Friday, May 28, 2010

Lemony Snicket: the Unauthorized Autobiography

Lemony Snicket: the Unauthorized Autobiography
© 2002 Daniel Handler
213 pages (containing "an overall feeling of doom", according to the index.)

As the official representative of Lemony Snicket in all legal, literary, and social matters, I am often asked difficult questions, even when I am in a hurry. Recently the most common questions have been the following:
  1. Will you please get out of my way?
  2. Where did Lemony Snicket's Lemony Snicket: the Unauthorized Autobiography come from? (p. ix.)

This is, I think, the oddest book I've ever read. Last summer I enjoyed The Series of Unfortunate Events immensely for its eccentric humor and mystery, so I eagerly dove into this. The Unauthorized Autobiography is a strange collection of documents that pertain to the events and people of the Unfortunate Events series. Snicket apparently passed it on -- heavily edited -- to ensure the safety of the Baudelaire children. The documents contained within -- letters, play transcripts, black and white photographs,  memos, panicked slips of paper, official V.F.D. pamphlets, and the like -- typically connect with the series as a whole, although some portions, photographs particularly, do not. (One photograph is titled "Total Strangers", and another "This is not where the Baudelaire parents are buried".)

The book as a whole is apparently intended to tantalize readers by helping them figure out answers to some questions about the series, but it was published before the fulfillment of the series. I've read the series, and so have already figured out the answers, so that portion of the book was lost on me. I enjoyed the author's eccentric sense of humor and tidbits that revealed more about the Unfortunate Events universe, but I must confess to being a bit disappointed overall. Having read the last four books of the series may have spoiled this mid-series tease for me.

Perhaps the oddest part of the book: one of V.F.D's pass phrases is from the Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Cleary. Cleary was my first "favorite author" as a child, and I adored her Henry Huggins and Romana Quimby books.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Revenge of the Sith

Revenge of the Sith
© 2005: Screenplay, George Lucas; novelization, Matthew Stover.
419 pages

Blade to blade, they were identical. After thousands of hours in lightsaber sparring, they knew each other better than brothers, more intimately than lovers; they were complimentary halves of a single warrior. In every exchange, Obi-Wan gave ground. It was his way. And he knew that to strike Anakin down would be to burn his own heart to ash. (397)

An article on TvTropes convinced me to read the novelization of Revenge of the Sith, primarily because     it mentioned that Stover remedied my primary gripe with the movie, the way it turned Padme Amidala into a two-dimensional prop for Anakin whose only function seemed to be crying and wringing her hands in helplessness. Happily, I was not mislead here, for Revenge may be one of the better Star Wars works I've yet read.

Revenge of the Sith is the last of the prequel movies, depicting the downfall of the Galactic Republic and the fall of Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side. Skywalker is the hero of the hour, a lifetime prodigy whose exploits are known far and wide. He and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi  have served the Republic tirelessly throughout the Clone Wars, but political stresses tug them apart. The Jedi council has grown concerned over the increasing amount of power invested in the Supreme Chancellor, and doubly wary given the Chancellor’s strong connection to young Anakin, who -- while powerful, brave, and fiercely loyal -- possesses fear and pride in abundance. While the Republic struggles to bring an end to the civil war which has so undermined its foundations, the JedI attempt to defend the integrity of both the Republic and Anakin. In the shadows, the Dark Lord of the Sith pulls the strings and anticipates his greatest triumph: unlimited and unquestioned mastery over the galaxy and its citizens.

What Stover adds to this is not just a few extra scenes that tie up loose ends, but passages that give the players involved in this great tragedy emotional depth, depth that explains and possibly even redeems some of the film’s weaker portions. Stover occasionally breaks from the usual third-person past-tense narration to focus on a character in the second tense, bringing the reader inside a character’s head. This approach handled character exposition well, and proved to be efficient in tackling Order 66.  The added character depth allows Stover to create more believable tension between Anakin and the main characters, particularly Obi-Wan and Amidala, the latter of whom is active throughout the book in an attempt to restore the Constitution to its pre-Palpatine form: Palpatine regards the 2,000 senators who join her cause as traitors, and links them with the alleged attempt on the part of the Jedi to overthrow the republic and place it under their rule. Thus, Anakin’s hostility toward Padme and Obi-Wan arriving on Mustafar together at the end of the movie has greater significance.  Although this a dark book, Stover adds in surprising and sometimes odd amounts of humor: Anakin starts throwing out snaky one-liners as soon as he steps foot on Mustfar and doesn’t quit until the last  of the separatists are dead.  Curiously, he underplays some of the more dramatic moments in the movie, particularly Anakin's wail of unbelief when the Emperor tells him of Padme's death.

Revenge of the Sith  made for a great read even though I’m so familiar with the movie. It added depth and humor to the original screenplay,  maintaining a strong stride until Mustafar. I can easily recommend it to Star Wars readers.


  • Shatterpoint, by the same author -- to my surprise.I struggled through Shatterpoint, but Revenge was a breeze.
  • Dark Lord: the Rise of Darth Vader, by James Luceno. I've read this and enjoyed it, although since it's been so long (before I started this blog, even), I can't remember too many details. The novel is set immediately after Revenge of the Sith and focuses on Anakin as he grows accustomed to his new role as Darth Vader.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

This Week at the Library (26/5)

This week at the library....

I read North Korea: Another Country, a work which intended to show how North Korea's history shaped its current path as a militant  and isolationist state. Cumings drew from Korean culture and the state's early experience with its neighbors. While I think he conveyed his essential meaning, the book seems a bit scattered.

I next read The Life of Birds, one of David Attenborough's nature works. Fascinating as always.

Lord Hornblower delighted me: I think it one of the better Hornblower novels. Set during the last months of the Napoleonic wars, we see Hornblower at his best in helping bring down the bloody Corsican.

I also finished George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, an account of his time living in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War when it functioned almost as a commune. He also records his time spent fighting in a local militia, although he saw little action. The book is most valuable to the modern reader for the light it sheds on Spanish politics of the day.

Pick of the Week: Oh...let's say both Hornblower and Catalonia.

Selected Passages:
As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy.  (Orwell, describing his first meeting with a fellow International, this one an Italian expatriate. P. 3-4)

When one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle.[...] Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to act as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. (Orwell, describing Barcelona in the hands of the workers. P. 4-6)

It seemed dreadful that the defenders of the Republic should be this mob of ragged children carrying worn-out rifles which they did not know how to use. I remember wondering what would happen if a Fascist aeroplane passed our way -- whether the airman would even bother to dive down and give us a burst from his machine-gun. Surely even from the air he could see we were not real soldiers? (Orwell, reflecting on the unpreparedness of Spain for the war. P. 19)

George Kopp, on his periodic tours of inspection, was quite frank with us. "This is not a war," he used to say, "It is a comic opera with an occasional death." (Orwell, p. 32, reflecting on the stagnation of the war on their front.)

Upcoming Reads:

  • Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Matthew Stover. I picked this up because it's supposed to be better than the movie itself. Considering that I finished it only hours after cracking it open for the first time, I'd say the reputation is merited...
  • Lemony Snicket: the Unauthorized Autobiography, Daniel Handler.  Reading through the series of unfortunate events last summer was a real treat.
  • Africa: a Biography of the Continent, John Reader. I'll be trekking through Africa for a good while, I think. It's a right monster of a book. 

Homage to Catalonia

Homage to Catalonia
© 1952 George Orwell
232 pages

On 17 July 1936, conservative and reactionary forces inside Spain opted to seize power by force, rather than allow the Popular Front government -- an increasingly liberal, democratic, and progressive entity that undermined Spain's vaunted traditions of feudalism  and religious tyranny -- to continue to set the nation's course. The result: civil war. The resulting war seemed to be two wars in once: a defense on the part of Spain's middle-class liberals to maintain their established rights, and a revolution on the part of the working class to assert their own rights. In Catalonia, for instance, workers seized control of various businesses and utilities, establishing communes which they intended to defend with local militias. Remarkably, Spain's liberals, socialists, anarchists, and other progressives did not fight alone: people from western Europe and the United States came to the defense of Spain's republic: entire brigades were formed of these volunteers.

Emma Goldman's account of these communes and of the international brigades enraptured me when I read of them for the first time, and fueled entirely my interest in the Spanish Civil War. As a humanist, nothing inspires me more than the idea of people putting aside their tribalism and breaking bread together in the common cause of civilization. Thus I eagerly anticipated George Orwell's account of his time in the International brigades, specifically in the Workers for Marxist Unification militia. There were many such militias, for each union and political party seemed to have its own.

Readers who pick up Homage expecting a war memoir will be disappointed, for Orwell experienced little in the way of action aside from nighttime patrols and one raid. The first third of the book details how poorly-equipped the Republic and unions were for a conflict: training for the Internationals was nonexistent, and weapons were badly dated. Some were scarcely worth more than clubs, and more dangerous to the user than the target. Orwell's own exit from the war came about when a malfunctioning weapon sent a bullet through his next.

After his one-time raid, Orwell's troops are sent to Barcelona where politics dominates. Through his eyes, we see the increasing marginalization of socialists and anarchists in favor of the Stalin-backed Communists, who gain influence in the government and consolidate power. During Orwell's time in Barcelona, government troops attack union-held sections of town, leading to intermittent street fighting. Orwell addresses the broader implications of the Communist party's role in Spain's future in the next chapter, seeing as little than the hired men of Stalin and Russia. Eventually the Communists achieve primacy, declaring unions and parties associated with the anarcho-socialist revolutionaries illegal. Orwell must subsequently beat a hasty escape from the land he came to fight for.

Homage to Catalonia was certainty worth my while, giving me a firmer handle on this period I'm increasingly interested in. I enjoyed Orwell's voice as a writer: frank, honest, passionate, but ever humane. In spite of the treatment he received at the hands of Government guards, the text bears them no ill will. There is no bitterness here, only a sigh of disappointment that the cherished ideal did not withstand. I recommend it, and plan on reading more in this area as I can.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lord Hornblower

Lord Hornblower
© 1946 C.S. Forester
318 pages

      The year is 1814, and Sir Horatio Hornblower, commodore in his Britannic Majesty’s Royal Navy, has been sent to the coast of France on a secret mission. The crew of the gunship Flame have rebelled against their abusive captain and are offering their ship to Napoleon in return for amnesty and a new start. This cannot be tolerated: mutiny is intolerable even when justified, but treason?  Hornblower must somehow capture a ship of men who know they are damned if they surrender to him, and so before they make good on their threat to humiliate Britain by delivering Flame to France.

One thing leads to another, and a book about mutiny becomes the story of French political intrigue during the last months of the Napoleonic wars: a captured French noble approaches Hornblower and suggests that if the two of them work together to capture one of France’s nearby port city, they may be able to liberate northern France from Napoleon’s rule and do their part to send the naughty Corsican back to the hell that spawned him. This potential rebellion, unlike the similar Anglo-French Royalist effort in “Frogs and Lobsters”, stands a good chance of succeeding: Napoleon’s armies are pressed from all directions by the Austrians, Prussians, and Anglo-Spanish forces in Iberia.

And so Hornblower is thrust into the land war in France, participating in Napoleon’s defeat. While his wife Barbara helps host the Congress of Vienna, he travels to the interior of France to drink with old friends to the honor of other friends who did not survive the great conflict. When Napoleon escapes from Elba and makes France his once more, Hornblower -- who has had a long-standing price on his head by Napoleon’s men -- must flee for his life through the countryside, facing mounting peril.

Lord Hornblower is easily one of Forester’s better Hornblower works for me:  the adventure took me completely, and the many plot twists kept my on my heels, wondering where Forester would take me next -- and what he might do, for the gloves were off in this book.  I half-expected the book to end with Hornblower facing a firing squad. Lord Hornblower would be a fitting end to the series if Forester had written them in chronological order, given that it finally ends the long war with France that began with the Revolution in Midshipman Hornblower and ties up loose ends with various characters. The book was also published in 1946, and I can't help but wonder if the characters' manifest joy at the end of the war -- and their horror when Napoleon escapes to begin it anew -- are the result of Forester's own relief that the destruction during his own day in Europe had finally ended.


Inside cover art: click for full-sized image.

I have two more Hornblower books to enjoy, but I suspect compared to this they're going to feel anticlimactic.

Teaser Tuesday (25/5)

It's Teesday Tuese!

Or...something. From ShouldBeReading.

The sermon was still going on, and  Hornblower feared that when it was finished there would be some more singing, more of those high-pitched noises from the surpliced choir boys which would distress him painfully again, more painfully than the sermon or the oaken stall. This was the price he had to pay for having a ribbon and star to wear, for being a Knight of the Most Honorable Order of the Bath; as he was known to be on sick-leave in England -- and fully convalescent -- he could not possibly evade attendance at this, the most important ceremonial of the Order.

C.S. Forester, Lord Hornblower. (p. 3-4) Poor Hornblower is tone-deaf.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Life of Birds

The Life of Birds
© 1998 Sir David Attenborough
320 pages

As I drove home from the library last week, I watched a beautiful white bird soar above the highway for several minutes. As it passed close by overhead, I thought to myself that the swan looked fatigued and wondered why it did not stop to rest along side the road.  A few days later, I read in this that swans are such large and ungainly birds that they cannot easily land: if they attempt to taper off their speed, they lose momentum completely and plummet awkwardly to the earth. Their most effective recourse is to crash-land  into water.

 I’ve been enjoying David Attenborough’s series of books based on his nature documentaries, and The Life of Birds continues that pattern. Life of Birds has more substance than the previous works in this series, but retains the same essential approach. After a chapter on the evolution of birds and flight, Attenborough dedicates separate chapters to feeding, communication, mating, nesting, parenting, and adaptation. The last chapter focuses on how birds have adjusted to living inside human cities. Pictures are abundant, if not as ubiquitous as in previous works, and are impressively beautiful and grotesque.

As always, if you are fascinated by the natural world you'll enjoy this book, for it abounds in interesting and often awe-inducing information.

The Quetzal bird, giving new meaning to the significance of Quetzalcoatl. 

Some birds swallow snakes whole, then return to their nest and try to throw them up -- whole. Usually the head or tail of the snake will emerge first, and the chicks will grab hold of it...and tug it out of their parent's stomach. 

And speaking of chicks: this is a cuckoo hatchling, demonstrating why if there is a sentient being that designed the laws of nature, it's a sadistic SOB. Cuckoo females plant their eggs in the nest of other birds. The cuckoo egg hatches first, then casually throws the other eggs out of the nest. The nest-mother, not knowing this chick isn't her own, dedicates her time and energy to feeding the intruder.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

North Korea: Another Country

North Korea: Another Country
© 2004 Bruce Cumings
241 pages

"It helps in understanding North Korea if you have lived in a fundamentalist Christian community...just like the North Koreans, we believed in the absolute purity of our doctrines. We focused inward and didn't want to be tainted by the outside world." - Anthony Namkung, quoted in both this and Korean Endgame.

I think of Korea as a small, impoverished, and underdeveloped military dictatorship ruled by a religious icon with silly hair. This is the impression established in my mind by intermittent television news, political speeches, and newspapers. Bruce Cumings has issue with this view, not chiefly because my own view is so shallow but because the US government’s own understanding isn’t much better. To Cumings, the United States treats North Korea like a perpetual and mysterious ’other’,  a place with no history and no substance beyond being a villain state. Cumings’ book attempts to broaden the readers’ understanding of Korea: unfortunately, while providing many interesting facts, his approach is scattered and incomplete. Another Country reads less like a focused book and more like a collection of six essays slightly edited so that they slightly connect.

Another Country’s two opening chapters document the devastation wreaked on North Korea during the ‘forgotten war’ and US presidential responses to the state’s nuclear aspirations. These two chapters constitute half the book, and are followed by a chapter chronicling the life of North Korea’s founder and “great leader” Kim Il Sung as a guerilla warrior during Japan’s invasion of China and Korea, with emphasis placed on the brutal way Koreans were treated by China, Russia, and Japan. Later chapters examine daily life in North Korea,  Kim Jong Il’s place in history, and the current living conditions of North Koreans. These last three chapters all reference Korean culture and its perceptions of good and evil as the foundation for Il Sung‘s “family state“.

If you gave this book to someone to read who had never heard of North Korea, they would after reading it have the impression that North Korea is a marginalized, misunderstood country ruled by a man who never wanted the position, and who in fact just wants to go home and play video games with his kids. Prison camps and human-rights violations are scarcely mentioned.  Perhaps Cumings assumed that his readers would be well-versed with North Korea’s reputation as a charter member of the “Axis of Evil” and wanted to shed light on other aspects of the nation, but the resulting bias is problematic.

I think Cumings succeeds in his overall goal to communicate why North Korea is the way it is, drawing on pan-Korean culture, the experience of Il Sung, and North Korea’s treatment at the hands of its neighbors and the United States. I don’t think this book does it as well as he might like. It helped me, but I will look elsewhere for an introduction to the nation.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

This Week at the Library (19/5)

This week at the library....

Plato's Podcasts is an informal and slightly humorous take on Greek philosophy, operating from the idea that the dozen or so philosophers summarized within addressed the same essential problems that face people today. I enjoyed it, and it introduced me to interesting characters I'd never before met.

The Iron Heel, written in 1907 by Jack London, is a 'future history' novel set in a time where large trusts and monopolizing cooperations have taken outright control of the United States and rule it as a merciless oligarchy. The hero of the work is socialist revolutionary Ernest Everhard, who champions a vision of a better world. This book predates other dystopian works, and introduced some of the devices that would follow it.

The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir made for a much more lighthearted novel, being the story of Elizabeth of England's first twenty-five years.Elizabeth emerges as an independent and outspoken woman in an age wherew such things were discouraged: her character is forged amid times of political and religious violence. As she ages, she must defend herself against those who wish to use or destroy her. Delightful read.

I next read The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, the follow up to the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler's interesting Art of Happiness. Troubled World focuses on society at large, examining the tension between individualism and collectivism while simutaneously addressing fear, vilence, hope, resilience, and humanist ethics.

Lastly I read Reading Judas: the Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity. I read this in part to see what Judas was about, interested in how his character might be defended. Surpisingly, Judas does not take central stage: that is given to the promotion of a new worldview, one which denounces the god of sacrifice and blood as a 'lower angel' and sees Jesus as sent to deliver the news that the material world is meaningless. The authors see the text as being another voice in the early debate over what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

Pick of the Week: Iron Heel or The Lady Elizabeth.

Quotation of the Week: "I could learn to be a king," Elizabeth said seriously. "I could learn to order people about."

(She says this when she's four.)

Upcoming Reads:

  • The Life of Birds, Sir David Attenborough. I started but did not finish this last week.
  • Lord Hornblower, by CS Forester because someone checked out Hornblower and the Hotspur.
  • North Korea: Another Country. I know little of the Korean war, and nothing of its context. 
  • Africa: a Biography of the Continent. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of my historical blank spots.

I had intended to read something else from Alison Weir this week, but The Six Wives of Henry VIII is fairly hefty; even I would not venture to tackle it in the same week as Africa.

The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World

The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World
© 2009 Howard Cutler, Tenzin Gyatso
368 pages

Perhaps over a year ago I stumbled upon the predecessor to this work, The Art of Happiness. The Art of Happiness, produced by psychiatrist Howard Cutler’s many interviews with Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the Dalai Lama,  took a philosophical approach to happiness that I enjoyed immensely. I looked forward to reading this similarly titled work ,which is the third in a series of Art of Happiness books that Cutler intends to write.

Art of Happiness focused on individuals and interpersonal relationships as they relate to happiness, but In a Troubled World takes a larger view, examining society as a whole and tackling some of the problems that arise from living in nation-states. The first few chapters examine the role of the individual within groups, stressing the need for balance between the poles of individualism and collectivism while addressing prejudice. The second part of the book addresses violence and fear, while the third sings the praises of hope, resilience, compassion, and empathy.

Although Gyatso is best known as the Dalai Lama, the head of Tibetan Budhhism, and has authored dozens of books relating to that subject, Buddhism is largely absent from this book. He refers to his own practices from time to time, but like Art of Happiness this is a book intended for a larger general audience and both Gyatso and Cutler root their discussions in naturalistic psychology.

I found much to appreciate in this book, although it didn’t impact me in the way of The Art of Happiness. Then, I was just starting to think of happiness in philosophical terms,  and found it useful. This work only affirmed what I already believe, and indeed take for granted operating from my own humanist values.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Reading Judas

Reading Judas: the Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of  Christianity
© 2007 Elaine Pagels and Karen King
198 pages, including the author's own work, the text itself, and commentary on the translation.

Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land
A hard-working man and brave --
He said to the rich, "Give your money to the poor,"
But they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

Jesus was a man, a carpenter by hand
His followers true and brave.
One dirty coward called Judas Iscariot
Has laid Jesus Christ in his grave.
(Woody Guthrie, "Jesus Christ".)

Mostly on a whim, I picked up Reading Judas on my way out of the library last week. I heard of the book as being Judas' account of Jesus' last days, in which Judas is hand-picked by Jesus to 'betray' his master, and thus serve him in the greatest way possible by allowing Jesus to fulfill his mission. This is controversial, since the canonical treatment of Judas is as a 'dirty coward' who betrayed Jesus for spite or money.

According to Pagels and King, though, and judging from the text of Judas -- included in this volume -- Judas wasn't written primarily to redeem or even defend Judas. The authors see it as another voice in the pre-Nicaean debate on who Jesus was, why he died, why he rose again, and what his followers should do in light of his example. A new cosmology dominates the text, and Judas takes central place for he is the only one of Jesus' disciples willing enough to depart from the old ways and learn it. Jesus sees his potential and takes him aside, teaching him in private while they ruefully shake their heads at the hidebound ignorance of the others. The author of the Judas text uses it to promote a world-view in which material matters are wholly irrelevant, where reality lies in the world of the spirits. That's where Judas realizes Jesus is from: the world of the spirit, and his death is a clarion call to followers that death is nothing: all that matters is spirit.

In the first century of Christian history -- or histories, as the authors see this time as an era of bitter rivalry between schools of thought, all of whom fixate on a particular teacher (Peter, Paul, James, and in this case Judas) as their banner -- many Christians were still waiting the return of Jesus to establish an actual kingdom on Earth. As time passes and Jesus is a no-show, Christianity moves more toward seeing that kingdom as spiritual, and becomes more concerned with spiritual matters. I suppose the watershed event is Augustine's City of God.  What Judas' author proposes is not all that controversial in reality, since Christians are oh-so-eager to defame the world and put their hopes in metaphysics. I'd wager Christians reading Judas would not be shocked by a preconceived idea that it defends Judas, but by the new cosmology, which refers to the god of sacrifice, violence, and blood that the disciples worshiped as  a "lower angel". The "true God" is better than that, and in Judas' eyes, that's what Jesus was sent to say.

Christian theology isn't one of my subjects of interest (theology in general, for that matter), but Reading Judas   added to my understanding of that early period. The authors of this book helped immensely, of course, introducing the book by examining the text in context before producing it. The four opening chapters examine Judas' perception as a traitor, the roles he plays in other texts, the book's cosmology, and its theology. This gospel is unlike the canonical books, which exist mostly as collection of stories throughout his life: it seems to be set in the week before Jesus' passover death. The text is also incomplete:  while the "holy" gospels were protected, Judas was left on its own and became holey in another way.* There are long portions of undisturbed text, but they may be followed by passages that have been nearly obliterated. An patchwork example follows.

"Jesus said [to them], "Cease sac[rificing........]. "It is upon the alt[a]r that yo[u........] [for they are] over your stars and angels, having already been completed there. Let them become [...] again right in front of you, and let them.... [about fifteen and a half lines are missing from the manuscript] to the races [...]. It is not possible for a bak[er] to feed the whole creation under [heaven]." (113-114) 

Passages like these are near-unintelligible, but the text is lucid for the most part. I can recommend this book to Christians, who won't find it as shocking as the "controversy" leads them to expect, or to anyone interested in early Christianity.

*Bless me father, for I have sinned.

Teaser Tuesday (18-5)

And lo! The Tuesday time for teasing is upon us again, from Should be Reading.

According to The Gospel of Judas, then, the fundamental problem is that "the twelve" -- here, stand-ins for church leaders -- do not know who Jesus is and do not understand who God is, either. They wrongly think that God requires suffering and sacrifice. But the author of The Gospel of Judas -- and others within the early movement as well -- was asking question like this: What does such teaching make of God?

Page 66, Reading Judas: the Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity. Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Lady Elizabeth

The Lady Elizabeth
© 2008 Alison Weir
480 pages

"Can you do what you like when you are king? [Elizabeth] asked, a whole new vista of freedom opening up in her mind.
"Of course I can," her father replied. "People have to do my will." There was an edge to his voice that, young as she was, she missed.
"Then," she told him, "I am going to be king when I grow up." (p. 19)

I have long been taken with the personality of Elizabeth the First, the storied 'Virgin Queen of England' who ruled long and well, setting England's course away from the Roman Church and continental wars, and towards Anglo-Scottish union and the New World.  Alison Weir's biography of Elizabeth came highly reccommended to me, but I do not have access to it: I do, however, have access to Weir's biographical novel of Elizabeth. Weir's account begins with the death of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's mother, and the royal decree that Elizabeth and her older half-sister Mary are cut off from the line of succession. Weir tells Elizabeth's story beginning with this loss of favor, following the future queen's trials and triumphs until she is at last crowned Queen at the age of twenty-five.

Elizabeth, for me, is an almost-larger-than-life character, and her depiction in this book pays homage to her irrepresible indivduality and strength of will. "Precocius" is nearly an understatement, for even as a toddler Elizabeth is startlingly bold and mature, sounding at times like an adult. This may be due to the inherent difficult of an adult rendering how a young child might think and speak, to the tendecy for royal children to be raised as adults in miniature, or to the fact that Weir's sources -- letters penned by the young Elizabeth and recollections of her by her guardians -- depict a child with supreme self-collection.

Elizabeth's earliest memories are the blizzard of new stepmothers, for her father would marry four more times in his life, having done so six times in all.  Mary and Elizabeth are both bewildered by this quick succession, but their respective responses to their own mothers' fates define their characters: while Mary is partially broken by the humiliation of her mother (Katherine of Aragon) and lives her life forever dependent on others and weeping for the loss of what she loves, Elizabeth is determined not to endure her mother's fate. She develops inner strength, demanding independence and self-effected security for herself. The primary actor in Elizabeth's life is Elizabeth. She steels herself with philosophy -- being especially fond of Cicero -- and meets challenges with bristling defiance.

Elizabeth will need that strength of character to withstand her adolescence: when the king dies, she and her siblings become the pawns of ambitious nobles who seek to increase their fortunes and influence England's course during times of political and religious turmoil. Elizabeth must also resist the advances of lusty suitors, struggling against her body's innate desire to propagate. She scorns marriage, for her father's string of wives proved how little the status of wife is worth, and she distrusts the power her emotions have over her when encouraged.  Early adulthood is no easier, as rebellions against the Sovereign ensnare Elizabeth and send her to the Tower of London, where she occupies the very apartments her mother occupied before her own beheading. Her path to the throne takes her through a vast minefield of religious, political, diplomatic, and personal problems.

Weir took me by surprise: although my interest in the subject character played a part, The Lady Elizabeth was for me a genuine page-turner. Although I kept putting it down in order to read another book, it continually appeared in my hands again. I'm always pleased when authors comment on their sources and discuss how they used (or took liberty with) them, and Weir is generous in providing disclosure. I look forward to reading more of her fiction and nonfiction and recommend this with ease.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (11-5)

Sunday, Monday, Happy Days
Teaser Tuesdays, happy days.

"And in the day that we sweep to victory at the ballot-box, and you refuse to turn over to us the government we have constitutionally and peacefully captured, and you demand what we are going to do about it --- in that day, I say, we shall answer you; and in the roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns shall our answer be couched. You cannot escape us." 

From Jack London's The Iron Heel. Ernest Everhard, London's hero, is responding to the Oligarchy's intention to maintain their control of the government through brute force. He's deliberately echoing their previous statement, with which the trusts revealed their true nature. That is below.

"This, then, is our answer. We have no words to waste on you. When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and purpled ease, we will show you what strength is. In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns will our answer be couched. We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces. The world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain."  [...]

"I am answered," Ernest said quietly. "It is the only answer that could be given. Power. It is what we of the working class preach. We know, and well we know by bitter experience, that no appeal for the right, for justice, for humanity, can ever touch you. Your hearts are hard as your heels with which you tread upon the faces of the poor. So we have preached power. By the power of our ballots on election day will we take your government away from you --"

"What if you do get a majority, a sweeping majority, on election day?" Mr. Wickson broke in to demand. "Suppose we refuse to turn the government over to you after you have captured it at the ballot-box?"

"That, also, have we considered," Ernest replied. "And we shall give you an answer in terms of lead. Power, you have proclaimed the king of words. Very good. Power it shall be. And in the day [...]"

There the teaser picked up.

The Iron Heel

The Iron Heel
© 1907 Jack London
354 pages

(Mysteriously, my public library's 1907 copy of this book has survived a century of use, although its tattered pages testify that the years have been harsh on it. If it ever had a colorful dustcover of some kind, that has long vanished. My copy is a straight hardback, so this is lifted from Google Images.)

Jack London was the first serious author I ever read, my first novel being his The Call of the Wild. I've been meaning to read something else by him for years, and when I heard of The Iron Heel I knew I wanted to experience it.

The first thirty-three years of the 20th century witnessed the ultimate downfall of Europe's old aristocratic order and the rise of fascism, replacing the old monarchies with a terrifying new form of totalitarianism in light of liberal democracy's apparant failure to maintain prosperity. Cultural pessimism had become the order of the day, allowing sweeping new approaches that claimed to be rooted in older principles.

Imagine if aristocracy and classically liberal democracy fell to authoritarian states, but not to fascism. Imagine if the capitalist nations, rather than having their institutions infinitely maintained as liberal democracies aspired to do or being overthrown as socialists and fascists wanted, had simply been realized in full. Imagine that decades of the "hands-off" approach to economics, coupled with the tendecies of capitalism to magnify wealth expotentially and concentrate that wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer hands through competition, has resulted in the overwhelming majority of the United States' economy being owned by five large trusts who work together for mutual benefit. These trusts own the political machines that control the government, which might -- through "trust-busting" politicians and regulation -- by otherwise hinder their increasing power. These economic potentates control the resources of the land through the businesses and government, and as they grow they destroy the increasingly marginalized middle class and turn the general populace into industrial serfs, serving long hours for pitiful wages and utterly dependent on their masters for sustenance.

Penguin Classics cover.

This is the world of Jack London's Iron Heel, framed as a historical document complete with an introduction and running commentary from a historian centuries in the future. (Margaret Atwood may have borrowed this device for her The Handmaid's Tale.) The fictional author of the text is Avis Everhard, wife of Ernest Everhard: the man who predicts the coming of the Oligarchy and leads the revolution against it. At first he speaks only for members of the Socialist Party, but when his confrontations with the economic masters force them to abandon subtly in favor of outright tyranny -- using the state militias and private armies to oppress dissent and cause opponents to 'vanish' -- he becomes the leader of a nationwide proletarian revolution against the rule of the Iron Heel. He is martyred in the cause (as our historian informs us in the introduction), and the "Everhard manuscript" is Avis' tribute to him, written so that his role in routing the Oligarchy will not be forgotten. He is her idol, her "Eagle": a hero of humanity, full of passion and might. She writes with hope on the eve of a planned Second Revolt against the Oligarchy, although the framing device makes it clear to the reader that the Second Revolt is an even greater failure, resulting in the Oligarchy's global domination until its eventual downfall.

The Iron Heel is an interesting novel. It predates other dystopian works and introduces devices and themes used in the works* that followed, as is the case with the Atwood example. Like other dystopian novels, it functions as social criticism and as a warning to its reading audience of what may come if trends continue. London, writing in the Gilded Age -- the age of robber-barons and industrial slums -- warns against the possible total tyanny on the part of vast commercial interests.  London's flawless protagonist and the tone of the book's opening give it the feel of an author tract: the first 150 pages follow Everhard's rise as a socialist spokesperson, and through him London outlines his own grievances with the world of 1907 and why he believes in the socialist answer. Everhard addresses every class of society -- urging labor to defend itself, attempting to convince the waning small businessmen that they cannot turn back the clock of progress  Still, those pages caught my attention given my own political values and beliefs. Although this book is more than a century old, it grabbed my attention and did not let go, for I see London's concerns as still valid today. What would he make of the 'military-industrial complex', of media monoliths and their role in politics?

While the book is an interesting future/alternate history work in its own right and possibly the progenitor of a genre of fiction, it also serves to advocate for a vision of a better future, London's socialist vision in which conflicts of interests that lead to violence and hatred are removed completely. It's almost the Communist Manifesto for a mass audience, using the dialouge approach between Everhard and various audiences to explain Marxist criticism and socialist politics. It comments on London's world and ours in a decidely interesting way: definitely a book to  remember, revisit, and reccommend.

*The phrase "the iron heel" brings to mind George Orwell's 1984 quotation summarizing his dystopian world: "If you want a vision of the human future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Plato's Podcasts

Plato's Podcasts: the Ancients' Guide to Modern Living
© 2009 Mark Vernon
215 pages

I encountered this book a  few weeks ago while enjoying a virtual photo-tour of ancient Athens hosted by an Greek philosophy enthusiast. The title immediately drew my attention, and had I spotted this in a library, the cover would have caught my eye regardless. Mark Vernon's approach is similar to Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy in that Vernon devotes each chapter to introduce a single philosopher's approach toward various subjects. The titles are straightforward, examples being "Epicures on why less is more" and "Socrates on being towards death". Vernon's chapters are more numerous and less detailed than de Botton's, concerned only with a particular facet of a philosopher's life or works. Some philosophies, most notably for me Stoicism, appear multiple times.This helps counter the risk of misrepresentation. Vernon also limits himself to the classical world, not going beyond Hypatia.

Vernon's central idea is that the problems of the contemporary world are not dissimilar at their roots from the problems faced by the ancients: people still ask the same questions and are vulnerable to the same outside influences. The themes in this book are universally human: the search for meaning, living amid violent times, free will, love and marriage, understanding laughter and sorrow. He believes that the approaches taken by the classical world's many varied personalities who not only taught, but practiced philosophy to live life more fully are still valid, and he draws some connections between ancient and modern approaches -- between Epicures, the Stoics, and the Slow Movement, for instance. He also references similarities between the Greek philosophers and  Buddhists, as well as between the philosophers themselves. Vernon is an informal author, sometimes joking with the reader, but seems to take the philosophical approach to life seriously. Although his faceted approach runs the risk of misrepresenting a school of though to the lay reader, he introduced me to an abundance of previously unheard names with interesting ideas to ponder. I enjoyed reading this through the weekend, and can easily recommend it to those interested in the philosophical life.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

This Week at the Library (6/5)

Once more, I have kept my head above the water and am finished with term papers and finals for this semester. I had the good luck to do research on topics I enjoyed (history of science, the Great War, and Robert G. Ingersoll), but unfortunately I was unable to give many of the very interesting books I used in the process of reading their full due here. Still, there are a few titles I'd like to pass along...

  • From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era is a five-volume set covering British navy history during the Great War. I used it while writing on Germany's use of submarines in that period. The book is incredibly detailed (there's a reason it consists of five volumes of books, each near four hundred pages), but not dry in the way I initially suspected. I used three volumes of it (1-3) in my research. The set I had access to included generaous sea-maps in the back, tucked inside the back cover. 
  • The U-Boat Wars by Edwin P. Hoyt served me well when researching Germany's U-boat use in the second war. The book posesses a curious format: while Hoyt generally sticks to a historical narrative, his style when recording specific battles reads like historial fiction. It's aimed at lay readers, and included many useful tables recording the damage done by U-boats (and the damage done unto them in return). I learned that the U-boat fleet remained active throughout the war, although by '45 technological improvements and the widespread use of destroyers implementing those improvements turned them into an irritant rather than a menace. 

In writing on the maturation of heliocentrism and its role in demythologizing the western worldview (following the contributions of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo), I drew from a few books including those I've read here in the past:

  • Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser's The History of Science from the Ancient Greeks to the Scientific Revolution, which I read two years ago. While re-reading it for background on a general "history of science" paper, I realized heliocentrism and its naturalistic implications were steadily developed through a course of contributors, and made a thesis out of that.
  • Theories for Everything, one of my first reads here.At the time, I said that it was one of those books I wish I had in my private library. It is now. 
  • Spotting It All Started with Copernicus: how Turning the World Inside Out Led to the Scientific Revolution by Howard Margolis justified my idea. I used it for tracking the astronomical models taught in universities: it fell right in line with my thesis, but I was too exhausted from note-taking by the time I spotted this book to give it a full scan. 

While I wrote on submarines, heliocentrism, Robert Ingersoll, and did two final exam papers for my History of Europe (1914-1945) and Gilded Age classes, I somehow got some leisure reading done. This past week, I read....

  • The Last Juror, an old favorite by John Grisham that uses the perspective of a newspaper writer and owner to track the history of a small southern town during the 1970s, ten years occupied by  Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement,  the rise of marijuana trafficking in the US, and a heinous murder. Easily the most interesting of Grisham's works, for me.
  • Next I read another book in the Hornblower series, this time Commodore Hornblower. The good captain is forced to navigate the Baltic Sea, maintaining and building England's anti-Napoleonic alliance. The book sees Hornblower fight on both land and sea when Napoleon invades Russia. 
  • I finally finished Hard Contact, a Star Wars novel focused on the trials of four Clone Commandos and a young padawan, who invade a planet occupied by a tyrannical overlord in an attempt to destroy a genetic virus that could be used against the Grand Army of the Republic's clone troopers. The book maintans the humor of the video game that inspired it.
  • Lastly I read David Attenborough's the Trials of Life, a book documenting the life of animals as they bear young, feed, grow and fight, court mates, build shelters, and work together. The book is completely fascinating and full of wonderous pictures.

Next week:

  • Plato's Podcasts: the Ancients' Guide to Modern Living by Mark Vernon. Has a fun title, right?
  • The Iron Heel, Jack London 
  • The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, Tenzin Gyatsao
  • Iron Coffins, Herbert Werner. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Trials of Life

The Trials of Life: a Natural History of Animal Behavior
© 1990 Sir David Attenborough
320 pages

Following up on last week's The Private Life of Plants, I enjoyed another of Attenborough's books documenting the extraordinary natural world: this with a focus on the lives of animals, with chapters devoted to various elements of animals' lives. After two initial chapters on birth and childhood, the book covers navigation, courtship, feeding, hunting, and home-making among others, not to mention separate chapters exploring the way animals interact with one enough. All sorts of beasts have their time in this book, from the smallest ants to mighty elephants. I learned that there is a caterpillar that appears to be a viper, why termite skyscrapers are neatly oriented along with the poles, that they are often home to a host of other animals besides termites, and that antlers are only temporary. Like The Private Life of Plants,  Trials of Life is replete with astonishing pictures. This is an easy recommendation.

This is a caterpillar with a tank-like shell invading the tree nest of ants. The ants can't get under the shell, and the caterpillar uses that advantage to navigate to the ant nursery, where he lifts the shell up a bit and uses it to capture eggs. Then it feeds on the eggs while pupating.

These are honeypot ants: the little black specks are their limbs. This species uses some of its individuals to store food for hard times later on: these individuals gorge themselves on honey and swell up, spending their time hanging from the ceiling. When food is scarce, other ants will force the gorged individuals to burp up little droplets of honey.

This is a caterpillar. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hard Contact

Star Wars Republic Commando: Hard Contact
© 2004 Karen Traviss
293 pages

A few weekends ago I finished Star Wars: Republic Commando, a particularly fun first-person shooter set during the Clone Wars, placing the character as the lead of "Delta Squad", a band of elite soldiers tasked with the Clone Wars' toughest assignments. I enjoyed the game immensely for its humor and style, and decided when I found that book series had been written to tie into the game that I'd like to read part of it. That's what brought me to Hard Contact, a straightforward military science fiction story about the misson of four Clone Commandos. They are not, alas, the four Commandos I became familar with in the game, being a different squad of troops.

The commandos are tasked with eliminating a planetary despot who controls a biogenetic agent targeting the Republic's clone army, the potential of which earned that despot a place in the Confederacy of Independent Systems' hierarchy. Succeeding in destroying his labs and freeing the planet from his rule will earn the Republic a new planet: failure might well see the annihilation of the entire Grand Army.  The four soldiers are seperated when infiltrating the planet, and the Jedi master with whom they expected to join forces with was killed: they are left only with his woefully inexperienced and somewhat disgraced Padawan, who is on the verge of being expelled from the Jedi Order for her ineptitude. The squad must rally together against great difficulty to accomplish their goal.

Books that are purely combat rarely resonate with me and given that I didn't see the characters I had hoped to see, this wasn't an exception. I generally enjoyed the book, and understand the series' appeal to other readers. I understand Delta Squad is in other books of the series: I may like those better if I'm able to gain access to them.

A shot from Republic Commando. (Click for full-size.) Delta 07, or "Sev", finds Wookie architecture peculiar. 

Teaser Tuesday (4/5)

Teaser Tuesdays will be with you. Always. (Obi-Wan Kenobi, A New Hope. May the Fourth be with you, as it is with Should Be Reading)

Philosophy was about what you ate, how you had sex, where you lived. Get those choices right and think less squiffily, too, and it promised the good life. 

xxi, Plato's Podcasts: the Ancients' Guide to Modern Living, by Mark Vernon

(I was writing an essay on the English Reformation for my Renaissance and Reformation final during my usual T/T time. ;-))

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Commodore Hornblower

Commodore Hornblower
© 1945 C.S. Forester
384 pages

My previous reads in the Hornblower series have been through collections of the shorter works, but Commodore Hornblower is a standard novel set shortly after Captain Hornblower. Hornblower has by now distinguished himself as one of the most capable and celebrated officers in the Royal Navy through a life of service punctuated by imaginative and bold approaches to problems. Fittingly, he is promoted to commodore and given a flotilla to take into the dangerous waters of the Baltic Sea -- dangerous not just for  the French ships and pirates prowling about, but for Hornblower's nebulous mission that will certainty involve diplomacy. Napoleon Bonaparte is nearly emperor of Europe, having composed a Grand Army filled with soldiers from subject nations. Only Britain's navy and Spain's guerrillas oppose the Corsican's ambitions, and he is now moving that army in the direction of Russia to effect its coercion. The loyalty of the Baltic nations may shift suddenly as Napoleon presses on, and Hornblower is tasked with responding to potentially changing diplomatic conditions on behalf of the British empire.

While he isn't attempting to prevent Britain from becoming wholly diplomatically isolated, Hornblower must still fight the French along the coasts. When Napoleon makes good his threat and invades Russia, Hornblower and his men must lend succor to the besieged city of Riga and do all they can to bolster resistance against the continent's would-be master. I didn't enjoy this book quite as much as I have previous Hornblower novels, with the exception of the novel's beginning and its diplomatic intrigue. Being a history student, I enjoyed seeing Forester's foreshadowing. He also alludes to the world of 1945, using characters' backstories relating to Napoleon's rise to hint to readers that history is repeating itself.