendorf, and the story follows him as he matures both as a military officer and a person. Characterization is particularly strong in this book, and it tells a story that should be more known -- that of Germans who were neither Nazis nor helpless and impotent bystanders.

In terms of nonfiction, I read Richard Dawkins' latest release -- The Greatest Show on Earth, a rather thorough and quite readable case for evolution complete with Dawkins' usual wry humor and fantastic color plates, following it up with Sudhir Venkatesh's Off the Books, a detailed look at the underground economy of urban slums, that gives the reader a grim look at what people do to get by in the absence of job opportunities and effective law enforcement.  I finished with a biography of "beloved Colonel Bob", Robert G. Ingersoll. I started the biography in the spring but wasn't able to finish it before summer arrived and I lost convenient access to my university library, but the book gave me plenty of background information about the life of a man I find admirable, and made my mental image of him a bit more polished, as author David Anderson doesn't shy away from Ingersoll's faults.

Pick of the Week: I'm leaning toward either A Gladiator Dies Only Once or An Honorable German.

Quotation of the Week: "Gentlemen -- we are arguing about words, not reality." - Richard Dawkins, pointing out the problems in scientists, historians, and others who attach themselves too strongly to labels and descriptions that may limit their perceptions. The necessity of breaking label-boxes is especially salient for me as a history and sociological student.

Upcoming Potentials:
  • No Less Than Victory, Jeff Shaara: the final book in his WW2-European Theatre trilogy. It's a new release, so I may have trouble getting it from my local library...
  • The Best of Robert G. Ingersoll: Selections from his Writings and Speeches, ed. Roger Greely. Guess why I decided to finish that Ingersoll biography this week?
  • The Triumph of Caesar, Steven Saylor. This is the last book in the Roma sub Rosa series: it's also the only book I'm sure I'll be reading next week.
  • Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Volume 1.  I'll be reading this in the next week, but I probably won't finish it for a while: like my Black Widower collections, I prefer to read this a little at a time.

Robert Ingersoll

Robert Ingersoll
© 1972 David Anderson
141 pages

You may have never heard of Robert Ingersoll before, but you've probably seen him: I use a portrait of him as my "user picture" here on blogger. As you may be able to guess, I hold him in high esteem -- enough to have written a tributary essay in his honor. I encountered quotations from him at Humanism by Joe, went to his Wikiquote page to find more, and have in the years since started collecting his speeches on my computer, re-reading favorites like "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child" or "Why I Am Agnostic".

After an intruductory chapter exploring Ingersoll's childhood and historical context,  Anderson committs different chapters to exploring Ingersoll's role as a lawyer, politican, and -- finally -- orator. Anderson approaches Ingersoll the same way I would approach Cicero: carefully, wanting to comment on a remarkable personality but also wanting to be fair about it. I use Cicero as an example because Ingersoll  reminded me of him in his early adulthood while functioning as lawyer and politican. He's a master orator,  but uses his gift as a tool to accomplish his job. My own affection for Ingersoll not withstanding, I don't think he's bad as Cicero in regards to being a mouth for hire.  According to Anderson, Ingersoll was especially gifted at "waving the bloody shirt", stirring up emotional support for his cause by referencing heroic deeds of men gone before who endured much to accomplish what they did. Ingersoll as occassional demagouge is a somewhat disturbing image for me, but one believeable and perhaps predictable. Oratory is a powerful tool. Anderson takes time to comment on especially notable speeches of the Ingersoll canon, exploring what they reveal about Ingersoll's political and religious convictions -- as well as his literary preferences. A number of Ingersoll's speeches are tributary in nature: he praises such men as Abraham Lincoln, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Diderot.

The book is well written, and fair. Although Anderson often compliments Ingersoll, he does not hestiate to criticize him, often rather sharply. When referencing "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child", for instance, Anderson writes that Ingersoll was too narrow in his focus. Rather than attacking broad social issues, he only commented on matters of concern only to his own middle class, and conservatively so at that. I don't know if it's fair to critcize Ingersoll for not being a feminist before his time, although he was such a radical personality in other areas, pehaps it is. Ingersoll was in his way a very conservative man, very much attached to the idea of the family and a "classical liberal" in the ecnomic sense. What Ingersoll often earns praise for  from Anderson -- and what I love him most for -- is his humanistic passion. I have never heard a more passionate defender of the human spirit than Ingersoll.

I would reccommend the book to those interested in Ingersoll, either as fans or as those who simply think him an interesting historical figure worth finding more about.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Honorable German

An Honorable German
384 pages
© 2009 Charles McCain

I saw this book on special display at my university, and decided to read it given my interests in Germany and naval stories. (The latter is not an interest that has surfaced here, although it probably will in the future.)  An Honorable German is the story of Max Brekendorf, who begins as an officer aboard the Admiral Graf Spee, a German battleship operating in the Atlantic in the opening months of World War 2. Germany's naval fortunes being what they were during that war, informed readers will be not be surprised that the Graf Spee is not Brekendorf's only posting during the conflict. Two stories develop here, each running beside the other: the first is Brekendorf's development as a naval officer in a conflict that he and his comrades are destined to lose, and this constitutes the military-driven portion of the story. More fascinating for me was the development of Max's character. His opinions, prejudices, and values are challenged and change throughout the course of the novel -- not only at sea, where the "right" course is often difficult to discern, but with successive visit home to Germany, where he witnesses the consequences of war and the ever-tyrannical totalitarian state.

The book was a splendid read. It never failed to hold my attention, and the narrative filled with little details that gave the story life and made the setting more interesting for the readers, as well: I learned a few things in the novel I may have never encountered elsewhere. Characterization seemed well-thought out:  Brekendorf begins the book as an essentially decent man. He isn't an unrealistic epitome of grace who makes every other character in the book look like a dengerate schmuck by comparison: he's just a man with his own prejudices and values, some shared by his countrymen and some not. Even though the reader may disagree with his opinions, they may still be able to sympathize with why he thinks as he does. What is remarkable about Brekendorf is how he maintains his integrity even his life is put more in peril everyday and rasher decisions would be easier to make. I also got a sense of what Germany was like during this period from the perspective of people living there: the story made me think of the horrors people visit upon one another in war, a meditation imminently appropriate for this Armistice Day.

I enjoyed the book immensely and reccommend it to those interested in German history, naval stories, or the human side of war.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Caesar's Judgement

The Judgment of Caesar
© 2005 Steven Saylor
352 pages

When we last left Rome under the rose,  the civil war between Caesar and Pompey began to slowly conclude as Pompey's ranks dwindled and his history of victories was rendered meaningless by a long string of defeats to Caesar. Saylor moved his attention from the conflict back to Rome and its many mysteries, and we saw Gordianus attempt to solve the mystery of a young woman's murder. He was quite close to the deceased, and The Judgment of Caesar opens with his family traveling to Egypt to put her remains to rest in the Nile. This is not the only matter that brings Gordianus to Egypt, nor is it his primary concern: his wife Bethesda has been ill for some time now, and they have come to Egypt primarily in hopes of finding a cure for her in the Nile.

Gordianus' timing could have stood improvement: as his ship draws near Alexandria, it is captured by Pompey's forces. The last time Pompey and Gordianus stood on a ship together, Pompey attempted to strangle our protagonist with his own bare hands -- and his regard for Gordianus has not improved since. Caesar's arrival complicates matters, and Gordianus soon finds himself dumped unceremoniously in the ocean while the two great fleets manuever -- lost to his family and friends. Fate will bring them back together again, of course, and Gordianus will find himself in the thick of political manueverings between Julius Caesar, the boy-king Ptolemy, and his sister/wife/queen Cleopatra.

Caesar's Judgment, like Catalina's Riddle, is more political thriller than mystery. The book's mystery -- the attempted murder of Caesar and Cleopatra -- appears two hundred pages in and is resolved within twenty. Although Caesar is "judge" in the matter, taking Gordianus' investigations into account, his most important decision lies in which of the Egyptian monarchs he intends to support. As is common with Saylor, he supplements the book with historical notes, explaining how he worked the clay of historical facts into the crafted work that is this altogether riveting political historical fiction.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Off the Books

Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor
© 2006 Sudhir Venkatesh
426 pages

In the spring, I read Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day, an analysis of gang life in one of Chicago's more prominent street gangs, which Venkatesh referred to as the "Black Kings". Although the book's focus was on the gang, its relationship to the local community showed me how difficult was for people living in that area to simply get by: in the abcense of any federal or municipal help, the people of the community had to make do with what they had, and that often meant relying on the gang for some services even though many community leaders despised them. Another work by Venkatesh, Off the Books, came up in a lecture on urban poverty in a sociology class, and I knew it was a must-read for me.

Off the Books shifts Venkatesh's focus to the community of "Maquis Park" and the unofficial economy that undergirds it.With so few jobs in the area, people make a living however they can. Some of the methods chosen are conventional, but with a twist: an automechanic may pay a fee to a local landowner to use his parking lot or adjoining alleyway as a place to work on cars. Others are unique and defy easy labeling, like the information broker or opportunity realtor who helps hopeful hustlers find a safe streetcorner, parking lot, or alleyway to start working and directs customers to them. Everyone in the community participates in this off-the-books exchange, which involves a fair bit of for-kind or bartering agreements. A more legitimate automechanic with an actual garage may accept payments in the form of appliances, for instance, which he then sells. Venkatesh approaches the underground economy from five angles: he looks first at what families do to get by, then examines the roles business owners, street hustlers, religious leaders, and the local gang play in it. Because these players are typically interacting with another -- a homeless man may be paid by a business owner to sit outside his door at night to keep burgulars away, and he might also be paid by a gang leader to keep an eye out for members of a car theft ring that are cutting into the Black Kings' profits, while religious leaders often mediate conflicts between the gang, hustlers, and residents -- there's a fair amount of reundanancy. I read about the same interactions from different angles, but enough new information was gained from each angle that I don't think this is a mistake on Venkatesh's part.

What strikes me most about the book is what originally drew me to it: these are people doing the best they can to survive a socio-economic situation. Municipal leaders overlook the impoverished communities, so they must take matters into their own hands -- relying on themselves to police the streets, keeping excesses to a minimum. The "us" and "them" roles change frequently: the gang or the homeless may be the problem in one instance and the solution in another. Poverty and the lack of responsive government has lead to a self-governing society of poverty, with its own leaders, courts, police, and "taxes". I'm further interested in what Chicago leaders are trying to do to help the situation, and want to find out what Barack Obama's role was as a "community organizer": as I said in my comments on Gang Leader for a Day, being a community organizer in Chicago's southside is for me an uniminagable challenge. The book is compelling, its stories told well, and its substance educational -- particuarly for me.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution
© Richard Dawkins 2009

470 pages

2009 is the "Year of Darwin", giving us nice round anniversaries for both Charles Darwins' birth and the publication of his most famous work, The Origin of Species. Accordingly, books, magazine articles, and television specials have been produced to take advantage of the increased attention on Darwin and his life's work. Author Richard Dawkins is a forceful but genteel proponent of both evolution via natural selection and atheism, meriting him praise and contempt from various parties. I rather enjoy interviews with Dawkins, although I sometimes struggle through his popular science works. Struggling was not the case with The Greatest Show on Earth, in which Dawkin puts forth the evidence for evolution.

Greatest Show on Earth is -- based on my experience -- one of Dawkins' more readable works.After arguing for the importance of evolution, he begins to lay out his case, covering various lines of evidence -- fossil records, mutation rates, the age of Earth, evidence of evolutionary change in contemporary animals' biology (vestigial organs, organs that have changed uses, bone structure adapting from one purpose to another), so-called "missing links", -- before wrapping things up. He argues well, using vivid examples and analogies. Although Jerry Coyne's book may be more tightly focused,  Dawkins is perhaps more thorough. On a final note, the color pages in this book are absolutely gorgeous, by far the best-done illustrative pages I've seen in all my reading, topping even Thomas Cahill's magnificent offerings in Mysteries of the Middle Ages. The pages are absolutely stunning: even if you can't  buy the book, I'd recommend finding it in the bookstore and looking for the colored photograph sections. They're intense. The book is well written, sharply argued, and overall well done. It's an obvious reccommendation to those interested in biology, evolution, or Dawkins.