Wednesday, December 30, 2009

This Week at the Library (30/12)

Books this Update:

  • Black Edelweiss, Johann Voss
  • The Triumph of Caesar, Steven Saylor
  • China Marine, Eugene Sledge
  • Skipping Christmas, John Grisham
  • Ford County: Stories, John Grisham

I began my Christmas break with another World War 2 memoir in Johann Voss's Black Edelweiss, his account of why he joined the Waffen-SS and his description of his services there. Although the combat portions were unmemorable, the book's political commentary rivited me. It's a worthy read for those interested in German history.

After this, I returned to the Roma sub Rosa series, ending for the moment with the triumph of Caesar. As Julius Caesar settles into the post of dictator-for-life and consolidates his power,  his wife approaches the adamently retired Gordianus and requests that he investigate the potential of Caesar being assassinated. Only the news that a friend of his was murdered in this same investigation prompts Gordianus to take up the cause. This book is surprisingly subdued: unlike other books in the series, it never truly grabbed my attention. It seemed tired, which is unfortunate given how well the series developed before then.

I soon finished Eugene Sledge's China Marine, his account of his postwar experiences occupying parts of China and his return to the United States. His account of occupation duty in China dominates the book, giving me a look into a life I didn't know existed. My knowledge of the Pacific War is dominated by thoughts of airplanes and ends immediately after the surrender: I knew nothing of the United States' occupation of the Chinese coast, which I assume was done to effect the transport of Japanese troops back to Japan. Sledge's account of his return to the United States was shallow in parts, but not unenjoyable.

I then did a little seasonal re-reading with John Grisham's Skipping Christmas, his fictional account of one Luther Krank's attempt to forgo the waste and stress of Christmas when his daughter leaves the US for the Peace Corps. Krank and his wifei intend to save thousands of dollars by going on a cruse instead, but find that skipping Christmas is much more difficult than they'd anticipated. It's a light, fun read appropriate for the holidays.

I received John Grisham's latest release, Ford County: Stories, for Christmas, and immediatedy dove into it. Ford County is different from his preceding works in that it is a collection of seven short stories and not a novel.  The stories themselves have a wide range, and read very well. The book is far better than his more recent releases (The Associate, The Appeal), and will probably become one of my top three Grisham favorites.

Pick of the Week: Ford County, easily.

Potentials for Next Week:

  • Asimov Laughs Again, Isaac Asimov
  • The Gangs of New York by Herbert Ashbury.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ford County: Stories

Ford County: Stories
© 2009 John Grisham
320 pages

I was delighted to receive John Grisham’s Ford County: Stories for Christmas. I’ve been a Grisham reader since reading a battered paperback copy of The Firm years ago, and many of my favorite works (The Summons and The Last Juror, to name a couple) of his are set in fictional Ford County, Mississippi. Grisham has returned to Ford County and its county seat of Clanton for a novel approach -- a book that is not a novel. Ford County is a collection of seven short stories, most of which are written in the third-person. Grisham’s intent with this book was to spotlight some of the more varied characters in Ford County, and there are many. There are a few lawyers inside -- Grisham is known for his legal thrillers -- but the law is not a dominant theme in the book.

None of the stories failed to delight me, and the variety is genuine. Some are silly, some are serious, and most contain the mild level of author commentary typical of Grisham. He develops a new host of characters, bringing back only one character (Harry Rex Vonner) from his previous Ford County stories.This collection should please Grisham fans, particularly those who enjoy short stories and who have not been too discouraged by The Appeal or The Associate, both of which Ford County betters. I suspect it will become one of my Grisham favorites, alongside The Last Juror and The Rainmaker. Here's a preview of three of Ford County's stories:

  • "Casino": After his wife leaves him, Sidney becomes an inadvertent professional gambler and gets revenge on the man who his wife left him for by breaking the man's casino. 
  • "Blood Drive":  Three good ol’ boys pile into a pickup truck intending to drive to Memphis to give a fellow Ford County man blood. Hilarity begins ensuing when they drive past a liquor store. The result sounds like a perfect “This one time, we got so wasted….” story. 
  • "Funny Boy":  one of Ford County’s outcast sons comes home to die of AIDs. Rejected by his family, he’s taken care of in his final days by an older black woman who finds his lifestyle suspicious but learns to care for him. This one of the more heartwarming stories in the collection. 

China Marine

China Marine: An Infantryman's Life after World War 2
© Eugene Sledge 2003
192 pages

Last week I read Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed, a memoir of his experiences in the Pacific War. The memoir ranks as one of the most effective I’ve ever read in conveying the horrors of the front, so I looked forward to its sequel. His second memoir, China Marine, describes his experiences while occupying parts of China in the four-month period following the end of Japan’s surrender and his reintegration into civilian life. I knew nothing of the United States’ partial occupation of China, which I surmise was done to effect the repatriation of Japan’s soldiers there.

China serves as a midpoint for Sledge and his fellow soldiers: although they maintain the discipline of Marine life while patrolling and tending to guard duty, they are also able to enjoy the rudiments of civilization. Immediate postwar China is home to four armed forces:  the remnant of Japan’s Kwantung army, American occupational troops,  and the Chinese Nationalist and Maoist armies. Although the United States is not officially involved in the Chinese civil war, the US government does provide transport to Nationalist soldiers and American troops sometimes stumble into conflicts between the Chinese forces, sometimes dying in the process. The intermittent and wholly unpredictable dangers of guard duty do little to alleviate the mentally stressed condition of combat veterans, but Sledge’s experience appears to have been more restful than not.  This first four-fifths of the memoir was a new experience for me, having read nothing of China during this time or of American troops inside.

The remaining one-fifth of the book covers Sledge’s return to the United States and civilian life, where he is dismayed at how much his fellow citizens take for granted and how quick they are to complain about what he sees as trivialities -- laborers striking for better working conditions attack his ire within minutes of landfall*. Sledge’s believes that his introduction to academic life allowed him to recover from the war more easily: the mental rigors required to obtain his doctorate in biology keep thoughts of war far from mind. The memoir bears out the ways Sledge’s life changed owing to the war: not only did it give him a greater appreciation for the simple things in life (clean, dry, and warm socks for starters) but it ended his hobby of hunting.

Although the book is an easy read and has information worth nothing, it seems much less focused than With the old Breed and I sometimes wondered what the point of what I was reading was. The bottom fifth of the book seemed particularly rushed, but overall Sledge’s second memoir will be of interest to those interest in the lives of postwar soldiers.

* Sledge's hostility toward the laborers was disagreeable for me, but to be fair, according to him, one of them carried a sign comparing management to Hitler.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Skipping Christmas

Skipping Christmas
© 2001 John Grisham
227 pages

One of my own personal Christmas traditions is to read John Grisham's Skipping Christmas. It's a tradition I've maintained every year since owning the book, although part of the tradition is not reading all of it. Skipping Christmas was one of the first books Grisham wrote outside of the legal thriller genre, and makes for a light, fun, seasonal read.

Skipping Christmas is the story of Luther Krank, who -- after a particularly grating trip downtown to buy pistachios and an expensive brand of white chocolate for one of his wife's many holiday projects -- wonders just  how much Christmas costs him. After calculating his total expenditures -- the tree, gifts, cards, massive party -- and arriving at the respectable sum of $6100, he has a mad idea: why not skip Christmas? His daughter Blair just started a two-year hitch with the Peace Corps, so why not take himself and the wife on a ten-day Caribbean cruise for half the price of Christmas -- blowing off all of the trappings of the season? Why not say "no" to buying meaningless and often useless gifts, to parties with lechers and gossips, to the turmoil of shopping for supplies downtown?

And so, while his neighbors spend thousands of dollars on turkeys and cashmere sweaters, the Kranks work on their tans and diet to make their bodies swimsuit fit. While their neighbors invest hours of work in decorating their homes, the Kranks dance around in their living room to reggae music, knowing that on Christmas day they will be headed for warm sunshine and tropic islands -- and when they return, utterly relaxed, they will have no bills to pay, no decorations to take down, and can enjoy knowing that this year, they said "no" to being overwhelmed by the holidays: they did it their way.

The reason I typically stop reading the book 5/6s of the way through is because on Christmas Eve, Luther's beautiful plan goes awry and he must begin biting bullets. I suppose it's a story about the futility of trying to resist such entrenched traditions, but so help me if I don't root for Luther every single time. As I said, it's a fun little read -- worth reading in the next couple of weeks while Christmas songs still echo, or next year when the frenzy begins again.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Triumph of Caesar

The Triumph of Caesar
© 2008 Steven Saylor
308 pages

The Triumph of Caesar is currently the last (Saylor may yet add to it, but I can't confirm this from his website) book in the Roma sub Rosa series. I would not be surprised if it were the last book in the series, given Gordianus' increasing age and political changes in Rome that make the court system that generates so much work for Gordianus a nonenity. If the series does end here, though, it does not end with strength.

At book's opening, Julius Caesar is busy consolidating his power in Rome -- endearing himself to the masses, rewarding allies, and enjoying the humiliation of the vanquished. Although all of his enemies have been killed on the field of battle, Caesar's wife is haunted by dreams of his assassination. She asks Gordianus to assist her in ferreting out anyone who may wish Caesar ill, but he refuses -- until he learns that a friend from Last Seen in Massila was first given the job, but murdered for his troubles. The death of a friend in the pursuit of the truth again sees Gordianus hit the streets of Rome, in hopes of discovering his friend's murderer and by extension someone who might desire to assassinate the new dictator-for-life. He does this as the dictator is celebrating his four Triumphs, military parades celebrating victories granted by the Senate. Gordianus's family is allowed prime seating at these Triumphs, thanks to Meto's many years of service to the dictator -- allowing Saylor to show off his research in fairly vivid scenes.

Although the readers are promised a historically involved plot and given plenty of detail, Triumph of Caesar seems weak to me. As the story developed, it became less interesting  -- the plot twists detract, not add, from the story to me. The book never grabbed me, which is surprising given how effective Saylor has been at providing a riveting story in times past. The book seems as tired as its increasingly white-bearded protagonist.  Give it a chance if you're a fan of the series, as everyone's tastes differ, but don't introduce yourself to the series with this one.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Black Edelweiss

Black Edelweiss: A Memoir of Combat and Conscience By a Soldier of the Waffen-SS
© 2002 Johann Voss
206 pages

As the last coach slid by, it cleared the view of another train, a goods train as it appeared, slowly passing by the track behind the one next to the platform. Lost in thought, I noticed at first only the freshly-painted propaganda slogans across the wagons: WHEELS ARE ROLLING FOR VICTORY. Then, looking more closely at the wall of a wagon opposite me, however, I became conscious, with a sudden chill, of what seemed to ge fingers, yellowish human fingers clinging to a few square holes in the side wall; behind strings of arbed wire, I saw human eyes, dark and wide open, trying to catch a glimpse of the outside world. Stunned, I gazed upon the long row of wagons. Now and then one of those little hopes with fingers and eyes slowly shunted out of sight.
Strong as it was, the sight left me with mixed feelings. Vae victis! Woe to the Vanquished! Scum of the earth! Poor devils!  I hope they will be put to work in the field. This thought, however, also occured to me: Never must the dictatorship of the proletariat prevail in Europe. 

I opted to read this book to correct my ignorance of life on the Eastern front and to be able to connect a person's life to the Waffen-SS -- someone other than SS leadership. This is not the memoir of a concentration camp guard, although Voss does inadvertently encounter future Holocaust victims twice on his way to the front. The combat portions of the book are not particularly remarkable: Voss is assigned to a mountain infantry patrol in Finland and spends most of the war fighting alongside Finnish freedom fighters against the Red Army. After Finland signs an armistice with the Soviet Union and its troops become hostile to Voss's men, he and his company are tasked with fighting Americans but are captured quickly enough.

It is the book's "memoir of conscience" portions that strike me the most, for the book's initial chapters record Voss's experience during the early years of the war, detailing why he chose to support the Nazi regime. Voss is not a desperatly impoverished member of Germany's underworld that fed the Nazi party, nor does he espouse a desire to see Germany become the master of Europe. He believes in Germany, in the romantic ideals of earth, blood, and Christian duty -- but he believes in it in the same way that a Frenchman believes in France romantically, or as many Americans believe in America romantically. He comes from an educated, middle class family that nevertheless supports Hitler. What unnerves me is that they believe in him not dogmatically, but skeptically: they have extended conversations amongst themselves debating the truth value of his claims and the effacy of his approaches. They even criticize Nazi leadership while supporting it. Voss develops in much the same way: when enroute to the front  he passes by a group of Jewish prisoners waiting to be transported to the camps, he expresses dismay that anyone should be treated so poorly. The Germans in Voss's family are supporter of Hitler, but...they aren't bad, or even deluded: they're just wrong. The abuses of governments anywhere can thus be tolerated by the sanest of minds given the right approach -- a foreboding thought if ever there was one. Voss emerges as a man who believes in strong ideals, but believes in commitment to fighting for them.

Voss's "conscience" theme occurs throughout the book, typically in the sections set during his American imprisonment after the war but before Nuremberg, as the Waffen-SS was declared (via its attachment to the SS) a criminal attachment. He reflects on what he, his fellow soldiers, and his fellow citizens are responsible for -- wondering to what extent that they responsible for enabling Hitler. He ends the war with his friends and sweetheart dead and his family home destroyed, but with a clear conscience and an eerily calm sense of serenity about the troubled times ahead. It is for kind of reflection that I would recommend the book to readers interested in part of the German mind.

Have we been posioned by the radivcal fanaticism of our leadership and become an active instrument of the monstrous regime? Judging by what I read in the new German papers, the public response to the verdict is approval, if not satisfication. And what has become of our people in general?  Listening to my fellow prisoners' talk, it seems that only their own individual concerns and future matter; there is at best the indifference that results from a general weariness with all the horrible revelations during months of the trial. Defeating Bolshevism, defending the Fatherland and the Reich -- these objects of innumerable sacrifices -- seem to be of no interest anymore. Was all of that only a creation of propaganda without real bearing for the people? [..]

Our world has perished. A new world dawns, one in which our values are utterly discredited, and we will be met with hatred and distinct reserve for our past. Come on, I say, it's not without reason, let's face it! What counts is our future and what we are going to do with it. That is the terrotiroty where we will have to prove what we were really like, the territory of another probation. I only hope we will not be denied that opportunity. 

Yet there can be no release from our loyalty to our dead, from our duty to stand up for them and to ensure their remembrance and their honor will remain untarnished. They, like all the others fallen in the war or murdered through racial fanaticism, must be remembered  as a solemn warning never to let it all happen again. 

This Week at the Library (19/12)

Books this Update:

  • Living Buddha, Living Christ; Thich Nhat Hanh
  • With the Old Breed, Eugene B. Sledge
  • When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, Jeff Kinney

Although I finished my term papers last week,  Finals Week brought with it finals papers. The last, I am happy to say, has been submitted.  The week started off with Living Buddha, Living Christ, a short work that compares Buddhist mindfulness to the Christian concept of living within the "Holy Spirit" of the trinity. The book serves Christian audiences with an interest in meditative practices best, giving them a way to make the practices work inside their own tradition.

I next read Eugene B. Sledge's Pacific War memoir With the Old Breed. I've been repeatedly encouraged to do so, as Sledge taught at my university and his memoir is highly regarded. I soon found out why, for it communicates the misery of fighting and living conditions for US Marines during the conflict in such an effective style that the haunting images stay with me after finishing the book. Sledge's emphasis on the lives of the fighting men, and he paints a resigned and bleak picture, but one that demands the reader's attention. This is appropriate reading for holidays like Armistice or Veterans' Day.

I then moved on to When Religion Becomes Evil, a straightforward book examining the causes of religious brutality. The author has a varied perspective: he grew up in a Jewish/Christian home, trained in a Baptist seminary, and has done most of his life's work working with Muslims in the middle east. I was impressed by his tone: although he tends to focus on the theistic religions in talking about "religion", his treatment is fair. I never felt as though he were judging others from his Christian viewpoint or refraining from discussing the evils that religion does just to be polite. It's a definite recommendation.

Lastly, I "previewed a book for my niece" and read Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days. It's children's literature, obviously, aimed at older elementary school children who are on the cusp of feeling awkward. The book is written as a diary, with a font resembling a child's handwriting, and delivers a first-person account of said wimpy kid's summer, in which he falls in love with a high schooler, fights with his best friend, schemes to get money, and tries to stay in the house as much as possible to play video games. He has a dry sense of humor at times, one that amused me greatly. Although there's not much of a story here, it's a diversion that may make it easier for younger children to grow accustomed to reading larger books.

Pick of the Week: With the Old Breed, Eugene B. Sledge.If you're at all interested in the Pacific War and soldiers' lives, I'd call it a must-read.

Potentials for Next Week:

  • Black Edelweiss, Johann Voss. I'm knee deep in this one: it's stunning so far.
  • The Triumph of Caesar, Steven Saylor: I finally gained access to this one and look forward to seeing Gordianus again, although I'm not too happy to see the series end for now. (Saylor isn't officially done with it, but he won't return to it until after his Roma sequel is finished.)
  • China Marine, Eugene B. Sledge.
  •  The Gangs of New York, Herbert Ashbury. Ashbury has written a book on San Francisco's early history, and I'm considering reading it. I wanted to get a handle on his style, though, and went with a more accessible book first.

Friday, December 18, 2009

With the Old Breed

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa
© 1981 Eugene B. Sledge
326 pages

The recruiting sergeant asked me lots of questions and filled out numerous official papers. When he asked, "Any scars, birthmarks, or other unusual features?" I described an inch-long scar on my knee. I asked why such a question. He replied, "So they can identify you on some Pacific beach after the Japs blast off your dog tags."

I've been at my university for two and a half years now, and have heard much about Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed, largely because he taught biology at this same university for several decades. History majors in particular hear about Sledge, as our professors are quick to recommend it. They do so with good reason. With the Old Breed is titled as such because Sledge, an Alabama native, fought two major battles of the Pacific War in the oldest and most experienced division and battalion in the Marines: pride in his company and its history marks Sledge throughout the book.

The book is written in a simple narrative, as the author values communicating a sense of the grittiness of his and his comrades' life than he is about composing artistic sentences. Style is simple, and sentences are short and to the point. Sledge's personal accounts are supplemented by italicized portions of text that allow Sledge to speak as as historian, as there he explains Pacific strategy relating to his experiences as he now understands it, or offers greater detail on subjects that Sledge-as-soldier missed.This is easily the grittiest war memoir I've ever read, perhaps even the grittiest book:  I've read other Pacific War memoirs (William Manchester's Goodbye, Darkness and  Samuel Stavisky's Marine Combat Correspondent come to mind), but they don't come close to rivaling this book in terms of visceral detail. I stopped reading at several points to recover. His accounts prior to and following the attack on Shuri Castle are especially grim. One of the more miserable scenes depicted in the book is of Sledge serving as a forward artillery observer beyond the platoon's main lines: he maintained a nightly vigil over an area he describes in this way:

Everywhere lay Japanese corpses killed in heavy fighting. Infantry equipment of every type, U.S. and Japanese, was scattered about. Helmets, rifles, BARs, packs, cartridge belts, canteens, shoes, ammo boxes, shell cases, machine-gun ammo belts, all were strewn about us up to and over Half Moon.
The mud was knee-deep in some places, probably deeper in others if one ventured there. For several feet around every corpse, maggots crawled about in the muck and then were washed away by the runoff of the rain. There wasn't a tree or bush left. All was open country. Shells had torn up the turf so completly tht ground cover was nonexistent. The scene was nothing but mud; shell fire; flooded craters with their silent, pathetic, rotting occupants; knocked-out tanks and ambtracs; and discarded equipment -- utter desolation.
The stench of death was overpowering.[...] I existed from moment to moment, thinking death would have been preferable. We were in the depths of the abyss, the ultimate horrors of war. [...] [I]n the mud and driving rain before Shuri, we were surrounded by maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool.

Soon after, he is ordered to dig a foxhole -- but stumbles into the shallow grave of a Japanese soldier, not that the NCO who ordered foxholes to be dug five feet apart from one another cared. Sledge doesn't spend a lot of time talking about combat itself, although it does happen as very active background. Only in a few instances does actual combat enter into the picture, as it does when he describes his first time shooting a Japanese intruder at close range. It seemed to me that a lot of attention was paid to the absolute hellishness of the conditions. Slege also railed against the stupidity of war in general,  but ended on the grudging note that sometimes hell has to be endured for a righteous cause. The book is an invaluable resource for historians, offering dismal details on the physical and emotional conditions and suffering of Pacific War soldiers.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

When Religion Becomes Evil

When Religion Turns Evil
© 2002 Charles Kimball
256 pages

Published in 2002 before the Iraq War and the rise of the "New Atheism"  Charles Kimball's When Religion Becomes Evil seeks to preserve religion for humanity's sake by elaborating on five ways is corrupted into giving rise to evil: the adoptions of absolute doctrines, blind obedience to authority figures, and the obsession with achieving religious means -- particularly apocalpytic "ideal states" -- by any means necessary, including the declaration of holy war.

Kimball has a balance perspective: raised in a Jewish-Christian home, he attended a Baptist seminary and spent most of his life working in the middle east. Although a believing and practicing Christian, he sees other religions perhaps in the same way as Marcus Borg -- as human responses to interaction with the divine. His emphasis is on the Abrahmic religions, as their size, exclusivism, and missionary efforts make them especially suspectble to committing excesses. I was continually impressed by Kimball's tone, which is balanced without being obviously so. He doesn't need to try, it seems: he approaches the various religions on almost the same level: nontheistic religions make few appearances here. The fairness of his tone makes the book well worth the read for any religious or nonreligious person interested in religion at any level for any reason. I don't believe religion is necessary to achieve the ends he thinks it is, but if religion is here for the long haul as it seems, I am pleased with this book's effort to make it more humane.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days
© 2009 Jeff Kinney
224 pages

My niece (10) is in the process of reading through the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and enjoys it immensely, so I bought her one for Christmas. When I took it out of the shipping box to wrap it, I took a peek inside...and an hour later, I'd finished the book and laughed myself silly several times in the process. As the title might indicate, it's written in the form of a diary: the font resembles a child's handwriting, and the pages are lined as if from a notebook. Illustrations are provided by drawn cartoons. This approach reminds me of a beloved young adult's series I read while in high school, California Diaries. The intended age group here is younger: according to my exhaustive research at Wikipedia, the series begins with wimpy kid Greg beginning sixth grade.

Dog Days draws its title from the phrase "dog days of summer", those hot days of summer vacation in which nothing much gets done. Greg would like nothing more than to sleep all day and stay up all night playing video games, but his parents insist that he go outside and do things, and so the diary records some of his misadventures while being forced to walk around in open sunlight. He becomes infatuated by the pool girl (a la Wendy Peffercorn in The Sandlot), racks up a massive bill at a country club having drinks with his best friend, and then has to scheme for ways to earn the money back. It's a very...goofy book: there's no serious story as in A Series of Unfortunate Events. It's almost an extended comic strip with more text than usual.  The amount of text may be too much for smaller children to digest comfortable, so the reccommend ages of 9-12 seem well considered.

I'd recommend to to those who are in the position of buying books for children: although the story doesn't have a lot of meat in it, it may make it easier for kids to start enjoying longer books.

Living Buddha, Living Christ

Living Buddha, Living Christ
© 1995 Thich Nhat Hanh
240 pages

One interpretation of Jesus that I've grown used to seeing in books writing on the necessity for religious pluralism is his depiction as an enlightened teacher in the same manner as Buddha, hoping to improve the quality of human life radically with his teachings centered on love. This is essentially the tack Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, took in writing Living Buddha, Living Christ.  He compares the Buddhist idea of mindfulness and the Christian "Holy Spirit", regarding them as accomplishing the same thing: "being one with the spirit" translates in his opinion to being mindful. It' odd idea, but somewhat useful, I think. If Christians take it to heart, they could adopt meditation and mindfulness into their own tradition without practicing them and wondering if it makes them hellbound.

For the non-Christian reader, there's not a lot of content here other than a few contemplations that reminded me of the Dali Lama's own work in An Open Heart. The book is essentially readable, although sentences tend to be short and choppy -- perhaps a product of the translation. It focused less on the historical persons of Jesus and Buddha than I had hoped, but the book should be of some interest to Christians interesting in makming their own tradition more responsive to the needs that mindfulness meets.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

This (Month) at the Library 9/12

Books this Update:
  • The Zinn Reader and Marx in Soho, Howard Zinn
  • Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories (Volume I), Isaac Asimov
  • The Best of Robert G. Ingersoll, compiled by Roger Greely
  • Saints Behaving Badly, Thomas J. Craughwell
  • Cicero, Anthony Everitt 
It's been a while since I wrote a review post: until Thursday of last week, I was properly innundated by papers. The semester is, by and large, done with: I only have finals week to look forward to, and thus can start doing a little more reading. It's been a while since I did any science reading, so I would appreciate reccommendations from those of you who read in those areas - particularly in the fields of biology and physics.

Nearly a month ago, I read two works by historian and social activist/critic Howard Zinn -- both inspired by the documentary You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. The first, The Zinn Reader, is a large collection of articles, essays, columns, and book forwards written by Zinn over the course of his lifetime and covering a range of subjects -- history, social activism in the United States, civil disobedience, politics, and Marx-esque social criticism. Given the scope of the material,  I was able to see Zinn continually reacting to the social changes of the United States from the late thirties to the late eighties. The book is easily one of the best I've read this year, and it being the pick of the week in the next update -- this one -- became a foregone conclusion. On a similar note -- Marx-esque social criticism -- I read a bit of fiction by Zinn in Marx in Soho.  The powers that be allow Marx to return to the world of the living for an hour to defend himself and his ideas, which he does. Zinn sought to portray Marx not just as a professional intellectual, locked away in his office writing about economics, but as an on-the-ground-revolutionary in his own sense. There were a few choice quotes in there, but I can't share any at the moment as I've lent the book to a friend. You can look up performances of the play on YouTube.  (I've linked to a couple of my favorite performances here.)

After this, I read a selection of quotations from Robert Ingersoll entitled The Best of Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll was a late nineteenth century personality -- a celebrity of sorts in his day, drawing massive crowds to hear him lecture. He was an extraordinarily gifted speeches: even reading the text of them rivets me. I've been meaning to share some of the quotations on my philosophy/humanities blog: one of them will eventually be inserted into this post the next time I access the book. Although the book doesn't contain any full speeches by Ingersoll, it contains an abundance of pithy quotations that will be appreciated by skeptics, atheists, rationalists, skeptics, the liberal religious, science supporters, and especially humanists.

At the beginning of this month, I finished Asimov: the Complete Stories, volume I. It contains two of his short-story collections (Earth is Room Enough and Nine Tomorrows) and is a mix of fantasy and science fiction pieces, with science fiction dominating.  It contains some of my favorite pieces by Asimov, but I can say little more about the stories than I have about Asimovian stories in the past. They're readable, typically contain interesting ideas, and do not bother the reader with gratituous violence, sex, or slams against people Asimov disagreed with.

Saints Behaving Badly is a collection of short chapters about various Catholic saints, attempting to entertain  and encourage traditionally Christian readers who fear their lives aren't up to snuff compared to the saints. The book was rather poor: sources (sometimes legends and rumors) were never criticized, and some of the "sins" seem silly to make a fuss over. The most entertaining thing about this book was the cover art.

Lastly, I read a biography of Cicero, a pleasant high note to end the week (month) on. The book presents a balanced view of Cicero's life and gives the reader plenty of historical and political context to understand the drama of Cicero's life, and the information is presented in a well-paced narrative.

Pick of the Week: The Zinn Reader, as mentioned before.
Quotation of the Week: "Is life worth living? Well, I can only answer for myself. I like to be alive, to breathe the air, to look at the landscape, the clouds, the stars, to repeat old poems, to look at pictures and statues, to hear music, the voices of the ones I live. I enjoy eating and smoking. I like good cold water. I like to talk with my wife, my girls, my grandchildren. I like to sleep and to dream. Yes, you can say that life, to me, is worth living." (Robert Ingersoll, The Best of)

Upcoming Reads:
  • Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hanh. I think it's meant to establish dialogue between Buddhists and Christians, which may become increasingly important if Americans continue to leave traditional western religion behind for more philosophical worldviews like Buddhism.
  • The Triumph of Caesar  by Steven Saylor: I intended to read this last week, but forgot which library it was in. 
  • Black Edelweiss: A Memoir of Combat and Conscience by a Soldier of the Waffen-SS, Johann Voss. The Waffen-SS, for those not well-versed in World War 2 information, was the military arm of the SS. They saw a lot of action in Russia, and helped maintain the concentration and death camps. I've read about the leaders of the SS before and am interested in what led men to join the darkest part of the Nazi state.
  • When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs, Charles Kimball


Cicero: the Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician
© 2001 Anthony Everitt
359 pages

I've been intending to read this for a few months now, but other books have always gotten in the way. As I plan on continuing in Robert Harris' biographical novel trilogy of Cicero's life, it seemed proper to read a standard biography of Cicero for comparison's sake.

I'm rather taken by the book. It's written in a narrative style, increasing reability and keeping the reader interested. The title is accurate, for Everitt not only writes about Cicero's life, but establishes plenty of context about Roman history,  Roman government, and Roman lifestyles. The emphasis on Cicero's historical context continues throughout the book: the Republic's waning years and death are covered in detail, given Cicero's role in attempting to preserve it, even as Marc Anthony and Octavian's armies clashed.Thus, the book functions not only as a fairly thorough treatment of Cicero's life, but allows the reader to get a handle on late-Republic politics.

The portrayal of Cicero seems balanced, on the whole: Cicero's politics only slightly overshadow his philosophical and literary contributions, while Everitt seems neither unjustly cynical or romantic about Cicero's life, but generally portrays him in a positive light with a few caveats. On the whole, Cicero is readable and informative treatment not just of Cicero, but of late-Republican Rome itself.

Saints Behaving Badly

Saints Behaving Badly: the Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints
© 2006 Thomas J. Craughwell
208 pages

This is a short little number intending to amuse and perhaps reassure people that they're not all bad, compared to people who have become saints. It made for very light, and -unfortunately -- not enjoyable reading. Perhaps the expectations I brought with me to the book -- namely, that it would point out self-righteous hypocrisy in the lives of people who are supposedly a cut above the rest of us -- hampered my enjoyment of it, but I have my doubts. The book is not about hypocrisy: although the book's short chapters each tell of the "sins" committed by the Catholic church's many saints, all these sins took place before they "got religion". The book is definitely written from the perspective of a committed Christian, and I doubt anyone else would enjoy it:  the author is utterly uncritical of his sources, drawing on legends for some of his facts, and sometimes -- as in the case of St. Patrick -- the chapters aren't even based on legends, but mere rumors. The chapter on St. Patrick also reflects another of the book's weaknesses, namely that many of the so-called "sins" aren't going to bother very many people. St. Patrick's alleged sin is that sometime in his youth, he may have participated in a pagan rite.On the basis of this utterly undefended claim, the author labels Patrick a 'devil worshipper'.  There's nothing in here about the medieval popes living in splendor while peasants starve outside the gilded gates of the Vatican: nothing at all substantial, and very little to amuse. Frankly, the only enjoyment I got out of this book was looking at the cover art .

Monday, December 7, 2009

No Less than Victory

No Less than Victory
© 2009 Jeff Shaara
449 pages

This was released only a month ago, and completes Shaara's WW2-Europe trilogy, the previous titles being The Rising Tide and The Steel Wave. The books are historical fiction, although most characters -- perhaps all in this book -- are historical personalities. Shaara borrows from his father's style in writing the book in a way that depicts the soldiers' and generals' reactions to the war as it develops around them: sentences are often styled to convey the thoughts of each chapter's viewpoint character. Eisenhower and Patton have been viewpoint characters throughout the whole of the series, but they are the only two carry-overs: grunt soldier George Benson joins the cast on the American side to give readers both an overview of the war (the generals' chapters often serve as exposition and move the plot along) and the soldiers' view on the ground. As is typical of Shaara, viewpoint characters are drawn from both sides of the conflict, and at least two German officials make their prescense known throughout the book. An elderly German general who is expected to take the blame for the Wehrmacht's defeat in the west serves the same function as Rommel in previous books, -- giving the reader a "good" German who loves his country and is frustrated by Hitler's refusal to listen to reason, -- while Albert Speer serves as the reader's eyes into late-war German government given his role as one of Hitler's familiars.

The book opens in December 1942:  in the past sixth months, the Allies have liberated most of France, but have slown down to a near-stop as winter visits Europe. Rather than sit and twiddle its thumbs all winter while  American and British bombers continue to bomb them, the Wehrmacht launches a counteroffensive against American lines, resulting in what history will call the Battle of the Bulge. This conflict consumes over half the book, since it is the last gasp of German military capability. The book's plot is much slower in the first half of the book, and varies from chapter to chapter depending on the viewpoint character:  soldiers experience plot minute by minute, while months can pass by during a general's chapter rather quickly. Shaara's books are expressly about American history, drawing as they do from American sources, so readers hoping to visit the eastern front will be disappointed. Narrative flows more slowly than it might in say, Harry Turtledove's works, but it doesn't bog down too much -- and it picks up swiftly after the book's halfway point, when American troops begin marching into Germany proper and seeing the ravages of war.

Shaara sometimes seems present in the book. Unlike Steven Saylor, he doesn't mention to the readers what his sources were, or how extensively he drew from them, so -- except in the case of Albert Speer, whose work I am familiar with -- I do not know which of the characters' opinions belonged to their historical personalities or which belong to Shaara. At one point,  Winston Churchill pays Eisenhower a visit and gripes about the Yalta Conference: England was largely ignored, to his believable annoyance, but what really gets Winnie's goat is that Roosevelt wrote Poland off. It's difficult for me to believe Churchill cared for the people of Poland, although in a more cynical light I can easily believe in his being outraged at Russia growing in strength. Interestingly, Shaara's characters often compare and contrast Allied and Nazi morality, particularly after Dresden but before the discovery of concentration camps. While Shaara's narrative isn't too romantic, it's definitely friendly to warm and gushy patriotism. Perhaps that's appropriate: the reader must decide.

No Less than Victory is definitely a fair read. I enjoyed it as much as I've enjoyed Shaara's other works, and I suspect those interested in American military history would eat it up. I read the book mostly out of loyalty to Shaara: I've been reading him since high school, and it would seem strange to stop, particularly in the middle of a series. I understand he's planning on writing about the end of the war in the Pacific.

Asimov: The Complete Stories, Volume I

Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Volume I
© 1990 Isaac Asimov
614 pages

I finished this book over a week ago, but academic responsibilities have seen my writing limited to papers for class and my creativity beyond that slightly dampened. I acquired this book a few months ago and have read from it ever since, little by little. The set it is part of was never completed: only two of the three planned books were ever released. Volume I contains two of Asimov's short-story collections, Earth is Room Enough and Nine Tomorrows. The former is a mix of science fiction and fantasy, while the latter is straight science fiction with humorous and -- as always with Asimov, self-depreciating -- poetry rounding things out. This collection contains some of my favorite pieces by Asimov, and of course I would recommend it to any fans of the good doctor or to classical science fiction fans. Here are a few of the stories you might be interested in:

  • The classic "Nightfall", a short story about a world with six suns and a history of civilization-destroying madness. Scientists and cultists both predict the end of the world is at hand. 
  • "The Feeling of Power" depicts Earth in the future, where reliance on computers has grown to the point that humans can no longer do simple arithmetic: computers themselves design and manufacture the newer generations of computers. A technological historian sorts out how to work through simple mathematical formulas and begins teaching them to his fellow citizens, only to be horrified when the military realizes math's uses.
  • "Profession" is one of the more interesting stories, at least for me, and shows an Earth similar to the Earth in "Feeling of Power". Technology is used to teach children to read and to train them for their professions, but when one man tries to beat the system and learn on his own, strange things happen.
  • "The Last Question", one of Asimov's favorites: can entropy be beaten? 
  • "The Fun They Had": children in Earth's far future puzzle over the existence of books and communal classrooms in an age where they are taught by robotic tutors.
  • "The Immortal Bard": William Shakespeare is plucked from his own time and finds himself in an English class devoted to analyzing the collected works of Shakespeare.
  • "The Gentle Vultures": Aliens puzzle over why Earth has not yet destroyed itself in a nuclear war.
  • "All the Troubles of the World" features Asimov's "Multivac", the ultimate computer that knows all...which turns out to be too much.
  • "Breeds There a Man?" is another interesting one, also involving aliens and nuclear physics.