Friday, December 31, 2010

Over the Hills

Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America by Bicycle
© 1996 David Lamb
254 pages

Despite a life of front-line journalism in Vietnam and Rwanda, LA Times journalist David Lamb feels as though his lifestyle has become positively sedentary as he approaches middle age. In an attempt to prove to himself that he's capable of great deeds, he decides to travel across the country -- on a touring bike. After cursory preparation, Lamb hits the road with his saddlebags and makes his way across the hills and valleys of the Eastern coast, through the southwestern deserts, and over the Rockies straight to Santa Monica's pier. Since pedestrians and cyclists are barred from the interstates,  Lamb keeps to the backroads, including the venerable Route 66, stopping to chat up local townsfolk on deserted city streets and pedaling for his life to escape from packs of aggressive dogs in farm country.

The trip itself is absent of drama, aside from the dog chases: there are no accidents, no close calls, no miserable slogs through blinding storms. Lamb manages to avoid rain the entire time, the only inclement weather being the 'headwinds' of the plains which slow him down considerably.  His travel log consists of descriptions of the passing landscape, particularly the small towns he beds in, his dealings with the people he meets, and ruminations about life on the road. He adds to this a history of the bicycle, and its role in shaping the United States' social and transportation history.

I enjoy stories about people who hit the open road and go where it takes them, exploring and venturing into the unknown, and Over the Hills was no exception. While Lamb doesn't use his isolation on the road to delve into philosophy and the meaning of life (as did Peter Jenkins in A Walk Across America), I enjoyed his encounters with small-town America all the same, though aside from the 'ordinary kindnesses' the strangers offered there was little good news to be had. Most towns, Lamb wrote, had picked up and moved to interstate exit ramps,  leaving the old communities to rot in abandonment.  More cheery than this was the fascinating history of the bicycle in American culture, which Lamb concludes by detailing how modern cities are attempting to encourage bicycle activity.  Parts of the book are dated ($15-and $20 motel rooms?!), but  it's a fun ride read.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Seize the Fire

Star Trek Typhon Pact: Seize the Fire
© 2010 Michael A. Martin
499 pages

In the wake of the last great Borg War, most of Starfleet is tasked with helping to pick up the pieces. Only a few ships, the USS Titan among them, are allowed to continue Starfleet's mandate of exploration.  Despite being lucky in this regard, Captain William Riker doesn't want to go on his merry way into the unexplored expanses of the galaxy and with no thought to his comrades back home -- thus, he opts to investigate the possibility of a powerful terraforming technology not unlike that of the Genesis Device. When he confirms his suspicions, though, he finds the technology in the hands of the Gorn Hegemony. The Gorn have their own reasons for wanting the device, as one of their most precious breeding worlds has been ruined by excess solar activity.  While their possessing this device -- which, like Genesis, could be used to destroy civilizations "in favor of its new matrix" -- is problematic enough, the leading Gorn general seems intent on using it on a planet already inhabited. Though the Prime Directive forbids Riker from interfering, he must find a way to do so and perhaps gain access to the "eco-sculptor" at the same time. 

Star Trek's reptilian species fascinate me: the Gorn were first mentioned in "Arena", which contains one of the most outstandingly campy fights in televised history,  and spotted once in Enterprise, but have since not garnered much attention. Michael A. Martin does for them what David Mack did for the Breen, turning standard villains into large, complex political entities.  Just as Mack did, he tells part of the story from the viewpoint of Gorn characters, some of them sympathetic. This nation- and world-building was the strongest portion of the novel for me, though I also appreciated Martin's use of Gnalish crewmembers board the Titan: Michael Jan Friedman introduced them in Reunion, and his Stargazer novel Progenitor spotlighted them.  The plot's possible resolutions seemed obvious from the start, though the road there took some unexpected twists and turns. I enjoyed the novel, and even read most of it in one sitting. Some characterization seemed strange, particularly in the case of Riker's XO (Christine Vale), but I've not read enough Titan novels to say for sure.  The novel's greatest weakness was Martin/Riker's interpretation of the Prime Directive. The directive forbids Starfleet personnel from interfering in the natural evolution of a pre-warp society:  they can't be so much as contacted without first displaying the ability to use warp drive.  This "natural evolution" clause has been extended to prohibiting Starfleet personnel from stopping asteroid collisions with planets, and in Voyager Tom Paris was demoted and tossed into the brig for interfering in a similar case. As outrageous as that is, in Seize the Fire the planet in question is being targeted by an outside power, a warp power, and Riker's belief that he can't interfere makes him look like a legalistic chump. 

I'd say Seize the Fire is fairly enjoyable: not outstanding, but not mediocre, either. 


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

This Week at the Library (29 December)

Aside from the books I've already done full comments on, I also finished The Great American Wolf and The Golden Door.  My observations about them were shortish, so I decided to include them here instead of making seperate, strangely short posts.  The Great American Wolf by Bruce Hampton was placed in my library's Science and Nature section, though it's really more a history of human interaction with wolves in North America. I had no idea wolves were viewed in such a negative light: I've always been fond of them, seeing the grey wolf in particular as intelligent, sociable, and beautiful.  Though native Americans regarded the wolf as a magnificent creatures, Europeans have apparantly shared a long hostility toward them and the colonists who settled in North American acted on it. They regarded the wolves as pests and purposely sought to drive them to extinction -- though this changed in the 20th century, as conservationists and environmentalists pushed to save them.

I also read Isaac Asimov's The Golden Door, a history of the United States from Reconstruction following the Civil War through to the conclusion of the Great War. This period of history happens to be one of my favorites, and Asimov titled his book by drawing from Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus", engraved upon the Statue of Liberty in New York which welcomed so many immigrants.

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

I rather like the poem.  Asimov's history is breezily readable, suitable for younger readers as well as older ones who want an introduction to the period, a refresher, or some mild entertainment: I picked up some trivia while reading it. Asimov's istypically fair and more idealistic than cynical.

Next week's potentials:

  • Seize the Fire, Michael A. Martin. I actually read this yesterday, but I meant for it to be "this" week's Trek reading. Because my library visit and TWATL post have occcured on Wednesday for so long, I tend to think of it as starting a new 'week'. 
  • Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America by Bicycle, David Lamb.  This is the third or fourth book I've read this year in which someone decided to journey across the continent, but the idea of throwing oneself into nature, of seeing where the road goes and having an adventure along the way, appeals to me.
  • In a Sunburned Country,  in which Bill Bryson explores Australia.
  • The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright -- because God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter was checked out. 
  • The Burning Land, Bernard Cornwell. The most recent book in the Saxon Chronicles series, which means next week I'll have no Uhtred to enjoy. Whatever will I do?
  • I also have a book on the weather, because on Christmas morning while watching the rain fall I realized that though I understand the water cycle, I have no idea what high- and low-pressure systems mean and why they bring the kind of weather they do. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (28 December)

Time for the Tuesday teasin', and if I'm not too much mistaken this is the last TT of the year. 

So love, I thought, had turned Erik against his brother. Love would make him slash a blade through every oath he had ever sworn. Love has power over power itself. 

(Sword Song, Bernard Cornwell. P. 271.)

He'd been playing Barbarian George's Big Crusade on the PlayStation at his friend Sam's house, and they'd gotten into the infidel territory and killed thousands of the 'Rackies, but the game just didn't seem to have any way to exit. It wasn't designed so you could ever get out of it, and before he knew it, it was dark outside, and he'd forgotten, and Christmas was just going to be ruined.

(The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror, Christopher Moore. P. 34.)

"I am Olaf Eagleclaw," he told me proudly, "And I will meet you in the corpse-hall."
"Uhtred of Bebbanburg," I said, and I was stil on the deck as he lifted his ax high.
And Olaf Eagleclaw screamed.

(Sword Swong, Bernard Cornwell)

Top Ten Top Reads

Every January I reflect on the past year's reading and draw attention to a few special books so I hesitated at participating in this week's list at first.  I wouldn't want to make my annual review sound repetitive, but I don't think it has anything to worry about.

Top Ten Top Reads

This book immediately came to mind as soon as I read the weekly topic. If I did a 'Book of the Year', this would be it. Mann reexamines the civilizations of the Americas, asserting that they manipulated the environment to suit their needs just as heavily as European nations

I have read three fictional biographies and two or three conventional biographies of Jesus, and this is the best of either category. Despite being written to amuse, Moore's Jesus is more believable and sympathetic than any I've yet read.

Essays, news articles, and poems condemning the United States' role in Cuba and the Phillipines,  quite useful to a student of the period or American expansionism in general. 

I have found philosophy a stalwart ally in living a quiet, happy life, and Irvine's work makes one of the better philosophical worldviews both understandable and relevant to the modern mind. 

5. Red Emma Speaks, Emma Goldman

Red Emma Speaks collects essays and other opinion pieces by anarchist and social activist Emma Goldman, who regarded as inhuman most of which society holds dear --  states, capitalism, organized religion, and marriage. She was a great defender of human rights. (Speaking of which, this book was in my backpack when a police officer searched both myself and my car back in January. He was a small town cop, though, so I don't think he knew who she was.)

6. African Exodus: the Origins of Modern Humanity, Christopher Stringer and Robin McKie

Essentially a history of human evolution; I especially enjoyed the chapters on human and Neanderthal interaction.

7. The Lady Elizabeth, Alison Weir

The first of many reads by Alison Weir this summer, being the story of Queen Elizabeth's childhood. 

8. The Iron Heel, Jack London
One of the first dystopias, and one predicts in part the rise of fascism. This is the story of Ernest Everhard, Marxist revolutionary who takes on the corporate police state. It was written in 1907 -- a decade before the Russian revolution. 

9. Lost Souls, David Mack
The stunning conclusion to the incomparable Destiny trilogy, which sets the stage for an entirely new generation of Trek literature.

I was very impressed by this book when reading it. I had no idea how influential coal has been. 

Honorable Mentions:
1. The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs
2. Captain Horatio Hornblower, C.S. Forester
3. Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
4. Revenge of the Sith, Matthew Stover
5. La Belle France, Alistair Horne

Monday, December 27, 2010

Sword Song

Sword Song: The Battle for London
© 2008 Bernard Cornwell
314 pages

When King Alfred assumed the throne of Wessex, his fragile nation stood alone against the rest of England, subdued and ruled by the Danes.  Through  Alfred's able administration and his reliance on stout warriors like Uthred of Bebbanburg, Wessex has broken the back of most of the Scandinavian usurpers. Those who've not fallen by Uhtred's sword have been turned into Alfred's allies (if not completely reliable), and the pious king's influence is expanding. Still, invaders keep coming -- like Sigifred and Erik, two legendary Norse brothers who have invaded southern England fresh from profitable journeys among the Franks. They have seized Lundene (known better as London) and intend to conquer both Mercia and Wessex. Though Alfred's forces are large enough to resist them successfully, he cannot allow the brothers to continue using Lundene to control the Thames river, Alfred's greatest source of supplies and trade. Thus, Uhtred and a few other chosen men are tasked with leading an army to Lundene and  restoring it to Saxon hands.

Uhtred is the most able of Alfred's servants, but not his most-honored: unlike most Saxons, he has not abandoned the old gods for the Hebrews', nor has his life made him a meek subordinate. Though Uhtred complies with Alfred's wishes, he does so to fulfill a personal sense of honor -- not because he likes or even respects the sickly would-be saint. He would rather burn in the Christian hell until the end of time than spend a moment with Alfred's crowd of pious legalists.  Thus, even though he follows Alfred's orders, he does so in his own way -- keeping his own counsel, often striking out on his own without Alfred's sanction or even notice.   Though the outcome of the book's titular battle was a foregone conclusion, the execution is interesting and the aftermath unpredictable -- giving Uhtred an opportunity to choose to defy Alfred's plans in order to effect his own. Most of the book's characters are old familiars, but the two Norse brothers were welcome arrivals; the younger, Erik, is a sympathetic a character as any.

In sum, Sword Song is yet another enjoyable volume in this series. I always enjoy stories of people who shun obedience and docility in favor of following their convictions, especially when they involve abusive priests and nobles stammering apologies as they back away from a gleaming sword held by the angry Lord of Bebbanburg.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Confession

The Confession
© 2010 John Grisham
418 pages

In 1998, the small Texas city of Sloan was horrified when a high school belle vanished without a trace. She'd been abducted, abused, murdered, and buried by a serial rapist named Travis Boyette.  Outraged and horrified, the town eagerly pursues its first suspect and sends him to Death Row -- but Boyette was not accused, condemned, or even suspected. He walks free while an innocent boy, another high school star, is sentenced to death on the basis of a transparently extracted confession and the word of a jealous goon.  Nicole's body was never found, nor was there any physical evidence to tie young Donte to the crime.  Almost ten years later,  as Donte's execution date draws near, Boyette stumbles into the office of a Lutheran minister with a troubled conscience. He's dying, troubled by his conscience, and knows all too well that in less than a week, a broken young boy will be killed for someone else's crimes.

Keith Schroeder never anticipated being the confessor of a serial rapist, but he's gripped by the Cause: if he can convince the legal system that they may have the wrong man, Donte will live and possibly even be exonerated. While Donte's lawyer Robbie Flak files every last-minute appeal he can, Schroeder and Boyette race against the clock, violate Boyette's parole for another crime, and rush to the backwoods of Missouri where Boyette claims to have buried the body. The odds are long that they will concede: the prosecuting attorneys, judge, and governors are all hard men proud to see Donte on his way to Death Row: to them,  his death will be a triumph, a sign to all that Texas' lawmen are doing their job to protect good white people from the black menace.

Black menace --? Oh, yes. Donte is black. His jurors were all white, and his sloppy conviction and impending execution have Slone teetering on the precipe of a race riot. There's no lack of dramatic tension in The Confession once the race to Missouri against a ticking clock starts in earnest.  I for one received the book on Christmas morning and began reading it later that evening after a day of family festivities. I continued reading well into the night, , but I could not put it down.  The book was racing towards its conclusion, or so I thought, and I was carried towards dawn by the fast pace. Every time I thought the tension was nearing a breaking point, Grisham threw another spanner in the works. He hasn't had this spellbinding effect on me in years.  The conclusion is a mixed bag, not unusual for Grisham:  while he rarely writes stories of the 'bad guys' winning, he's not particularly keen on writing stories of the 'good guys' winning, either --at best, the victories are Pyrrhic.  Like most of Grisham's novels, this is not idle entertainment; he uses his characters' plight to address a point. The Appeal criticized judicial politics, for instance, a tack also taken up here along with revisiting The Chamber's theme of the effectiveness and morality of the death penalty.  More directly, The Confession attacks the prosecution's eagerness to convict and kill:  human lives should not be weighed in the balance by politicians eager to perform for emotional audiences.

The Confession is an emotionally turbulent thriller of human conscience set against malevolent institutions that recommends itself far more than other releases in recent years like The Associate.


Friday, December 24, 2010

The Stupidest Angel

The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror
© 2004 Christopher Moore
288 pages

In another Christmas story, Dale Pearson, evil developer, self-absorbed woman hater, and seemingly unredeemable curmudgeon, might by visited in the night by a series of ghosts who, by showing him bleak visions of Christmas future, past, and present, would bring about in him a change to generosity, kindness, and a general warmth toward his fellow man. But this is not that kind of Christmas story, so here, in not too many pages, someone is going to dispatch the miserable son of a bitch with a shovel. That's the spirit yet to come in these parts. Ho, ho, ho.

It's Christmas in quiet Pine Grove, California: the Salvation Army bell-ringers are being walloped by sacks of ice, husbands and wives are at each other's throats, and someone just buried Santa Claus in the woods. Looks like this town needs a Christmas miracle to get back into the spirit of things.  Good thing Heaven always sends an angel to Earth to perform exactly one miracle at the behest of a child every Christmas week. Unfortunately, the angel this year is Raziel, a celestial servant as bright as a bag of rocks. His attempt at restoring Christmas goes wrong -- terribly wrong. Hilariously wrong.

Christopher Moore digs into his back of goodies and bestows upon the reader heaping amounts of absurdism. This starts with the characters, two of whom are a married couple consisting of a hippie constable and a legendary if retired porn actress known as the Warrior Woman, who's just schizophrenic enough to chop down the world's tallest pine tree with her own broadsword in the name of the Worm God. Everyone in this town acts as though they're in a Monty Python sketch. The narrator   is just as eccentric as the lives it details: halfway through the book, it pauses to look at the Christmas photos of the main characters, and some chapters consist of nothing but the local community of decaying corpses in the church cemetery talking to themselves -- gossiping, mostly. I manage to avoid any spoilers, and when I realized just how the angel's miracle had gone wrong, I hit the floor in mirth.

Short and sweet, a laugh-out-loud treat for Christmas time.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Beneath the Raptor's Wings

The Romulan War: Beneath the Raptor's Wings
© 2009 Michael A. Martin
450 pages (Trade Paperback)

Humanity's enthusiastic expansion into the Cosmos and Earth's leadership in forming the Coalition of Planets have earned it an enemy in the Romulan Star Empire. Ambitious, sinister, and ruthless, the Romulans  intend on striking down all those they cannot control. After repeated failed attempts to sow discord between the Coalition allies,  the Star Empire decides on a more direct approach: war.  Armed with fleets of their own and the ability to hijack the computers of other ships,  "those who march beneath the raptor's wings" are intent on crushing humanity beneath them.

Though the Coalition Compact supposedly guarantees Earth  support from her allies,  the Vulcans are reluctant to be drawn into a conflict with their long-seperated cousins, whose very existance embarrasses them. Andor and Tellar are far more enthusiastic, but when their flagships are turned into Romulan playthings,  they, too question the use of coming to Earth's defense.  Earth, defended only by a handful of NX-class starships and a dozen or so older Daedaluses, stands alone against enemies whom they've never seen face to face. Captain Archer and his fellow captains must hold the line in the wake of multiple defeats while political intrigues and episonage abound.

The TOS episode "Balance of Terror" set a few elements of the Earth-Romulan war in stone. It was a primitive affair, fought with nuclear bombs and missiles, and fought expressly between Earth and Romulus. Martin manages to reconcile this with the much more modern feel of Enterprise and the existence of the Coalition, while at the same planting seeds for the idea of a stronger union -- the future Federation. Beneath the Raptor's Wings is a busy story: though Archer and Tucker's separate stories constitute most of the book, they're joined by more than few other plot threads and viewpoint characters, including Romulans. While this isn't disjointing, the frequent thread shifts (there are 85 short chapters) did take some getting used to. As is common with most Trek books in this generation, Martin seeds continuity references and in-jokes all over the place.

The book is essentially a combination of war story and espionage thriller with a good bit of politics thrown in. It kept me reading -- I think I read most of its 450 pages in one day, which was rather wearisome but I did not want to stop.  (It was well after midnight when I finished, and I came close to going to sleep on the floor where I was reading.)  Though I know the war eventually concludes in a rough draw (which established the Neutral Zone), Martin still managed to make me feel concerned about Earth's extensive losses, and I could never predict the course of the action.

Treklit readers, especially Enterprise relaunch fans, will find it worth their while.

Starfleet: Year One, Michael Jan Friedman. This book is set in the last part of the Earth-Romulan war, though it was published before Enterprise and is sadly not reconcilable with the modern canon. That's a shame, too, because this book along with the first Stargazer book sold me on Friedman, and offers a compelling look into the founding of the Federation and the formation of Starfleet and its mission goals. It's also very much in the feel of TOS -- a believable predecessor.

While Daedalus are treated as obsolete buckets from yesteryear in Raptor's Wing, in Starfleet: Year One, they're the cutting edge and every captain in Earth's space fleet wants to sit in the prototype's captain's seat. 

Booking through Thursday: Life-Changing

Booking through Thursday wants to know:  which book changed your life?

A few months ago I started writing a post called "Top Ten Books that Changed My Life": when I started searching for similar lists by other readers, I stumbled upon the Broke and Bookish's 'Top Ten Tuesdays' game.  I have never posted my list, because my explanations of how the books influenced my thinking were altogether lengthy.

I'd like to answer BTT's query, though, so I'm going to post the list but minimize elaboration.

1. Guns, Germs, and Steel. Jared Diamond (2004 or 2005)
Contribution:  One, it made me realize that nothing happens in a vacuum, that history is best understood when supplemented by other disciplines (geography, politics, sociology).  Two,  it forced me to consider how human history is influenced by matters beyond human control.

2.  Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Carl Sagan (2006)
Contribution: Led to my embracing the naturalistic worldview.

3. Universe on a T-Shirt, Dan Falk (Summer 2007)
Contribution: Made me realize that science was a search for meaning and understanding, not just a collection of facts.

4. The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (Thanksgiving 2007)
Contribution: Introduced me to Stoicism and impressed upon me the advantages of mindfulness and a philosophical life.

5. The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx (Summer 2008)
Contribution: The Manifesto is not a political blueprint, but a work of historical and social criticism in which Marx presents a view of history as being not just influenced by, but solely driven, by economics. While it didn't make me stand up and start preaching about the Historical Dialectic,  after reading Marx I never thought about politics or the media the same way again.

6. Technopoly, Neil Postman (Summer 2008)
Contribution:  Made me realize that the use of technology carries with it values: for instance, the ubiquity of wireless communication allows everyone to be "connected" virtually all of the time, and brings with it the assumption that this being connected is normal and good.

7. Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman (Winter 2008/2009)
Contribution: Postman believes that technologies change the way we interact with the world, and that electronic media enforces triviality by treating information as entertainment. Much of the book examines television with a critical eye, condemning it for reducing intellectual discussion and debate to talking points and put-downs

8. A Life of Her Own, Emile Carles (Spring 2009)
Contribution: Carles expanded my political horizons significantly. Before reading her biography, I thought of socialism and communism in terms of Big States like the Soviet Union and China. I never realized there was a strong, vital democratic spirit in these movements, and that anarchism and libertarianism were not far removed from them.

9. The Zinn Reader, Howard Zinn (Fall 2009)
Contribution: Zinn changed the way I thought about democracy. I once thought being a good citizen meant voting and such, but  Zinn and Thoreau taught me that democracy meant action. Democracy is the labor strike, the slave revolt,  the protest march: it is people taking control of their lives, not casting votes for 'represenatives' whom they do not know and have no business trusting.

10. Red Emma Speaks, Emma Goldman (Spring 2010)
Contribution:  Goldman's philosophy of anarchism brought together many various threads of my intellectual and personal life, best summarized in this quotation:

"Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

This Week at the Library (15 Dec - 22 Dec)

Slow week, really. I've been...distracted, and a minor eye infection didn't help matters. It's hard to read while squinting like a pirate. I wound up reading a history book instead of concentrating on either my wolf book or my Cornwell novel, so I read a  good bit of all three and all of none.

I did finish William Leisner's Losing the Peace and Asimov's Whiff of Death, though, both of which were enjoyable. I've never read Leisner before, but his character drama was top-notch. He's only written a few Trek works, but I'll keep my eyes peeled regardless. Bill Bryon's A Walk in the Woods was considerably entertaining -- I still think of think of Bryson for his A Short History of Nearly Everything, but he's obviously a successful humorist and travel guide. I also listened to Lords of the North, which I'll post full comments on later.

Selected Quotations:
"Some people weren't above 'crying wolf' when it suited their purpouses. In Puritan New England, the regularity of wolf attacks on sheep just prior to church services every Sabbath, and the resulting drop in attendance, led some ministers to regard certain members of their own flock with suspicion." - p. 69, The Great American Wolf;  Bruce Hampton

"You realize, I hope, that you had no real authority to land and disassemble this vessel. [...]"
"Excuse me?" she answered, giving him a mock-stern glare. "Is this the same man who kidnapped two Federation political leaders and brought them here against their wills, lecturing me?"
"'Kidnapping'" is such an inflammatory term..."  - p. 306, Losing the Peace. William Leisner.

"What chance has the truth got when priests begin to tell tales?", The Lords of the North; Bernard Cornwell.

Next week's potentials:

  • I'll be finishing off Bruce Hampton's The Great American Wolf, Cornwell's Sword Song, and  -- since I spent so much time with it THIS week -- The Golden Door, by Isaac Asimov. I'm reading about Teddy Roosevelt and Progressivism at the moment, so I'm not far from the book's endpoint in 1918. 
  • I think I'll be reading Beneath the Raptor's Wings by Michael A. Martin, the start of the Romulan War series in ST: Enterprise's relaunch. 
  • I may spot a book or two I want to investigate the library today, since I'm writing this prior to my usual visit there. 
  • ..and there's also Eye of the World, which I really need to read through to page 230. I have been promised that if I make it two hundred pages in, the book will hook me. I figure the first sixteen chapters are enough to decide whether or not I want to continue in the book.

Though I imagine I'll post a comment or review before Saturday, I'd like to wish a Merry Christmas to everyone in case I do not.  Merry Christmas, Happy Solstice, Joyeaux Noel, Fröhliche Weihnachten,  Feliz Navidad, and Thank You For Shopping, Please Come Back Again!

A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods
© 1998 Bill Bryson
274 pages

Bill Bryson was so startled to find an entrance to the Appalachian Trail in his backyard that he figured, why not hike it? End to end, it's only a little over two thousand miles of hills, moutains, dense woodlands,  and bear dens.  Nothing a man in his forties can't handle!  As soon as spring arrives, Bryson and his friend Stephen Katz drive to Georgia and start a grueling hike through some of America's wildest country. Neither of them have any idea what they're in for.

This story of two sarcastic middle-aged men bumbling through the woods and mountains is unavoidably entertaining. Bryson prepares himself by reading a book full of grisly bear attacks, and on their first day out Katz decides to start flinging supplies into the woods to lighten his load -- including essentials which doom them to eating soup for weeks on end while they choke on mouthfuls of black flies, attempt to ditch an obnoxious co-hiker who latches on to them, and dodge peril a time or two, all the while ranting and raving enthusiastically.  The two don't attempt the trail all at once, and indeed don't even walk it in full: after realizing they'll never finish in one season, they opt to concentrate on particularly lauded legs of the trail. Though their adventures in the wilderness are entertaining enough, Bryson complements this with running historic and scientific commentary.  I heard of the book when searching for information on Centralia, Pennsylvania, which Bryson visits: a long-running underground coal fire turned the area into a wasteland of collapsed roads and noxious fumes belching from the ground. His descriptions there, as throughout the rest of the book, are evocative.

A Walk in the Woods has whet my appetite for Bryson as a travel guide and humorist; I understand he's recorded his adventures living and hiking in Europe and Australia,  which though I don't have library access to, I hope to read at some point. I've already recommended this to a couple of my hiking friends, and  but even if you've no interest in the outdoors at all, this book is worth your while just for the laughs.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Losing the Peace

Losing the Peace
© 2009 William Leisner
365 pages

Somewhere, up ahead, were people in trouble, in need of help. Picard allowed himself a small, private smile. And the Enterprise is on its way.

Losing the Peace is the first TNG novel set after Destiny, and like  A Singular Destiny it follows right behind David Mack's heels, covering the last great Borg War's aftermath.  Singular Destiny provided a political mystery that leads into the Typhon Pact,  but Losing the Peace is more personal, focusing on our characters as they attempt to pick up the pieces of their lives and those of their fellows in the wake so much destruction and death. Entire worlds are gone, and others have been hit badly: billions are dead, including friends and family of the Enterprise crew.

For whatever reason, I didn't expect much of the book: I didn't know the author and its cover art isn't exactly provocative. I regarded Greater than the Sum the same way before reading it, though, and like it Losing the Peace cast my preconceptions aside and stunned me. While Captain Picard and the Enterprise mount general search-and-rescue operations, Dr. Beverly Crusher travels to Pacifica to investigate claims of a humanitarian crisis related to the refugee camps there.  While the work is disheartening enough -- disease is rampant among the refugees, and when the Enterprise finds precious little good news in its own searches -- the reaction of Federation worlds who did not taste the bitterness of war adds insult to injury. Refugees are seen a pesky burden by many, and the governor of  Alpha Centaur is so disgruntled about having to divert resources to help distressed planets like Vulcan and Tellar that he threatens to lead his planet to secession.  While the Federation survived this great Borg war,  it may yet tear itself apart.

As difficult all that sounds, this is a good story -- one of the human spirit struggling to its feet in triumph not just over an outside evil, but over despair, bitterness, and desolation. Our heroes are thrown into the rubble but persist in picking themselves up and rooting around to find the good which remains. Losing the Peace is very much about the characters, and Leiser is as good as Beyer, Mack, and Bennett in that department, judging by this: dialogues is also strong,  and the book touched me as a few books do. I laughed, I got teary-eyed, I stood to my feet in indignation and fell back down again in laughter at Picard's Kirk-like response to a diplomatic quandary.

Losing the Peace is an excellent conclusion to the Destiny story: readers who are interested should note that it, A Singular Destiny, and Full Circle unfold concurrently:  Losing starts before either,  and ends shortly after A Singular Destiny but before Full Circle.

The below image is an alternate bit of cover art, one considerably more varied and attractive.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Whiff of Death

A Whiff of Death
from A Whiff of Death & Murder at the ABA
© 1958 Isaac Asimov
Pp. 3- 146

"Death sits in the chemistry laboratory and a million people sit with him and don't mind. They forget he's there." 

Louis Brade is an assistant professor of chemistry, supervising PhD candidates and lecturing freshmen on the wonders of valence bonds. He is settled, sedentary -- not keen on attention, position, or great wealth, he only wants to pursue the research that interests him and fulfill his responsibilities to his students. It thus comes as a great shock to him to find one of his more promising wards dead on the laboratory floor, having apparantly mistaken a flask of sodium acetate for a flask of sodium cyanide.  It's a simple error, but not one any chemistry student worth his lab coat would make, and certainly not a graduate student approaching his university career's culmination. Though the university -- eager to avoid a scandal -- is quick to dismiss the death as an accident, or even possibly suicide, something about the situation doesn't sit right with Brade.  He has to find out what happened, but must proceed cautiously lest he attract the police's attention.

The story unfolds in less than a hundred hours.  While mulling over possibilies in his mind, Brade must lecture on carbonytes, spend time with his daughter, humor his demanding mentor's 'requests' to proofread a history of organic chemistry,  entertain a visiting  colleague, and avoid ruffling his wife's feathers -- and she, hell-bent on him achieving tenure, is considerably less than delighted at his decision to stir up trouble by looking into the boy's death.  Though the means of death is chemistry, Asimov's Brade explains it as neatly to the reader as to the very curious detective who takes an interest in the case and determines that if murder is involved, Brade's the only man with enough knowledge of the deceased' pecuilar work habits to do the job.

More a novella than a longer mystery story, A Whiff of Death is short and sweet. Asimov relies on his experience as a chemistry professor (at Columbia University, where he taught while building a reputaiton as a science and history populizer)  to give the reader an inside look into the world of biochemical acadamia.  I never suspected the killer, being put off-guard by Asimov's simple charms. The ending is particularly good -- not for the conclusion of the mystery, but in seeing how much Brade's character has grown in the short space alloted. A perfectly enjoyable afternoon diversion for me, and I think it interesting that the book is paired with Murder at the ABA in this collection: Asimov was a chemist by training and an author for a living, so this volume contains looks into both his worlds.

A Whiff of Death was originally known as The Death Dealers, though why the publishers referred Dealers to his Whiff I can't fathom. He tended to republish works under his own, preferred titles later on. The original cover amuses me, though: it's completely unrelated to the story within.  I suppose a beautiful woman, a smoking gun, and a dead body are more eye-catching than this, though.

This Week at the Library ( 8 Dec -15 December)

This past week has been an excellent one. I started off by reading two similar Trek books; Martin and Mangel's' Kobayashi Maru, which continues in the Enterprise relaunch and leads directly into the Romulan War, and Julia Ecklar's The Kobayashi Maru, which features Kirk's command officers entertaining one another with their attempts at the Kobayashi Maru command scenario, a scenario partially based on the 'historical' events of Martin and Mangel's work.  Despite their titles, they were completely different. The Enterprise story is more a political/suspense novel leading to a larger war series, while Ecklar's work is vintage TOS -- episodic, simple, but fun.

Coal: A Human History gave the week a strong start, and I'll recommend it to anyone interested in the industrial revolution.  I finished off Hawking's The Grand Design,  in which he identifies M-theory as the Grand Unified Theory that will unite all the sciences. While that's certainly interesting to imagine, his explanation of what M-theory IS was a bit too abbreviated for me to grasp the full effect.

I also continued in the ever-amazing Saxon Chronicles with Lords of the North, and finished the week off with my first Oliver Sacks book, The Mind's Eye,  which was of course fascinating. I also read some of Eye of the World, which has an interesting setting and characters. The main story hasn't grabbed me yet, though.

Next week's potentials...

  • A Whiff of Death, Isaac Asimov. Mystery novel.
  • The Sword Song, Bernard Cornwell. Looks like Alfred is going on the offensive this book, which ought to be interesting.
  • A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson.  I'm reading this because it records a visit by Bryson to Centralia, a  ghost town in Pennsylvania made dead by the presence of an underground coal fire that releases noxious fumes into the air. I started reading about Centralia while enjoying Coal: A Human History. I also intended to read a Dean Koontz novel set in a town like Centralia, but it was considerably longer than I'd been told.
  • The Great American Wolf, because...I like wolves.
  • Either Losing the Peace by William Leisner, which is the first post-Destiny TNG novel, or The Romulan War: Beneath the Raptor's Wings by Michael A. Martin.  I think I'll go with Leisner, as I've never read him before and I want to see Lieutenant Chen again. My copy of Beneath the Raptor's Wings got a bit...bent out of shape in the To-Read basket  and is currently going therapy, sandwiched between history texts.
  • ...and I'll be listening to The Lords of the North on audio tape, performed by Jamie Glover. Alas, it appears abridged.  Good thing I read the book first.
  • ..and reading from The Confessions and Eye of the World. Actually, I've been very lax about reading Augustine. 

The Mind's Eye

The Mind's Eye
© 2010 Oliver Sacks
263 pages

Few things are more pertinent to the study of the human experience than the exploration of our minds, our brains -- just what are they capable of, and how thoroughly do they create our version of reality?  After reading V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain, I realized that reality as I see it is something like a computer-rendered experience,  one created by my brain. When the brain's abilities and qualities are changed, the rendered experience changes as a consequence.  In The Mind's Eye, Oliver Sacks examines cases of his which display people and their brains' ability to adjust to being diminished.  The cases recorded here vary greatly, detailing the accounts of people who have lost abilities we take for granted -- like recognizing faces and reading.

Though Sacks is a neurological doctor,  the brain is such a delicate organ that attempting to undo damage caused by strokes is largely impossible at our current technological level. Instead, he attempts to understand  what is causing  a given person's loss of perception and marvels at how resilient we can be.  In one initial case,  a stroke victim who lost her ability to read text and music learned to rely to memorize new material strictly by sound:  she even gained the ability to transpose music in her mind, then play it intuitively without having an outside reference like sheet music or notes. In another chapter, a man who lost his sight claimed that he could 'read' the landscape by listening to the rain beat upon it. Sacks does not specify as to why some faculties increase in the absence of others, but I would think I likely explanation is that of interference:  if the brain no longer has visual input to contend with,  we can pay more attention to auditory stimuli.  I'd also wager that the increased capacity for memory is a function of necessity: how impressive would we moderns find the memory of people who lived before writing and who depended on oral tradition for the transmission of grand mythological stories?

Some of the case studies involve other neurologists, and Sacks is no exception: he includes his own experiences in the chapter on face blindness, and records his visual distortions during a bout with cancer in his eye. He includes journal entries from his hospital trips and pictures in which he attempted to convey how his central vision was making the world appear to them.  Though not, strictly speaking, a science text, Sack's approach is considerably closer to Ramachandran's than Gary Small's. Reading it impressed me all the more the idea that reality is not something we view through the windows of our senses -- but something constructed from within our brainpans. This was a fascinating look inside, and I'm eager to read more of Sacks. Though The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is of most interest, An Anthropologist on Mars also sounds fun.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lords of the North

Lords of the North
© 2007 Bernard Cornwell
317 pages

"Where the tides of fortune take us, no man can know."
"They're tricky, those tides..."
(Sisko and Gowron, "By Inferno's Light". Deep Space Nine.)

Only months ago, Uthred Ragnarson followed Alfred, the defeated king of Wessex, into the swamps and stayed by his side for a year, defending a man he hated despite their mutual contempt of one another. Now Alfred has returned to power, a triumph engineered by Uthred -- but there is no place for a Saxon warrior with a Dane's soul in Alfred's Christian kingdom. Scorning the meager and worthless scrap of land he is offered in return for his services, Uthred departs Alfred's court to settle a blood feud with an old adversary -- Kjartan the Cruel, who destroyed Uthred's home, killed his beloved adoptive father, and stole his sister-in-spirit away in a forced marriage. Armed with his two swords (Serpent-Breath and Wasp-Sting), his wiles, and a penchant for the dramatic, Uthred sets into the wilderness of 9th-century England, navigating through kingdoms of competing Danish lords and Saxon madmen.

Lords of the North is a marked improvement over The Pale Horseman, not that Horseman was less than stellar. Uthred is at his best and most entertaining when allowed to act as his own man, a rogue element in the constant power struggles that dominant the land. He's a magnificent beast of a character, wild and free -- and his quest to destroy Kjartan excuses him from the side of the so-far unlikeable King Alfred. The hallmarks of this series are all present -- excellent characterization, a vivid setting,  and dramatic but effectively blunt writing --  -- but Uthred's fate is far less predictable. Throughout the series, Uthred references the Three Spinners, whose wheels plot out the fates of all men. Their work has everyone in their grasp, and they do as they please, prompting Uthred to mutter "Wyrd bið ful aræd -- fate is inexorable"  on more than one occasion. Cornwell shocked me repeatedly throughout the book, as triumphs are followed by betrayal and redemption from unlikely corners. Lords of the North offers the exhilarating literary equivalent of crashing through white-water rapids in a longboat.

Cornwell again captivates me in Lords, a great pleasure to read. Though the book is excellent, I'm also glad to see that Alfred is shaping up as a character. The series is about his rise to greatness, but so far he's seemed like nothing but an impediment to Uthred's story.

On Wednesday I intend to check out the audiobook of this tale, just so I can experience it all over again.

"It is the three spinners who make our lives. They sit at the foot of Yggdrasil and there they have their jests. It pleased them to make Guthred the slave into King Guthred, just as it pleased them to send me south again to Wessex. While at Bebbanburg, where the grey sea never ceases to beat upon the long pale sands and the cold wind frets the wolf's head flag above the hall, they dreaded my return. Because fate cannot be cheated, it governs us, and we are all its slaves."

Teaser Tuesday (14 December)

Every week, ShouldBeReading hosts "Teaser Tuesday", in which participants share two-sentence excerpts from their current reads. Some of us are terrible at counting.

"Which of you is Rolf?" I shouted as I drew near them.
"I am," a black-bearded man urged his horse toward me. "Who are you?"
"Your death, Rolf," I said, and I drew Serpent-Breath [...].

p. 231, The Lords of the North. Bernard Cornwell

Writing, a cultural tool, has evolved to make use of the inferotemporal neurons' preference for certain shapes. "Letter shape," Dehaene writes, "is not an arbitrary cultural choice. The brain constrains the design of an efficient writing system so severely that there is little room for cultural relativism. Our primate brain only accepts a limited set of written shapes."

p. 74, The Mind's Eye. Oliver Sacks

"Tell her I'll be on Earth as soon as Enterprise can get us there," he said, "And with bells on."
One of T'Pol's eyebrows launched itself skyward again. "Respectfully, Captain, I would recommend a more dignified choice of apparel."

p. 18, Kobayashi Maru, Martin and Mangels

Top Ten Anticipated Reads for 2011

This week, the Broke and the Bookish are contemplating a year of new books to delight in. New releases aren't a staple of my reading diet -- I tend to encounter them by chance -- but I imagine I'll be reading a few at the very least. I've also tacked a trio of older books I'm fairly certain I'll be reading next year.

1. The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Search For What Makes Us Human, V.S. Ramachandran (17 January 2011)
I encountered Ramachandran in 2006 when I read his Phantoms in the Brain, which remains one of the most startling, eye-opening science books I've ever read. I'm thus looking forward to seeing this arrive in the library or my own post (if I can afford it).

2. Typhon Pact: Paths of Disharmony, Dayton Ward (25 January 2011)
This book, which coincidently enough will be released on my birthday, is the fourth book in the Typhon Pact series.

3. Not-Yet-Named, Jeff Shaara ("Spring 2011")
According to the 'What's Next' section of Jeff Shaara's website, he hopes to have his fourth World War 2 title (set in the Pacific) ready for publication by the spring. Of course, he said that in November of 2009, so it's not exactly a hard guarantee.

4.  Department of Temporal Investigations: Watching the Clock, Christopher L. Bennett (May 2011)
Christopher L. Bennett's proven to be a new favorite among Trek authors for me: I returned to the Titan series just so I could read his two books in it,  so I'm looking forward to this novel with an interesting premise.  I'm mostly wanting to read it for the author, though.

5. Children of the Storm, Kirsten Beyer (May 2011)
Like Bennett, I get excited about a new release from Beyer, especially seeing as this will continue the Voyager relaunch.

6. The War that Came Early: The Big Switch, Harry Turtledove (July 2011)
Despite a few promising elements, this series has been disappointing so far. I've decided that if The Big Switch doesn't shake things up, I won't be making an effort to read further in the series.

 7. The Safe Assumption,  John Grisham
In the six+ years I've been reading John Grisham, I've realized he can generally be counted on to release one new book a year, generally in the late autumn or early winter. He hasn't announced anything, but I figure it's a safe bet.

8. The Age of Faith, Will Durant
My reading of the Story of Civilization series  has declined and fallen, but give me a few thousand years of religious warfare (or a couple of months' rest after a three-book binge)  and I'll get back on that horse.

9. The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond.
I've been meaning to read this for a while now, but every time I have some money to spend at Amazon, a host of Trek paperbacks crowd out more serious works in competing for my attention.

10.  The Age of Absurdity, Michael Foley
I ordered this a few days before Thanksgiving, but it has not yet arrived. I assume by the time it meanders into my mail box, the New Year will be upon us.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Kobayashi Maru

Star Trek #47: The Kobayashi Maru
© 1989 Julia Ecklar
254 pages

Captain James Kirk and most of his senior officers are adrift in space aboard the shuttlecraft Halley after having struck a gravitic mine. With no engines and minimal power, they've nothing to do but wait for Mr. Spock to find them: they are helpless,  and the circumstances remind most of the shuttlecraft's occupants of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, in which cadets take command of a simulated starship and attempt the rescue of the Kobayashi Maru, a stranded fuel freighter adrift in hostile territory. To cross  enemy lines is to invite war and destruction -- but they can't just leave those people to die.  Every choice the tested cadet seems to be the wrong, leading inevitably toward defeat -- fo this scenario is designed to test not a cadet's strenth in battle, but strength of character. How do the best minds at the Academy, who believe they can do anything if they're clever or hard-working enough, react to defeat?

To pass the time while they wait,  Kirk and his other officers with command-track experience -- Chekov, Sulu, and Scotty -- share their experiences with the test while McCoy  grouses in the background. Kirk is famous for having beaten the scenario by reprogramming it (countering the simulation's ability to cheat by cheating himself), but his three fellow command officers all took interesting approaches.  I won't spoil anything (though you can do that yourself here), but suffice it to say all four  took interesting approaches, ones that reveal the officers' characters. Chekov is flamboyant and brash, eager to live up to the legacy of Kirk: Sulu is deliberate, wily, and pragmatic: Mr. Scott thinks outside the box and uses his engineering interest; and Kirk, of course,  defies defeat. His solution is here is more entertaining than that of nu-Kirk in the most recent film, and audacious enough that Chekov's desire to follow in his footsteps is understandable.

While each of the four stories task the officers with the same scenario, they don't limit themselves to the few minutes each man spends inside the simulator: instead, readers are treated to full stories about these officers' lives as Academy students contemplating their futures. Ecklar's characterization is superb. The framing drama isn't completely hollow: action picks up toward the end of the book when circumstances force the officers to take action. The Kobayashi Maru stories are the major draw of the book, though, and Ecklar fulfills the promise: this is one definitely worth picking up..


  • Kobayashi Maru, Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin, which depicts the scenario's 'real life' inspiration from a period shortly before the start of the Romulan War, early in Starfleet history.
  • Sarek, A.C. Crispin,  in which Kirk's nephew takes the scenario on himself.  
  • Starfall, Brad and Barbara Strickland. This novel aimed at middle-school readers depicts a young Jean-Luc Picard encountering a similar scenario while failing the Starfleet entrance exams. 

Coal: A Human History

Coal: A Human History
© 2003 Barbara Freese
308 pages

I never expected to be so fascinated by coal. This book's cover and title compelled my interest from the first moment I spotted it on my library bookshelves, and the text itself never disappointed me. Coal is well-written,  provoking, and oddly humorous, not to mention one of the most interesting history books I've read all this year. I read the book late into the night, fell asleep on the couch, woke up reading the book with my breakfast, and stayed fixated by it until shortly before lunch.  Freese uses three case studies (Britain, the United States, and China) to examine the history of human coal use and the myraid ways that coal has shaped industrial society.  Britan leads the book, its use of coal turning a rapidly deforested island into an economic titan and world power. Across the Atlantic, coal allows a collection of thirteen agricultural colonies to subdue a continent and create a cohesive nation-state and industrial powerhouse in  just a little over a hundred years -- and beyond the Pacific,  coal throws an isolated nation of warlords into the modern age, where it now threatens to overtake the United States as the economic giant of the world.

Freese began her studies of coal as an environmentalist, but her Coal is no polemic or rant:  observations of coal's modern environmental impact don't arrive until late in the book, at the end of the section regarding the United States. They appear again in the book's conclusion, where she reflects on coal's past, present, and future role in enabling and assisting human society. After presenting a variety of historical attitudes toward coal -- Coal the Saviour, the gift from God that allows humanity to finally conquer nature; Coal the genie, which  allows unparalleled economic prosperity at the price of clean air  and traditional communities;  Coal as king, enabling corporations to control governments and run roughshod over the millions who depend on it.  My primary area of historical interest is the early industrial period, so Freese's account of coal's primacy in the early industrial period held me rapt. I had no idea how many varied purposes it served, and how important they were to the making the modern world. I knew from other readings that coal drove nations' foreign policies in part, but Freese also reminded me of how important coal was to creating the working class. Before textile mills, there were miners. The book is overflowing with little historical tidbits: I would have never imagined people mining coal in the Tudor period, for instance.While the engaging narrative needs little help, Freese throws in plenty of humor to boot -- I've never found coal so entertaining.

Freese chiefly focuses on Britain and the United States: China gets but one chapter before she moves into her conclusion, in which she lauds coal for its contributions to human progress but maintains that its day is passed: coal, which once allowed humanity to accelerate its progress at a pace never witnessed before, now inhibits it. She's unexpectedly charitable toward the king of dirty energy, though chastising its modern proponents for holding on to the old achievements and limiting further energy progress.

Compellingly written, entertaining,  eminently fair, and informative --  Freese's Coal is excellent. If you've any interest in the Industrial Revolution or in coal's history,  I'd definitely recommend this.


  • The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell. which documents living and working conditions of Britain's coal miners in a particular community. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Grand Design

The Grand Design
© 2010 Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow
198 pages

Though modern physics is considerably harder to understand than say, anthropology, I continue to be fascinated by it -- for physics, it seems to me, is the most fundamental science. The constituent elements of the universe that compose both our bodies and celestial bodies are all essentially composed of particles driven by natural forces.  As I've enjoyed Hawking in the past and am in need of a physics refresher, I approached this book with great anticipation. The book's slenderness shocked me: though a physically attractive book, its contents are brief, almost truncated.

Hawking and Mlodinow start of promisingly by introducing the reader to the scientific understanding of the universe as being a thing ruled by laws -- not the fickle will of mysterious gods and ethereal forces. From there, they move quickly into quantum particle physics and M-theory -- altogether too quickly for me, for though I reread troublesome passages repeatedly, they left me confused.  Though it is true my knowledge of modern physics has waned sharply in the last two years (as my formal studies have been primarily historic), I remember reading Dan Falk's The Universe on a T-Shirt  and coming away with a fuzzy appreciation for what string- and M-theory meant for science -- and when I read Falk in 2007, I was completely unversed in modern science.

The essential idea presented in the book is that M-theory, with its multiple and parallel universes  explains why our own universe appears so fine-tuned and congenial toward the existence of intelligent life. If everything that can happen has and does happen, well naturally the things that needed to happen for US to happen happened.  That is...what I have derived from reading this several times and wincing because something I thought I had a slight handle on now seems utterly foreign.  If you have a solid appreciation for the subtleties of quantum physics, you may be able to apply that to the chapters which are about M-theory specifically.  As for me, I will be returning to Brian Greene at some point in the New Year, because I remember his The Elegant Universe being hard to read, but thorough enough that I could understand it provided I was willing to take the time to ponder its ideas. The Grand Design is unfortunately  simple to the point of being simplistic.


  • Universe on a T-Shirt,  Dan Falk
  • The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene
  • The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, Brian Greene

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Kobayashi Maru

Star Trek Enterprise: Kobayashi Maru
© 2008 Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels
482 pages

"This is the Kobayashi Maru, nineteen periods out of Altair VI. We have struck a gravitic mine and have lost all power..."

The Kobayashi Maru has a special place in Trek lore,  featuring prominently in both Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek (2009).  A training-command scenario based on the ship's destruction tasks a cadet with effecting the rescue of the Federation fuel transport disabled in enemy territory against impossible odds -- literally impossible, for the simulation is rigged. No matter what brilliant tactics and deft maneuvering ordered by the commanding cadet,  there are always more Klingon ships to contend with: their every choice leads inexorably to death. That is, of course, the point of the scenario -- the "no-win" scenario. It forces the student in command to face fear, defeat, and death.

Authors Martin and Mangels set the original ("historical") Kobayashi Maru in early Federation history, shortly before the Romulan war. The Federation as we know it does not yet exist, and its predecessor -- the Coalition of Planets -- is still young and fragile. Its four founding members are strong-willed, driven by separate ambitions. They don't hesitate to deal behind the others' backs to gain an advantage, but such disunity is dangerous. The Klingon Empire is strong and mighty, its warships formidable and intimidating even to Vuclans. Skulking in the shadows are the Romulans, who live by Julius Caesar's "divide and conquer": having failed to prevent the coalition alliance from forming in Enterprise's fourth season, they are nonetheless still at work attempting to sow division between their rivals until such time as the Star Empire is ready to rule them.

As Earth, Vulcan, Tellar, and Andoria grouse amongst themselves, seemingly anxious to go poking dozing Klingons with sticks,  Captains Johnathan Archor and Ericka Hernandez ply the trade routes looking for foes in the wake of recent attacks against Coalition shipping rumored to be the work of Klingons. Archer sees the string of mysterious attacks as the work of Romulans, and is anxious to prove it -- but his best friend and former chief engineer Trip Trucker is still working as a covert agent inside Romulus,  hoping to prevent the Star Empire from creating a warp-seven capable starship. Drama mounts throughout the book as attacks on Coalition interests increase and Trip's 'Romulan' comrades become more paranoid. Archer, feeling increasingly alone as the only commanding officer in Starfleet working to keep the peace with the Klingons and urging the Coalition to take a harder look at Romulus, is left without his first officer and best tactical hand when two of his senior staff steal a shuttle and attempt to infiltrate enemy territory The drama reaches its climax around the same time that Archer receives a distress call from the Kobayashi Maru, a fuel freighter stranded in enemy territory, forcing Archer into a difficult decision.

Though it started out slow,  I liked Kobayashi Maru more the deeper I ventured into it. Drama abounds, mostly political and character-driven. Though I knew how the book would end (I bought this at the same time I bought its sequel, Beneath Raptor's Wings: the Romulan War),  Martin and Mangels still managed to provide plenty of tension, sending Archer to Quo'nos to be manhandled by insulted Klingons and sending Trip on a path so perilous that he sighs in text at the prospect of having yet another disruptor leveled at his head.  I didn't expect the plot twists in Trip's thread of the story.  The authors pepper the text with humor and little tie-ins to other Trek books and episodes, though the frequent uses of "Jesus Christ!" as an expletive were jarringly anachronistic. This is, unfortunately, not simply a trait of Martin and Mangels: I've noticed it in other authors, as well.  While I'll cop to being plenty biased (I like the predominant secularism of Roddenberry's Federation culture) the all-too-frequent use of contemporary expletives, Jesus Christ among them, make the characters seem more 20th century than 24th. I will admit, though, that Archer's silently mouthing "Whiskey...tango...foxtrot" got a smile from me. The only major flaw of the book is that it seems strangely-titled: while the Kobayashi Maru appears at a climactic moment, it's really more a moment of personal crisis for Archer than a question of strategy. The ship's legendary appearance is overshadowed completely by the diplomatic crisis that leads us straight into the Romulan War miniseries. 

While I generally disdain quantitative scales in regards to books, rating my reads on Shelfari has broken down my resistance somewhat. I'd probably call this a 3.7- 3.8 out of five, or a "pretty good" on the vernacular scale. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

This Week at the Library (1 Dec. - 8 December)

This past week I continued in Bernard Cornwell's excellent Saxon Chronicles with The Pale Horseman, started the Typhon Pact series and declared myself ~Caught Up~ in trek lit with Zero Sum Game by David Mack, and finished The Earth Shall Weep, a brutal history of native America interactions with European colonists, U.S. settlers, and a federal government hell-bent  on effecting their total assimilation.  I also read most of The Grand Design, and will finish it off soon -- possibly tonight.

Next Week's Possibilities:

  • The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking. I could have finished this last night, but I loaded up Civilization III and was soon knee-deep in the conquest of another continent. I'm only short forty pages, though, so that will be finished soon.
  • The Lords of the North is next up in the Saxon Chronicles, and I'm looking forward to it. 
  • Possibly reading Kobayashi Maru by Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels and thus continuing in on the Enterprise relaunch. I'd like to finish off the relaunch before the New Year,  though admittedly that's a fairly arbitrary goal. Another Enterprise book won't be released until late in 2011. 
  • The Mind's Eye by Oliver Sacks is also of interest.
  • I need to jump into The Eye of the World, which a couple of friends have asked me to try.
  • I'll be distracted by Coal: A Human History, though. Mm -- nice shiny coal. 
  • And I'll be reading from The Confessions by Augustine. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Earth Shall Weep

The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America
 © 2000 James Wilson
466 pages

Having grown up in Alabama, I don't know what it's like to live among buildings that testify to history. I've never stepped onto a sidewalk with paving stones that were there before my grandparents were born, or chanced to see ruins from a millennium ago on a weekend holiday. The closest I can come to experiencing these echoes of the past is to visit "historic" downtowns, or the few preserved sites of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw people who once called the southeastern region of North America their home.  There are few such sites -- Moundville is one -- in Alabama, for despite the populations' extended presence in the Americas,  they are long vanished. Aside from the odd ruin, they've left behind only a smattering of place names.  I remember being fascinated by the idea that entirely different cultures had dominated the landscape before European colonization as a child, and have had an interest in certain cultures like the Aztecs and Iroquois since.

James Wilson's The Earth Shall Weep tells the story of the native Americans, first offering general introductions to the major cultures and tribes by region (Northeast, New York-Ohio, Southeast, Southwest, Far West, Great Plains), tapping into their oral history and mythology to present them as they viewed themselves. Telling the native American story from their own perspective is a priority for Wilson, judging from the book as a whole, for he continued to point out differences in which the natives perceived arrangements with European colonists and American settlers and the way the settlers viewed them. He then begins the long, wretched history native Americans have had with Euro-American civilization.

The relationship between North America's native cultures and the newly arriving Europeans began with disease turning entire communities into graveyards and inviting aggressive European settlement -- settlement that didn't cease when American colonists ran out of 'vacated' land to acquire. The result was a long retreat for the natives, where their every attempt to hold their own -- either through war or assimilation -- ended in the same result: the complete loss of land.

Wilson's account also tracks the natives' dealings with the federal government through to the 1980s, instead of stopping after the conclusion of the "Indian wars" as is common. The cruel and heavy handed attempts at re-education depicted here seem far worse than the theft of land. While Wilson doesn't set out to demonize the lawyers, political leaders, and soldiers who drove the natives to ruin, their own records make them look disingenuous at best. Their initial excuses for seizing land were laughably transparent, and that they were offered at all indicates that the settlers realized they were in the wrong. Succeeding generations forgot this, seemingly, adopting the attitude that might makes right.  Brutality visited on the natives by the newly-established United States only increased with age, culminating in the forced educational assimilation Wilson details in the latter third of the book.  Though much of the book details a long tragedy, it ends on a happier note with the rise of the 'New Indians', who take notes from the Civil Rights movement.

Wilson's region-by-region survey at the outset gives the reader a broader perspective,  portraying the various people of North America as members of a great patchwork quilt. His information prior to contact with Europe remains more general than detailed, though, and seems more an introduction than anything else. Wilson offers many interesting facts and observations: for instance, while some tribes chose to modernize themselves in hopes that this would encourage the new United States to see them as neighbors on an equal footing, the prosperity that followed only invited conquest all the more quickly. Cultural comparisons also interested me: in many respects, people such as the Iroquois were socially more evolved than the christian, western Americans who dismissed them as savages, particularly in regard to women's rights and communal government.  The high point of the book for me, though, was its extension into the 20th century: I've never read an account that went past the battle of Wounded Knee, and was completely ignorant as to the government's policies toward native communities in the modern era. I've heard about natives  taking over Alcatraz, but had no idea as to what precipitated that. The Earth Shall Weep functions better as a history of native retreat, defeat, assimilation, and resurgence than of 'native America' in general. For that, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus is superior. I do recommend it for for the post-contact history, though.


Top Ten Places to Read

This week the folks at the Broke and the Bookish want to know just where we like to spend all of our time reading...

1. The Reading Tree

When I lived on-campus, I lived across the street from the main quad, and this beauty attracted my attention one autumn afternoon while walking from supper. I sat down there, found its roots perfect for my back, and subsequently spent many hours sitting or laying under the tree during seasonable weather. I'd spend my Sunday mornings and some Saturday afternoons here,  with a jug of water and good company on ocassion. This tree's canopy and several others joined to create an unbroken roof of greenery and I thought of it as my arboreal cathedral.

2. The Corner

This is a hidden corner in the top-most floor of my university library where I have spent more hours than I care to contemplate preparing notes for term papers. Strange as it seems, I looked forward  to spending the weekend tucked away here, taking notes for my papers and listening to the hush of library conversations and the wind howling between the library and the theatre next door. From time to time I could get up to stretch and admire the view of campus from the nearby windows.

3. The Sunroom

Attached to my university's dining hall is a long eating gallery where the walls and ceilings are made of glass. Because my university campus is so gorgeous, it's a wonderful place to sit once the crowds have thinned out.  I always had my breakfast here on campus, surrounded by lush greenery. Birds and squirrels climbed overhead while I had my bagel and coffee .  I also enjoyed relaxing here after lunch, sipping coffee (during the winter, anyway; in the  late spring and early autumn I preferred hot tea) until it was time to go to work.

4. My Couch
The only picture I have of my couch comes from when I was chasing a lizard with my camera, but those pictures are a little too-zoomed in. My couch sits with its back to a large window that affords a view of the woods and brambles behind my home, and I like nothing more than to put on some soft classical music, sprawl out on the couch looking outside while tucked under a cover. Of course, I tend to change positions if I'm in the grips of a good book and am liable to sit there for several hours.

5. My Bed
Laying down or sitting up cross-legged, my bed is a pretty good place to read.

6. Library Courtyard

When my home library expanded back in 1997, doubling its size, it built a little courtyard out in front, but shielded from the open by a fetching stone wall. (Or brick wall with a stone facade...)  There are trees, a fountain, and somewhat comfortable benches. While I don't often read here, I enjoyed it in high school and still check in from time to time.  This picture only shows half of it.

7. Behind the Statue

This is a statue which sits in the center of campus. Its official title is the "Becoming" statue, and it is meant to portray teachers handing the keys to the future to their students. Everyone calls it the "Hands" statue, though, and on-campus directions tend to start there.

I enjoy having my lunch or reading right behind the statue, sitting on its concrete base and taking shelter from the sun and wind with the large bronze hands around me.

8. The Office
When there's no work to be done, I enjoy reading at my desk while professors can be heard softly across the hall. My coworkers also make for good company, being readers as well.

9. The 'Knowledge is Power" Bench

I enjoyed this spot near the center of campus mostly in the late spring or early fall when waiting for classes or work following lunch.  I usually sat here following lunch because when it gets warm, I happen to like a soft ice cream cone, and  the bench is halfway between the dining hall and where my work and classes were.

10. The Ersatz Reading Tree
There's a tree in my front yard at home that I can sit under and read. It's not a bad spot; the trunk is fairly comfortable. Some stickler things have made their home at the base of it, though, and they poke me in the back. The tree is also popular with ants who bite me.

All of the pictures were taken by me in May 2010, shortly after I received a digital camera as a gift and went wild taking pictures for posterity. I never imagined I'd be using shrunken copies of them this way! 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (7 December)

On every Tuesday, MizB of ShouldBeReading hosts Teaser Tuesday, in which we share two-sentence tidbits from our current read(s). As always I cheat. My teasers are below. On a more serious note, 7 December is also the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which killed thousands of people and forced the United States into an active role during the Second World War. It might be appropriate at some point today to consider the lives lost in Hawaii and the Philippines, for whom a quiet Sunday morning turned into a fight to survive.

And now that I've depressed you with thoughts of explosions and death, here's a little levity.

"How long until I stand for reelection?"
"Two years, three months, and nine days, Madam President."
"Is there any way to rig it so I lose next time?"
"I'll try, but I regret to inform you that your approval ratings are excellent."
"Do what you can."

(p. 184, Zero Sum Game. David Mack.)

As insightful as some of their speculations about nature were, most of the ideas of the ancient Greeks would not pass muster as valid science in modern times. For one, because the Greeks had not invented the scientific method, their theories were not developed with the goal of experimental verification. So if one scholar claimed an atom moved in a straight line until it collided with a second atom and another scholar claimed it moved in a straight line until it bumped into a cyclopes, there was no objective way to settle the argument.

(p. 22, The Grand Design. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.)

"Captain Dax," he said. "I am Commander Marius of the warbird Dekkna. Your vessel is outnumbered, outgunned, and surrounded."
"I'll give you two out of three," Dax said, flashing a cold smile at the Romulan. "You definitely outnumber us, and I can't deny we're surrounded."
Her cockiness seemed to throw Marius off. He frowned. "You will lower your shields, surrender your vessel, and prepare to be boarded."
"The hell I will." 

(p. 151, Zero Sum Game. David Mack.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Zero Sum Game

Star Trek Typhon Pact: Zero Sum Game
© 2010 David Mack
336 pages

'I think it's safe to say that Julian Bashir, Secret Agent, will return.' - Bashir, "Our Man Bashir"

On the cover: Nicole de Boer as Captain Ezri Dax, Alexander Siddig as Dr. Julian Bashir, who has apparently grown a Beard of Sorrow. CGI as the USS Aventine.

The Federation has known many great enemies in its few centuries of existence -- the Klingons, the Romulan Star Empire, the Cardassians, the Dominion, and the Borg have been the most notable. Time has worn them all down: the Klingons have become allies, the Romulans are weakened by civili War, Cardassia is impotent, the Dominon has retreated into the Gamma Quadrant, and the Borg are...gone. In the wake of the last great Borg war, various second-class powers of the galaxy (Gorn, Tholians, Breens, and more) have banded together in a military and partial civil union known as the Typhon Pact. The Pact has existed in a state of cold war with the Allied powers since A Singular Destiny, but their recent theft of the plans for Starfleet's latest and greatest asset -- the Slipstream War Drive -- threatens to turn hostility into a general war.

The slipstream drive is vastly superior to standard warp drives and has so far discouraged the Pact from waging open war against the battered and diminished allied powers. They cannot be allowed to turn their stolen data into effective plans for a slipstream drive of their own, and so Starfleet tasks Captain Ezri Dax with inserting two operatives into the suspected home of the Breen slipstream project. Dr. Julian Bashir and his genetically modified peer Sarina Douglas have been hand-picked for their improved physical and mental abilities, which include a heightened ability to adapt to strange and changing situations. Given that next to nothing is known about Breen culture, adaption is a necessity. While the two operatives descend into the belly of an alien city, Dax lurks outside the Breen orders attempting to evade a Breen-Romulan* fleet which knows that the Aventine is up to something.

Zero Sum Game is an interesting change of pace: political/spy thrillers aren't all that pervasive in Trek lit to my knowledge.  I enjoyed David Mack's worldbuilding; I imagine giving life to a long-established power was quite the responsibility, but the civilization that Bashir and Douglas explore is fascinatingly believable. He treats them as more than just villains, although the Breen Confederacy is plainly ruled by an intrusive military state with a kind of secret police. When the Breen official in charge of the shipyard discovered his operations center littered with dead bodies, he is horrified that the enemy operative (in this case our hero)  had taken so much innocent life just to destroy the slipstream project.  On that note, readers are also treated to Dr. Bashir's inner conflict, as he is driven by his responsibility as a physician to "do no arm" and his duties as a Starfleet officer to do what needs to be done.

Par for the course for Mr. Mack; Zero Sum Game has a lot to offer Trek fans beyond the fast action-spy plot and discovery of Breen civilization. Bashir's long been my favorite DS9 character and I enjoyed the spotlight being on him for a change: the last time that happened was during the first run of Trek relaunch books. He's changed quite a bit from the bubbling young lieutenant who first appeared in "Emissary": once full of idealism and energy, he's now a mature veteran of several horrific wars who feels lonely in a station now populated by total strangers: aside from Quark and Nog, no one remains on the station from the old (television run) crowd, and now even his newly-met comrades from the relaunch have been leaving him. It's tough to see him put through the mill like this, especially considering a revelation at the end of the book. The action remains interesting and varied throughout the book: while Bashir and Douglas are exploring the Breen industrial center, Ezri is engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with some irritated Romulans, and by the time that action settles down our two operatives are in the thick of things.  Even the Federation president gets a little attention. 

Recommended to Trek lit readers, especially given that this is the first book in the Typhon Pact series, which will explore the 'new political reality' throughout next year. Book #2, Seize the Fire, came out in the last week or so. 

  • Abyss, the last Bashir novel (not counting Worlds of Deep Space Nine #1, where he just tagged along behind Ezri) One of my favorites, focusing on Bashir, Ro Laren, and Taran'atar. 
  • David Mack's homepage and Memory Alpha bio.
  • Typhon Pact on TvTropes. Note: this book was released in late October, and it's already got a full page. Some of the people in TrekBBS's TrekLit forum have been busy.