Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Last Juror

The Last Juror
© 2004 John Grisham
355 pages

As [Padgitt] was about to step out of the witness box and return to the defense table, he suddenly turned to the jury and said something that stunned the courtroom. His face wrinkled into pure hatred, and he jabbed his right index finger into the air. "You convict me," he said, "and I'll get every damned one of you."
"Baliff!" Judge Loopus said as he grabbed for his gravel. "That's enough, Mr. Padgitt."
"Every damned one of you!" Danny repeated, louder. 

If you forced me to choose a favorite John Grisham work, I could manage to choose The Last Juror with some conviction. Not whole conviction, mind you, for I'm prone to picking up  my well-thumbed copy of The Rainmaker and reading a chapter at random. The two works, probably not coincidently both written in the first person, constantly jockey in my mind for first place. Like many of Grisham's works, The Last Juror's background plot takes place within the realm of law, as a small Mississippi town is shaken by the rape and murder of a young woman in full view of her children. The prime suspect is Danny Padgitt, a young member of the Padgitt crime family, a secretive and close-knit clan of bootleggers, car thieves, and drug dealers who operate from a small island formed by a near-circular bend in the Mississippi river. Unlike Grisham's other works, the main character is only a spectator to the trial. His name is Willie Traynor, and he's a 23-year old lapsed university student who has acquired the bankrupt local paper through a rich aunt. Traynor is interested in turning the weekly newspaper into a goldmine, and the shocking trial provides an instant boon in his first few months as owner and publisher.

The Last Juror is  notable for its setting and scope: while other Grisham works take place within the span of a few months, The Last Juror spans an entire decade -- and that decade happens to be the 1970s, the era of Vietnam, Nixon, and Civil Rights.  While the dramatic murder trial's lasting effect on the town provides the overall plot, the substance in between its appearances makes the book special for me, for Grisham  explores the development of a small town in this tumultous period from the perspective of an outsider (Traynor is from Memphis, which makes him a 'northerner' in his readers' eyes). Grisham uses the timeframe to comment on the culture and history of the rural south from the viewpoint of a local newspaper: religion, politics, funerals, football culture, the response to segregation,the  rise of big box stores, and the like all receive Traynor's curious attention and amused, concerned, or affectionate commentary. The book is in a way a loving tribute (and a mild roasting) to Grisham's childhood background. This is the book that made me curious about the effects of chain stores on local economies, for instance. A ten-year span also provides plenty of time for character development, as Traynor ages and becomes part of the town's fabric of interesting characters. The town is, by the way, Clanton -- a favorite setting of Grisham's, set in his often-visited and fictional Ford County. Characters from other books (Harry Rex Vonner and Lucien Wilbanks from A Time to Kill, most notably) appear, sometimes extensively and sometimes only as part of the background.

The Last Juror for me is the most interesting of Grisham's works for its novelty: none of his other works are like this. As much as I like The Rainmaker, it is at its essence only a legal thriller like much of his other works. The Last Juror is commentary on ten years of the history and culture of a small southern town, breaking from Grisham's typical formula and an easy reccommendation to those who are familar with Grisham's legal thrillers but who have tired of them, or who have never really experienced his works.

The Private Life of Plants

The Private Life of Plants
© 1995 David Attenborough
320 pages

I spend a little time every week contemplating my home library's eviscerated science section, hoping against hope to find some interesting volume amid the remains. Last week, picking through the rubble led me to Sir David Attenborough's excellent The Private Life of Plants, a book in the same style as his numerous nature documentaries (The Lives of Mammals, Planet Earth, and others).  Separate chapters discuss transportation, feeding and growth, flowering, the social struggle, the relationships plants have with one another and various animals, and surviving. In each section, Attenborough  documents the extraordinary details of plant's every-day lives. The narrative is replete with pictures -- no page is without one, and some pages are dominated by full-page   or even centerfold spreads.  The content is ever fascinating and sometimes bizarre. I learned, for instance, that there is a species of jellyfish that house algae inside their transparent bodies: they spend the day near the surface of the ocean allowing the algae to grow, and then partially digest the growth without destroying the algae. In effect, they have garden inside their bodies. If you find this book, by all means take a look at it. It's bound to be one of the more interesting books on the natural world you've yet seen.

This is part of a series of books by Attenborough, which you can expect I'll be visiting further.They appear to have been converted from film documentaries.

One of the book's many fascinating pictures. That husk houses a seed.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

This Week at the Library (28/4)

This week at the library...

I began with Young Hornblower, a collection of three Hornblower novels set during Horatio Hornblower's early career. C.S. Forester's novels are fast-paced naval adventures with plenty of variety, often including political intrigue and shore-side missions. I'll be continuing in the series.

I re-read John Grisham's The Brethren accidentally, having picked it up with no intention of reading it through wholly. Brethren is one of Grisham's extra-legal works, involving plenty of politics when an extortion racket run by three imprisoned judges nets the CIA's hand-picked presidential candidate.

I next read a Star Wars novel, Tatooine Ghost, set early in the extended universe -- early enough that Thrawn is a simple ship commander assigned to procure an object from a Tatooine auction. This object, a rare surviving artifact from Alderaan that contains a chip with the New Republic's communications protocol, cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of the Empire. Leia Organa and Han Solo labor to prevent the painting from being captured while at the same time Organa struggles with her father's legacy.

Although academic concerns have kept me too busy to offer full comments on it yet, I also read Sir David Attenborough's The Private Lives of Plants, an excellent documentary-in-a-book that I expect to share in full tomorrow.

Pick of the Week: The Private Lives of Plants.

Quotation of the Week: "I must remind you of one salutary regulation of the navy, to the effect that no junior officer can challenge his superior to a duel. The reasons for it are obvious -- otherwise promotion would be too easy." p. 31, Young Hornblower.

Upcoming Reads:

  • I'm trying to read Republic Commando: Hard Contact by Karen Traviss because of my affection for the game that inspired it. We'll see what becomes of that.
  • Commodore Hornblower by C.S. Forester. I'd like to continue reading about young Hornblower, but I wanted to see what becomes of the good captain's relationship with a certain noblewoman.
  • The Iron Heel, by Jack London. I've read The Call of the Wild, and London's one of those authors on my "Read More From" list. From appearances, it's an alternative history novel that for London would have been set in the future and which depicts drastic political changes in the US.
  • The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World by Tenzin Gyatso, since I enjoyed the original book so much. 
  • Annnnnd Iron Coffins, which I started last summer but never finished. I'm writing a paper on German submarine strategy and thought I might use it as a primary source, it being the memoirs of a WW2 U-boat captain.  Whether I do or do not, it was shaping up to be interesting.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (27-4)

Oh, shame! I've been too occupied with being bedridden and working on papers to actually read this past week*, but here's a teaser from one of my favorite books.

"Did they really try to burn down the paper?"
"Yes, they did," I said, wondering if I'd heard this black lady in rural Mississippi just say that her first language was Italian.

(p. 66, The Last Juror by John Grisham)

*I have book comments forthcoming, but academics have been rather demanding. Still, the worst will be over by Thursday night.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tatooine Ghost

Tatooine Ghost 
© 2003 Troy Denning
416 pages

Tatooine Ghost is set early in the expanded universe, focusing on Leia and Han in their first year of marriage. Mon Montha of the New Republic has sent the newlyweds to Tatooine, where a unique painting – the lone survivor of an Alderaanean art form known as ‘moss painting’ – has surfaced in an auction. While Leia – who saw the painting every day in her childhood home – places great sentimental value in the artifact, buried within it is the key to the New Republic’s communications protocol concerning military and intelligence operations. Leia must prevent the painting from falling into the hands of the Empire while simultaneously confronting her father’s presence on Tatooine.

    Tying into events of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith*Tatooine Ghost sees Leia and Han infiltrate the auction under heavy disguise. The book would be short indeed if Leia was able to obtain the painting merely by bidding for it, and in no time at all grenades are thrown and our happy couple – along with Chewbacca, Threepio, Artoo, and a few minor characters from the original trilogy who knew Leia’s father as a little boy on Tatooine – are forced to chase the painting across the sands of Tatooine in a manner reminiscent of the Empire’s attempt to recover its Death Star plans in A New Hope. As Leia begins to experience her father’s past – to talk with his friends, to visit his home and familiar haunts – she is forced to come to terms with the legacy of her father, particularly in light of the fact that she is beginning to experience the Force which he served and which corrupted him. 

I lost interest in the main plot early on, being more interested in Leia’s reckoning. Portends of the extended universe’s history abound: the imperial officer heading the Imperial search for the painting just ‘happens’ to have red eyes set against blue skin. Although I thought the search for the painting was a bit derivative of A New Hope, I enjoyed the book overall given the emphasis on Leia’s character growth.

*The book was published in 2003, yet references events (Shmi's abduction and torture at the hands of Sand People, Anakin's retaliation and graveside confession)  that only took place in a movie not released until 2005. I'm not sure how that happened.

The Brethren

The Brethren
© John Grisham 2000
384 pag

               From within the confines of a minimum security prison, three convicted judges spin a web of deceit and extortion across the nation. Relying on a corrupt lawyer with addictions to shuttle mail and handle the money, these three men – termed ‘the Brethren’ --  seek out closeted gay men via classified ads in alternative magazines. Posing as young gay men themselves to earn the marks’ trust, the judges then threaten to expose their victims to their wives if they  do not pay upwards of $100,000. These closeted men have no recourse but to pay, for explaining the circumstances of their extortion means revealing parts of themselves they've kept in hiding. The Brethren have little to lose from their scheme, but financial security following their eventual release from prison to gain – and so they write their letters and prey on their victims, watching their bank accounts grow and contemplating future lives of leisure.

    They might have continued to spin their webs for years, but they chanced to ensnare a young politician named Aaron Lake, favored by the CIA to be the next president of the United States. Lake isn’t just favored by the CIA: he was hand-picked by the Director, who has subsequently funded and helped manage Lake’s bid for the office. Fearing the potential rise of a Russian strongman, the Director wants a man willing to double funding for the US military to ward off potential threats – and he does not take kindly to the idea of three felons preying on his man. The Brethren have no idea that the CIA is involved, and their scheme may either result in the biggest payoff ever – or three occupied slabs in the penitentiary morgue.

    I read this first years ago, and have read it a couple of times since then. I picked it up over the weekend intending to read a little at lunch, but found it too interesting to put down. The novel is set during the 2000 presidential election – an obvious Dubya stand-in is mentioned as Lake’s potential running mate, and his ‘liberal’ opponent in November is the sitting vice president. Brethren, like The Broker, is a thriller with its roots in the legal system but which involves global politics:  his CIA director appears in several other books. This is a breezy read with an interesting start, although the story fades to conclusion rather than coming to an satisfying end.

Teaser Tuesday (20/4)

"Verily, verily, I say unto you...not only for reading was Tuesday made, but for teasing also. (Jesus, Tweet from the Mount)

"Leia, he was just a boy. Did you think he came out of the womb wearing a breather and black helmet?" 

- p. 138, Tatooine Ghost

From Should be Reading, as ever.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Young Hornblower

Young Hornblower
© 1948, 1951, 1953 C.S. Forester
672 pages
(My library's copy has long lost its dustcover, but this would certainly be eye-catching...)

A few weeks ago I began reading and was immediately taken by the adventures of Captain Horatio Hornblower, an officer in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. I knew I would be reading further, and here I am. Young Hornblower collects three sets of stories set during Hornblower's early career, beginning with his induction into the Royal Navy and first assignment as a midshipman at the start of the French Revolution.  Midshipman Hornblower consists of ten standalone stories that mark Hornblower's service aboard the HMS Indefagtible, where his resourcefulness and audacity serve him, his captain, and the British empire well as it wars against 'red France', a nation that has dared to kill its king.  Hornblower rises steadily through the ranks, becoming his captain's protege and favorite prizemaster. Lieutnant Hornblower sees Hornblower transfer to the Renown, under the command of an increasingly paranoid and violently insane captain whose mental instability puts their mission at risk. Hornblower and his new friend Lieutnant Bush (his first officer in Captain Horatio Hornblower), along with the other senior officers, must find some way of restoring good order on the Renown or they are doomed. Hornblower and the Atropos, in an odd turn, is set ten years following Lieutnant Hornblower: Hornblower is not so young, nor inexperienced, for he is the captain of a ship sent to the Mediterranean on a secret mission.

Hornblower's stories are fast-paced adventure. Technical language abounds, but as general background: it can be blithly ignored in the same way viewers of Star Trek might ignore 'technobabble'. On occasions when naval mechanics influence the story, Hornblower's thoughts or his subordinates' words tell the reader what the consequences might be. Interestingly, Forester doesn't stick to the typical rise-climax-conclusion format of novels. The books' opening and ending sections may be largely unrelated to the conflict that most of the book addressed. Forester seems to find a good 'stopping place', and then ends the novel there. I don't consider this a fault of the book: indeed, the chapters that ended Lieutnant Hornblower seemed like 'extra content', content that you can enjoy but aren't necessarily recquired for the novel's plot. I shall be continuing this series.

A&E did a series of eight movies based on Midshipman Hornblower and Lieutnant Hornblower. The movies take liberties with the original source, but those liberties add to the novels rather than take away from them. They add whole subplots and allow the viewers to become familar with a set of characters rather than just one or two. You can find all of the movies on Youtube, or on Amazon here. I watched them all in a single weekend. Riveting, for me.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

This Week at the Library (15/4)

Recent reading:

  • The Infernova is a modern retelling of Dante's inferno written to amuse skeptics by making religious hypocrites, cult leaders, and other enemies of reason the subject of poetic justice.
  • Strength to Love was a collection of sermons by Martin Luther King Jr. that displays his belief in radical love, nonviolence, the importance of reason in discerning the truth, and the necessity of religious institutions acting as progressive forces in society.
  • In the mood for an adventure, I read Captain Horatio Hornblower, a collection of three sea adventures set in the Napoleonic era and starring the titular character as captain of a frigate. Happily, the books were not just sea stories but contained political intriuge and land-based adventure. I'll be reading more of the Hornblower series.
  • In the same mood, I read Millennium Falcon, a novel that tells the story of Han Solo's attempt to discover the full history of his ship. Although set  far in the extended universe, Luceno uses a character's backstory to cleverly update readers like myself, who aren't familiar with the decades' worth of history that the Extended Universe has created past Return of the Jed
  • Next up I read Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, not to be confused with 1421: the Year China Discovered America. (I spoonerized the years several times in mentioning the books, to my uncomfortable amusement.) Mann's work reminds me of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel in his scope and approach. His central thesis is that the Americas were not dominated by a lack of progress as we might suppose.
  • Max Schulman's Rally Round the Flag Boys! was next. This light comedy set during the early Cold War begins by introducing the readers to a half-dozen eccentric characters and then begins bouncing them off one another relentlessly off of one another. Fifties stereotypes abound.
  • I then read a biography of India's first prime minster, Jahwahrlal Nehru, and one that focused on how his passions and princples informed the the path India took in its first decades of independence from Britain. The biography is sympathetic, but not protective, and Nehru emerges as a fascinating character.
  • Lastly, I finished the Bhagavad Gita, a poem considered sacred by Hindus for its role in explaining parts of Hindu theology and philosophy. Mitchell's translation is indeed readable, although not having read another translation, I can offer no comparisons.

Pick of the Week(s):  1491, Charles C. Mann.

Quotation of the Week:
"What are we do?" he asked feebly.
"Do?" she replied. "We are lovers, and the world is ours. We do as we will." (Beat to Quarters, C.S. Forester)

Upcoming Reads:

  • Young Hornblower, collecting three more Hornblower novels that are set at the beginning of his naval career as a young officer during the French Revolution. 
  • The Secret Life of Plants, Sir David Attenborough
  • Tatooine Ghost, another Star Wars read. 
  • In addition, I'm working on a paper about the development of Anglo-German submarine warfare strategy (1914-1945), but I doubt I'll have time to read anything through properly. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita: a New Translation
© 2000
Our Gita, the Muslims' Koran, your Bible -- it's always the simple things that catch your breath. 'Love thy neighbor as yourself.' - the Mahatma, Gandhi

Back in late 2006 I began a personal but intermittent cultural literacy project in which I aimed to begin reading about global religions, including tackling their originating documents when possible. Since then,  I’ve studied Judaism, Islam, Taoism, and Buddhism but have time and again avoided the vast subject of Hinduism. What prompted me out of my reluctant was the movie Gandhi, given the affectionate way the titular character regarded the book.

What attracted me to this translation was the cover art and a sewn-in burgundy ribbon intended to serve as a bookmark. The inside page quality and coloration were also obviously chosen with care, with an attention to quality that is rare and so much the more appreciated.

The Gita itself takes the form of a conversation between the god Krishna and a human being named Arjuna, who is reluctant to engage in a battle to reclaim his homeland. Although the articles I read introducing the Gita claim that Krishna disguises himself as Arjuna’s charioteer, in Mitchell’s translation he is referred to throughout the book as The Blessed Lord and speaks of himself in the first person as a divine entity. Midway through, he explicitly reveals himself as the God,  the being from which all deities find their source, and shows Arjuna his true physical form.

Before this, and following it, Arjuna and Krishna converse about the meaning of life, suffering, wisdom, the path to righteousness, the value of faith, and many diverse but related concepts. Krishna opens the conversation by encouraging Arjuna to have courage. Their conversation expands from there, Arjuna asking Krishna to elaborate on one question or another.

In reading, I saw the origins of ideas I associate with Hinduism -- reincarnation and universalism, for instance. I also saw the origins of ideas I associated with Buddhism (Krishna identifies desire as the enemy of wisdom).  Even translated into contemporary English, the Gita is not a light read, but Mitchell’s offering is lucid on the average, and I tended to find myself caught up in the narrative flow -- pausing only to refresh my memory of what a particular untranslated Hindi word meant.

Although translated poetry assuredly loses something in the process, Mitchell manages to convey beauty and simplicity here. Unlike his translations of other works (Gilgamesh and the Tao te Ching, which I've previewed but don't have access to), Mitchell refrains from 'updating' the text with modern idioms and allusions. If you're interested in reading the Gita for literacy purposes -- or just looking for poetry that reminds you Hindu and some Buddhist religious principles -- I'd say Mitchell's translation is promising.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Nehru: the Invention of India

Nehru: the Invention of India
© 2003 Shashi Tharoor
282 pages

The movie Gandhi introduced me to many of the key figures in India’s independence movement and early political leadership, and beyond Gandhi no man interested me more than the Mahatma’s right hand, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence stemmed from his near-mystic religious beliefs, but Nehru held fast to those convictions without religious training. The close relationship between the two men in light of their differing religious convictions fascinated me, so I decided to read a biography of Nehru,  India’s first prime minister,

Nehru emerges from this book as an iconic figure for Indians: their Thomas Paine, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln all converge under his mantle. Nehru defined the necessity of independence, participated in the movement, and attempted to steer the ship of state around sectarianism and political subordination to the world’s superpowers. Nehru is in ways more western than eastern: largely nonreligious, educated in England, and valuing western political theory more than eastern religious principles. Interestingly, he and Gandhi come to the same conclusions from different approaches on various subjects.  For instance, Gandhi believes in self-sufficiency as a spiritual value while Nehru sees it as a Marxist necessity: without economic independence Indians are doomed to political bondage of one form or another.

Tharoor presents an easily digestible narrative here that is sympathetic but not protective of Nehru. Tharoor clearly admires him for his pragmatic idealism, integrity, and internationalism, but sees Nehru’s political leadership as flawed, particularly in the realm of economics and foreign affairs. The ending chapter – following Nehru’s death – attempts to summarize Nehru’s influence on the stated he helped create and dominated for so long. Regardless of Nehru’s administrative shortcomings, he is for me as interesting a politician as I’ve never encountered. He reminds me of Marcus Aurelius: thrust into the spotlight unwillingly, wary of the power he possesses, daunted by the responsibility, and yet determined to make his character prove worthy of the challenge. Most remarkable for me was the way he checked himself: at a time when no one would criticize him, he wrote to a newspapers anonymously warning that “Nehru has all the makings of a dictator in him”.

Teaser Tuesday (13-4)

A tease, a tease, a Tues-day tease....from Should Be Reading.

A well-worn story, perhaps apocryphal, has Churchill recalling the years Nehru spent in British prisons, saying, "You must hate us." To which Jawaharlal replied: "I was taught by a great man never to hate -- and never to fear."

p. 188, Nehru: Inventing India by Shashi Tharoor

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!

Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!: The raucous, hilarious, big bestseller about sex, guided missiles, real estate, commuters, love and the U.S. Army in a Connecticut town
© 1957 Max Shulman
277 pages

There are some authors for whom I will buy or obtain a book blindly. Max Shulman is one of them, thanks in part of my extreme affection for his Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. A few weeks ago I read another of his works and enjoyed it -- well enough to look for another book, not knowing what it might be about.

As it turns out, Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys is an entertaining comic story about what happens when the US Army invades a small town in Connecticut in the late forties or early fifties. Shulman opens the book by introducing the reader to our viewpoint characters, most of whom live in the small town of Putman’s Landing. Their paths and plot threads will converge -- or collide with great drama --  in that town with comic results. Putman’s Landing was once a small fishing village turned into a bedroom community following a postwar building boom. ‘Round the Flag is definitely a product of the early Cold War period, particularly its emphasis on surburbia. 1950s stereotypes abound: one of the plot threads concerns an unhappy commuting husband whose homemaking wife is too busy running the PTA and a score of other civic organizations for romantic intimacy.

Part of the book’s humor consists in having these characters bounce off one another, like the staid but affable conservative father and his daughter, who speaks nothing but fifties jive. Shulman has a knack for dry and oblique humor that strikes from behind and kept me rolling. Unlike Tomatoes are Chapter, ‘Round the Flag’s characters are largely sympathetic and their tragedies are all the more effective at rendering gasps and laughs because of it.

Shulman provides a riot, and although the book is a bit dated that adds in part to its charm. Unfortunately for those who might be interested, this book is probably quite rare.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus

1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus
© 2005 Charles C. Mann
465 pages

1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus is an ambitious book that attempts to rout a host of assumptions about the land and people of the western hemisphere prior to European contact.  Author Charles Mann tackles a host of questions and beliefs, but most find their root in the idea that primitivism reigned supreme in the Americas -- that both the land and people were largely untouched by the passage of time until European exposure. Mann wishes to overturn the related ideas that the western hemisphere contain lands largely untouched by humanity  and that the people who lived here were relatively uncivilized, not far removed from hunting and gathering.  In their place, he sees the Americas as continents heavily modified by their original occupants,  densely populated, home to many more than the traditional "big three" organized polities. These polities were not just familial clans, but empires in their own rights with political dramas and ambitions that unfolded exactly as they might in Europe, China, or anywhere else.  Essentially, Mann sees the original Americans as humans -- not idealized 'noble savages' or ridiculed primitives.

To be sure, the civilizations of the Americas were limited  in some respects compared to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Without draft animals, people were unable to engage in the large-scale agriculture that almost defines the western idea of civilization. Mann’s account how people adapted to the environments of the Americas reminded me a quotation from an introduction to anthropology: people have found many ways to be human. Time and again, Mann makes the case that pre-European Americans were not strictly primitive, but that their history had simply developed differently from people living in the eastern hemisphere. They couldn’t farm in the way of the east, but they manipulated their environments all the same -- creating large, wild orchards in the Amazon and fish-trapping on a massive scale that required large public works.Technologically, their path simply diverged again. Metalworking in Mesoamerica, for instance, was as advanced as anywhere else, but it was put to different uses  -- as elaborate ornamentation instead of weaponry. The same was true of science, and Mann attempts to convince the reader that both European and American scientific progress had strengths and weaknesses compared to the other.

This is a fascinating work with massive scope, reminding me of Jared Diamond’s classic Guns, Germs, and Steel. Human history abounds here, but science -- particularly genetics and climatology -- have large parts to play. Mann sees the collapse of the Incan and Aztec empires as owing more to European disease and a relatively limited gene pool among American progenitors than to European weaponry. Interestingly, Mann’s narrative often includes his first-hand documentation. He records his experiences in gathering evidence, exposing himself to both wonders and perils. At one point in the work, the airplane he is in runs out of gas above South American jungle and he barely avoids catastrophe. (My Tuesday Teaser referenced another peril.)
1491 was well worth the time spent reading it, being endlessly fascinating. Mann presents a compelling and simple case, one I’m only happy to recommend -- particularly to history, geography, and anthropology readers. I can’t imagine Jared Diamond readers in particular not enjoying this.

Related Reading:

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (6-4)

If it's Tuesday, I must be teasing like Should Be Reading

"The ticks are not bad, are they?" I asked him hopefully, viewing the tall grass and underbrush between the road and the mounds. "No," said the driving, beaming. "When full, like grapes they fall off and no harm is done." (1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus)

The perils of primary research....

Monday, April 5, 2010

Millennium Falcon

Millennium Falcon
© 2008 James Luceno
317 pages

Han Solo: Fast ship? You've never heard of the Millennium Falcon? 
Obi-Wan: Should I have? 
Han Solo: It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs!

The Millennium Falcon is almost a character in its own right in the Star Wars canon, perhaps beloved of by more than than perhaps some of the people in the franchise. In looking for an adventure story, I assumed Millennium Falcon would be a collection of short stories about the Falcon's former owners, but Luceno has delivered a novel with a more elegant structure. Although he opening chapters introduce us to a few of the Falcon's earliest owners and pilots, each merits only a chapter and each character will play a part in a larger story. The novel proper is set in the Expanded Universe, decades after The Empire Strikes Back and the Thrawn trilogy. The twins that Lei gave birth to there are adults now, who have been as involved in the history of the post-imperial universe as their parents were during the first three movies. Some of them have even died. When the novel opens, Han and Lei are preparing to begin a quest of sorts, along with their granddaughter: they're going to track down as many of the previous owners of the Falcon as they can. Across the galaxy, a man who has been kept in stasis since his supposed death at the close of the Clone Wars has just woken up to a galaxy very different from the one he grew up in. The Republic has fallen, as has the Empire that destroyed it. The decades between Jadak's "death" following the partial destruction of his ship The Stellar Envoy in the course of an intelligence mission have seen decades of brutal wars, but the disconnect does not prevent him from feeling the urge to complete his mission. Something aboard the Envoy was the key to fulfilling his mission, and so he must find it so that his last orders can be carried out. Only then can he move on with his life.

The Stellar Envoy would take on many names in the decades that followed as she was transferred from one organization or individual to another. Eventually, of course, she acquires the name Millennium Falcon and serves Han Solo through the wars that followed the destruction of the Empire. While Han works backwards -- beginning with finding out who owned the ship before losing it to the man who would lose it to Solo --  Jadak attempts to find out what happened to the Envoy after it was salvaged following his accident. Both men hear stories of their ship, serving both scoundrels and saints through the years. Eventually their paths will intersect, but in the shadows one man watches them both. The novel will eventually take both Solo and Jadak to a forgotten planet in its death throes, where the key to the mystery surrounding Jadak's mission waits.

I have read Luceno before, although not recently enough to have mentioned his work here. I enjoyed those, and Millennium Falcon is not an exception. The various stories in which the Falcon has played a large part were interesting enough in themselves, but the way Luceno fits them together is especially enjoyable. His use of a character from the past provides an interesting perspective, and the "history" he is filled in on also serves as background exposition,  helping readers alien to the extended universe establish context. As I have not read beyond the Thrawn series, I appreciated this.  I doubt Extended Universe readers would need a recommendation to read this, but even those who just enjoyed the movies will be able to pick this up and read it given the background exposition.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Captain Horatio Hornblower

Captain Horatio Hornblower
© 1937 C.S. Forester
504 pages

Captain Picard: Just imagine what it was like. No engines, no computers... Just the wind...and the sea... and the stars to guide you.
Commander Riker: Bad food, brutal discipline... no women. (Star Trek: Generations)

I've been itching for a read involving adventure, so when in the course of reading an interview with Sir Patrick Stewart wherein Stewart recounted Gene Roddenberry giving him a set of books about the seafaring adventures of Horatio Hornblower of the Royal Navy in the hopes that Stewart would find Hornblower's character of use in maturing Jean-Luc Picard, my interest was piqued and I decided to give the books a try.

Captain Horatio Hornblower is a collection of three novellas following the service of the titular character in the first decade of the 19th century. Post-revolutionary France is now ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte, who will soon attempt to turn all of Europe into his private domain. Great Britain stands nearly alone against his ambition. Lacking land forces on the scale of La Grande Armée , Britain must rely on its most powerful resource -- the Royal Navy. Beat to Quarters, known outside America as The Happy Return, begins with Captain Hornblower's arrival in South America to undertake a secret mission that may change the balance of power in Europe: plot twists abound.  In A Ship of the Line and Flying Colours, Hornblower and his men return to Europe to fight France directly. Although Hornblower serves as captains, the novellas are not entirely naval:  The Happy Return combines a sea story with political intrigue, while in Flying Colours Hornblower spends most of his time on land, save a daring river ride wherein he must flee those who would see him hang. I did not expected to be as gripped by Hornblower as I was: I hardly left the book while in the course of reading, as Forester constantly kept me thinking -- "What will the captain do now?"

Horatio Hornblower is certainty the star of the books, and in him Forester has created an interesting character. As a captain, Hornblower must maintain the respect and loyalty of his crew at all times. Though imperiled or frequently cast into difficult circumstances impossible to anticipate,  Hornblower must maintain a steely sense of calm and make decisions to face every crisis of command. This is especially evidence in The Happy Return, as Hornblower is forced to make possibly life- and career-ending decisions that will effect Europe's political scheme on his own, as he is separated from England by oceans that would take months to cross. Behind the facade of the perfect captain lies a flawed man who hides his blemishes as best he can, but who is haunted constantly by the idea that he isn't all he should be. Most endearing for me was his unrequited love for a certain nobleborn lady, which develops in the first novella and ripens throughout the latter two.

I have seldom been as enthralled as I have been in reading Captain Horatio Hornblower. I am presently engrossed in the eight-movie series about his early career, and will certainly be reading the rest of the series as I am able.

"What are we do?" he asked feebly.
"Do?" she replied. "We are lovers, and the world is ours. We do as we will." (p. 161, Beat to Quarters/The Happy Return)