Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Strength to Love

Strength to Love
© 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
158 pages
        Strength to Love is a collection of some fourteen sermons written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,  with an “epistle” to American Christians written by King in the voice of Paul of Tarsus, creator of Christianity as we know it. As these are sermons, they are written toward a Christian audience and will be best received by one, although King’s thoughts are generally broad enough that the nonreligious and differently religious among his potential readership will find something to appreciate.

Although raised in a fundamentalist background, King adopts a “tough-minded” approach. He does not attack science when it collides with religion, for he sees science and religion as two different areas of human experience that share little ground. American scientist Stephen Jay Gould shared this approach, labeling science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria”. Although he is not an outright slave to tradition, he still defends the Judeo-Christian heritage in full, including embracing the murderous god of Abraham and Moses while preferring to teach from the New Testament. His approach, he says, is neither conservative nor liberal, but combines elements of both. He adopts the same approach to the intersection of his faith and life: he does not see the primary purpose of Jesus as giving people an escape from metaphysical hell, but in demonstrating a godly way to live and sacrificing himself in order to inspire others. King sees the Christian mandate as striving to create the “Kingdom of God” on Earth, and he believes progress can only be achieved through surrender to a loving God. He decries the secular belief in progress that defined the 19th century (and parts of the 20th, until the  two world wars) as an illusion -- a plague, even.  While he appreciates humanists as people of conscience who want to make the world a better place, he sees the philosophy as flawed. He also accuses humanists of arrogance and self-worship, accusations common among Christians*.

His worldview as mentioned above is articulated in this book,  in addition to his thoughts on Communism, his path to nonviolence, and his ideas on how the Christian church may recover from its corrupt impotence and become a progressive force in society once more. The essay on Communism made for interesting reading, as King is sometimes associated with “leftist” causes. His passion for social justice is beyond doubt, as is his admiration for Karl Marx, who he sees as someone who was similarly passionate. He sees the Leninist system of communism as being built on a heap of bad ideas, among them the humanistic faith in progress. King’s religious experience and a near-mystical testimony make obvious that his belief in the need for God is unshakable. Even so, he is something of a Christian humanist given his approach to realizing a better world now, and his firm belief that people must work with God. He also alludes to favorably all manner of individuals, including nonreligious persons like Charles Darwin and Helen Keller.

Strength to Love made for a fascinating collection of thoughts by King, not always agreeable to me but ever informative and heartening in its way, especially the first four sermons which were not as anti-humanistic. This is an obvious recommendation to Christian audiences, the generally religious, those interested in King's life and his approach to Gandhi's philosophy, and to those with a tendency to deify love.

* The charge of "arrogance" is subjective. Christians might call a humanist arrogant for thinking he can "make it on his own", but a humanist could just as easily think a Christian arrogant for thinking the creator of "all that is" makes obsessive plans centered on the needs and whims of people. The opposite is true: I think humanists and Christians can both be humble in our ways.

Teaser Tuesday (30-3)

This is the day that Should Be Reading has made: let us rejoice and Tease in it.

"Character formation began early, with family games of tossing naked children into the snow. (They were pulled out quickly and placed next to the fire, in a practice reminiscent of Scandinavian saunas."

 - p. 42 of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

Friday, March 26, 2010


Infernova: An Infidel Reinvents Dante's Hell
© S.A. Alenthony
220 pages

Go to Hell.

Go there with Mark Twain. In fact, let him give you a tour of Hell. It's actually the kind of place he approves of, because in an ironic twist, it is the arrogantly pious and faithful who people it -- not the rational and humanistic. This is no place of sadistic wrath, however: only a realm in which people are forced to face the consequences of their actions -- where those who limited themselves and humanity by their refusal to commit to rationality realize their self-imposed limitations in full.

Infernova is a modern retelling of Dante's Inferno, the classic story in which a man is forced to tour the bowels of Hell, being guided through its many levels by a sage or personal hero of sorts. There are nine levels all told. After passing through the Vestibule -- where the otherwise rational who clung inexplicably to irrationality, like Sir Isaac Newton and C.S. Lewis -- linger, chuckling at their foolishness on Earth -- our narrator, led by Mark Twain,  begins his descent into Hell. With Twain commenting all the while, they will descend the Slippery Slope, cross the Plains of Bullshit inhabited by sheep (people who are now in form what they remained in mind in life), and enter the final descent, which is flanked by the petrified forms of self-appointed prophets and demigods who set themselves up as spiritual tyrants and dogmatic teachers. These prophets, still living, have been forced into stone where they are unable to manipulate the minds of people with their words. Among their ranks are not just televangelists and religious fathers, but political dictators. The Inferno is home to all forms of mental slavery, not just that maintained by religion.

Impressively, and appropriately given that this is a retelling of The Inferno, Infernova is written in rhyming verse and is divided into Cantos rather than chapters.I enjoyed the format, so different from that to which I am accustomed. Written as a parody, the book will easily provide rationalists and skeptics with laughter. The author's audacity in naming names is also entertaining. With Infernova, Alenthony promotes reason, compassion, and the human spirit while skewering the opposition in a playful way. Best of all, he does this without seeming vindictive or mean-spirited, for Twain introduces Hell in such a way as to let the narrator know that the sights he will see are not true:  no outside power is inflicting further humiliation on these people.  The punishments seen here are physical symbols of the mental slavery and punishment people inflict on themselves so willingly in reality.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

This Week at the Library (25/3)

This week at the library...

Letter from the Birmingham Jail, written by Martin Luther King Jr, is a response to King's critics in which King explains the necessity and appropriateness of civil disobedience in the Civil Rights movement. The letter also allows King to voice his disappointment with moderates and the Christian church for opposing the Civil Rights movement more than they assist it.

Conspirata by Robert Harris is the second book in his biographical trilogy of Cicero. Taking place during Cicero's year as a consul, the book sees Cicero tackle the Cataline Conspiracy and earn for himself the title "Father of the Nation", a title seldom given before the rise of the emperors. Unfortunately for Cicero, Cataline was only the beginning of both his and the Republic's difficulties. Conspirata may one of Harris' better works.

The Road to Wigan Pier  documents lives and working conditions of coal miners in northern England,  the consequences of class consciousness, and sees Orwell promote democratic socialism while explaining why socialism has been so unpopular up until that point (1937).  Wigan will be useful to the social historian of the period.

Lost Discoveries by Nick Teresi is a history of global science, or at least a history of humanity's investigation and explanation of the natural world that draws from the accounts of  nearly every civilized culture on Earth. Seperate chapters focus on mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, physics, geology, chemistry, and technology, and show clearly that curiousity about the natural world and unique approaches to satiating that curiosity are part of the human heritage. Although the book had its weaknesses, I enjoyed it immensely.

Pick of the week? Oh, dear -- this week's reading was too strong to play favorites.

Quotation of the Week: "Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with."  (King, Letter from the Birmingham Jail)

Upcoming Reads:
  • The Infernova, S. A. Alenthony's witty retelling of Danta's classic Inferno.  Mark Twain replaces Virgil as the narrator's guide into the abyss of Hell....a hell populated not by the impious, but the unreasonable.
  • Strength to Love, Martin Luther King Jr. This is a collection of sermons and essays I am very much looking to: I read Letter from the Birmingham Jail in part to whet my appetite. 
  • Bhagavad Gita, Stephen Mitchell
  • 1421: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles Mann.
  • And of course, there's always The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris, which I accidentally forgot about.
  • In addition, I'm still hiking through a classic of contemporary literature.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lost Discoveries

Lost Discoveries: the Ancient Roots of Modern Science -- from the Babylonians to the Maya
© 2002 Dick Teresi

I spotted this while collecting books for a paper on the emergence of Renaissance science, and it looked so interesting that I knew I’d be reading it properly instead of scanning and making notes. I’m glad I did, for it’s as enjoyable a book about human history and science as I’ve ever read.

Author Dick Teresi establishes from the start that while the traditional western-centric narrative of scientific progress is simplistic, chauvinistic, and incorrect, previous attempts at a multicultural view of scientific history have repeated those mistakes while being patronizing to boot. The traditional narrative, which Teresi believes began only 150 years ago, holds that science was born in Greece, where it defined the classical world until that era’s demise. While the ideas of the Greeks were kept safe by the Arabs,  scientific progress did not resume until the Renaissance, and science has remained the province of the Western world ever since -- only becoming global after colonialism exported it. Attempts to overturn this narrative have gone so far as to reduce the Greeks to nothing more than unoriginal borrowers, and given rise to wild speculative theories like ancient Egypt having gliders and using the Pyramids as air-control towers.

Teresi hopes -- and I think, succeeds -- with this book to project a broader and fairer view. Chapters on mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, physics, geology, chemistry, and technology show that cultures across the globe have all explored the natural world in their ways, and that further, many systems of thought are the result of interplay between these cultures. The combination of Greek and Indian ideas in math, for instance, supplemented the Arab world’s own knowledge in the same. Cultures have had different approaches, often ignoring parts of science while promoting others as their cultural values suggest, but no culture has failed to investigate the world in which they live. The book thus appealed to me in the same way history as a whole does: it reminds me that so many people have lived and asked questions, just as I do, and they have tried to answer those questions in a delightful variety of ways.

There is, however, a difference between explaining the natural world and doing so scientifically. Teresi’s use of science in this book is limited to the popular use of it -- information relating to the world we live in. Lost Discoveries records a range of empirical and speculative approaches on the part of people to find the truth. Only one chapter suffers in content, that of cosmology. After explaining the modern view -- theories based on the big bang -- Teresi then repeats every mythological story that references an eternal universe that begins with massive expansion and that might tend to be cyclical in having a growth, death, and rebirth cycle. This is reaching: those stories are supernatural accounts, not investigations of the natural world. Contemporary science remains based on Greek, Indian, and Islamic math, or uses Babylonian calendars, or used Chinese technology. How are these account of cosmic birth a root or base of modern science? They have their place, but I don’t think it is in this book.

Despite this weakness, the book as a whole is strong. I enjoyed it immensely and recommend it to anyone interested in the global history of our attempts to explain the natural world.  Teresi presents a varied, rich, and fair account that has increased my appreciate for the human heritage as a whole.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (23-3)

Give us this day our Tuesday Tease -- from Should Be Reading.

In this world there are two main paths:
the yoga of understanding,
for contemplative men; and for men 
who are active, the yoga of action.

Not by avoiding actions
does a man gain freedom from action
and not by renunciation
alone, can he reach the goal

- pg. 62 of Stephen Mitchell's The Bhagavad Gita: chapter 3, verses three and four. It makes me think of the old struggle between the active and contemplative lives, as well as Buddha's "middle way".

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Road to Wigan Pier

The Road to Wigan Pier
© 1937 George Orwell
191 pages, including forward for members of the Left Book Club. 

(My own copy: I adore tattered old paperbacks.)

       I read this primarily for a European history class taught by a professor who typically assigns novels, journals, or other supplemental literature alongside of or instead of a standard textbook. I like this approach: it’s given me a fair bit of interesting reading over the years, introducing me to books I would have otherwise never heard of.

Originally published in 1937 -- written, in fact, during the Fascist attack on Madrid -- George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier covers two related topics in the same breath. The book’s opening chapters concern the living and working conditions of the working class, their plight amidst England’s then-current economic woes (chronic unemployment and housing shortages), and their difficulty in being received by the middle-class world.  Orwell then moves on to the question of socialism. In his view,  socialism is such an obvious idea that it should seem to appeal to everyone. Since it does not,  he aims to sort out why exactly this is. He believes the problem lies with socialists’ approach, in being insincere, orthodox, or tied to utopian (specifically, Wellsian) dreams of the future. His ideal socialist is kin to the ideal Christian: one who does not spend his time talking about doctrine, but simply living and advocating for principles of justice and human decency. He finishes the book with a promotion of democratic socialism.

Although not written as such, Wigan  is now valuable as a historical resource. The first part of the book serves as a documentary about the working class, whose living and working conditions were dismal indeed: they seemed scarcely better than those of the Gilded Age.  The book is also now a work of intellectual and cultural history: Orwell spends a great deal of time comparing the attitudes and values of the working class and the middle class.  Given that Orwell also discusses  how socialism is received by people -- and why they react against it -- I can understand why my professor would assign it, given that we are discussing the rise of reactionary and fascist parties in Europe’s 1930s. The book is easily readable and tends toward the informal: Orwell talks to the reader with passion, communicating effectively despite a slight tendency to be absent-minded. This is definitely of interest for those interested in the life of the 1930s.

Wigan Pier made for an interesting read. I think I shall be reading more of Orwell’s nonfiction in the future, specifically his Homage to Catalonia.


  • Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. Orwell's stance on increasing mechanization and cultural shallowness made me think of Postman.
  • The Gangs of New York, Herbert Ashbury, in documenting living conditions. 
  • The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx, for economic criticism. While Orwell sees Marx's criticisms valid, he thinks intellectual Marxists make for poor socialists indeed, just as theologians fixated on quandaries make for poor Christians. 

Friday, March 19, 2010


© 2009/2010 Robert Harris
340 pages

“Until this moment, gentlemen, I did not realize the extent to which there were two conspiracies I had to fight. There was the conspiracy which I destroyed, and then there was the conspiracy behind that conspiracy -- and that inner one prospers still. Look around you, Romans, and you can see how well it prospers!”

Imperium and Pompeii sold me on Robert Harris as an author, and I anticipated with eagerness Imperium’s sequel, the second part of his biographical trilogy of Marcus Tullius Cicero. The sequel (Lustrum's) release in America was delayed for three months, after which time it arrived as Conspirata. Imperium ended with Cicero’s rise to the consulship (63 BC), the highest office in Rome. He earns the office not through family ties or money, but through sheer political prowess and oratorical might. He will need both to survive in late Republican Rome -- in a time  of political crisis and turmoil. The dispossessed, hungry, and desperate masses view the violent would-be revolutionary Catalina as their savior.  Cicero and Catalina are bitter rivals, and their machinations against the other dominate the initial two-thirds of the book. Catalina’s desire to overthrow the Republic is personal for Cicero, and not just because of the latter's adoration for tradition and Roman virtue:  Catalina has sworn to murder Cicero, and inspires his supporters to hate our subject. In spite of popular hatred, Cicero is determined to maintain the rule of law against the threat of violence.

Although Catalina is the most direct and obvious threat, Cicero will find that he is not the only threat. The revolutionary is flanked by the young and ambitious Julius Caesar, whose own adeptness at the game of politicians is startling. Supporting the both of them is Crassus, the robber-baron and king-maker of his day:  Crassus, whose vast wealth can buy him everything but the glory he seeks, is willing to do whatever it takes to make a public name for himself. Looming in the distance is Pompey, whose opinion of himself after the destruction of Rome's foreign enemies is so great that he refers to himself as “the Great”.  The legendary general commands the respect of all: his own ambition to rule the world is thwarted only by the equal ambition of Caesar and Crassus. What unites these men is their lust for glory and power -- and standing against them are men like the pragmatic Cicero and the puritanically idealistic Cato. In this novel’s  five year span (known as a lustrum), Cicero’s star will rise to glory despite the odds -- but against such powerfully arrayed forces, it may not long shine.

Conspirata is a first-rate political thriller, one that invokes the tension between idealism and pragmatism as well as the on-going fight between the haves and the have nots. Cicero emerges as a sympathetic character even as he is partially corrupted by his own success, largely because those he stands against are such scoundrels. The very nature of politics emerges through the various political fights here, as they both its idealism and its tendency toward corruption for both noble and ignoble purposes. The struggle between the optimates and populares intrigues me, largely because it continues today, giving Rome’s political dramas steadfast relevance. Harris has triumphed here.


  • Steven Saylor's Catalina's Riddle, which has the main character give shelter to Cataline during the power struggle. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Letter from the Birmingham Jail

Letter from the Birmingham Jail
© 1963 Martin Luther King Jr.
35 pages

Don't say it can't be done:
The battle's just begun
Take it from Doctor King,
You too can learn to sing,
So -- drop the gun!
(Pete Seeger, "Take It From Doctor King")

Despite his impact on my own local and national history, until recent years Martin Luther King Jr. has been but another of history's many characters. Somewhere between reading Henry David Thoreau and Howard Zinn, however, he lept from the pages of books and became a personality for me to reckon with. Dr. King penned the letter from his Birmingham jail cell after being arrested for civil disobedience, part of an extended campaign on the part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other groups to force tradition-bound states like Alabama and Georgia to confront the illegal and inhumane practice of segregation. The letter is a response to his critics, who question the appropriateness and usefulness of his campaign.

Although maintaining that ordinarily he would never respond at length to his critics -- for there were many, -- the monotony of his life in prison affords him the opportunity and makes the process seem much more appealing, giving him something to keep his mind busy. After responding to claims that the nonviolent movement is too extreme or provocative, King expresses his own concerns -- lamenting the apathy and impotence of the church, which has turned away from what he sees as Jesus' mandate for social justice in favor of worshiping tradition. He addresses the spirit of conservative moderation in general, criticizing its impotence while affirming that justice must take precedence before legalism.

Letter is a marvel, masterfully written. It contains much, despite the few pages. Although written in response to particular social circumstances, King's passion and opinions are still applicable today.Additionally, the letter is a valuable piece of history, explaining the need for and the application of nonviolent activism.  Although I do not share Dr. King's religious beliefs, I admire the ends which they serve. His endearing humility and passion for both humanity and our most noble aspirations make him one of the titans of progressive Christianity and a champion of the human spirit.

This Week at the Library (17/3)

This week at the library:

It's Raining Frogs and Fishes! proved a breezy but interesting read, containing some forty essays on the world above -- the sky and both the celestial and earth-bound bodies that inhabit it. The essays cover not only weather, but biology and astronomy as well.

The Ethics of Star Trek first illustrates and examines the scope of Western ethical philosophy through Star Trek episodes that are directly or indirectly influenced by them. Author Judith Barad then attempts to sort out which ideas most predominate the series. As both a Trekkie and an aspiring student of practiced philosophy, I found the book interesting if not wholly fulfilling.

Lastly, I enjoyed Frances' Gies biography of Joan of Arc, a thorough and entertaining read that lives up to the high expectations I have for Gies' work.

Quotation of the Week:
"[P]ope Pius II thought that the French were superstitious, which suggests that superstition, like venereal disease and sexual deviation, is always the attribute of another nationality." - 145, Joan of Arc: the Legend and the Reality

I laughed well at this. It's easy to accuse and even write people off as being superstitious, ignoring our own beliefs and assumptions. For instance, my brain is under the impression that if I hit the "Shift" key repeatedly while playing a certain video game, things will go my way. I always feel like one of Skinner's pigeons when my finger itches to start tapping the key.

Upcoming Reads:

  • Letters from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr.
  • The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell. This I'm reading for class: I bought a copy used off of Amazon that was originally sold as a 75 cent paperback back when the US still had a socialist labor movement, so it's endearing already.(I like old books, especially the dainty ones that demand I take care of them.)
  • The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Stephen Miller. My religious/cultural literacy effort has not yet touched Hinduism: the subject is so vast I've been inclined to tread more familiar territory. Still, it's so influential that I can't avoid it forever. I figure it's fitting to begin with the most well-known Hindu text. 
  • I also have a small mound of books about medieval and Renaissance science, since I'm going to be writing a paper on Renaissance science in the coming weeks. Some I may read properly, although I suspect I'll mostly be scanning them for notes. 
  • There are other books in the air, particularly one novel I devoutly want to read but know I should ignore in favor of school-related books. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Joan of Arc: the Legend and the Reality

Joan of Arc: the Legend and the Reality
© 1959 Frances Gies
306 pages

Few historical characters, and no women, are more famous than Joan of Arc. Her name and story are known throughout the world. In the Middle Ages there were women to led armies, female mystics who prophesied and gave advice, and men and women alike whose beliefs led them to the stake. Joan’s story has a unique quality, a fairy tale with a tragic ending, invested with her own personality -- her common sense, her trenchant speech, her indomitable courage, before the judges of Rouen as in the moat at Orleans. (259)

Joan of Arc has long fascinated me, beginning when I read about her in my seventh-grade world history book. A girl of fourteen, leading the French army to victory and ending a century-long war? She remains of interest to me, and so when in the course of hunting my next Gies read I saw Joan of Arc,  of course I wanted to read it. Frances and her husband Joseph Gies are both medieval historians who collaborated on a series of “Daily Life in the Medieval Ages” books,  but each have their pet interests. As is characteristic of the Gies, Joan of Arc is both readable and thorough.  Details abound, but Gies sets those details within the larger context . She explains the course of the war to that point -- now dominated more by the civil war betweens the houses of Orleans and Burgundy than by English territorial ambitions -- and smartly gives the reader background on aspects of French medieval culture  that are pertinent to the biography.

Gies draws on many primary and secondary sources, which she identifies and analyzes at the book’s outset.  These sources sometimes conflict, especially when judging Joan’s character and integrity. Some of the sources are biased to the point of being farcical, providing a laugh here and there.  Although Gies is sometimes protective of her subject, she makes a strong effort to portray a less romanticized Joan -- a human hero.  The book does not end with Joan’s death or even the Rehabilitation trial that followed it twenty years later, overturning the English sentence that she was a heretical witch who deserved her fate at the stake:  instead, Gies examines the ways Joan has been received as history has progressed. This historiography of Joan does not extend far past the late 19th century, though: no mention is given of Joan's use in the propaganda war between the Vichy government of occupied France and the Resistance.

All told, Joan of Arc is certainly a worthy read for those interested in her life, although I would recommend reading it alongside a history of the Hundred Years War. (I would recommend Desmond Seward’s  treatment of the war, having used it for several term papers.)

The Ethics of Star Trek

The Ethics of Star Trek
© 2000 Judith Barad with Ed Robertson
368 pages

Captain Picard: There is perhaps no greater challenge than the study of philosophy.
Wesley Crusher: William James won't be on my Starfleet exams.
Picard: The important things will never be. ("Samaritan Snare")

Star Trek is perhaps the most philosophically edifying series of television shows that I've ever watched. Without question it's shaped my own world-view, and I'm no stranger to trying to explain philosophy through examples from the show. Thus, The Ethics of Star Trek immediately appealed to me. Essentially, author Judith Barad takes the reader through the long history of Western ethical philosophy, beginning with Socrates and ending with the Existentialists, illustrating competing ideas through Star Trek episodes, examining them for their worth. This philosophical journey occupies the majority of the book and served as an introduction to men like Kant, whom I'm not familiar with.

Each topical chapter draws from at least two Star Trek episodes, using them as case-studies. A few episodes do double-duty. Some Trek episodes explicitly addressed philosophical ideas, especially in the original series: in later shows, the ideas must be gleaned out. The human and Vulcan Starfleet crews are not the only subject of Barad's interest: she also explores the Klingons, Ferengi, Malon, Borg, and more. Bajorans in particular enjoy a lengthy period in the spot-light, having the only explicitly religious culture seen on a regular basis.

In part five, Barath attempts to arrive at come conclusion in figuring out what philosophy of ethics most amply covers Star Trek's then-four television shows and movies. Her conclusion is that with the exception of Voyager, each series pays homage to a particular philosophy, but that all of the series can be unified under a coherent ethical tapestry.

Although the topic is endlessly fascinating for me and I enjoyed the book in a general manner, I must confess to being a bit disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but parts of the Star Trek legacy seem ignored. Gene Roddenberry's Humanism, for instance, is conspicuously absent. The author gives a passing mention in the introduction, promising to look for it, but never does. Star Trek may have grown less active in its championing of those ideals as it aged, but that idealism can't be ignored in the first two shows*. Overall, I suspect I may remember this book more for reminding me of some of Star Trek's most interesting shows and the introduction to various philosophies than for its ending conclusion.

*It seems to me that the more Star Trek ages, the more it is robbed of its idealism. I saw little of it in Enterprise, for instance, and not a trace of it in the newest movie.This is a shame, given that the franchise's core fanbase is composed of the idealists. It is they who have keep the flame alive. People can get science fiction anywhere, but Trek's stubborn idealism is hard to come by.

Teaser Tuesday (16-3)

'Tis Tuesday. Let us be Teased, from Should Be Reading

According to a story told by the priest who became Joan's confessor, as she crossed the bridge, a mounted soldier among the crowd called out, "Isn't that the Maid?" and with an oath declared that if he had her for a night she would no longer be a maid. Joan replied, "Ah, you take God's name in vain, and you are so close to death." Within the hour, the man fell into the moat and drowned. 

Joan of Arc: the Legend and the Reality, from page 46. Author is Frances Gies.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

It's Raining Frogs and Fishes!

It's Raining Frogs and Fishes: Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky
© 1992 Jerry Dennis; illustrations by Glenn Wolff
323 pages

It's Raining Frogs and Fishes is a collection of nearly forty essays on the many mysteious of the heavens. While I initially thought this to be a book of weather, auther Jerry Dennis covers the sky in total -- writing essays on the animals that soar through it and the natural and artificial bodies that inhabit it.The essays are divided seasonally, each season starting with an introductory essays. Essays regarding year-round occurances, like eclipses, are sorted into summer. Dennis' essays should be quite lucid to any reading level: I imagine I could've read this as a child, provided I had the patience. Most of the essays were fascinating to me, and they covered a wide range of topics -- migratory patterns,  mating rituals, the magnificent fury and beauty of natural weather systems, animal sensitivity to environmental changes, fog, and much more. I'd reccommend this as a breezy and interesting read to lay readers.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

This Week at the Library (10-3)

American Infidel is a biography of Robert G. Ingersoll, one which places slight emphasis on his career as a "secular preacher", one who railed against the abuses of organized religion while promoting liberty and humanism.  The biography is thorough, presenting a rich view of his life.

Murder at the ABA is one of Isaac Asimov's few straight mysteries. Unusually, Asimov himself is a primary character, helping protagonist and narrator Darius Just find out if the death of a mutual acquaintence was an accident or murder. The result is a humorous whodunit.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a 1889 fantasy story in which a proud believer in the American ideal is transported to the sixth century, where he puts his "Yankee ingenuity" and knowledge as a machinist to work, attempting to build the 19th century from the bones of Dark-Age England.  The book is not only a fantasy story, but an attack on the romanticized medieval world and a slight commentary on the 19th' own views of progress.

Hitler's War, first in a new series by Harry Turtledove, is a straightforward "What if? story with two points of derivation from reality, one of which sees World War 2 beginning at the 1938 Munich Conference. The book's ending plot twist guarantees that I'll be reading the second novel.

The Archie Americana -- Best of the Fifties two-volume set collects forty Archie Comics stories from the 1950s. The books' portrayal of the fifties is largley limited to clothing fashions and slang, with the occassional story about Elvis or the Beats.

Potatoes are Cheaper by Max Shulman uses the classic formula of a love triangle to present a comedic novel. Although these stories can  be somewhat tragic,  the lead character of Marty Katz doesn't necessarily command the reader's sympathy. This is a hilarious story all the same.

Pick of the Week:  American Infidel or Murder at the ABA.
Quotation of the Week:
"It was useless to argue with her. Arguments have no chance against petrified training: they wear it as little as the waves wear a cliff." (p. 87, Connecticut Yankee)
Next Week:

  • It's Raining Frogs and Fishes by Jerry Dennis  amounts to a collection of essays about curious weather phenomena.  
  • The Human Zoo, Desmond Morris. I've been nibbling at this one for weeks, but never really diving in. 
  • The Ethics of Star Trek, Judith Barad and Ed Robinson. The book uses episodes with pointed philosophical themes alongside more conventional philosophical works (Plato's Republic, The Nicomachean Ethics) to tackle ethics, exploring the ideas of justice, personal virtue, and morality. 

It's also time to dive into more term paper research, so I'll probably be reading about medieval/renaissance science and submarine warfare in the next month or so.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Potatoes are Cheaper

Potatoes are Cheaper
© Max Shulman 1971
235 pages

Potatoes are cheaper
Tomatoes are cheaper
Now's the time
To fall in love


The dearest book in my private library is not a groundshaking or even remotely serious: it is rather a collection of humorous short stories entitled The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.  I came upon it completely by accident, my high-school librarian  giving it to me in the midst of her annual shelf-clearing. It's easily the funniest and most charming book I've ever read: I would chance fire to rescue it from a burning house, and I would buy another book off the internet blindly to read more from the same author because of its effect on me. That's how I came to read Potatoes are Cheaper.

In the midst of the Great Depression, Marty Katz and his cousin Albert have just come up with a brilliant way to escape poverty: they'll head for college to find and woo homely rich girls. The girls have to be Jewish of course, since Marty and Albert's mothers are. While the boys might not object to marrying a "shiksa", their mothers would never tolerate it. Determined to debunk the myth that 'Jewish girls don't put out', each boy soon has his mark, Marty's being the only heir of a theater magnate. Marty commissions poetry from his cousin "Crip" in order to woo young Celeste Zimmerman in hopes of marrying her lovely stacks of money. This Crip is only too happy to do, for he lives vicariously through the romantic triumphs of his cousin.

If Katz's uphill battle against winning the tolerance of Celeste's father  wasn't enough, Celeste happily forwarded one of Crip's love poems -- signed under Marty's name -- to a school literary journal, where it catches the eye of one Bridget O'Flynn. Bridget is very lovely, and very much smitten by Katz and "his" poem. Although Katz would readily take advantage of the situation, ever willing having a little fun before returning to the war for Celeste and her father's heart,  Bridget has an unexpected effect on young Marty. She's captured his heart.  Thus Marty must choose between two women, each with enjoyable 'assets'. His mother and cousin think him daft for wanting to choose love over easy money, especially given that his status as a "poet" is fraudulent. It's a a comic love triangle, one that might be sometimes tragic if Marty weren't such a boor.

Tomatoes are Cheaper was a enjoyable read: wildly funny, of course, sometimes bawdily so. It's not Dobie Gillis, but definitely a book I'll return to for laughs in the future.

Teaser Tuesday (9-3)

It's Tuesday again, and time for teasing. As ever, this meme's home is Should Be Reading.

"What major are you most interested in?"
"What's the easiest?" I said.
"Home economics," he said.
"What's the next easiest?" I said.
"It's between sociology and library science," he said. "To my certain knowledge nobody has ever flunked either."
"Which one got the most girls in it?" I asked.

p. 28-29 Tomatoes are Cheaper, by Max Shulman. When planning a college career, one should have goals in mind.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Archie Americana -- Best of the Fifties

Archie Americana Series: Best of the Fifties, volumes 1 and 2
© 1991/1992 Archie Comics
96 pages each
(I wouldn't normally comment on comic books, but these are part of a special collection.)

I grew up on -- indeed, learned to read with -- Archie Comics. I've been enjoying the silly stories of the gang from Riverdale since I gained the dexterity to hold a book upright. They're a family obsession spanning the generations, so no sooner did I buy this set for my dad than did he begin to pass them around. Back in the 90s, Archie Comics issued a series of anthologies showcasing their favorite comics from the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Each volume begins with a two-page article introducing the volume: volume 2 of this set's intro is particularly helpful, as it explains the birth of the American teenager in the 1950s consumer culture and Archie's place in documenting that world. Each volume contains twenty stories, and together the volumes amount to a little over 190 pages.

The central characters of the Archie universe are five American teenagers, although stories almost always involve their friends, parents, and school authorities. Archie Andrews is the star, being the object of a love triangle between his best girls Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge, the best friend of food-loving Jughead Jones, and the favorite target of chronic prankster Reggie Mantle. The kids are perpetual eleventh-graders, forever seventeen and always getting into trouble with their parents, their teachers, or among themselves. Some of the basic stories I read as a child were around in the fifties, although it's obvious that the characters have become more fully developed  in the passing decades: Betty and Veronica  share the same basic personality at this point, the only hint of Betty's future role as a tomboy coming in a story in which she plays baseball. Many of the gang's defining traits have not yet been developed by this point, it seems.

The forty stories presented here were never intended as explicitly portraying "the fifties": the art and props just reflect the times in which they were written. Based on my experience seeing the comics change through the 90s and early 00's, they generally take a few years to catch up. Still, the comics from every generation reflect the fads and fashion of the time: just as the late 90s had the gang obsessing over Beanie-Babies and electronic pets, these comics demonstrate the popularity of Elvis, sock-hops, and (oddly)  genealogy-tracing. The general culture displayed in the books reflects the American 1950s: girls wear dresses that are both flowy and (very) form-fitting, Archie wears sweater-vests and drives a '30s jalopy,  and Mr. Lodge is a captain of manufacturing industry. (Contemporary comics have him as a commercial overlord who does a lot of Wall Street trading.) Stories about Elvis or the the conversion of Archie and Jughead to the "Beat" lifestyle are the  most explicit evidence that these comics were taken from the fifties. (Jughead will become a hippie in the 1960s.) One fifties element I looked for was Cold War paranoia and obsessive American patriotism, but the closest the stories come to that is in covering the fad of genealogy-tracing, when after deflating the egoes of several people who have gotten haughty as a result of being descended from royalty, a teacher infers that the only "coat of arms" worth wearing is the American flag.

As far as art goes, the characters look less refined than they are today. The style that predominates these two collections isn't unusual for me: I only read Archie comics in digest form, and they tend to recycle stories from across the decades. I'm thus used to wide variations in dress, in props, and in slang. The stories tend toward the goofy -- even 'cornball' -- but I'm sure fans of Archie will appreciate the volumes. I think the volumes could benefit from being bigger: while they convey a sense of the fifties, it's not  very rich. Then again, I may not notice the distinction because so many of the classical elements -- the gang living in an old-fashioned town in which the neighborhoods have sidewalks where one may walk to school or the corner malt shop -- remain in the contemporary comics.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Hitler's War

Hitler's War
© 2009 Harry Turtledove
496 pages

The year is 1938, and war wages in Spain between the Popular Front -- a collection of democrats, liberals, socialists, communists, and anarchists --  and the Nationalists, those supporting the attempted military takeover of the Second Spanish Republic. German chancellor Adolf Hitler, who has recently remilitarized the German border with France and effected the annexation of Austria in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, is meeting in Munich with representatives from the British and French governments over the fate of Czechoslovakia. The western powers created Czechoslovakia following the Great War, and its mountainous border regions are peopled by Germans whom Hitler believes belong in the Fatherland.  He expects the allies to concede these regions and more to him, and the unexpected political assassination of those Czechoslovakian Germans' leader seems a godsend to his cause.

He does not anticipate Chamberlain's reaction, for the British prime minister sees this assassination as an obviously staged event on the part of the German ruler. Angered by the Chancellor's arrogance, Britain and France affirm their support of Czechoslovakia. The political leaders leave the room and return to a Europe at war: soon, Russia will join the Allies in condemning this fragant display of imperialism.  World War 2 has begun. While Hitler's newly-revived Wehrmacht goes into action in the Czech mountains, French and British troops gingerly tip-toe into Germany to run over a few mailboxes and blow raspberries. Meanwhile, smaller nations bordering Czechoslovakia join Germany in its evisceration and tensions rise between Russia and the "fascist" state of Poland.

As the struggle develops, people continue to live their live -- and it is their story told here. Some are soldiers who fight in the various conflicts -- a German tanker, Republican and Nationalists in Spain,  French and British infantrymen,  fighter pilots, and submarine commanders -- that emerge after Munich, but others are innocents caught in a miserable situation. As is typical for Turtledove, these viewpoint characters are multi-national and range the moral spectrum. Some even existed in reality, as did their triumphs and humiliations. Although Turtledove is tasked with making only a small derivation from the standard course of history interesting,  those minor changes force the conflict to develop in a wholly different way by novel's end. Hitler's War is typical Turtledove in style, strengths, and weaknesses, and is the first in a six-volume series. Although initially unimpressed except by the novel's depiction of the Spanish Civil War, the book's final fifty pages whet my appetite and I am eager to see what develops from here on out.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court 
© 1889 Mark Twain (alias Samuel Clemens)
Bantam Classic edition, 274 pages

I read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court along with other highly-esteemed literature as a child through the 'Great Illustrated Classics' series. In the summer I decided to begin revisiting these classics in their original form. Yankee is the story of one Hank Morgan, a machinist who is rudely transported through time and across an ocean to the time of King Arthur by a simple blow to the head.  Quickly captured by a knight and taken to Camelot to be burned as a tresspassing lunatic, Morgan manages to save himself and achieve power by using "Yankee ingenuity" and the preemptive power of Clarke's third law.

Happily, the date of his arrival to the world of King Arthur coincides with that of a full solar eclipse. Morgan uses this to his advantage, threatening to block out the light of the sun forever -- relenting only when King Arthur agrees to make Morgan his right-hand man. Morgan quickly overtakes the wizard Merlin as the land's preeminent magician, using his scientific and mechanical knowledge to gain the fear and respect of Arthur's court.  Morgan aims to take command of the country -- not overtly, but by guiding its progress into a new world. While earning his keep in making the country's bureacracy run more effiencly, Morgan lays the foundation for a cultural takeover -- establishing secret factories and schools that will create the 19th century thirteen hundred years early.  To do this, he must render Merlin impotent, destroy knight-errantry, and erode the power of the church. Only by abandoning superstition, tradition, and authoritative religion can Morgan successfully create the kind of progressive society he believes himself to have formerly been part of.  Alas, the newly-styled "Boss" of England will become a victim of his own success and all of his hopes will hinge on one battle.

When I read the book as a child, I saw it only as a simple story of speculative fantasy:  if Twain's satirical humor and commentary were present in that manuscript, they were completely lost on me. Not so, this time: Twain uses the book to lambast medieval romanticism, spending much time to describe the miseries of the general period. As the world of King Arthur  never truly existed -- being a world that evolved in the imaginations of centuries of men, changing as the given culture demanded -- Twain is not criticizing any specific timeframe, but rather a dark-age or early medieval stereotype. Twain also pokes fun at the 19th century idea of progress, one that is limited to the progress of technology and not necessarily of the human spirit. Morgan also comments repeatedly on the power of mental "training", what we might call indoctrination or conditioning. He regards the medieval man as being woefully ignorant and credulous in part because he is relentlessly trained to be so: not all the rational arguments of the world can budge a lifetime of mental apathy or credulity.

Yankee makes for a entertaining read, with much thought-provoking humor. Its commentary says as much of Twain's day as it does of Arthur's.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Murder at the ABA

Murder at the ABA: A Puzzle in Four Days and Sixty Scenes
© 1976 Isaac Asimov
230 pages

    On May 25th, 1975, booksellers and authors gathered in New York City for a weekend of networking, book pitches, and speeches. One such author would not live to see the convention’s second day. His body was found in his bathroom by his one-time mentor, the apparent cause of death a sudden blow to the head caused by a nasty bathtub fall. His estranged friend and former mentor is not convinced that this matter is innocent, based on the condition of the room – and what appears to be spilled heroin upon a countertop. Just is also bothered by the possibility that his last contact with Devore consisted in publically humiliating him for being a mean-spirited heel. Thus, without sanction from the police and to the dismay of hotel staff who don’t want their good name soiled by implications of murder, Just begins investigating the matter .

            The story’s plot unfolds over the course of four days. Just elicits the help and advice of many of his fellow convention-goers, most particularly his friend Isaac Asimov. Asimov has been consigned to spending time at the conference in order to write a book called Murder at the ABA. His publisher, Doubleday, wants him to finish the book within three months’ time so that it can be ready to sell at the next convention. That book is Murder at the ABA:  as Just informs the reader,  he is allowing Asimov to use the story of these days in return for his occasional help. As Just is a writer himself, he sometimes steps into the narrative to chide Asimov for taking too many liberties. This approach proved to be surreal, but entertaining to say the least. Often Just and Asimov argue in the footnotes, and Asimov has a knack for self-depreciation.

    As Just investigates, he finds that many people might have felt inclined to do the often-obnoxious DeVore in, but none of this explanations includes the spilled heroine, which mysteriously went missing as soon as hotel security arrived. After listening to Asimov and Carl Sagan debate Uri Gellar and other practitioners of woo, Just wonders if he is just as guilty in convincing himself that DeVore has been murdered. (This debate, says Asimov in an afterward, was real, as was the conference and most of its guests.) He must get to the bottom of the matter before the convention breaks up, least he be plagued  by the thought What if?

            Murder at the ABA is an Asimovian classic, a page-turner replete with dry humor  and allowing Asimov to have  more than a little fun at reality's expense.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (2-3)

It's Tuesday, and thus time for teasing -- as always, from ShouldBeReading.

 I said to him, "What are you doing here, Isaac? Why aren't you home writing a book?"
[Asimov] groaned. "In a way that's what I'm doing here. Doubleday wants me to write a mystery novel entitled Murder at the ABA." 

This from page 37 of  Murder at the ABA, by Isaac Asimov.