Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Cumulative Reading List

Earlier in the year I took advantage of blogger's "pages" function to keep a running list of everything I've read, since the blog's own index tends to become cluttered. Tomorrow the page shall be wiped clean in preparation for 2012, but here for posterity is the list, updated for the final time only moments ago. There are three books on the list still in need of reviewing, and I fully intended to accomplish that today, but it was a nice day and I spend it outside, reading and dozing in the sun.  You can't blame me for that, can you?

I regard the bolded entries as particularly superior accomplishments. Also note, this is not my annual "year in review" post. That should come sometime this next week, though.

-- January --
1. In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson
2. Reunion, Michael Jan Friedman (Fiction)
3. The Evolution of God, Robert Wright
4. To End All Wars, Adam Hochschild
5. Redcoat, Bernard Cornwell  (Fiction)
6. Sex on Six Legs, Marlene Zuke
7. The Black EchoMichael Connelly (Fiction)
8. The Rise and Fall of the Bible, Timothy Beal.
9. A Far Better Rest, Susanne Alleyn (Fiction)
10. The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy, Michael Foley.
11. Beyond Band of Brothers: the War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters, Dick Winters
12. Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity, David Bodanis
13. 50 Jobs in 50 States, Daniel Seddiqui

-- February --
14. Star Trek Titan: Sword of Damocles, Geoffrey Thorne. (Fiction)
15. Star Trek Vanguard: Harbinger, David Mack (Fiction)
16. Agincourt, Bernard Cornwell (Fiction)
17. Star Trek Vanguard: Summon the Thunder, Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore (Fiction)
18. Overlook, Michael Connelly (Fiction)
19. The Near East, Isaac Asimov
20. Star Trek Titan: Over a Torrent Sea, Christopher L. Bennett (Fiction)
21. A History of Life on Earth, Jon Erickson
22. The Revolutionist, Robert Littell (Fiction)
23. The Outline of History, Volume I, H.G. Wells.
24. Paths of Disharmony, Dayton Ward (Fiction)
25. With Wings Like Eagles, Michael Korda

-- March --
26. The History of Japan, Kenneth Scott Latourette
27. The Fort, Bernard Cornwell (Fiction)
28. Confessions, Augustine of Hippo
29. Reap the Whirlwind, David Mack (Fiction)
30. The Fall of Terok Nor, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens (Fiction)
31. The War of the Prophets, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens (Fiction)
32. Inferno, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens (Fiction)
33. A Man in FullTom Wolfe (Fiction)
34. Then Everything Changed, Jeff Greenfield
35. The Forgotten 500,  Gregory Freeman
36. You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving TrainHoward Zinn
37. Bomber, Len Deighton

-- April --
38. Gallows Thief, Bernard Cornwell (Fiction)
39. What Catholics Really Believe, Karl Keating
40. Echo Park, Michael Connelly (Fiction)
41. The Archer's Tale, Bernard Cornwell  (Fiction)
42. Star Trek Vanguard: Open Secrets, Dayton Ward (Fiction)
43. The Heart and the Fist, Eric Greitens
44. Why Do Catholics Do That?, Kevin Orlin Johnson
45. The Stars, Like Dust, Isaac Asimov (Fiction)
46. The Book of Wisdom, New English Bible
47. Disaster 1906: The  San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, Edward F. Dolan Jr.
48. The Accidental Time Machine, Joe Haldeman (Fiction)
49. Ecclesiasticus, New English Bible
50. Sharpe's Rifles, Bernard Cornwell (Fiction)

-- May --
51. The Tragedy of the Moon, Isaac Asimov
52. The Coming, Joe Haldeman (Fiction)
53. The Book of Tobit, New English Bible
54. The Undiscovered Country, J.M.Dillard (Fiction)
55. City of Bones, Michael Connelly (Fiction)
56. Guns, Ed McBain (Fiction)
57. The Sea-Wolf, Jack London (Fiction)
58. To Kill a MockingbirdHarper Lee (Fiction)
59. Earth Science Made Simple, Edward Albins
60. Cave Paintings to Picasso, Henry Sayre
61. Sharpe's Tiger, Bernard Cornwell (Fiction)
62. The Ethical Assassin, David Liss (Fiction)
63. Angels and Demons, Dan Brown (Horrible, Horrible Fiction)

64. Star Trek Vanguard: Precipice, David Mack (Fiction)
65. Montevallo: Images of America, Clark Hultquist and Carey Heatherly
66. All I Really Need to Know I  Learned in KindergartenRobert Fulghum
67. The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan
68. Sharpe's Triumph, Bernard Cornwell (Fiction)
69. Biology Made Simple, Rita Mary King
70. The Currents of Space, Isaac Asimov (Fiction)
71. Cop Hater, Ed McBain (fiction)
72. Sharpe's Fortress, Bernard Cornwell (fiction)
73. God is not One, Stephen Prothero
74. The Final Storm, Jeff Shaara (fiction)

75. Sharpe's Trafalgar, Bernard Cornwell (fiction)
76. Sharpe's Prey, Bernard Cornwell (fiction)
77. Robots and Empire, Isaac Asimov (fiction)
78. An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor
79. Diary of a Wimpy Kid #2: Rodrick Rules,  Jeff Kinney
80. Why Choose the Episcopal Church,  John M. Krumm (fiction)
81. Judge and Jury, James Patterson (fiction)
82. Honeymoon, James Patterson (fiction)
83. The Big Switch, Harry Turtledove (fiction)
84. The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond
85. Diary of a Wimpy Kid #1, Jeff Kinney

86. Star Trek Titan: Synthesis, James Swallow (fiction)
87. Seven Ages of Paris, Alistair Horne
88. Covert, Bob Delaney
89. Gospel Medicine, Barbara Brown Taylor
90. Isaac Asimov's Caliban, Roger MacBride Allen (fiction)
91. The Age of Faith, Will Durant
92. The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov (fiction)
93. The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner (fiction)


94. Astronomy Made Simple, Kevin B. Marvel
95. The Feather Merchants, Max Shulman (fiction)
96. The Illiad, translated by Barbara Leonie Picard
97. Your Faith, Your Life: An Invitation to the Episcopal Church, Jennifer Gamber and Bill Lewellison
98. The Renaissance, Will Durant
99. Sharpe's Gold, Bernard Cornwell (fiction)
100. Marcus Aurelius: A Life, Frank McLynn
101. Discourses, Epictetus
102. The Tales of Beedle the Bard, J.K. Rowling (fiction)
103. Dhammapada, trans. Max Mueller, annotated by Jack MacGuire
104. The Red Pyramid, Rick Riordian (fiction)
105. Sharpe's Escape, Bernard Cornwell (fiction)
106. Walking with Dinosaurs, Tim Haines


107. The Reformation, Will Durant
108. The Union Club Mysteries, Isaac Asimov (Fiction)
109. The Good German, Joseph Kanon (Fiction)
110. The Lost Hero, Rick Riordan  (Fiction)
111. Pathways, Jeri Taylor (Fiction)
112. The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss, and Fitness; Mark Fenton
113. Sharpe's Fury,  Bernard Cornwell (Fiction)
114. Active Living Every Day; Steven Blair, Andrew Dunn, Bess Marcus, Ruth Ann Carpenter, and Peter Jaret.
115. The Planet that Wasn't, Isaac Asimov
116. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (fiction)
117. At Home in Mitford, Jan Karon (fiction)
118. The Beginning Runner's Handbook, Ian MacNeill and Doug Clement.
119. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, Barbara Rossing
120. Clash of Wings: World War II in the Sky, Walter J. Boyne
121. Sharpe's Company, Bernard Cornwell (Fiction)
122. The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (fiction)

-- November --
123. The Astral, Kate Christensen (fiction)
124. Sharpe's Sword, Bernard Cornwell (fiction)
125. KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler....the tragic comedy of surburban sprawl; Duncan Crary
126. The Greater Journey, David McCullough
127. Plain and Simple: A Woman's Journey to the Amish,  Sue Bender
128. God Has a Dream, Desmond Tutu
129. The Crisis of Islam, Bernard Lewis
130. In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
131. A Light in the Window, Jan Karon (fiction)
132. Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut (fiction)

133.Physics of the Future, Michio Kaku
134.Redwall, Brian Jacques (fiction)
135. Santa and Pete, Christopher Moore (fiction)
136. Bicycle Diaries, David Byrne
137. The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, James Howard Kunstler
138. Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain, David Eagleman
139. Open Your Heart with Bicycling: Mastering Life through the Love of the Road, Shawn B. Rohrbach
140. 11/22/63, Stephen King (fiction)
141. The Litigators, John Grisham (fiction)
142. Sharpe's Enemy, Bernard Cornwell (fiction)
143. Social GracesWords of Wisdom on Civility in a Changing Society, ed. Jim Brosseau

Friday, December 30, 2011

Sharpe's Enemy

Sharpe's Enemy: Richard Sharpe and the Defense of Portugal, Christmas 1812
© 1984 Bernard Cornwell
351 pages

It's Christmastime, but winter quarters don't exist for Richard Sharpe,  our tall, scar-faced soldier-turned-officer with flint in his eyes. Deserters from the Spanish, Portuguese, British, and French armies have banded together and are terrorizing the countryside, causing considerable friction between the British army and the Spanish themselves. To make matters worse, the renegades have taken a number of royal ladies prisoner and are holding them hostage...and among the leaders of the renegades is Obadiah Hakeswill, a truly despicable creature whose main activities are rape, theft, and escape. Sharpe sets forth with his Rifles to rescue the hostages with a bit of derring-do, but bumps into the French army along the way -- and while they also intend to rescue their own hostages from Hakeswille, the Imperial troops also have other things in mind this Christmas season...

Sharpe's Enemy has all the elements that make for an excellent Sharpe novel --  the action is small in scale, but intense, with Sharpe and his rifles engaged in action first against a castle of blackguards and then an entire French army.  The enemy is an old, familiar, and thoroughly hatable one. The only fictional character whose grisly death I've longed to read more than Hakeswill would be Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter novels. The stakes are high -- the lives of innocents and the potential progress of the allied army in 1813 --  and Sharpe has to contend with idiot aristocrats to boot. It is indeed a rollicking good read...but the ending spoiled things for me. What should have been a gloriously satisfying moment for Sharpe is ruined by late-game action, and that same action threw me off, as well. On the bright side, Cornwell introduced a French intelligence officer with a lot of potential -- and he's supposed to make an appearance in my next Sharpe read, Sharpe's Honour.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Litigators

The Litigators
© 2011 John Grisham
385 pages

The Litigators may be unique among John Grisham's work in that from the start, it's written as a comedy. The lead character (David Zinc) intoduces himself to the story by having a nervous breakdown on his way to work and taking refuge in a local bar, where he happily drinks the day away before stumbling into a seedy two-man firm of ambulance chasers and declaring that he'd like to be their new associate.  His two new employers, Figg and Finley, border on the pathetic themselves: one is an on-again off-again drunk who can't stay out of rehab, and the other is on his fourth marriage and a fan of get-rich-quick schemes that always result in catastrophe.  While they're not keen on taking on a new hire, one is about to engage the firm in a mass tort action. It seems there's a bad drug on the market, and every lawyer with an eye for the future is trying to get a piece of the pie by piling on. They could use a hand in getting their 'boutique firm' involved, and so Zinc becomes the third man in their unintentional comedy troupe.

Think of The Litigators as The King of Torts meets The Street Lawyer, delivered as a comedy of errors and peopled by two of the Three Stooges. Everything that can go wrong does: by mid-novel they're facing a perfect storm that promises disaster.The lead character is so fundamentally decent, though, that the reader is left wincing at the fact that the poor guy is facing a fate that is the legal equivalent of falling into a woodchipper. But the Litigators isn't simply the story of a horrifically-executed trial:   Zinc finds perverse value in his new life, enjoying the fact that instead of slaving away in a corporate tower working in international finance, he's actually helping people...and so bizaarely, in a novel where the usual fate of Grisham's trials and heroes are reversed,  the ending is unambiguous and (for me) satisfying.  Look for it if you're in a mood for a quick and comedic read with some mild legal-thriller action thrown in.


© 2011 Stephen King
849 pages

What would you do if you could walk through a door and into another world -- the land of ago, where it's always September 1958, where gas is cheap, root beer is creamy, and cars sport tailfins? Such was the opportunity English teacher Jake Epping accepted when his friend Al invited him into the pantry of his diner. For years, Al has known that there exists a curious fissure in spacetime there, one which allows people to pass from the present to 1958 as easily as descending a few steps. He's never revealed it before now, but he has something he wants to accomplish in the past -- something he can't do himself.

The mission, of course, is saving President Kennedy's life on 11/22/63 -- five years from the date that the fissure opens into. If Epping takes on the mission -- and he will, for personal reasons as well as to help his friend Al -- he will have to live at least five years of his life in the past, in a time without modern medicine and conveniences. But the past has its attractions, as well.

11/22/63 is a multistage novel; at first, Epping is drawn in by the extraordinary premise and the novelty of exploring the past. Before setting forth on his mission proper, he takes several jaunts into the past to explore how he might survival in this familiar-yet-alien world, and realizes that simple changes can have broad effects -- and the greater the effect of a potential change, the harder it will be to accomplish. The past is not a static canvas giving Epping free room to move: it is obdurate. It resists change, and the whole of the novel is haunted by the past's resiliency. Even when things seem to be going well, there's still anticipation that something is bound to go horrifically wrong.  As Jake's mission begins in earnest, the novel becomes more a story about a man finding his place in a community. I haven't read much of King (The Stand, Christine, and Firestarter), but I wouldn't expect such emotional meat from an author who is known for horror and fantasy. King's characters seem real, to the point that I started googling at various intervals to see if they were historic personalities. As the fifties give way to the sixties, Jake's mission takes priority -- leading to the action which we've been building up to for hundreds of pages. I had no idea what to expect from the ending, but King delivers a stellar conclusion.

11/22/63 has, I think, displaced The Stand as my favorite King novel. It's as compelling a character drama as I've ever read, filled with little historical details that delighted a person fascinated with the period like myself -- and of course,  driven by the tantalizing lure of being able to change the past.  Definite recommendation. Had I participated in the Broke and the Bookish's most recent list (top ten books read in 2011), this would have have been on there.

The City in Mind

The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition
© 2001 James Howard Kunstler
272 pages

The study of civilization is nothing less than the study of the culture of cities. Humanity has survived on the Earth for hundreds of thousands of years, but not until we began to aggregate in cities did we truly come into our own. Cities have been the cultural centers of our race and the driving force of our history which unlocked our potential in the last ten thousand years or so, and in The City in Mind, James Howard Kunstler reflects on their role in our history and their contribution to the quality of our everyday lives, focusing on a panel of select cities that may allow us to see what makes a city work and what drives it towards failure.

In The Geography of Nowhere,  Kunstler railed against the disintegration of the American city and the rise of what he sees as an imminently inferior form of urban living -- suburban sprawl. Although a couple of chapters here reflect that theme,  the book is not as intensely focused. It reads something like a collection of essays, each giving the history of a given city's development and emphasizing one particular period or element. The opening chapter on Paris is devoted to Napoleon III and Hausmann's thoughtful redesign of Paris in the 19th century, for instance, and how it led to a fairly ugly medieval city's transformation into a jewel of urban design.  Kunstler visits the classic spirit with Rome, and with Boston shows the reader how a city can recover from decades of thoughtless planning and sprawl.  I bought this book in part because I delight in reading Kunstler when he's on a  critical rampage, destroying atrocious buildings and miles of commercial strips and box stories with biting with -- and two chapters on Las Vegas and Atlanta give him just the excuse. Atlanta is used as a case-study for the failure of edge cities, while Vegas -- which Kunstler surely deems the worst city in America -- showcases a wide variety of failures, from the practical to the spiritual.  Kunstler is not a religious man, but he sees proper urban design as something which enhances the value of life; when done properly, it honors us and creates a place worth living in.

The chapters mentioned are the book's strong points. There were other sections, like that on Mexico City, that I didn't quite understand the point of. Kunstler is informative there -- I'd known nothing about the history of the modern city following the Spanish conquest -- but to what urban design-related end. I had the same reaction to another chapter, possibly because I expected more sections along the lines of Paris and Las Vegas, chapters which clearly point out good and dismal approach at design, whereas Kunstler had a more general focus in mind. Some sections are available on Kunstler's website for your reading pleasure.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Top Ten Books I'd Like to See Under the Tree

This week the Broke and the Bookish want to know what books we'd most like to receive for Christmas.

There's virtually no chance of my getting books for Christmas, because despite being from a family of readers,  everyone claims they don't know what kind of books I'm liable to like. I consider this a silly claim given that I read almost everything (I even have a list of books I'd like!), but even my attempts at getting books indirectly -- by requesting bookstore giftcards -- have rendered nothing. I did have some success last year when, on my birthday, I asked that someone please give me cash so I could buy some used books online. I managed to buy three Star Trek novels with my birthday money.

But, if I lived in an alternate universe where people gave me books for Christmas, the ten I'd be most delighted to see under the tree would be...

1. The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human, V.S. Ramachandran. I almost bought this for myself last January, but went with three Trek books instead.

2. The Architecture of Community, Leon Krier OR The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs.

3. On Desire: Why We Want What We Want, William Braxton Irvine. Ho, ho, I'm desiring a book on desire.

4. Star Trek Vanguard: What Judgments Come, Dayton Ward

5. In Praise of Idleness and other Essays, Bertrand Russell

6. Life Ascending: the Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, Nick Lane

7. The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization, Brian M. Fagan.

8. The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century, James Howard Kunstler.  Primarily about the consequences of peak oil.

9.  The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P.  Feynman. I've never read Feynman before, but the Symphony of Science series stirred my interest in both him and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

10. On Disobedience: Why Freedom Means Saying "No" To Power, Erich Fromm. I don't know what this   one will be about, properly, but Fromm is a provocative author.

I would have included a book by Phil Plait (Death from the Skies or Bad Astronomy), but I think I'm going to buy one of those for my birthday this year. I'm trying to break myself of the habit of spending my leisure-book money on Trek instead of science and sociology books, which I think I should prioritize since my home library doesn't carry a lot of those.

Teaser Tuesday (20 December)

Teaser Tuesday! Happy teasing and Merrie Yuletide/Solstice/Christmas!

"It sounds as though you've been trying to sew your skin back together," said Mrs. Weasley with a snort of mirthless laughter, "but even you, Arthur, wouldn't be that stupid --"
 "I fancy a cup of tea, too," said Harry, jumping to his feet. Hermione, Ron, and Ginny almost sprinted to the door with him. As it swung closed behind them, they heard Mrs. Weasley shriek, "WHAT DO YOU MEAN, THAT'S THE GENERAL IDEA?"

p. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p. 507. I'm doing a Christmastime re-read of the Harry Potter series.

For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago -- silently, without warning -- that tide reversed, and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century.

p. 27: Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam

And thank you to my nephew, who pointed out that I'd written today's date as 20 September for some reason.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bicycle Diaries

Bicycle Diaries
© 2009 David Byrne
297 pages

Though I've never heard of the musician and visual artist David Bryne before, his recollections of time spent in some of the world's greatest cities had my attention from the start -- for he experienced them on the saddle of a bike, bringing a fold-up bicycle with him as part of his luggage. The bicycle allows him to explore cities more intimately than from a car, but more quickly than on foot -- and while he cycles through Berlin, Istanbul, London, Buenos Aires, he ponders on subjects which they inspire.

Every city inspires musing on different matters. He begins with a fantastic critique of American cities that is right out of The Geography of Nowhere: I posted a selection here. In Buenos Aires, he writes about the local music scene: in Berlin, a visit to the Stasi museum prompts an essay about justification and human nature. Thoughts on biking bookend the text; his final section on New York focuses mainly on its attempts to become a more bike-friendly city, and the epilogue addresses the bicycle's potentially expanding role in the future as energy crises force us to make more intelligent decisions about where we live and how we get around. These and the opening section on American cities made the book for me.

Cities featured are Berlin, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Manila, Sydney, London, San Francisco, and New York.


Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain
© 2011 David Eagleman
304 pages

Carl Sagan once described astronomy as a 'profoundly humbling experience', for it allows us to appreciate how infinitesimally small Earth -- and ourselves --are in relation to the size of the Cosmos. David Eagleman sees neurology in very much the same way, and even uses Copernicus and Galileo as his models in introducing the study of the brain to lay readers. While those two astronomers unseated the heavens by helping people to realize Earth is not the center of the universe, neurology makes us realize we are not the center of ourselves. The conscience self is a very small part of an incredibly intricate and surprisingly autonomous brain.

The brain has always fascinated me. While those of us raised in the west are typically taught to take for granted that there is a separate, inviolable "I"-- a true Self, a soul -- residing in us, aspects of that "self", like our personality, have been proven to be tied to the ordinary grey matter of the brain and its millions of firing synapses. And from another angle -- that of philosophy or religion -- we seem to have not one Self, but multiple selves, each with its own ideas. Our brains produce thoughts completely without our input: are "we" really in control?  I'm reminded of a line from the Christian writer Paul: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."  But while Paul decided that he was a man possessed by sin, neurology can shed more light on the subject. Eagleman describes our brains as a 'team of rivals', an organ which has preserved several different evolutionary approaches to solving the same problem -- and while this allows us to be fundamentally creative creatures, it leads to self-conflict, self-conflict that requires that which we call consciousness. That small, minute portion of our brain can make important decisions, but it is rather like the CEO at the head of an international company -- a crucial, but overwhelmingly minor part. The vast majority of our body's and our brain's activity is completely concealed from us, and Eagleman's examples -- written for a lay audience - -should astonish those completely new to the subject.  I have a hearty appreciation for the subject matter (having read V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain), but found Incognito a fun reminder.

Incognito is open to all readers, though those who are more versed in the subject matter (readers of Ramachandran, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Pinker, say) may find it a bit  light in content.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


© 1986 Brian Jacques
351 pages

At the edge of a great wood there stands a tall, red-brick abbey that offers peace, medicine, food, and sanctuary to call creatures in need. Its name is Redwall...and it is run by a quasi-religious order of mice.

Many years ago my home librarian brought this book to me and reccommended that I read it. I found it utterly captivating. I'd never read fantasy before, never developing a taste for magic and strange creatures -- but this was a different kind of fantasy, one in which real creatures simply took the place of human characters in a story that seemed positively epic to a younger reader such as myself. I'd only ever read books with simple plots before, but Redwall sported multiple stories: while the central conflict is one of good versus evil, with a great army of vermin (literal vermin -- rats, stoats, and weasels) arriving in hopes of conquering Mossflower,  the lead character Matthias is sent on a hero's quest, to find the lost sword of a legendary figure from Redwall's past so that he might destroy Cluny the Scourge.  His quest involves many dangers and distractions, comprising a series of perilous adventures, and Jacques tells that story while at the same time reporting on the siege of the abbey -- a siege fought with quasi-medieval weaponry, which should seem silly but works surprisingly well. It's as though this is set in the medieval-fantasy world of the Lord of the Rings, but using animal characters like moles who can dig tunnels in addition to wielding spears. Redwall inspired an entire series of novels set in this world and has a highly loyal fanbase who have taken to Jacques' characters with such gusto that they can have entire conversations in the dialects of his characters. I err, know from personal experience.

Redwall is an interesting literary experience, a mix of the mundane and fantastic, with lots of fun characters  and an easy-to-loathe villain. Although some of the magic has worn off since my childhood, I enjoyed my little return to Redwall Abby this Christmas season.

Related:  XKCD did a comic entitled "Notes on Rereading Redwall Books for the First Time Since Childhood" I rather like.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NiMH, Robert C. O'Brien

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Five Bookish Questions

Kelly of the Broke and the Bookish shared a quick book survey tonight, and I figured, why not?

1. The book I'm currently reading is Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman, which covers neurology and the subsconscious. It's probably one of the most fascinating books I've read this year, which is not surprising given my interest in the subject. The author and I definitely like reading the same guys: he's already quoted V.S. Ramachandran, whose "Phantoms in the Brain" absolutely astonished me, and Michael Shermer, who some may recognize as the author of Why People Believe Weird Things.

2.The last book I finished was...The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, by James Howard Kunstler, although perhaps I should mention Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne since I think I skipped a page or two of the Kunstler book. I was reading while being forced to listen to someone talk on the phone, and my attention wasn't quote focused.

3.The next book I want to read would be Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam. Before I lived in a university town, I'd never experienced how enriching living in an actual, healthy, human-sized community could be; I grew up living outside of town, and viewed it as a place we 'went to', not a place we lived in. After having graduated and moved back to my hometown for the time being, I found I missed the constant interaction with neighbors and fellow townspeople, so I've been actively  engaging myself in the local community and reflecting on how we've become isolated from one another in the last decades of the 20th century, despite the rise of connective technology like iphones and interstates.

4.The last book I bought would be Bowling Alone, though I purchased it and The City in Mind within a day of one another.

5.The last book I was given was 2000 Years of Prayer, edited by Michael Counsell, which contains a huge variety of Christian prayers, beginning with those mentioned in the Christian New Testament and including prayers from most every branch of Christianity. It's a fascinating resource for seeing the diversity and growth of Christianity through the centuries. The gift has strong sentimental value for me because the giver -- a new friend of mine who happens to be the associate rector at a local church -- was given a copy of this book by her parents when she attended seminary, so I know she's sharing something profoundly meaningful to her. She thought I would appreciate it given my interests in history, philosophy, and comparative religion, and she was right.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Santa and Pete

Santa and Pete: A Novel of Christmas Present and Past
© 1998 Christopher Moore and Pamela Johnson
176 pages

Seven year-old Terrence has no interest in spending his Saturdays keeping his elderly grandfather company while the older man runs his bus route.Who wants to be cooped up on a bus listening to an old man's stories when he could be outside playing? And the stories don't even make sense; they're about a place called New Amsterdam, a place grandpa seems to see when he looks out the window and sees New York. Instead of skyscrapers and apartment complexes, Terrence's grandfather acts as though he lives in a 17th century harbor town, where immigrants throughout Europe and Africa lived together and tried to make a world for themselves. Terrence can't help but notice the way passengers respond to the stories, though -- they lean forward, eyes bright, minds captivated by the way their driver can connect them with the past. And one snowy Christmas eve, when the bus breaks down in a blizzard, they are forced to wait -- but in the meantime, break out snacks from their shopping and hunker down while they're told the story of a man named St. Nicholas and his good friend Pete.

The story is set in a Christmas long ago, when Nicholas and his friend Peter traveled from the Netherlands to the New World, after hearing that the children there were in distress. They find the town  (New Amsterdam) enduring a poor harvest, a harsh winter, and on the verge of war with the natives. This being a Christmas story, Nicholas and Pete bring hope, peace, and friendship to the town and its perceived foes. Author Christopher Moore (not of Lamb fame) has produced a story that is a fascinating mix of fantasy, legend, and mythic history. I doubt many Americans are familar with the Dutch Christmas mythos, in which St. Nicholas arrives in town accompanied not by elves, but by a black man of Moorish descent named Piet -- or multiple black men. David Sedaris wrote about Christmas in Holland in the sketch, "Six to Eight Black Men". Although Sedaris revels in the absurdest aspects of the legend, here Moore presents the story of the two men in all seriousness. Their close friendship in a time of ethnic conflict should speak to American audiences, and despite playing fast and loose with both history and convention myth, the story itself is a charmer.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (13 December)

Teaser Tuesday! 

You're not perceiving what's out there. You're perceiving whatever your brain tells you. 

Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain, David Eagleman. p. 33. This is a fascinating little about about neurology and the subconscious.

They say that Antarctica is the worst place on earth, but I believe that distinction belongs to Las Vegas, hands down. For one thing, Antarctica is more pleasing to look at.

The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, James Howard Kunstler. p.142

Thursday, December 8, 2011

This Week at the Library (9 December)

This being the Christmas season, I'm currently in the middle of a Harry Potter re-read. This is not a tradition, though it may become one: in 2007 I re-read the entire series during Christmas break after I'd returned home from university, and for whatever reason the Christmas season strikes me as an appropriate time to revisit the series. Perhaps it is the magic of the season. In any case, my desktop wallpaper is also of Harry, Hermione, and Ron sitting in the Griffyndor common room, dressed for winter. At the moment I am halfway through Goblet of Fire, and Harry is stressing out over who to invite to the Yule Ball.

For serious reading, I'm halfway into The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene. Like most books on physics and cosmology, it's a daunting mindscrew...but I'm staying with it and even learning from it. I've been using Galileo's Finger to help me, as it covers some of the same territory in a different perspective. (Galileo's Finger is a science book I've been chewing on for months. I could rush through it, but I like the author's approach enough to take things slow.)

Additionally, last night I began re-reading a book I read earlier in the year, but never reviewed. (It is on the cumulative reading list, though.) I'm in the mood for it, it's an excellent book, and I'd like to share it on here before year's end. The only other book I've failed to review is Erich Fromm's The Sane Society, and I will re-read it, too..eventually.

Oh! And I just realized today that there's a reason my library doesn't carry a novel called Sharpe's Skirmish. There's no such thing. That's a short story in another novel, Sharpe's Christmas. So, next week I'll be continuing in the Sharpe series. I'd been reading it chronologically, and wasn't sure what to do when I saw Skirmish is next in the series and my library didn't have it. Next up is Sharpe's Enemy, which is set around Christmas, so that's perfect.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Physics of the Future

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100
© 2011 Michio Kaku
389 pages

We live in a remarkable time of human history. Since the industrial revolution, society has been radically altered by new innovations on a regular basis, and the rate of those world-changing transformations is ever-increasing, like a snowball growing in size and strength as it barrels down a hill. In Physics of the Future, Michio Kaku attempts to identify what changes may come in the 21st century, after interviewing hundreds of scientists from various fields. The result is extraordinarily interesting, covering projected developments in computers, artificial intelligence, medicine, nanotechnology, energy, and space travel as well as the future of wealth and humanity itself.

Although Kaku's field of theoretical physics doesn't lend itself well to lay understanding, here he writes expressly for a popular audience, inundating the text with references to pop culture. While he does engage in some scientific discussion from time to time to explain the basis of new technologies, the book emphasizes their effect on everyday lives, and his ultimate goal seems to be to wake the public up to the potential of science and the importance of appreciating it. When writing on technology,  that's easy to do -- there's no shortage of new toys that Kaku can tantalize readers with.  Imagine being able to take care of your entire morning routine -- cooking, errands, etc -- with a few orders given to your home computer via a headset while you sit in bed, for instance.

Considering the range of chapters, there seems to be something for everyone here. Being keen on human space flight, for instance, I looked forward to reading about the various ways in which we might further explore the deep black. While I try to stay well-read on that subject, Kaku touched on approaches I'd never heard of --like launching swarms of "nanoships".  Our medical prospects seem exciting and wondrous.  His predictions on the future of computers frankly horrified me, as he envisions increasing immersion inside virtual environments, or rather a day in which there's no real distinction between virtual and 'real' environments. We're already seeing this today, with applications for our gadgets that read the environment and give restaurant reviews for the dining establishments on a given street, but in the future this interaction will rely on contact lenses that project the Internet onto our eyeballs.

Kaku's work is triumphantly optimistic about the way technology will continue to dominate human lives,  which I appreciated given the cynical spirit of our times. However, more thoughtful consideration to the possible consequences of these technologies on our lives might have been in order. His projections point toward a world in which humans are increasingly spectators in their own lives, the subjects of Matrix-like domination by technology.  Considering the health problems our current use on automation has given us, do we really want a future in which that is increased?  There are seven billion people alive today, most of us doing jobs that Kaku sees machines doing in a hundred years. The kind of social disruption  that widespread job losses would cause is unimaginable.  He also takes a curiously light attitude toward energy. It would seem to me that in a world as technologically dominated as his in 2100, the section on energy would be fundamentally important -- the foundation on which every other section is based. Instead, it is treated as lightly as a commercial advertising toys mentions the need for batteries.

Even with these limitations, Physics of the Future recommends itself. It's open to anyone remotely literate and should have surprises in store even for those who consider themselves tolerably well-read in matters of science and technology. I imagine the sharpest criticism would come from those interested in social sciences like myself.

Monday, December 5, 2011

In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
© 2009 Michael Pollan
256 pages

Michael Pollan's seminal work, The Omnivore's Dilemma, established that there's no such thing as a free, or even a cheap, lunch.  The low-cost processed foods that the American diet takes for granted exact their price in other ways. The abundance of food in the developed world has coincided, not accidentally, with a decline in its quality - - and so, curiously, while most of us can take the availability of food for granted, we can no longer take for granted that it is in fact food. Food has lost its meaning in the American mind, Pollan asserts here, and science and technology are to blame.

Pollan sees food as having fallen to the twofold assault of industrial agricultural and and ideological which he calls "nutritionism", which reduces food to nothing more than a carrier of nutrients. In his view, this misses the forest for a few twigs on a tree and ignores relationships between different food in traditional diets and the interplay of nutrients and body chemistry. Further, he believes that industrial agriculture  creates not food, but products resembling food -- and that nutritionism aids and abets this, creating a situation in which people are "overfed and undernourished".

In Defense of Food presents a problem for me. On the one hand, there are significant ideas worthy of consideration in here -- people do overly fixate on the value of one nutrient or another, industrial agriculture does sacrifice quality for quantity, and yes, the constant pattern of nutritional fixation does dovetail perfectly with relentless advertising-driven consumerism. Pollan's "food rules" make sense, like "Don't eat anything that doesn't look like food".  That is, if you want cheese, eat cheese -- not puffs of god-knows-what covered in orange powder.

The great problem for me is the anti-scientific attitude that develops from his attack on "nutritionism", an ideology which Pollan sees as being the spawn of scientists, journalists, and advertisers.  While scientists are just as human and potentially self-serving as anyone else, they attract the bulk of Pollan's ire. He mocks the fact that a half-century of nutritional advice has seen Americans grow not healthier, but fatter -- as if obesity and nutritional disorders were caused not by the popularity of fast food or a society dominated by cars, but by the fact that people followed the advice of a government study and got themselves fat by trying to stick to low-fat diets. A spirit of petty resentment pervades the book, as if Pollan is insulted that scientists would dare get their grubby lab gloves over his food. Those of us who are interested in science know all too well that the media does a horrible job at attempting scientific journalism, being irresponsible and ignorant of the subject --  leaving no room for nuance and pitching stories in such a way as to grab headlines. (PhD Comics did a GREAT comic on this.)  Pollan mentions the hype over resveratol, for instance, a compound found in many foods of the French diet which has been linked to health and longevity. While Pollan uses this as an example of nutritional fixation, I recently read an interview with the scientist whose work prompted the media frenzy (in Michio Kaku's The Physics of the Future), and he was dismayed by the way the media failed to understand that the variable he was studying was only one factor of many.  Here it is Pollan, not the scientist, who is overemphasizing the work.

In Defense of Food may be worth considering if you are just starting to become conscious or mindful about the foods you eat, but given Pollan's bias I can't earnestly recommend it to you. Given the importance of food, I'm sure there are superior books out there on the subject.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (29 November)

Last Teaser of November...

Mr. Dursley stood rooted to the spot. He had been hugged by a complete stranger. He also thought he had been called a Muggle, whatever that was. He was rattled. He hurried to his car and set off for home, hoping he was imagining things, which he had never hoped before, because he didn't approve of imagination.

(Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling. Time to re-read the series!)

Newton -- a man so driven by the pursuit of truth that he once shoved a blunt needle between his eye and the socket bone to study ocular anatomy and, later in life, as Master of the Mint, meted out the harshest of punishments to counterfeiters, sending more than a hundred to the gallows -- had no tolerance for false or incomplete reasoning. So he decided to set the record straight. This led him to introduce the bucket.

(The Fabric of the Cosmos, p. 26. Brian Greene.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Christmas Reading

Today the Christmas spirit finally found me. Usually we embrace immediately after Thanksgiving, but the weather has been unseasonably warm lately. Sunday brought with it grey skies and a constant drizzle, though, which is partially inconvenient (for someone who walks in the morning and evening), but wholly appropriate. Today as I left a book club discussion, I embraced the cold air with a spring in my step and Christmas tunes on my mind.  I went for a downtown stroll and visited the library, where -- I thought -- I'd pick up A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. I'm enormously fond of it. Someone checked it out before me, though, so happy reading to them.  Feeling inexplicably mirthful, I ran up the steps to the library's upstairs and headed for the kids' section, where I treated myself to two Harry Potter novels and.....Redwall, by Brian Jacques.  None of them have a thing to do with Christmas, but they fit my mood -- one of whimsy, looking forward to experiencing more of the magical buzz I get around this time of the year.

I'm also in a mood for some serious reading, so I'm sticking my nose timidly into Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos. If it is too much for me I will finish Galileo's Finger, which I've not forgotten about.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


© 1997 Kurt Vonnegut
219 pages

Timequake may be the oddest novel I've ever read. Scratch that: it is the oddest novel I've ever read, but despite its utter lunacy I loved it anyway, because it is so much the product of its author. The tacit premise of Timequake is that in 2001, after billions of years of expansion, the universe hiccoughed, reversed its course to 1991, and then -- decided to continue expanding after all. Every being on Earth was forced to live out the last ten years of their life exactly as they had before. When free will kicks in again, everything goes to hell.

Vonnegut never tells the story of those relived years in away one might expect in a conventional novel. There's no setup; the Quake never happens within the plot. Instead, the reader is introduced to what happened by Vonnegut, and he continues to refer to it tangentially as he rambles merrily about whatever he likes, often using the consequence of the quake on those who lived through it to illustrate a point he's in the middle of making. Chapter divisions are utterly arbitrary, and Vonnegut will often stop to to introduce a random through before returning to the subject of his musings, which range widely from nostalgic thoughts about his family to opinions on faith and human community. A favorite section for me describes Vonnegut's labors to send some of his work to be edited. Rather than emailing or faxing it, he sends in a bundle of typewriter-produced pages and makes a jaunt downtown to fetch the appropriate stationary and postage, thoroughly enjoying his time out and about socializing with others. True, he could be efficient and use faxes or buy envelopes and stamps in bulk, but for Vonnegut that isn't the point. He valued the experience of human interaction, and ends the passage by declaring, "Listen! We're here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anyone tell you different."

Vonnegut is at times heartwarming and sometimes cynical, but he's always present. Kilgore Trout, his alter-ego, makes frequent appearances and Vonnegut works Trout's short stories -- usually with a cynical point -- into his own thoughts. Timequake is pure Vonnegut -- "talking lazily back and forth, almost buzzing like honeybees" with the reader --  and I would recommend it on that basis. If it's a proper story you want, and you've never read Vonnegut before, perhaps introducing yourself to him via Slaughterhouse-5 or Jailbird would be in order. If, however, Kurt Vonnegut's personality and humor have already appealed to you in times past, Timequake will satisfy enormously. To quote his uncle Alex, "If this isn't nice, what is?"

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Light in the Window

A Light in the Window
© 1996 Jan Karon
446 pages

A few weeks ago I read At Home in Mitford,  a novel which offers a charming escape from the noise, pollution, and chaos of everyday life into a small town which progress has happily forgotten. In the village of Mitford, downtown is still alive and thriving with businesses. People begin their mornings by walking or driving to the main street cafe, where they see their neighbors. Groceries come not from factories and Wal-Mart, but from the Local -- another main street establishment which gets its produce from local farms. There's no great drama driving the book, only the reader's enjoyment of ordinary people living their simple lives. The drama is mundane, yet compelling; the characters eccentric and lovable. They aren't sexy spies or latern-jawed action heroes: they're secretaries with tempers,  old ladies with history, and -- at least in one case -- a portly priest, the rector of the local Episcopal parish.

Father Tim is the center character of the Mitford series, and the first novel introduced him as a kind, wise, but lonely man who slowly found joy as he became the master of a dog, the guardian of a boy, and the neighbor of a fun-loving children's author who moved next door. The neighbor, Cynthia, offers Tim a source of emotional intimacy he's hard-up for, since in Mitford it is he that people confide in. Who counsels the counselor?  In A Light in the Window, author Jan Karon moves the focus from Mitford proper and tightens in on the growing relationship between Tim and his neighbor. There's still drama to be had in town, of course, when the Main Street Grill is imperiled.

As said, the Mitford series is escapism: but for someone like me, such escapism is quite attractive. I delight in Mitford's old-fashioned human-sized community, as well as the gentle classiness of its lead character -- a man who is appalled at the idea of using something even so modern as a microwave oven. I can't imagine walking down the street in Mitford and seeing everyone holding some gadget to their face and not noticing the world around them.

The Crisis of Islam

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
© 2001, 2003 Bernard Lewis
184 pages

Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong? examined the failure of modernity in the middle east, but did not address its role in the rise of terrorism. The Crisis of Islam complements it by focusing chiefly on the factors which have inspired violent political activity in both the mideast and against the West, activity which is typically referred to as terrorism. Lewis examines the context that the terrorists claim (Islam) and the history of western nations with the middle-eastern area.  The book reveals a myriad of factors at work, and although it isn't quite as thorough as I would have liked, it covers a great deal more than most Americans know.

Lewis starts off with a history of Islam, pointing out that for a number of centuries Islam's political empire constituted perhaps the high point of civilization on Earth. He points out the historic lack of distinction between  religion and the state in Islamic society, which is helpful for western, especially American, audiences who are used to the idea of church and state being separate and often conflicting entities. His conception of jihad seems conservative, used entirely to describe war against nonbelievers. Other sources refer to such a war as the 'lesser' jihad, or struggle -- the greater struggle being against our own weaknesses and unwise desires. He also uses the House of Islam vs. House of War dichotomy, which is something I've only seen mentioned by people who are intimidated or hostile by the mention of Islam.  The chapters on interaction between the west and the Islamic middle-east are far superior, especially in covering the tendency of strong western countries to meddle in local affairs following the Great War, when the Ottoman Empire's breakup gave Britain and France a host of new quasi-colonies called 'mandates'.  The story which emerges is of the middle-east as a failing area , one which produces impoverished and hostile young people who see modernity as having created that failure and who deeply resent the west for having created it, as well as constantly disrupting local politics at its convenience. On the latter count, at least, their grievances seem justified.  I only wish Lewis had focused on economics more: I confess to having been swayed by Albert Hourani's notion that some of the anti-western hostility has the same source as labor agitation in the west's own early industrial history.The industrialization process eventually produces an economic boon, but at a cost of environment and human welfare.

Recommended for most readers.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving from Kurt Vonnegut

After a day spent with family, I came home and began reading Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut. How appropriate to read the following:

‎"My uncle Alex Vonnegut, a Harvard-educated life insurance salesman who lived at 5033 North Pennsylvania Street, taught me something very important. He said that when things were going really well we should be sure to NOTICE it.
He was talking about simple occasions, not great victories; maybe drinking lemonade on a hot afternoon in the shade, or smelling the aroma of a nearby bakery, or fishing and not caring if we catch anything or not, or hearing somebody all alone playing a piano really well in the house next door.
Uncle Alex urged me to say this out loud during such epiphanies: 'If this isn't nice, what is?'"

- Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake. p. 12

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tuesday Fun

Teaser Tuesday!
"A.Darell" would just be the sort of thing that she would have to put on all her themes for her class in Composition and Rhetoric--so tasteless. All the other kids had to do it, too, except for Olynthus Dam, because the class laughed so when he did it the first time.

p.79, Second Foundation. Isaac Asimov.

Long before Pat's death, he'd been profoundly unsteadied when she had slipped her hand into his and let her fingers run along his arm. At one point, she began winking at him during sermons, which distracted him to such a degree that he resumed his old habit of preaching over the heads of the congregation, literally. [...] Now Pat, good soul, was cold in the grave, and Edith's casserole was hot on his counter.

A Light in the Window, Jan Karon. Pages 11, 12.

The Broke and the Bookish want to know which ten authors we'd invite to Thanksgiving dinner. I tried to choose a group of people who would get along and enjoy themselves -- I didn't invite Marcus Aurelius, for instance, because I can't imagine he'd enjoy such an affair.

1. Isaac Asimov (...who knows a bit of everything, is witty and charming, and enjoys wordplay.)
2. Kurt Vonnegut (who would hopefully announce, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.")
3. Carl Sagan (whom I would ask to bring an apple pie, baked from scratch.)
4. Brian Fagin (general historian who seems to have specialized the role of climate change in human history)
5. Mary Roach, who I recently heard interviewed: she is as fascinating and funny in person as she is as the author of Spook, Stiff, and other pop-science works.
6. David Sedaris (who, hopefully, would not go into an absurdly funny story just as I am taking a sip of my beverage..)
7. John Shelby Spong (who might help us keep things in perspective)
8. Tenzin Gyatsao (because I want to see that beaming smile just once in person)

9. Bernard Cornwell (author of historical fiction whose interviews I delight in watching)
10.Richard Dawkins or Neil deGrasse Tyson, because I'm a science mood lately.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

This Week at the Library (16 November)

It's been a slow week for reading, at least from the library. Unable to pursue my library reads, I re-read Prelude to Foundation and began re-reading Forward the Foundation. Otherwise, so little has been catching fire lately that after reading The Greater Journey by David McCullough, I returned my books to the library and spent a couple of leisurely hours sitting and strolling in various aisles, hoping to find something that would. I think I did, but first, a minireview...

©  2011 David McCullough 
558 pages

David McCullough is a popular name among American historians, known most for his 1776 and a large biography of John Adams.  The Greater Journey is somewhat less focused, but is essentially a history of Paris (1830-1900) as seen through the eyes of American visitors, most of whom were visiting professionally. For the majority of these Americans -- whose numbers include famous names like Samuel Morse and Fenimore Cooper -- the journey to Paris was their first trip outside the United States, and the novelty of being a 'foreigner' made their experiences all the more vividly memorable.  Through them we experience Paris as it was in the late 19th century, beginning in the Bourbon Restoration era but enduring decades of political change -- a Second Republic, a Second Empire, and a Third Republic, in addition to war with Germany and several protracted sieges. The Americans featured here are professionals of one kind or another -- physicians,   architects, writers -- but the artists dominate the work outside of the space devoted to political change. The range of years allows the reader to experience the tremendous change of those years, as the globe shrinks underneath telegraph cables and steam engine tunnels.  Given my interest in France and this period, I certainly enjoyed the book for the most part, although all the art history overwhelmed me. The photographs and prints of artwork included are stunning.

This week...

  • Plan and Simple: A Woman's Journey to the Amish, Sue Bender. I am at the same time intrigued by the Amish devotion to simple living and revulsed by their cultish atmosphere and suppression of individuality with practices like shunning. Sue Bender is an artist who shares my objection to forced conformity, but felt herself mesmerized by Amish art and decided to spend a summer living with them.
  • The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, Bernard Lewis. I read Lewis' What Went Wrong? concerning the effects of modernization in the middle east and the ongoing hostile reaction to it during the summer, and have been meaning to sample more of Lewis.
  • A Light in the Window, Jan Karon; the second in the Mitford series..
  • Vagabond, Bernard Cornwell. Alas, my library doesn't appear to have Sharpe's Skirmish, and I've been mulling over whether or not to pursue in the series or attempt to acquire the novel first. 

I was really in the mood for something WW2-related, specifically a novel -- but I didn't feel like getting into James Jones' From Here to Eternity, and the loud colors and huge rendering of W.E.B. Griffin's name on his  several rows of books left me with the impression that they were meant as cheap thrillers.

The Astral

The Astral
© 2011 Kate Christensen
311 pages

Harry Quirk is a sixty-ish poet whose entire world is changing. In only an afternoon, he has lost a year's worth of work, his home, and his wife: after discovering that his latest project involved a collection of romantic sonnets addressed to a panel of women other than herself,  Harry's wife Luz destroyed it and tossed him out on the street. The poet is something of a dinosaur even in his chosen profession, but he is reluctant to depend on the charity of his daughter Carina. All Harry really wants to do is go home, but he can't -- for the distance between himself and his wife is greater than a simple misunderstanding.  Despite dominating his life for twenty years, his marriage seems to be over, and he must learn to live by and for himself.

Thus begins a fascinating novel with a dominating theme of dependency in relationships, told by a character who is at once sympathetic. Helpless to understand at first, he grows in strength throughout the novel. It helps that Harry isn't allowed to focus entirely on himself: his son is being sucked into a cult even as his marriage is lying in ruins. I appreciated that Christensen didn't give a novel like this a conventional ending, but left the door open -- Harry and his friends and neighbors are left with room to grow long after the book is done. Strong characters and a fascinating theme made The Astral a highlight of my reading two weeks ago.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The KunstlerCast

The KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler
...the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl.
© 2011 Duncan Crary, James Howard Kunstler
300 pages

James Howard Kunstler is a journalist turned social critic and the author of numerous books, most prominently The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. These two books address the seemingly disparate topics of urban planning and the global oil economy, but to Kunstler and like-minded readers, they are troublesomely knit together, intensifying the problems that each causes. For the past three years, Kunstler has talked each week with on these and connected topics with his co-host, Duncan Crary, who has now produced a partial record of their discussions -- a collection which will no doubt please Kunstler's fans, while offering those unfamiliar with his work their first taste of it.

Although his modern work ties to his predictions for the post-oil future, most of Kunstler's nonfiction works fall within the realm of urban criticism. Americans who have never encountered his ire may be staggered by how much of their world he holds in scorn. Just what is it about the modern city and suburban sprawl that he finds so appalling?  In a word, everything. The opening sentence of The Geography of Nowhere, in which Kunstler attempts to summarize why he wrote the book, is a paragraph long.  The growth of American cities and later,  the 'edge' cities that grew out of suburbian sprawl, has centered on the automobile, and the result is the decline of public transit like rail lines in favor of highways -- infrastructure built on the promise of cheap gasoline, and frightfully ugly to behold. Its decentralization destroys the integrity of human communities and is in part responsible for the rising obesity problem in the U.S:  our automobile-fixated culture gives people few opportunities to incorporate activity like walking into their everyday life, for now every trip anywhere demands the car. The results are hideous: compare an eight-line commercial strip lined with box stores,  oceans of pavement, and offensive, neon-colored signs the size of trucks to the charm of what once was, to the tree-lined American Main Street with its cozy stores and pedestrian focus.  The good news, for Kunstler and those who sympathize, is that this horror cannot long remain: it is doomed by its dependency on oil.

The second half of Kunstler's legacy, originating in The Long Emergency and a source of constant chatter among the author and his co-host, is the idea of peak oil and its ramifications. The cancerous growth of urban sprawl has been enabled by the abundance of cheap oil, but that era is drawing to a close. The United States' oil reserves have already dwindled, and soon enough the oil wells of the middle east and Russia will dry, too. The consequences for a global economy built on oil -- oil to run the ships and trucks that connect manufacturing and distribution, oil to process food -- for food is an industrial, not an agricultural product these days -- are dire. Kunstler sees the fabric of globalization partially disintegrating, and local economies reviving. Everything, including the cities, will shrink to a smaller scale -- a human-sized scale. The unviable sprawl will die, and authentic human communities will prosper once more, while bemoaning the amount of resources that were wasted  in the "cheap oil fiesta".

KunstlerCast's conversations tend to focus more on Kunstlers' urban critiques than the peak oil scenario, though the two are connected to the point that the whole of the book flows together well, aside from some small deviations wherein Kunstler takes time to grouch about tattoos. I found these breaks more amusing than anything, and the book as a whole a positive delight, one which prompted me to begin re-reading The Geography of Nowhere.  While Kunstlers' arguments as a whole are more thoroughly presented in the two books previously mentioned, the format of KunstlerCast allows the author and his host to discuss contemporary, related, and specific issues not mentioned in the 1993 book, or only mentioned in passing, like the health consequences of an automobile-centered society or the work of other critics like Jane Jacobs. They also cover ground visited in its lesser-known books, like Home from Nowhere and The City in Mind. I especially enjoyed these sections, as I've not been able to get my hands on these books despite my interest in them. Thus, while covering familiar ground the conversations also introduce new material, making them of interest to Kunstler fans. Newcomers may appreciate a less formal introduction to these issues, especially given how easy it is to "listen" to the banter-filled conversation between these two intelligent and thoughtful men.

Given the present economics of the world, Kunstler's work has never been more relevant, and is now all the more accessible. This is a hit for old fans and the newly interested alike. The KunstlerCast may be found at,  with archives as far back as 2008.

The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler
The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan
American Mania: When More Isn't Enough, Peter Whybrow

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sharpe's Sword

Sharpe's Sword
© 1983 Bernard Cornwell
319 pages

The year is 1812, and the Napoleonic wars are broadening. After retreating to Portugal, the British army is once again on the move, now pushing into Spain to confront Napoleon's armies in Salamanca. As much as Wellington desires to draw the French army into an engagement, his opposing counterpart is content to block the English army's advance into Spain and threaten their supply lines,  always obstructing the English but never giving Wellington the chance to use his wiles against them. For the moment, Sharpe and his men are without battle to engage them -- but not without a mission, because someone is killing England's spies and threatening a continent-wide intelligence network. Sharpe and his comrades know who the man is, but first they must find him hiding in the city -- and do so quickly, before he strikes at Wellington's master spy.

Sharpe's Sword is a rich, full Sharpe novel containing several military engagements -- including the big battle Wellington wanted, a superior tale of the event -- in addition to a plot of espionage. Cornwell thoughtfully threw in a few twists and turns, and while Sharpe's foe is largely absent in hiding, he proves to be one of most difficult for Sharpe to defeat, nearly killing our hero -- but he recovers, his faithful friend Patrick at his side, and the attention paid to their friendship is one of the book's better moments. When reading Sharpe, I prefer his solitary adventures to the tales of battle, but Wellington's daring attack enthralled me here. Sharpe's Sword delivers fully.

Next up: Sharpe's Skirmish.

Teaser Tuesday (8 November)

Teaser Tuesday is a bookish event in which participants share excerpts from their current reads, hosted by ShouldBeReading.
"But then Paris was a continuing lesson in the enjoyment to be found in such simple, unhurried occupations as a walk in a garden or watching children at play or just sitting observing the human cavalcade. One learned to take time to savor life, much as one took time to savor a good meal or a glass of wine. The French called it 'l'entente de la vie', the harmony of life."

p. 44, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough

"The problem in America is not that we're driving the wrong kind of cars. The trouble is we're driving every kind of car incessantly. [...] Let the car die. Let the motoring system die, and let's move on to the next thing -- which ought to be good urbanism, walkable neighborhoods, walkable cities that are scaled to the true energy resources of the future, not just wishes and fantasies."

p.11, 12  KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler. Quoted from The Geography of Nowhere

And because it gives me such pleasure to read it, another from Kunstler:

Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading -- the jive plastic computer tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego block hotel complexes, the 'gourmet mansardic' junk-food joints, the Orwellian office 'parks' featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain-gang guards, the particle board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobic-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call 'growth'."

p. 2,.  KunstlerCast, quoting The Geography of Nowhere.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Literature, meet music!

Tonight a group of history alumni from my university have been discovering a YouTube account called "thehistorians", in which history is told in the form of pop music parodies. I'm overwhelmed with giddiness at the find, and there's also some devoted to classics of western literature!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

This Week at the Library...

Well, welcome to November! October seems to have been a busy month for reading, as well as a satisfying one. In addition to the books which I commented on in the last week, I also read The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as The Astral by Kate Christensen. I'll be giving The Astral more extended comments later, but suffice it to say, the book proved a most intriguing novel and I would have checked out another by Christensen if I could have remembered her last name's spelling while in fiction.

As for The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: it collects a dozen or so Holmes stories, most set in the latter part of the great detective's career, including  the chronologically "last" in the series in which Holmes foils a German spy on the cusp of the Great War. The afterward comments that such a story is a fitting end to the Holmes series, as the Great War completely destroyed the Victorian world that Holmes was most at home in.  In addition to conventional mysteries, the collection included four rather usual stories. Two were mysteries that Watson reports on, but not as Holmes' assistant: indeed, Holmes never appears by name, and his anonymous attempts to solve the mysteries both propose solutions which turn out to be wrong. They're impressive guesses, but wrong all the same. One of these stories, involving a missing train, happened to be my favorite -- largely because how does a train go missing?  The last two stories, including "How Watson Learned the Trick", were almost disappointing in their brevity. Indeed, they're not stories so much as brief scenes in which Doyle pokes fun at his detective's style of logical deduction -- or so the afterward tells me.  Even so, that style is most impressive: in a story I'm reading now, Holmes figures the speed of the train by noting the rate at which telegraph poles are passing by. Since he knows the distance between each pole,  he can count the miles and speed without reference to a speedometer or mile posts.

At the library this week, I picked up...

  • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, which is another Readers Digestion collection of Holmes stories like the last two I read, in the same handsome binding with an attractive font and illustrations. 
  • The Age of Louis XIV, Will Durant. Time for another big helping of European history.
  • Sharpe's Sword, Bernard Cornwell. I've watched the movie version of this before,  but the Sharpe movies and Sharpe books vary wildly so I don't think I've been too much spoiled beyond "Sharpe deals with loathsome aristocrats, Sharpe fights a really big battle and almost dies"...but those are elements of every Sharpe novel. 
  • The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough. McCullough is a popular and well-acclaimed historian, most famous for his 1776 and a large biography of John Adams.  This appeared in the library's new acquisitions section, and I picked it up out of curiosity.
  • The Book of Guys, Garrison Keiler. As a regular NPR listener, I'm accustomed to his voice and humor but have never read one of his books. 

Since we're coming up on 5 November, I really should have checked out something on English history to continue my yearly tradition of reading culture-related books on nationalish holidays.  I've been struggling to get that tradition off the ground -- there hasn't been a year when I've done all four (American, 4 July; French, 14 July;  German, 3 October; England, 5 November) successfully, this year included. I never finished my Fourth of July Reading, didn't finish my Bastille Day Reading until August, and now don't have a proper Guy Fawkes reading. I suppose Sharpe could count, being a work by an English author and starring an English main character,  and Sherlock Holmes is an English creation as well...but it feels like cheating, because I would have read them anyway.

A question to English readers -- might St. George's day be more appropriate for me to do an English-culture related reading?  I know Guy Fawkes Night isn't a "national" holiday, but I chose it because it was the only national-ish holiday I knew of.  Whenever I mention this book/culture project of mine at forums, English commenters seem to think my choice of dates is an odd one.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Sharpe's Company

Sharpe's Company
© 1982 Bernard Cornwell
280 pages

Spring 1812. After wintering behind its protective battle lines, the British army is ready to begin driving Monsieur Bonaparte out of Spain -- but first, there's a great big fortress at Badajoz to capture. The fortress has thwarted previous attempts at seizure by the British, but it must be taken....and Richard Sharpe must take it, for his promotion to Captain was refused and now he is but a lowly lieutenant, separated from his friends and his company. Only through some glorious triumph can he salvage his wounded pride and restore his proper rank. Worse yet, he's forced to contend with  an old nemesis, Sergeant Hakeswill, who must be one of the most perfectly loathsome men in all of English literature. Hakeswill is a malevolent force that Sharpe must destroy, for the contemptible sergeant has his eyes set on destroying Sharpe's love Teresa....and their daughter.

 The personal odds are as high as they've ever been for Sharpe, and the final battle one of his most difficult.  The prospect of Sharpe losing his company and his best friend should strike a chord with readers, for we have seen his bond with them grow throughout this series. Originally, Sharpe was assigned as their quartermaster, and when he presumed to take actual command the men hated him for it. Now Sharpe and his company are as loyal to one another as is humanely possible, and though fate and war would seem to drive them apart they will defy both and reunite to help accomplish one of Britain's most memorable victories -- one again, as an American, I've never heard of.  Company is one of the more intense Sharpe novels, although it does not quite satisfy in the matter of Obadiah Hakeswill. Still, I look forward to Sharpe's Sword.

Clash of Wings

Clash of Wings: World War II in the Sky
© 1994 Walter J. Boyne
415 pages

Although European powers employed aircraft during war early in the 20th century, and they saw widespread use during the Great War as tools supplementing armies, not until the Second World War did military aviation truly come into its own. Who can think of those years and miss the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, or the furious carrier battles in the Pacific like that of Midway? During World War II, aircraft were manufactured at a rate never before seen and the respective powers turned them into weapons in their own right, leveling cities with bombers and making command of the air as crucial as command of the ground. In Clash of Wings, aviator and military historian Walter J. Boyne explores every aspect of the war in which aircraft were involved, from the large battles in which they dominated to the smaller affairs where they only assisted. He examines not just the planes, tactics, and strategy of various European powers, but the organizational strengths of the contending air forces. The result is a thorough guide to World War II's skies, a gold mine for students of the period.

Boyne leaps into the action straightaway, focusing immediately on the outbreak of war in Europe, though he does explain how history influenced every nation to develop the air strategy it did. Necessity also shaped strategy: while Britain's air policy may have been influenced by the memory of Germany's bombing raids in the first world war, it focused on long-distance bombers because bombers were its primary means of fighting Germany until the Axis began stumbling around in northern Africa. Japan's small  but elite air arm evolved to destroy inferior opponents, like the Russians and Chinese, but  proved to be insufficient for long-term war with a fully industrialized power like that of the United States.  This is an incredibly busy history, as airplanes were ubiquitious during the conflict and were the main contendors in some campaigns:  it is hard to imagine any conflict out-doing WWII in putting airplanes to tactical and strategic use, winning both battles and destroying Hitler's means of fighting. Boyne even devotes chapters to airplanes' use in fighting submarines, or supplying Chinese nationalists in their fight against the Japanese.  As an aviator himself, he's always kind to the airmen of every country, saving his harshest criticism for those high in the organizational ranks who failed to provide just or competent leadership. He also evaluates the machines themselves from a technical point of view,  where his own piloting experience proves useful.

I have been reading books about military aviation for over a decade now, and the quality of this book astonishes me. The wealth of information should make it staggeringly valuable to someone writing a paper on the subject, for Boyne's history not only covers every conceivable aspect of the air war but also includes production and loss numbers throughout, in addition to several appendices. The book's organization keeps all this information nicely contained and quickly accessible, and Boyne's passion for the subject makes his tale an engaging one to read.  I must read more Boyne, and strongly recommend this work.

The Rapture Exposed

The Rapture Exposed: the Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation
© 2004 Barbara R. Rossing
224 pages

"When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love."
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I am amazed that so much of the horror of my youth was built on so pathetic a foundation.  As a child growing up in a fundamentalist Christian sect,  I was promised a future filled with horror and dread if I was not a perfect child. Any day now, any moment,  all the "real" Christians would float into the sky and the rest of us would be abandoned to seven years of war, chaos, pestilence,  and an evil totalitarian state that encompassed the entire earth. During my adolescence, I frequently panicked and grew fearful if I lost communication with my parents, and often had nightmares about the world to come. Not until I left religion in 2006 did this fear subside, but now that I find that not only is this interpretation of Revalation badly assembled, but that an alternative interpretation carres at its heart what attracts people to Jesus and Christianity: the message that love and peaceful action can overcome evil. In The Rapture Exposed, Barbara Rossing tears apart the Left Behind story, urges readers to combat its political influence in the middle east, and explains her own view.

Around fifteen years ago, the Left Behind series became enormously popular in the United States. The series began with the Rapture spiriting away all the real, true Christians in addition to every child on earth, and then followed a collection of fairly cretinous heroes as they dedicated themselves to God in the aftermath and sought to effect his will throughout the Great Tribulation. The books were fairly terrible (and I say that speaking as someone who read all sixteen), but benefited from the kind of dread and expectation that the coming of a new Millenium brought with it. The series offered Christians horror and drama withotu sex and 'bad words', and is dominated throughout by a self-congratulatory spirit. Despite this, the worldview is distressingly influential.   Rossi opens by first pointing out that this great horrible story of the Rapture has no genuine biblical basis. While its proponents use a collection of Biblical verses from Revelations, Thessalonians, and Daniel to tell their story, that collection is a patchwork fraud -- like a randsom note  written by cutting out letters from magazine articles and gluing them together to turn cheerful advertisments into death threats.  That is essentially what Rossing believes Rapturists have done with Revelation, a book written in her view to offer encouragment to Christians under persecution. She delves into the history of Rapture belief, as well as the history of the early church, pointing out that Revelation belongs to a genre of literature known as Apocalypses, and she uses an excellent metaphor (Scrooge's vision in A Christmas Carol) to  point out that its story need not actually happen for its meaning to be significant.

That meaning, for Rossi, is not one of dread and horror, but of the victory of love. As she guides readers through the book of Revelation, we see that the predominant portrayal of Jesus is one of a slain lamb. She urges readers to  use Revelation's story to help them see the here and now as the Kingdom of God, and their Christian duty in fully realizing it by fighting injustice, serving others, and making this world as best as it can be. In Rossi's view, debunking Rapture mythology is essential not only in fighting escapism or perverting a message of hope into one of horror, but in ending its current political influence as politicians like George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and other members of the self-proclaimed moral majority allow Left Behind mythology to influence their potential policy decisions in the middle east.  She ends by offering a selection of verses which Rapture-believers bank on, and then commenting on their meanings within their actual literary or historical context.  The book isn't as thorough a resource as someone struggling with the rapture might like -- there's no mention of how Christians have historically viewed Revelation outside of the brief 200 years the Rapture has been around -- but it should suffice as a wake-up call, or at the very least allow readers to appreciate Revelation for the first time as something other than the work of a madman on a "bad trip".