Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sand and Foam

Sand and Foam
© 1926, 1943 Kahlil Gibran
112 pages

I am forever walking upon these shores, 
Betwixt the sand and the foam, 
The high tide will erase my foot-prints, 
And the wind will blow away the foam. 
But the sea and the shore will remain 

A few years ago,  I read Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet after being stirred by some of his words available through a quotations site.  It proved to be an enriching read, and I have maintained an interest in reading more of his works since. I was able to do that this week when reading Sand and Foam, a collection of aphorisms initially published in 1926.  Unlike the Prophet, which set its poetry and sayings within a general plot,  Sand and Foam is a straightforward collection of small sayings, most of which consist of only a line. There are exceptions, as is the case above. The aphorisms have a mystical feel about them: Gibran never speaks directly, but through poetry. Worship of truth, beauty, and love are common in the book, which is appropriate for Gibran. He is a deeply religious man, but in a universalistic sense. This particular printing contains illustrations by Gibran, typically of the human form. This is a must-read for those who enjoy Gibran, but recommended generally. The book may be read online here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Letters from a Stoic

Letters from a Stoic
© 1969, 2004;  translated by Robin Campbell
253 pages


Seneca's appearance in The Humanist Anthology piqued my interest, so I purchased Letters from a Stoic soon after finishing it, specifically the Penguin Classics edtiion translated by Robin Campell. Seneca's letters, along with Marcus Aurelius' Meditations and Epictetus' Enchiridion, comprise the only Stoic texts that have survived the march of time. The letters are Seneca's side in an extended exchange between himself and his friend Lucilius. They are often written in resposne to Lucilius' questions or complaints to Seneca as he pursues the philosophical life, but often Seneca takes up the stylus to muse upon a subject and share his reflections. His musings -- and resulting lectures -- typically result from happenings in his own life, and almost all reflect teachings and values from the philosophy of Stoicism inside them. Seneca acts a teacher to Lucilius, encouraging him to practive philosophy more actively and expand his horizons. He often quotes from Epicures, the father of a school the Stoics held in opposition to themselves, in an effort to show Lucilius that wisdom is not held in monpoly by just those we admire. Campbell's translation is quite readable, and the letters as a whole convey a sense of Seneca as being an observant and stern old man full of advice and more than few wry comments.  He comes off as a bit grumpy at times, but that is a subjective matter and never detracted from his words.

The letters are more varied and greater in volume than the Meditations or The Art of Living, and I suspect that the format -- personal letters -- will make it easier for readers to relate to Seneca than to the other Stoic writers, although Aurelius and Epictetus both provide more information on Stoicism proper than does Seneca. Epictetus teaches its fundamentals, and Aurelius constantly reminds himself of them, but Seneca takes Lucilius' knowledge of Stoicism for granted and advises him on practicing the wise life.  I've been reading through the letters a little at a time for several months now -- off and on -- and have enjoyed them greatly, making this an easy recommendation. If you are interested in reading some of his works, Heisodos at "Works and Days" has been commenting on individual passages for some time now. We appear to be using the same translation.


  • The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton. Seneca is the source of one chapter as philosophy as a consolation for anger. Similarly...
  • Seneca on Anger, a television special inspired by de Botton's work and hosted by de Botton himself. 

The Motorcycle Diaries

The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey
© Ernesto Guevara (Ocean Press 2004)
175 pages

"Along the roads of our daydream we reached remote countries, navigated tropical seas and traveled all through Asia. And suddenly, slipping in as if part of our fantasy, the question arose:
'Why don't we go to North America?'
'North America? But how?'
'On La Poderosa, man.'

I know very little of "Che" Guevara except that he is regarded as a revolutionary, idolized and hated by many. When I saw The Motorcycle Diaries on a reccommended reading list, I decided it might serve as an introduction to the man. The story begins before Guevara does the things for which he is so famous:  at this point, he is but a student nearly finished with his medical education. He and his friend decide to drive their motorcycle La Poderosa northward:  The Motorcycle Diaries is the chronicle of their journey, written after the fact and augmented by Guevara's musings on how his perceptions have changed.  As the two journey up the western coast of South America (through Chile and Peru before traveling east to Venezuela),  they are taken by both the beauty of the land, the hospitality of strangers, and the misery of working conditions for many, particularly miners. Although Guevara's political sentiments do not appear often, when they do they are expressed with a strong passion. Most memorable  are his opinions that the time has come for politicians to stop talking about their accomplishments and actually do something to help the working people and that the United States' interference in the affairs of nations like Chile must end if the people of those nations are to prosper. As said, I do not know much about Che the man and found the book to be of most inference when he waxed poetically about the landscape or described the living conditions of people.

The book should be  of obvious interest to those interested in Che Guervara, as well as to those interested in living and political conditions of South America during the time.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (26-1)

For me, the sea has always been a confidant, a friend absorbing all it is told and never revealing  those secrets; always giving the best advice -- its meaningful noises can be interpreted any way you choose. For Alberto, it is a new, strangely perturbing sight, and the intensity with which his eyes follow every  wave building, swelling, and then dying on the beach,  reflects his amazement.

Ernesto Guevara, p. 35 of The Motorcycle Diaries.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Into the Wild

Into the Wild
© 1997 Jon Krakauer
207 pages


Well over a year ago, perhaps closer to two, a friend of mine asked me if I had heard the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who left society to live off the land in the Alaskan wilderness, perishing in the course of finding whatever it was that pulled him out there. At first his story had no interest for me, but a year later -- after reading Walden -- I was very much interested in reading the accounts of people who lived lives free from society, either on the road or in the wild. Into the Wild and Jake Kerouac's On the Road are the only books I know of (presently) that are themed in such a way.

Krakauer presents McCandless' story well, not only going into Christopher's background but recounting the lives of people who have perished in similar ways. Krakauer attempts to find their motivations, drawing from accounts of the lives of these men and others like himself who felt a similar call but survived. McCandles himself seems to be possessed by a need to throw himself into the wildness of life and prove that he is worthy of it.  He views taking on the wilderness - as he does for many months before hitch-hiking into Alaska --  as a spiritual challenge.  Krakauer lavishly describes the natural background McCandless and others journeyed through and and died in.  He relates strongly to McCandless, seeing him as a kindred spirit - and for him, to understand McCandless' life and death is to better understand himself. He thus treats his subject sympathetically, but is quick to reproach him for being unprepared.

 Into the Wild proved to be a stirring read. While I have no interest in "living off the land", I'm sympathteic to his desire to be immersed in the glorious beauty of nature. His story gripped me, and the effect he had on the lives he encountered often shocked me. Whatever your opinion of his life and death, this is a story worth contemplating at the very least.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

This Week at the Library (20/1)

Books this Update:

  • The Gangs of New York, Herbert Ashbury
  • Asimov Laughs Again, Isaac Asimov
  • Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Friend; Christopher Moore
  • Under and Alone, William Queen
  • The Lives of Dax, ed.  Marco Palmieri
  • The Best American Short Stories 2008, ed. Salman Rushdie
  • The Chamber, John Grisham

I've been flirting with the idea of doing review posts once every two weeks instead of every one week, but two week intervals are more difficult to remember than one-week intervals. (This is why I pay late fines so often.) January has been a good month for reading so far.  I started out with some comments on The Gangs of New York, which I mostly read in the tail-end of December. Herbert Ashbury's work was thorough, if a bit dry in parts. I still may read him, though.

While reading through Ashbury, I treated myself to Asimov Laughs Again, a collection of jokes and anecdotes  gathere by Asimov. The collection isn't up to par with the original work, and is heavier on humorous anecdotes than jokes, but Asimov fans will enjoy cozying up with  the good doctor.

Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Friend, is one of the funniest books I've read. It's also the best fictional account of Jesus' life I've read, which is saying something given that the book is meant as humor and not as a serious treatment. With the exception of fantasy elements, the plot is more believable -- and the characters developed better -- than in any other Jesus novel I've read. It's outlandishly funny to boot, often in the style of Monty Python.

I moved on to nonfiction next with William Queen's account of his two years undercover in the Mongols Motorcycle Club, an outlaw biker group notorious for its violence. Queen navigates this world through dumb luck, a street cop's experience, and more than a little courage. It takes its toll on him, as the account shows: he frequently finds more sympathy and "brotherhood" from his hoodlum marks than he does his DEA friends.

I then treated myself to a book I've been waiting to read for a long time, The Lives of Dax.  The book is a collection of short stories, each  with an emphasis on the life of a Dax host, of which there have been eight. The stories, each penned by a different author, are nestled within a ninth short story set in the life of Ezri Dax, the "current" Dax host. (Explaining what I mean by "host" would take too much space here: see the individual comments for background.) The collection is fairly strong, especially for a Star Trek fan. Most of the characters are new, but Dr. McCoy and Sisko have their moments in the sun.

After this, I read another collection of short stories, this time in the self-advertising "Best of" series. The Best American Short Stories 2008 proved to be a good read of eclectic stories, most of which were thought-provoking. I'll probably be reading more of this series in the coming year.

Lastly, I re-read an old favorite in John Grisham's The Chamber, the stirring tale of a young lawyer who comes to the rescue of his grandfather, a convicted Ku Klux Klan bomber who has been sentenced to death. Young Adam Hall's father was so ashamed of his own father, the aforementioned bomber Sam Cayhall, that he moved his family to California and changed their names. He could not run from the past, however, which haunts his family still -- compelling Adam to come to his grandfather's legal defense during his last days as a way of coming to terms with his family's deep roots in the hateful Klan. The book is one of the two most serious of Grisham's fictional works, and one of his better works in general in my opinion.

Pick of the Week:  Although The Chamber would have given Lamb a challenge were it not disqualified on the basis of being a re-read, Lamb has already become a favorite. Its characters are endearing and its story ever absurdly funny.

Upcoming Reads:

  • The Roman Way, by Edith Hamilton -- assuming I find it. I don't imagine I'll be done with this one for a few weeks, though. If it's like her The Greek Way, it will be a very involved read.
  • Wake Up!, Jack Kerouac. This is a novel of sorts inspired by traditional Buddhist accounts of Siddartha Gautuma's search for enlightenment.
  • Storm of Steel, Ernst Jünger. I'm to read this war-related work for a European history class. 
  • The Motorcycle Diaries, Ernesto Guevera. I know little about the author except for general reputation, and the book appeared on a reccommended reading list. 

The Chamber

The Chamber
© 1994 John Grisham
676 pages

As a high school senior, my second John Grisham read resulted from rescuing a battered copy of The Chamber from my library's discard pile. The librarian warned me against reading the book, saying that it was "dark". The titular chamber is a gas chamber (formerly) used by the state of Mississippi to execute prisoners condemned to death. One such person in Grisham's world is Sam Cayhall, a longtime member of the Ku Klux Klan, convicted for taking part in the Civil Rights Movement-era bombing of a law office and the resulting death of two children. As Cayhall enters his last month of life, he is an angry old man with no friends except for his death row companions. The highlight of his life is that he has recently been able to fire his Jewish lawyers, whom he hates: he is now resigned to go to his death alone. But then a young and wholly inexperienced attorney arrives to see him, one representing his recently fired firm and one who reminds him of someone -- his son, who fled to California twenty years ago and changed his and his family's name to rid themselves of the legacy of Sam Cayhall.  This new arrival is in fact Sam's grandson, back in Mississippi after his father spirited him away as a toddler. He's come to meet his grandfather -- and to rescue him from his fate.

Although The Chamber is advertised as a legal thriller -- and although the law is a persistent element of the book -- it often fades away into background, and the dominating theme of the book is one of reconciliation. Sam and his grandson Adam must come to terms with one another and Sam's own past, for not only did his hatred destroy his and his victims' own lives, but it continues to haunt the live of his family. Adam is utterly disturbed and ashamed of his family's deep roots in the Klan, and his interest in his grandfather's reclamation is in a way an attempt to come to terms with his family's dark past. Sam is one of Grisham's more agonizing characters, initially developed as a hateful old man for whom death seems "righteous", but one who is humbled as his mortality becomes increasingly obvious. As Adam struggles to find a legal means of freeing his grandfather from Death Row or at least in postponing his execution, Sam has to make peace with himself and begins tugging on the reader's sympathy.

The Chamber is one of Grisham's better works. Like Grisham's first work, A Time to Kill, it is much more serious than his latter works which seem to be more about entertainment than  challenging the reader with a moral dilemma. I read the book initially as a very conservative high school student, one with predictable opinions on everything from abortion to the death penalty, but even then this book made me think. At nearly seven hundred pages, there's a lot here to go over, but the interpersonal conflict and theme of the book lend it easily to my reccommending it. If you give Grisham's works a pass for being too much like pop fluff, try The Chamber.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (19-1)

Baley of "The Reader's Book Blog" just introduced me to a little literary meme called "Teaser Tuesday" in which I 'tease' readers with two sentences from the book I happen to be reading at the time. The blog she got it from says:

 Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB ofShould Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
    Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Since it's Tuesday....

"How in God's world could Sam Cayhall have become anything other than himself? He never had a chance." - The Chamber, John Grisham, p. 557

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Best American Short Stories (2008)

The Best American Short Stories 2008
© 2008 Salman Rushdie, editor.
358 pages

Although I've read quite a few short-story collections, most of them are by the same two familar authors -- Isaac Asimov and Kurt Vonnegut. Even when I read a collection outside of those two,  I still never wander into unfamilar territory -- I choose authors or subjects with whom I am familar.I decided to go exploring this week, though, after spotting an array of short-story collections in this series on my home library's shelves.  I have no experience with the Best of Series, so I would be sailing into the unknown.

The unknown, at least in this case, turned out to be a very interesting place. Salman Rushdie has collected a set of stories, twenty all told, that  exhibit tremendous variety.  There are stories of family, science fiction, fantasy, culture, friendship, and love in here. Most of the stories lack the conventional conflict-climax-resolution plot format,  not that this hurts them.It lends many of them a certain air of authencitiy, as if this is something that could happen in your life or mine: as the story comes to its end, the reader is left to mull over the consequences of what happened, since the narrator isn't doing it for us.  Rushdie has included no fluff: all of the stories left me pondering at their end. A few are worth mentioning here:

  • "The Year of Silence" by Keven Brockmeier is set in a city whichexperiences period outbreaks of silence that always lead to spikes in the quality of life and seeks to create a constant atmosphere of silence  -- and experiences the consequences.
  • "Man and Wife" by Katie Chase may have been the most disturbing story in the collection, as it is set in an altered United States in which arranged marriages between older men and young girls is common.
  • "The Quality of Life" by Christine Sneed explores the consequences of an inescapable affair.  
  • "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" by Karen Russell is the story of two very old vampires who subsist on lemons from a exquisite grove in Italy and have found that being immortal isn't all it's cracked up to be.
  • Thomas Wolff's "Bible" sees a woman kidnapped by a "terrorist" who turns out to be a concerned parent.
  • "Buying Lenin" by Miroslav Penkov is the story of a young Russian-American immigrant buying "Lenin's body" off of eBay to make amends with his cranky Communist grandfather. 

All told, this amounted to an interesting collection. I'll probably be reading from the Best Of series more as the year develops.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Lives of Dax

The Lives of Dax
© 2002 various authors, ed. Marco Palmieri
367 pages


One of the more interesting species introduced in Star Trek Deep Space Nine were the Trill, a symbiotic race consisting of two species: humanoid hosts and slug-like symbionts, which fit inside an abdominal pocket and join minds with the hosts. The resulting personality is a combination of both the host and the symbionts. There are far more symbionts than hosts, and so symbionts are passed along from generation to generation, being joined to hosts who prove themselves worthy in the eyes of the Trill Symbiotic Commission. The symbiont retains its memories and personality, and becomes ever more knowledgeable and seasoned as the generations tick by.

One such symbiont, Dax, constituted two characters on Deep Space Nine, both of which are displayed on the cover. Lieutenant Commander Jadzia Dax, in the rear, served as DS9’s chief science officer for six seasons until her demise, at which point the Dax symbiont was hastily placed inside Ezri Tigan, who subsequently took the name Ezri Dax and received an assignment as counselor. Dax’s preceding hosts were frequently mentioned, and in one case (“Facets”) even temporarily brought to life through an ancient ritual, but not until The Lives of Dax were Dax fans given a thorough look at their lives.

The Lives of Dax is in effect a collection of short stories, as each preceding Dax host (Lela, Tobin, Emony, Torias, Audrid, Joran, Curzon, and Jadzia) is spotlighted in a story. These stories are book ended by Ezri Dax’s attempts to come to terms with her new and totally unexpected status as a joined Trill. The stories were all written by different authors, although one DS9 veteran, S.D. Perry, contributed to two.  Most of the stories are written in the third person and focus on Dax as the main character, but two differ by focusing on Leonard McCoy and Benjamin Sisko as main characters. Interestingly, the Sisko story, featuring Curzon Dax, is told in the first person. Although Ezri’s story is set in the Deep Space Nine relaunch period, the stories themselves are placed at various times over several hundred years (No dates are given, only surmised given the history that unfolds within them and the lifespans of the hosts.)

I think the collection fairly strong: I thoroughly enjoyed all but two stories, and they weren’t badly done. The book obviously recommends itself to DS9 fans and less so to Trek fans in general. I think the book is also enjoyable by non-Trek fans, as elements traditionally associated with Star Trek -- the main ships, their crews, latent philosophy -- are by and large absent.  Although McCoy and Sisko both tell two of the Dax’s stories, they are the only “intrusion” of this sense and knowledge or affection for them is not required. As they are both “young”, their personalities as seen on the shows have not developed yet.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Under and Alone

Under and Alone: the True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America's Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle Gang
© 2005 William Queen
288 pages

This fall, I unexpectedly became a fan of  Sons of Anarchy, a criminal drama with a plot reminiscent of Hamlet and set in the world of outlaw motorcycle gangs. This piqued my interest in said gangs, leading me Wikipedia and eventually this book.  Author William Queen is an agent working for the Bureau of Arms, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF),  who is asked by his superiors if he is interested in infiltrating the notoriously violent Mongols motorcycle club. Queen’s lifelong interest in motorcycles and experience infiltrating right-wing organizations under the guise of “Billy St. John” have prepared him in part, but the resulting two-and-a-half-year operation takes its toll on the agent,  sharply evident in his account.

Perhaps the most important distinction between outlaw motorcycle gangs and other organized criminal groups, in Queen’s eyes, is that while groups like the Mafia primarily engage in criminal activities for profit and seek legitimacy, motor gangs engage in these activities only to finance a life lived beyond the rules. The violence that is the Mafia's tool is their chief pleasure: they delight in being viewed as a scourge, taking pride in defying societal expectations. One of the more striking anecdotes Queen related concerned an annual run by the Mongols, during which they drove in a stream of over a hundred, ignoring speed limits, road signs, and police officers: the Mongols are a gang of men prone to violence, armed altogether too well, and possessing little fear of retribution. Queen inserts himself into this dangerous world, navigating it for over two years by instinct and good fortune, for there are many edgy moments. Drugs and violence are the gang’s favorite pastimes, and Queen must pretend to participate in “the life” fully while not actually breaking any serious laws.
While Queen advances in the club -- first simply hanging around with Mongol members, then serving as a prospect and eventually earning his “patch” , he is increasing isolated from his own world.  Meeting the MC’s demands takes away his nights and weekends, and the physical appearance of his outlaw persona offends all the “normal” people he might otherwise interact with amicably -- his children’s teachers, for instance, or passersby in the grocery story. Over the course of the two years, he regards many of the men as friends. This is perhaps encouraged by is increasing isolation from his work peers, and perhaps the book’s most poignant moment comes near the end of Queen’s assignment: when the woman who raised him like a mother dies, Queen is met with cold silence by his fellow DEA agents, but with hugs, support, and sympathy from the outlaws. His convictions as a lawman conflict with his increasing tendency to see the bikers as his friends.

Under and Alone is a particularly effective book, serving to both explore the world of outlaw motorcycle gangs and the effect living in had on Queen. It's a certain recommendation to those who find motorcycle gangs interesting to any extent.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
© 2002 Christopher Moore
408 pages

"What?" [Joshua] said. "What? What? What?"
"Master, you're walking on the water," said Peter.
"I just ate," Joshua said. "You can't go into the water for an hour after you eat. You could get a cramp.What, none of you guys have mothers?"  - 357

As soon as I heard of Lamb‘s premise, I knew that I wanted to read it, and so I was indeed pleased to learn that my local library held a copy for me. Levi, Jesus of Nazareth’s lifelong best friend, has been called forth from the grave to render an account of Jesus’ life for the edification (and entertainment) of humanity. Cloistered in a hotel room and guarded by a not-too-bright ex-Angel of Death with a weakness for soap operas, Levi -- or as he prefers to be called, “Biff” -- tells us of how he and his friend Joshua -- rendered from Yeshua -- met, grew up together, and pursued his divine destiny.

Although the book begins with childhood, their journey together starts on the eve of their 13th birthdays, when the angel appears and tells Joshua that he must seek out his divinity. Joshua and Biff seek out the wisest rabbi they know, only to be turned away by the curmudgeon* and directed to seek out the three wisemen who visited him at his birth. Although their journey begins in the small town of Nazareth, it will take them to Kabul to learn alchemy, to a remote Buddhist monastery in the mountains of China , and to the coast of India before Josh is ready to return home and take up the mantle of Messiah. Although the book’s reputation for humor initially drew me to it  -- and one well deserved, for this is one of the funniest books I’ve read in over a year -- I was quickly drawn in by the story of Joshua’s and Biff’s maturation as characters.  Joshua matures here more believably than he did in Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son or in Deepak Chopra’s Jesus, which is somewhat strange given that this book is primarily humor.

Part of the humor comes from Moore treating Biff and Joshua as ordinary young boys and teenagers, who are apt to do, say, and think things that adults find entertaining.  Given that Jesus is such as Serious Historical Figure, it’s humorous to see him acting like a real person with idiosyncrasies. Moore also inserts gobs of in-jokes for his readers -- Mary summoning Joshua by having her image appear on the walls of buildings, for instance, or giving us an explanation for the Easter bunny (namely, Joshua getting a bit tipsy and declaring that whenever something really bad happens to him, bunnies should be around to make it better). Moore also has a strong penchant for absurd and surreal humor in the vein of Monty Python and sometimes offers reinterpretations of biblical events. In the "walking on water" miracle, for instance, Peter traditionally has the faith to join Jesus on the water -- when he loses that faith for a second, he begins sliding underneath the ocean. In Lamb, Joshua invites Peter out on the ocean only to play a practical joke on him.

This is a very strong book, I think -- easily accessible to nonbelievers, while not insulting to believers, unless they object to Joshua acting in human ways, including trying to figure out the mechanics of sex and shooting his mouth off. Although the book is intended as a humorous take on Jesus’ life, the story is compelling by itself: midway into the book, I was completely engrossed in it and its lead characters -- Joshua, Biff, Maggie (Mary Magdalene) and even a few of the supporting characters like the Roman centurion who befriends the leads as children. Further, this is a book I’d like to own myself, just so I could re-read in the future and lend it to friends. If you like to laugh -- give this a try.

"What is your name, Demon?" Joshua asked.
"What would you like it to be?" said the demon.
"You know, I've always been partial to the name Harvey," Joshua said.
"Well, isn't that a coincidence? My name just happens to be Harvey." - 319

* Rabbi Hillel, who grumpily informs them that all they need to know about the Torah is to love thy neighbor as thyself.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Asimov Laughs Again

Asimov Laughs Again: More than 700 Favorite Jokes, Limericks, and Anecdotes
© 1992 Isaac Asimov
357 pages

A German was giving an impassioned speech at the United Nations and the interpreter was silent.
“What’s he saying?” someone whispered to the interpreter.
“I don’t know yet,” said the interpreter. “I’m waiting for the verb.”   - p. 166

Back in 2008 I enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor, a collection of some six hundred jokes, puns, and riddles, complemented by Asimov’s comments on them and humor in general. Asimov penned a sequel to the book with Asimov Laughs Again, although with this work he insisted on forgoing the traditional “chapter” format and instead presents the book as one long conversation, punctuated only by joke numbers. This format works tolerably well, although it does mean readers who are used to using chapter breaks as stopping points will be at a disadvantage.

This is not a joke book in the spirit of Asimov’s Treasury of Humor. Although there are plenty of jokes here, his humorous anecdotes are more numerous and at times carry the book. While Treasury of Humor’s main appeal was as a joke book, Laughs Again will appeal more to those who enjoy Isaac Asimov’s personality.  Asimov also includes many of his original limericks, all bawdy. Although some of the anecdotes were more benignly entertaining than amusing, the book as a whole was funny and indeed mirth-inducing at a couple of points. If you can find it, it’s worth thumbing through at the very least.

Socrates was wandering about an Athenian bazaar, closely studying all the rich and flashy items that were for sale there.
A friend, well aware of Socrates’ abstemious life-style, said to him in wonder, “Why is it, O Socrates, that you are so interested in this merchandise?”
“Because,” said Socrates, “I am stuck dumb with amazement to see what a wide variety of things there are that I don’t need and can do without.” - p. 299

The Best of 2009

2009 was a….big year for reading. I’m a little staggered by how well I was able to maintain a weekly rhythm, being thrown off only by the paper season in the fall semester. This was my first full year in the same basic format, which pleases me still -- although I don’t quite know how to best approach a yearly review. The approach I tried last year was thorough, but perhaps a bit too lengthy. I want to both reflect on the year’s reading altogether and point out books that were especially memorable.

My favorite "quotations of the week" for this year are shared at my philosophy/humanities blog.

Philosophy and Religion:
Religion and philosophy dominated this year, unexpectedly. Although philosophical inquiry as a truth-finding discipline has been of interest since 2006, applied philosophy -- using philosophy to inform the way I live my life -- has only been an area of interest since reading Doug Muder’s take on Stoicism, which opened me up not just to applied philosophy, but to religious variants on philosophy, interpretations of god, and religion itself. Not only did I begin relating to religion in a way that I would have never anticipated, I also began improving my cultural literacy by reading about the basics of four religions that were then fairly new to me -- Buddhism, Islam, Wicca, and Taoism. Taoism is still largely unknown to me, as I only read two translations and explications of the Tao te Ching.

  1. The Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness.
  2. The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton 
  3. Buddha, Karen Armstrong. This is a simple biography of Siddhartha Gautama and the story of how Buddhism began. 
  4. Drawing Down the Moon, Margaret Adler. Adler offers a broad take on Wicca and other Earth-religions.
  5. Jesus, Marcus Borg. I read perhaps four books about Jesus this year, but this was the most effective and stayed with me. Borg, in looking for the historical Jesus,  examines not just what was said about Jesus, but why such a thing might be said. 

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Here if You Need Me, Kate Braestrup. Braeustrup is a Unitarian minister who works as a chaplain for the state of Maine. This is her story of how she came to be in that position, and what being able to help others does for her. 
  2. God’s Problem. Bart Ehrnman examines how the Bible attempts -- and ultimately, fails -- to answer the problem of evil. The history given by Ehrman helped me make sense of Christianity, and he ends by humanizing the book of Ecclesiastes. 
  3. The Faith Club sees three women join together several times a month to discuss the similarities, differences, and meanings of their respective religions.  

Social Criticism:

  1. Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is one of the year's best books by far. I found Postman last year, but Amusing Ourselves to Death  stayed with me all year long and I expect that it will continue to do so. 
  2. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and The Zinn Reader act as both history and social criticism. The Zinn Reader chiefly consists of articles, essays, and book forwards penned by Zinn throughout the late 20th century. He's a powerful writer, and I admire his passion.
  3. Peter Whybrow’s American Mania, takes a biological look at consumerism. 
  4. Erich Fromm’s To Have or To Be? taking a philosophical look at the same on an individual level, while his Sane Society examined society as a whole.
  5.  In Praise of Slowness, by Carl Honoré, introduced me to the "Slowness" movement, which is somewhat similar to movements prompting "simple living". I was already a convert when I read the book, increasing my enjoyment.

My science reading was deficient this year, owing partially to the fact that my home library gutted its little-used science section and my options dwindled. Since this was the Year of Darwin, I did a good bit of evolutionary reading. I was unable to do any reading into the history of science, other than Robert Adler’s Medical Firsts.

  1. Evolution for Everyon Evolution is all too often seen as something that happened, rather as something that happens even now. David Sloan Wilson argues that scientists working on any biological problem ought to think in evolutionary terms. There's more to the book than that -- he first argues that religion need not be evolution's foe, and that evolution is easy to understand -- but the broader use of evolution compels me to reccommend it. 
  2.  Our Inner Ape by Frans de Wall examines the behaviors exhibited by other great apes (and some merely medicore apes), comparing or contrasting them to human behaviors to see which of our behaviors might be biologically based. His conclusion is that our biological history is responsible for both behaviors that we cherish (Empathy) and despise (xenophobia). 
  3. American Mania once more. This was my first time seeing biology, politics, and social criticism pulling together. 
  4. Through a Window, Jane Goodall. This is a straightforward account of her time spent with chimpanzees, and an interesting one at that. 
  5. Why Evolution is True. This book by Jerry Coyne is particularly strong is that Coyne not only lays out the evidence for  evolution, but examines why people resist it in the first place.


  1. A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn. Zinn focuses his narrative on the downtrodden of American history -- the native Americans, slaves, women, laborers, pacifists, and socialists who are typically ignored by the "Great Leaders" approach to history. 
  2. The Great Transformation is a bit of religious and social history, as Karen Armstrong examines what she calls the “Axial Age”, which gave birth to Aristotle, Buddha, Confucious, Lao Tzu,  Zoroastrianism, and the socially-concerned Prophets of the Hebrews. 
  3. Mysteries of the Middle Ages and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill, both his Hinges of History series are definitely worth noting. While the series as a whole is a mixed bag, I particularly enjoyed these two works. The hardcover version of Mysteries is a bit of art in itself. 
  4. The Roman Mind, M.L. Clarke. Clarke gives a history of philosophy, religion, and ideology in Rome, beginning with Greece and ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the "last philosopher". 
  5. Tom Holland’s Persian Fire and Rubicon are both large historical narratives tackling Persia and Rome respectively. 

Honorable Mentions:

  1. The Sons of Caesar, by Phil Matyszak is a well-done narrative that tells the story of Rome's first family of emperors and documents Rome's transition from Republic to Empire. 
  2. Constantinople, by Isaac Asimov, was my first foray into Byzantine history and a very good at that. I would expect nothing less from the maestro.


  1. Roma. If I had to choose a fiction book of the year, I’d go with Roma. Steven Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa mystery series is worth mentioning into itself, but with Roma he managed to fit a thousand years of history into one very readable novel. 
  2. Isaac Asimov  gave me plenty of enjoyment this year with his Black Widower series and the two posthumous collections of Magic and Gold
  3. Greg Iles’ novels are absurdly riveting and often thought-provoking. The Quiet Game, Turning Angel, and Footprints of God are all recommendations. 
  4. Robert Harris' Imperium and Pompeii sold me on Harris' abilities as an author.They're easily some of the best historical fiction I've read.
  5. Max Barry's Syrup and Company were hilarious satires of American consumer and corporate culture.

 Honorable Mentions:

  1. Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events captured July for me. The thirteen books all made for fun reading, each being marvelously fun, full of dark humor, snarky comments, and little treats for adult readers. 
  2. Drew  Karpyshyn's Darth Bane trilogy still comes to mind on a regular basis.  I've only read two of the books (the third being released in early December, and which I'll get around to sometime this spring), but they're the best Star Wars fiction I've read. 
  3. Ford County: Stories, by John Grisham, was almost my last read of the year. As much as I enjoyed this book, I finished it only last week and it's still digesting, as it were. 


  1. Walden, Henry David Thoreau. Walden is the author's account of his year spent in a self-built cabin on Walden Pond in his attempt to be self-sufficient and provide more time for reflection. He writes on varied topics, making the book hard to place. It's well known in the United States and reccommended as a classic, but I did enjoy it on its own terms.
  2. The Best of Robert Ingersoll is a book of quotations by the late great Robert Ingersoll, a 19th century orator, lecturer, lawyer, and politician. He's the most interesting American I know of, and I enjoyed reading through this collection of his opinions even though it contained no full articles as I'd imagined.
  3. Sway is a book I read in the very beginning of the year about the irrational "traps" people fall into. It's an easy recommendation for skeptics: I used part of it in a history paper this past term in explaining wartime behavior.
  4. Great Books by David Denby is his account of retaking two literature of the humanities courses, beginning with Greek plays and ending with English literature. In effect, he visits the western canon and examines criticism of it, comparing his experiences as a college freshman and as an older intellectual.
  5. Humanist Anthlology. Arguably, this could have been placed in philosophy, but it's a bit more varied than that. The editors glean humanistic thinking from authors as ancient as Socrates to as modern as Richard Dawkins. These various authors defend reason and reason-based ethics, emphasize the roles of wonder and idealism, and attack ideas based too much in irrationality and unprovable claims. 

2009 was an incredible year for my favorite hobby, and while I don't expect to rival it with 2010, I do imagine I'll be finding some nice reads this upcoming year. I'm planning to dive into contemporary Star Trek fiction, finish a few trilogies, and perhaps explore the classic Lord of the Rings series. One challenge this year will be finding more Isaac Asimov to read. As always, I welcome reccomendations.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Gangs of New York

The Gangs of New York
© 1927 Herbert Ashbury
368 pages


A few weeks ago I opted to read Herbert Ashbury’s Gangs of New York to see what his writing style might be like. I have a strong interest in city life during the late 19th century, so a book set in that time period such as Gangs of New York is right up my alley.  The book was initially published in 1927, meaning before Prohibition and before organized crime as Americans perceive it in the form of the Mafia. The gangs presented in this book pretend to no sophistication: they are street brawlers who delight in a good fight as much as they do in making money.  Some of these crawlers make for interesting characters, like the hood who was never seen without a book in his pocket and who thought Herbert Spencer particularly good reading.

As I started in, I quickly realized that Ashbury’s work wasn’t the most readable book I’d ever picked up. It’s full of interesting information, but the information is presented as-is:  there’s little narrative here, which hurts the book. Even the slightest of narratives doesn’t just make the book easier or more “fun” for the reader: it helps the book communicate. In the chapter on tong wars in Chinatown, for instance, Ashbury tells what happens, but he does not explain what the tongs were or how they fit into immigrant society. Jerry Flamm did this in Good Life in Hard Times: San Francisco’s Twenties and Thirties, and as a result I learned more in Flamm’s brief chapter on how San Francisco police officers broke the tongs of their day than in Ashbury’s longer chapter on tong history. The same is true of the gangs comprised of European immigrants: while Ashbury writes on what they did, he offers no explanation as to why they arose, although the reader can draw his or her own ideas out if they’re creative enough.

Because of this weakness, I wouldn’t recommend this for readers just starting to explore this period. The book’s genuine wealth of information -- including varied and bizarre characters and stories -- is of value to a more read student of the period, and it is to those readers I would recommend this work. Ashbury’s tone betrays the time in which he wrote this: his criticism often employs religious language, giving it an expressly moralistic flavor which I found more amusing than anything else. Ashbury’s words often have a shadow of racism about them, and they are particularly dark in the chapter on the tongs of Chinatown.

The book thus has its problems, but given the wealth of information here, is still very much useful to a student of the period. The book covers nearly a hundred years of history, and I was able to see the gangs evolve from collections of uniformed hoods who liked brawling to political bully-boys and “businessmen”.  Ashbury does a good job of portraying how bleak a place late-19th century New York was, and I think I leave the book more knowledgeable for having read it. Given that it’s such a straightforward account -- an expanded police blotter -- this will be better appreciated by those with more background knowledge.