Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Walking with Dinosaurs

Walking with Dinosaurs: A Natural History
© 1999 Tim Haines
288 pages

A dull pre-dawn light spreads across the horizon, illuminating a landscape covered in forest. Rivers trace silvery lines through the dense vegetation, and along their banks icy puddles are melting. It is the beginning of spring at the South Pole.

Take a trip into another world, a world perfectly alien yet somehow familiar -- a world like Earth, but without ice caps, with a surface covered by massive ferns and an endless variety of strangely beautiful and terrifying creatures, the dinosaurs. For 160 million years these great beasts were the dominant species, as ubiquitous as we mammals are today -- but 65 million years ago, their time on Earth came to a terrifying end. Tim Haines walks us through their lives, from the appearance of the first small dinos (220 MYA) to their end. As they rose to rule, the Earth changed beneath their feet, Pangaea giving way to the familiar arrangements of continents we know today. The result is a fascinating and visually stunning work reminiscent of David Attenborough's The Lives of series.

After a short introduction in which Haines makes general observations about dinosaur evolution and the problems inherent in attempting to piece together their behavior, our tour of the past is divided into six sections, spanning from the Triassic (dawn of the dinosaurs) to the late Cretaceous, which is home to familiar beasties like the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Triceratops.  In between, nearly every species of dinosaur familiar to pop culture is mentioned, with the odd exception of velocioraptors, who became so popular after the release of Jurassic Park. Each setting focuses on a local ecosystem, and begins by introducing the climate and our players. We then follow the various species of dinosaurs through a year, season , or even an entire lifecycle.

Most of the text is presented as a documentary -- based partly in fact, partly in inference, and partly on reasonable guesses. The author mentions that one species of flying dinosaurs spent most of its life riding on the backs of a larger species: in the introduction, he points out that this is completely speculative, as barring time-travel it's not as though we could witness such an event, nor are fossil records likely to comment on interspecies relations. Set off in large blocks throughout the chapters are sections which are strictly scientific, explaining the contributions of a particular geological formation, or commenting on the evolution of birds. Visually, Walking with Dinosaurs is stunning -- a marvel. The quality is astounding for a work done in 1999: the pictures look like photographs, and the creatures aren't merely flat inserts in a background. Somehow they have been modeled in such a way as to appear real, as though they were looking the reader in the eye  as he gazes in wonder at their size, their form, their coloration -- such savage power and grace!  Haines and the visual artists have truly made the world of the Mesozoic come alive with incredible detail, and I'd recommend this easily to anyone interested in dinosaurs -- especially readers who have children.

New dinosaurs label (retroactively applied to Dinosaur Lives by Jack Horner, as well as Michael Crichton's two novels.)

This Week at the Library (28 January)

This past week has mostly been about The Reformation, which I am 2/3rds of the way through. It started out strong (The Age of Faith, part 2), but boy -- hundreds of pages about fanatics screaming at and killing each other gets tiresome quickly. Happily I'm now in jolly old England, where Henry VIII's third wife has just died in child birth and he's looking for lucky number four.

I'm also an asteroid's throw from finishing off Walking with Dinosaurs. We're in the Cretaceous. 

Today at the library, I picked up...
  • The Odyssey, translated by E.V. Rieu and illustrated by John Flaxman. I read The Illiad a few weeks back, so this seemed appropriate. It's sort of low priority, though, because I've got The Reformation to finish.
  • Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch. This is a Really Big Book that I have no business picking up while I'm busy with The Reformation, but I keep wanting to read it and so I decided to bring it home with me today.
  • Sharpe's Fury, Bernard Cornwell.  Obviously I'll be wanting some leisure reading at some point, if only to get relief from the constant murderous frenzy of the Reformation.
  • annnnnd The Good German, by Joseph Kanon, because Germany's national day is coming up soonish and I want to do some appropriate reading. I meant to do some German-related reading last year, but forgot the date I was looking for. I didn't want to read a book about World War 2, but hang me if almost every book in my library isn't about the Nazis or the Holocaust or some other similar subject. I have a little book on the German Empire I could read, I suppose, but in the end I decided to look for a novel set in Germany and found this, the story of an American journalist who looks for his old German sweetheart in postwar Berlin.  Next year I'll use the internet to look for some better German reading -- something set in the Weimar years, say. 

I also have three books in the post, though none of them are from my 'books of interest' list. I won one in a contest, and the other two are a couple of rare Asimov paperbacks that surfaced on eBay and Amazon while I was fishing for copies of The Roman Republic and The Roman Empire.  One of them is a collection of mysteries which I am quite looking forward to.

And to end, a quotation.

For hundreds of years, he pointed out, men had debated free will, predestination, heaven and hell, Christ and the Trinity, and other difficult matters; no agreement had been reached; probably none would ever be reached. But none is necessary, said Castellio; such disputes do not make men better; all that we need is to carry the spirit of Christ into our daily lives, to feed the poor, help the sick, and love even our enemies. It seemed to him ridiculous that all the new sects, as well as the old Church, should pretend to absolute truth and make their creeds obligatory on those over whom they had physical power; as a result a man would be orthodox in one city, and become a heretic by entering another; he would have to change his religion, like his money, at each frontier. Can we imagine Christ ordering a man to be burned alive for ordering adult baptism? [...] What a tragedy (he concluded) that those who had so lately freed themselves from the terrible Inquisition should so soon imitate its tyranny, should so soon force men back into Cimmerian darkness after so promising a dawn! 

p. 486, The Reformation. Will Durant. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Discourses and Enchiridon

Discourses and Enchiridon, Epictetus
© 1967, translated W.A. Oldfather

Stoicism might be introduced to the lay reader as Buddhism for the west. Students of Stoicism often take inspiration from Buddhist philosophy, given the common emphasis on mindfulness and freedom from desire. The original teachings of Stoicism have been lost to history, but modern students may rely on the works of its later students -- particularly, Roman authors like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus.  Aurelius and Epictetus are our greatest sources for Stoic thought, but despite the fact that I've been a student of Stoicism since 2008, I've never given his works a proper reading beyond Sharon Lebell's interpretation of his Handbook (Enchiridon), The Art of Living.

The Discourses are more substantial than the Meditations of Aurelius or Lebell's handbook: while those two are collections of short aphorisms, sayings, and thoughts,  the Discourses consist of lectures and dialogues collected one of his students. In addition to lecturing on detachment, self-discipline, and the pursuit of virtue, Epictetus also works through basic logic with his students. Someone completely new to Stoicism might be better off reading William Irvine's A Guide to the Good Life, which introduces the philosophy to modern audiences, but it's still accessible to newcomers. Epictetus' central idea is that there's essentially two types of things in life: that which we control, and that which we can't. We can't control what happens (either around us or to us), or what other people do -- but we can control our reaction, and  this is the important matter. To the Stoics, the only good is virtue: it is its own reward as well as its own mandate, meaning that virtuous behavior is wise behavior and wise behavior recommends itself.  Epictetus' emphasis on detachment is notable: for him, the body is literally just a vessel which his spirit is being carried around in, and it matters not to him whether that vessel is broken or burned. It gives him self-assurance in the face of threats of physical violence. He is very much the teacher, constantly advising his students to train their will, and often making allusions to physical training. In this translation Epictetus comes off as a sarcastic old cuss with a no-nonsense attitude who emphasizes the importance of putting philosophy into practice, not just studying it.

Epictetus' voice has been a sobering source of strength in the past few weeks as I read through it, and I recommend this collection to students of philosophy.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius: A Life
© 2009 Frank McLynn
684 pages

Few figures in history can compare to Marcus Aurelius, and fewer still favorably.  Adopted into the royal family, this last of the Five Good Emperors has sat in silent judgment of politicians for over fifteen hundred years, his life a standing reproach to their selfishness and indulgence. In the opinion of biographer Frank McLynn, he remains the greatest of Rome's leaders despite the limitations of his reign. In Marcus Aurelius: A life, McLynn examines the life of this dour philosopher-king as it played out in the late second century -- a time of great wars, famine, and pestilence that demanded a leader of a great character. Such was Aurelius.

This biography is outstanding for its thoroughness, examining the full context of Aurelius' life.  The story of the Roman emperor is the story of Rome, and this biography could serve just as well to educate someone on the late 2nd-century Empire as it would on the emperor himself. McLynn offers lengthy treatments of Rome's economic status and deterioration, its history of relations with the German tribes and reviving Parthian empire, and of course an exploration of Stoicism, where McLynn compares Aurelius' influences and contributions as a philosopher. After the death of the emperor, the focus shifts to his enduring legacy -- to the black mark on his record left by allowing his wretched son Commodus to succeed to the throne, to the literary influences of the Meditations throughout the centuries.

McLynn is both sympathetic and critical of his subject. While not a fan of Stoicism -- he criticizes its emphasis on detachment even from family members as inhuman -- McLynn  clearly admires the standards the emperor set for himself as a leader and a man. He has a somber respect for Aurelius, who seems like something of a tragic, but great figure: an Atlas who takes the burden of the world on his shoulders, even though he'd rather be reading, but never complains about it. Aurelius is the model of composure and self-discipline, always counseling himself to take the failures of others in stride, but pushing himself to grow beyond his own.

If you are interested in Aurelius, I heartily recommend this book -- especially notable for its context -- but  a five-part lecture on him that is available on YouTube.  I have them arranged in a playlist you should be able to access here. If not, the first video is here.

Top Ten Books I Want to Re-Read

This week, the Broke and the Bookish are musing over books they'd like to re-read.

1. The Black Widowers Series, Isaac Asimov
(Tales of the Black Widowers, More Tales of the Black Widowers, Casebook of the Black Widowers, Banquets of the Black Widowers, Puzzles of the Black Widowers, and Return of the Black Widowers.)

Isaac Asimov is my very favorite author, and a few years ago I found a mystery series he'd penned while browsing in the library. The setting is a gentlemen's social club, which meets in a downtown New York restaurant every month for drinks, dinner, stimulating conversation -- and a mystery. The club calls itself the Black Widowers society, and they never intended to get into the mystery business -- but every month they invite a visitor, and every month (oddly enough) that visitor  manages to intentionally or accidently present them with a puzzle to think through. Intellectuals and artists, they ask probing questions and rely on both their collective knowledge and a series of reference books. The solution sometimes relies on literary, historical, or scientific information, but it's always there for the reader to grasp -- if only he can think of it before the Widowers' gentleman waiter Henry can.  I love the series and spent more money on books than usual just so I could have the complete set. If I happen to be having dinner alone for whatever reason, I like to go and fetch a Widowers book so I can enjoy dinner with Asimov's sleuths. It doesn't matter to me that I've read a given story so many times I know the solution: I enjoy their conversation and the way they work through things. The discussion ranges everywhere from the sciences to humanities to popular culture, so it's a treat for someone who's a regular visitor to every part of the library like myself.

2. The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Max Shulman.

I do love this collection of tales concerning  a cocky, brilliant, and charming college student who is always getting himself into trouble, usually over girls.

3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling

"Mr. Moony presents his compliments to Professor Snape and begs him to keep his abnormally large nose out of other people's business."
"Mr. Prongs agrees with Mr. Moony, and would like to add that Professor Snape is an ugly git."
"Mr. Padfoot would like to register his astonishment that an idiot like that ever became a professor."
"Mr. Wormtail bids Professor Snape good day, and advises him to wash his hair, the slimeball."

It's better if you know the context, obviously.

4. Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls

I remember being read this story in elementary school. It was one of the most depressing but touching books I'd ever heard, because I was so attached to dogs myself. Heaven knows why I want to read a book that's just going to reduce me to blubbering like a toddler in need of a nap, but it's been such a long time. (If you've never read it, it's about a boy who works hard to buy two coon dogs (Old Dan and Little Ann), and they become inseperable companions until...bad things happen.

5. The Pigman, Paul Zindel

It's been an awfully long time since I've read this tragic story about two troubled teenagers who befriend a lonely old man.

6. Too Good to be Forgotten, David Obst

This is a memoir of growing up in the 1960s, which I read in 2006 and remember fondly.

7. Redwall, Brian Jacques

This is the book which inspired a series, this novel is a fantasy adventure story of a large rat who leads and army of vermin against a abbey of peaceful woodland creatures defended by a badger, a funny old rabbit, and a legendary warrior with a sword forged from a stone from the heavens. It's sort of like Lord of the Rings, but there's no magic.

8. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

I read this back in 2001 (starting on 11 September, actually), but only for an American literature class. Now I would read it because it is the kind of book I'd be interested in: one with a social message that focuses on salt-of-the-earth people.

9. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Carl Sagan

I bought this book last year (or the year before...) with the express purpose of re-reading it, but I've not quite gotten around to that. If I remember correctly, it's Sagan's anthropological work and concerns human evolution.

10. Disaster! The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, Dan Kurzman

I read this years ago (2004, 2005?) from my home library, but when I decided to re-read it I found the book had been discarded or lost. I wound up buying a similarly-titled book and enjoying it well enough, but it wasn't this one. To be honest, I'm not positive this is The Book, since I wasn't keeping a log back then...but the title makes me sure enough to look for used copies online.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sharpe's Escape

Sharpe's Escape
© 2004 Bernard Cornwell
357 pages

"Lieutenant Slingsby," the Colonel said, "tells me that you insulted him. That you invited him to duel. That you called him illegitimate. That you swore at him."
    Sharpe cast his mind back to the brief confrontation on the ridge's forward slope just after he had pulled the company out of the French panic. "I doubt I called him illegitimate, sir," he said. "I wouldn't use that sort of word. I probably called him a bastard."
p. 135,136.

1810: the Iberian Peninsula.  Britain's attempt to defeat the French in Spain has failed, and for the mment they are retreating into Portugal. To Wellington, the rereat is a strategtic withdrawal: as the British army seeks safe shelter behind concealed fortifications protecting Lisbon, they leave nothing but a scorched and barren wasteland, purpously destroying food stores as they go. The French, advancing further into enemy territory, are finding themselves in a desolate wilderness, contending with a hostile population who harry there every move. Soon they will see Wellington's secret battle-lines, and be forced to engage the British in ruinous battle or face a cold winter's occupation in a dead land where the only thing living are angry partisans.

 Alas, poor Richard Sharpe's position is not so secure.  Temporarily relieved of command to give an aristocratic lieutenant a chance to gain battlefield experience, Sharpe is assigned as quartermaster and finds himself locked in a cellar, trapped behind enemy lines as part of a running feud with two very nasty Portugese traitors. It's not enough that his long-time superior officer and friend seems to be throwing him under the bus, career-wise, but Sharpe can't seem to avoid getting into one tight fix after another. His and Harper's story is a havoc-filled run to safety that should mark the end of Wellington's retreat and the beginning of the campaigns that will take Sharpe into France and to ultimate victory.

Enjoyable as expected: next will be Sharpe's Fury

The Red Pyramid

The Red Pyramid
© 2010 Rick Riordian
516 pages

For centuries the gods of Egypt have been removed from the Earth, imprisoned by human magicians in an attempt to put an end to their destructive inter-deity conflicts. But shortly before Christmas, in the British Museum, an archaeologist ended their long exile in an attempt to save the cosmos from ultimate destruction. Freed from the Duat, the shadowy netherworld, five gods -- Osiris, Isis, Horus, Set, and Nepthys -- found new homes in human hosts. Now, their strength growing, the battle between Maat (order, justice, peace) and Chaos could very well destroy the Earth. In the center of this growing storm are two young people, long-separated siblings who become  orphans when they lose their father in the opening pages. They will play a pivotal role in the battle to come.

The Red Pyramid begins the Kane Chronicles, Rick Riordian's second fantasy series. While his Percy Jackson and the Olympians brought the Greek gods to life, The Red Pyramid moves to the land of Egypt.  Although the essential story is the same --  the god of chaos and death is being naughty,  human children who unwittingly possess great divine power are thrown into conflict with him, they brave peril and sarcastic deities to save the Earth from ruin, and.....find out whoops, there's an even bigger threat in the shadows -- the exotic splendor of Egyptian mythology sets The Red Pyramid firmly on its own feet, and even adds to the original Greek series. The Egyptian gods are a fascinating lot, a mixture of familiar human forms and severe predator heads, like falcons and alligators. As alien and exotic as these beings may appear to western readers,  the dualistic worldview in which they are grounded will seem familiar: the gods strive to preserve or destroy Ma'at, the cosmic sense of order and justice, against the forces of chaos.  This doesn't quite correspond to the good vs. evil  view of western society, but it is similar -- and more sensible, from an outside standpoint. Even to a mostly secular mind like mine, our life's energy is poured into the fight against entropy: we create works of art and organized long-lived societies to fight the universal tendency of decay.  The conflict of The Red Pyramid thus seems more fundamental than the family squabble between gods and titans that gave the Olympians series its overall arc.

Though the story is mostly familiar, I enjoyed the new setting and characters and will be reading further in the series as I am able. Riordan's odd sense of humor was also a high point.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Booking through Thursday: In Public

Booking through Thursday asksDo you carry books with you when you’re out and about in the world?
And, do you ever try to hide the covers?

If I'm caught without a book, it was an accident -- as I keep books in my car and usually remember to grab one on my way out of the house in case I am caught in a traffic jam or stuck waiting on an appointment. While living at university I always had some leisure reading in my backpack, and even if I just went outside for a stroll around campus I took a book with me;  ideal reading spots always chanced to catch my attention. If none of my friends were present in the dining hall, I enjoyed my meal with a book -- and  often spent my time between classes or during slow periods at work reading. Even when I worked in a factory, I kept a book in my lunch bag to enjoy during the middle of the day -- a welcome respite after hours of monotonous assembly-line work.

As for hiding covers...well, there was a Max Shulman book I purchased with an illustrated cover. I didn't realize this until I was reading at work, but one of the figures on the cover was a nude woman with very colorful...cheeks.  Fortunately I spotted that before my boss did, heh.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Dhammapada, Annotated and Explained
© 2001 translated Max Müller, annotated by Jack Macguire
129 pages

Yesterday I drove to the state capital, Montgomery, and while there visited the main branch library. I noticed they offered several versions of the Dhammapada, one of the oldest and most accessible portions of Buddhist scripture. It contains some 400+ verses; short aphorisms on the way of enlightenment. Compasssion, self-discipline, and meditation are mainstay themes of the verses. The wisdom expressed here is universal: you don't need an education in Buddhism to grasp the essential messages. On the off chance that you are utterly and completely ignorant as to what Buddhism is about,  this translation comes with an introduction that sets things in context and is fully annotated to explain themes in Buddhist thought, or references to Indian culture those outside it might miss. The authors also occasionally include quotations from other Buddhist sources (other works, as well as living teachers like the Dalai Lama), separated from the main text, so that readers may examine a theme from multiple angles. The combined result is a great success. When I decide to purchase a copy of the Dhammapada for future reference and inspiration, this will be the version I will look for.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (20 September)

Today I snuck into the children's section of the library to pick up a Riordian number, and while in the R's noticed a book I'd not seen before. Naturally I checked it out and read it at lunch, giggling the entire way through. A couple of teasers --

'...and Wee Willykins kissed and huggled the hoppity pot and promised always to help the dollies and never to be an old grumpy-wumpkins again.'
Mrs. Bloxam's tale has met the same response from generations of Wizarding children: uncontrollable retching, followed by an immediate demand to have the book taken from them and mashed into pulp.

p. 39, Tales of Beedle the Bard.  (J.K. Rowling, "Albus Dumbledore")

This exchange marked the beginning of Mr. Malfoy's long campaign to have me removed from my post as headmaster of Hogwarts, and of mine to have him removed from his position as Lord Voldemort's Favorite Death Eater. My response prompted several further letters from Mr. Malfoy, but as they consisted mainly of opprobrious remarks on my sanity, parentage, and hygiene, their relevance to this commentary is remote.

p. 42, Tales of Beedle the Bard. (J.K. Rowling, "Albus Dumbledore")

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tales of Beedle the Bard

The Tales of Beedle the Bard
© 2007 J.K. Rowling
111 pages

"Translated from the ancient runes by Hermione Granger.
Commentary by Albus Dumbledore
Introduction, Notes, and Illustrations by J.K. Rowling"

If the end of the Harry Potter story this summer has left you sad, this charming little collection of stories set in-universe will bring a smile to your face. Mentioned in The Deathly Hallows, the book was 'defictionalized' as part of a charity drive, along with Quidditch through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts. Alas, there are only five stories included, but each is followed by commentary from Albus Dumbledore, who comments on the story's meaning and legacy with his usual wise and gentle wit. The commentary is not only amusing, but it fleshes out the wizarding world all the more for fans of the series. Any and all fans of the Harry Potter series should enjoy this little collection of heart-warming fairy tales from a world where magic actually exists.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

This Week at the Library (14 September)

This week at the library...

I'll be finishing a biography of Marcus Aurelius, as well as the Discourses and Handbook of Epictetus. As it turns out, reading them together gives me a complementary experience, as Epictetus's philosophy inspired Marcus' own, and the author of the biography spends time comparing and contrasting the two.

At the library, I picked up:

  • Sharpe's Escape, Bernard Cornwell
  • The Reformation, Will Durant. Considering my current study of Anglicanism, I'm actually looking forward to this one despite my usual abhorrence of theology. 
  • I also picked up Walking with Dinosaurs, because I needed something science-y. That Physics Made Simple book turns out to require knowledge of trigonometry which I don't have. Alas. 

Sharpe's Gold

Sharpe's Gold
© 1981 Bernard Cornwell
256 pages

Napoleon triumphant! Spain is lost, defended only by partisans fighting a 'little war' -- and Britain's peninsular foothold in Portugal is teetering on the edge of an abyss: the army is right out of money. Desperate, Sir Arthur Wellington contracts the indomitable Captain Richard Sharpe for a little productive mischief: he's to sneak behind French lines and 'borrow' a pile of gold stashed in a partisan-held held down. The plan is simple, and of course must go the way of all simple plans: right down the toilet. When a key member of Sharpe's party disappears beneath the blades of French lancers, Sharpe is forced to improvise. Of course, improvisation is Mr. Sharpe's specialty.

The plot has the usual staples of a Sharpe novel: adventure, betrayal, romance (for Sharpe), and a dramatic ending. Compared to some of Cornwell's other dazzling plots, this one would not stand out were it not for what it reveals about the relationship between Sharpe and Wellington, and the character of Sharpe himself.  According to Wikipedia, this was Cornwall's second novel, but it establishes and drives home the fact that there is a special link between Wellington and Sharpe:  the highborn general may not like Sharpe, but he knows the rifleman can accomplish the impossible.  Wellington trusts Sharpe, and Sharpe's refusal to court failure sees him make a staggering decision that shows how resolute a man he can be. This is a man who will take on a force of nearly a thousand with only 53 men -- and that's  only the beginning of the story. At the same time part of Sharpe's strength seems to derive from a faith in Wellington. Though not friends, they are titans, working hand in hand to defeat one of the greatest figures in western history.   I for one am looking forward to seeing the rest of their journey.

Next time: Sharpe's Escape.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Top Ten Books from Other Blogs

This week the Broke and the Bookish are discussing books which they encountered first through other blogs and bloggers.

1. Sharpe's Eagle, Bernard Cornwell

Reccommended to me by Cyberkitten of Seeking a Little Truth, this novel introduced me to the Napoleonic action hero, Richard Sharpe.

2. Persian Fire, Tom Holland

Suggested to me by the Resolute Reader after I read Holland's Rubicon,  chronicling the collapse of the Roman Republic.  Persian Fire looks at an earlier period in history, at the rise of Persia, its conflict with Greece, and the growth of Zoroastrianism which would come to influence the Abrahamic religions.

3. The Lightening Thief, Rick Riordian
Recommended to me by Baley of the Reader's Book Blog. I later read the entire series, enjoying it all the way.

4. Parasite Rex, Carl Zimmer

Imagine a world where parasites control the minds of their hosts, sending them to their destruction.Imagine a world where parasites are masters of chemical warfare and camouflage, able to cloak themselves with their hosts' own molecules.Imagine a world where parasites steer the course of evolution, where the majority of species are parasites.Welcome to earth.

Reccommended to me by Neurovore of Neurovore's Nuclear News Network, or N^4. Hoo boy, was this an eye-opener. You have no idea how wondrously terrifying and disgusting life can be until you've read about the life cycle of parasites.

5. The Age of Absurdity, Michael Foley

I only heard of this book through Cyberkitten,  and read it back in January. I haven't reviewed it yet, because -- like The Sane Society -- it comments on so much that I feel hard-pressed to do it justice. The essential idea is that we have created societies which not only fail to meet our needs, but often run counter to them.

6. The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood

Neurovore again. This is a dystopian novel set in a nightmare future in which crazy Christians have taken over the United States and created a society based on the Hebrew scriptures -- complete with the total subjugation of women.  Considering the Republican Party's current offerings, perhaps we should read it in preparation.

7. The Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker
...Neurovore. This one takes on various misconceptions about human psychology, including the idea that we are born 'blank slates' who act from cultural conditioning only, and not instinct, and the concept that we are born 'good' and then corrupted by the artificial construct of society. It's a naturalistic approach to psychology and neuroscience: quite refreshing.

8. The Magicians, Lev Grossman
Reviewed by Joy of Joy's Blog. Its cover caught my attention, but the book is stunning. It's sort of a realistic, cynical take on Harry Potter-style fantasy.

9. Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer
Suggested to me by Baley, this is the story of a young man who lost his life while trying to find himself.

10. Nemesis, Isaac Asimov
This is tagged 'reccommended to me', so someone reccommended it to me. (Hence the tag, "reccommended to me.") I don't know of many people who would know Nemesis, so I am going to take a guess and say that it was Cyberkitten's doing.

Teaser Tuesdayish (13 September)

Well, it's Tuesday in most of the world. Time for a teaser, then. Or three.

"Get him out, sir? There's two regiments there!"
"So? That's only eight hundred men. There are fifty-three of us."

p. 64, Sharpe's Gold. Bernard Cornwell.

Hogan, he thought, was right. If a miracle were needed to save the campaign, and it was, then the rogue he had just seen was the best man for the job. More than a rogue: a fighter, and a man who looked on failure as unthinkable. But a rogue, thought Wellington, a damned rogue all the same. 

p. 31, Sharpe's Gold. Bernard Cornwell.

Suppose I should say to a wrestler, 'Show me your muscle'. And he should answer me, 'See my dumb-bells'. Your dumb-bells are your own affair; I want to see the effect of them.
"Take the treatise 'On Choice', and see how thoroughly I have perused it.
I am not asking about this, O slave, but how you act in choosing and refusing, how you manage your desires and aversions, your intentions and purposes, how you meet events -- whether you are in harmony with nature's laws or opposed to them. If in harmony, give me evidence of that, and I will say you are progressing; if the contrary, you may go your way, and not only comment on your books, but write some like them yourself; and what good will it do you?

p. 13-14. The Discourses, book four ("On Progress"). Epictetus.

The Renaissance

The Renaissance:  A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304-1576 A.D.
© 1953 Will Durant
776 pages

I assumed the Renaissance would be a high point of this series for me, second only to The Age of Reason. After a thousand years of dogma and depressing piety, at last returns the classical world and the revival of its philosophy and art!  Instead, most of The Renaissance focuses on the politics of various Italian city states -- in great detail -- and their rivalries with one another. I grew bored of this very sharp focus after a few hundred pages, but aside from occasional commentaries on art history, it dominates the book. There are a few scant chapters with a more general view (one on the hilarious schism years, with various popes and antipopes running around; another on Italy's conquest at the hands of various European powers, most notably France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire) , and scores of mini-biographies, but the predominant theme of The Renaissance is petty politics. It may be most useful as an introduction to The Reformation, as its two-century history see the authority and power of the Vatican evaporated away by moral corruption, political machinations, and finally invasions of Italy which compromise its sovereignty.  While it is heartening to see people turn away from stultifying medieval piety and return to attempting to make the most of this life, in the Renaissance that shift manifests itself in merchant-princes turned dictators constantly fighting with one another and sponsoring art to praise themselves.   I'm still holding out for the good stuff in The Age of Reason, which I assume covers the Enlightenment.

Given its radical shift in focus from the broad (thousand-year epochs spanning multiple continents) to the narrow ( two centuries in one peninsula), The Renaissance is quite a bit different from the rest of the books in this series. I imagine it is a worthy read for someone interested in Italian politics, but I had hoped for a broader story and made my way through these two centuries somewhat unenthusiastically.

Selected quotations:

‎"The lives of great men oft remind us that a man's character can be formed after his demise. If a ruler coddles the chroniclers about him they may lift him to posthumous sanctity; if he offends him they may broil his corpse on a spit of venom or roast him to darkest infamy in a pot of ink."

Will Durant, p. 391

"The sun does not move....the earth is not in the center of the circle of the sun, nor in the center of the universe."

- Leonardo da Vinci, , quoted on page 122.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Illiad

The Illiad
© 1960 Barbara Leonie Picard
208 pages
Illustrated by Joan Kiddell-Monroe

The Illiad is one of the oldest and most celebrated works of literature of western civilization: a classic among classics, no world literature class would be complete without it.  It is part of the western heritage; from it come phrases like "Trojan horse."  Yet, being a classic, it may intimidate some readers, especially given its form as epic poetry. Barbara Leonie Picard's interpretation of it into a prose should make this lovely piece of western history open to a wider audience, especially considering her introduction and epilogue, and the use of bronze and gold plate illustrations which hearken to ancient Greek pottery.

The story is set during the Trojan War, a decade-long conflict between the city-states of Greece and the state of Troy and its allies. The feud has its roots in mythology, with Paris -- a young prince of Troy --  judging a beauty contest of goddesses and being rewarded with the queen of Sparta, Helen, as his bride. Since Helen is already married to Menelaus, this causes something of a problem -- and the Greeks invade Troy, where they lay siege for ten years.  The Illiad is a story of men and pride, for the pride of two Greek warriors divides their army and weakens their cause.  It begins when King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek alliance, seizes a woman who Achilles -- the greatest Greek warrior --took as a war prize.  Achilles is outraged by Agamemnon's arrogance. He abandons the fight and prays to his mother -- the goddess Thetis -- to ask Zeus to turn the war against Agamemnon, and as the days progress many a Greek will die.

The official author of The Illiad  is a 'blind poet' named Homer. In truth, we do not know when the story arose and it is probably the work of multiple generations, the story expanding with every retelling -- for this is an ancient story, one originally passed on orally. "The use of gods as active characters in the story bears witness to its age:  Zeus, Athena, Apollo, and others are not mere background forces, but take an active but sometimes unseen role on the battlefield. They deflect spears and arrows, cast mists to  prevent foes from seeing one another, and directly assault the players. Although Zeus -- supporting the Trojans -- forbids his children from taking part, Athena never abandons her beloved Greeks, and Apollo does not forsake the Trojans. Sometimes the gods work against one another: when a river-god tries to drown Achilles for his arrogance, Hephaestus creates fires to keep the water away.

The Illiad captivated me: although I am familiar with the general story, I have never read it properly and so experienced the feud in full. The relationship between Achilles and the two princes of Troy especially interested me: Paris is a despicable character, and it amused me greatly to see Hector reliably addressing him as "Most wretched brother".  The story is far fairer to Hector than I anticipated: he is almost as noble here as when he was portrayed by Eric Bana in Troy, though his behavior at Patroclus' death made me think his corpse's being dragged around the city every day at dawn was something of a just dessert.  Perhaps the most striking element of the book is its emphasis on individual heroism: these men are not selfless soldiers of Greece; they fight for glory and reputation. At the same time, there is a bond between them -- and sometimes pride bowed before that camaraderie.

Rarely have I been more entertained by a classic: if you ever have an interest or a need to visit the Illiad, I would suggest looking for this translation. It is commendable.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

The Big Rock Candy Mountain
© 1943 Wallace Stegner
563 pages

"The frontier is closed", declared the US census board in 1890. The boundless west has been fenced in and taken, but Bo Mason isn't satisfied to believe it. There must be opportunities for the seizing, rich and virgin soil still yet unplowed. Somewhere, there must be a place where a man of strength and wiles such as himself can get in on the ground floor and make a killing. Driven by this insatiable lust for quick prosperity, Bo roams North America for thirty years pursuing the dream and dragging his family along behind him through peril and poverty. The result is a magnificent, emotionally-demanding character drama and a glorious portrait of the wild, untamed west. Like Grapes of Wrath, it won't leave anyone with a case of the warm fuzzies -- but it's as real and visceral a human story as I've ever read.

The dominating character of Big Rock Candy Mountain is the ever-intense Bo Mason, a man who radiates with energy. His soul forged by an abusive childhood, he distrusts others and refuses to be bound by any other man's chains: strong and intelligent, he seeks to create his own bounty. His forceful personality means that he consumes the book without being its main character. This is a story told mostly by Bo's wife, Elsa, and later his son Bruce -- but despite their own strengths as characters,  Bo looms large over their lives.  At first, his wild individuality makes him a sympathetic character, but as the decades pass that youthful rootlessness and his temper become more damaging than inspiring -- and they affect not only him, but his family as well.  The novel's tension comes from Elsa and Bruce's attempts to grapple with Bo's influence in their lives: Elsa is utterly selfless and longsuffering, seeing through Bo's childishness to the man inside, while Bruce struggles with hatred toward his father, a man who can't seem to grow up and learn the value of endurance.

While the struggle between these characters makes for a fantastic read all on its own, the environment and prose are also outstanding. Stegner has a rare authenticity, and his descriptions of the American west and Canadian wilderness made me long for a home near the mountains -- to look out the window of a big ranch house and see wind-swept fields, a bright, bubbling brook, and stern green trees set against a dazzling blue sky. There's such a vividness to his descriptions. and the environment isn't so much as a piece of background scenery as almost a character itself, something the Masons live with and must often persevere over.

Big Rock Candy Mountain isn't a happy story, and the ending chapters are heart-wrenching to anyone who develops a concern for the character. It forces the reader to deal with Bo, just as Elsa and Bruce do: is he a wretch? What does he deserve, our wrath or our pity? I still don't know.  This was such an intense novel that two weeks later, its questions still hang over my head.

Do experience this if you can.

The Feather Merchants

The Feather Merchants
© 1944 Max Shulman
145 pages
From Max Shulman's Large Economy Size, 

Sergeant Dan Miller, supply clerk extraordinaire, is home on furlough -- and leave to him to get into more trouble in one night than he's found in months of service during the greatest war in history. It all started when he and his best buddy Sam strolled into a local tavern and had a little too much to drink and start making slurred speeches in Elizabethean English which *slightly* dramatize Dan's role in the war so far. By the time he crawls out, Dan has bought a car, possibly gotten engaged, and is scheduled to single-handedly blow up a bridge in town to commemorate the opening of Minneapolis' munitions plant. Oops.

The Feather Merchants is an absurdist drama in which poor Miller is railroaded into the trap of having to meet impossible expectations. He tries and tries to get out of it, but of course he can't -- the city of Minneapolis expects their local hero to do his duty and blow that bridge by himself. So he commits to doing it, and of course nothing goes to plan. It goes fantastically horrific, actually. It's a kind of sitcom plot, but funny all the same. As in some other Shulman works, the humor lies not in the plotting but in the writing: characters launch into bizarre speeches which have nothing to do with anything at all (or so you think) and leave the main character frustrated at their uselessness, and the dialogue is...well, 'zany'. There's also much bawdiness.

As usual, something of a riot.

Booking through Thursday: Queue

Booking through Thursday asks:
What are you reading now?
Would you recommend it?
And what’s next?

I'm nibbling at several books at the moment: Will Durant's The Renaissance, which is thus far just about Italian city-state politics;  The Illiad, interpreted into prose by Barbara Leone Picard;  Marcus Aurelius: A Life, by Frank McLynn; Sharpe's Gold by Bernard Cornwell; and the Discourses by Epictetus.   How on earth am I trying this much at once? Well...I'm taking a devotional approach to the Discourses, reading a chapter or two a night;  I read Sharpe's Gold for leisure, and I alternate between the others when it is time for my serious reading. I know I need to commit to one if I expect to make any progress, but for the moment I'm still nibbling.

The Renaissance thus far is not igniting my interest (petty city-state rivalries are so pre-classical era), but The Iliad is thus far entertaining. People keep getting introduced and killed, but Hector insulting his brother ("Most wretched Paris!") is almost a running joke.   The Marcus Aurelius bio is good so far, and Cornwell is always worth recommending.  I'm finding The Discourses surprisingly readable, although right now I've slammed into a section on the proper use of reason in thinking which is slow-going.

As for what's next, I have Your Faith, Your Life: An Invitation to the Episcopal Church, by Jenifer Gamber and Bill Lewellis, which I'm reading  as part of my study of Anglicanism.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

This Week at the Library (7 September)

This week at the library I've put entirely too much on my plate. For starters, I'm knee deep in Will Durant's The Renaissance, which is surprisingly..not all that interesting. So far it's been three hundred pages of petty Italian city-state politics mixed in with some art discussion.  I'm still wading into a prose version of The Iliad, which is proving to be interesting. The gods are actual characters in the stories: one of them deflects an arrow shot Menelaus (the man who thought his pride was worth an eleven-year war) so that it only makes him angry instead of killing him. And, so help me, I've gotten interested in my big Marcus Aurelius biography after all this time.

At the library, I picked up Physics Made Simple and Sharpe's Gold, along with a formal and complete translation of Epictetus' works. I've read an interpretation of Epictetus before (The Art of Living, Sharon Lebell), but it's not Epictetus proper. I don't know why on earth I'm arranging so many books for myself to read, but I also borrowed Your Faith, Your Life: An Invitation to the Episcopal Church from a most kind rector as I'm continuing to learn about the Anglican faith.

In terms of books I've read this week, I have two reviews outstanding. I finally managed to make progress on my comments for The Big Rock Candy Mountain, and am short only a paragraph. Astronomy Made Simple and The Feather Merchants by Max Shulman need reviews, though both will be fairly short.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (6 September)

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish event hosted by Should Be Reading in which people share a brief excerpt from their current read.

"Most wretched Paris, would you shame us further? Have you not brought dishonour and grief enough on Troy already? Coward, and stealer of other men's wives, I wish that you had died before you went to Sparta."

p. 23, The Illiad. Translated/interpreted by Barbara Leone Picard. This is the Illiad told in prose, not verse. This will not be the last time Hector refers to Paris as "most wretched".

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Sharpe's Havoc

Sharpe's Havoc: Portugal, 1809
© 2003 Bernard Cornwell
396 pages

"So what do you believe in?" Vicente wanted to know.
"The trinity, sir," said Harper sententiously.
"The trinity?" Vicente was surprised.
"The Baker rifle," Sharpe said, "the sword bayonet, and me."
(p. 266)

Napoleon's armies command Europe, and now, in the late spring of 1809, they threaten to force Britain to abandon its fragile foothold in Portugal. The British army is in retreat, and one Richard Sharpe -- commanding a small band of riflemen -- has been caught behind enemy lines while on a mission to find and rescue the daughter of a wealthy English family. Our man Sharpe is of course resourceful enough to get himself out of any pickle, but circumstances are complicated when he bumps into a "Lieutenant Colonel" attached to the foreign office, who has a great many schemes and (Sharpe thinks) the legal authority to order Sharpe about. The colonel thinks himself a chessmaster, but Sharpe has his rifles and a few friends with which to survive the weeks of danger,  intrigue, and treachery which lie ahead.

Within the last year or so Bernard Cornwell has become one of my favorite authors. Unlike Jeff Shaara or John Grisham, say, I don't read him dutifully -- but joyously. His books make me excited, and Sharpe's Havoc is a fine example of why. Sharpe is thrown into a mess, but he survives the odds again and again through skill, wit, and not a small measure of luck.  Dialogue is marvelous as usual -- I do love the usual repartee between Sharpe, Harper, and Hogan -- and once more we get an interesting villain in "Lieutenant Colonel Christopher", a right weasel. Cornwell also shows off his usual gift for making the physical environment come alive. I think Havoc will stand out among the rest of the Sharpe series whenever I complete it, for like a few others it has an intimate focus: Sharpe and his men are alone, and I enjoy their solitary adventures more than accounts of large-scale battles.

Next in the series is Sharpe's Eagle, but as I've already read that I'll be moving onto Sharpe's Gold.