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".

The Lost Hero

The Lost Hero
© 2010 Rick Riordian
557 pages

Rick Riordian's debut novels introduced us to Percy Jackson, a half-mortal half-divine Demigod destined to save the world. Now the hero of heroes has vanished -- and three new demigods have come into Camp Half-Blood's care,  all older than the usual freshman camper and all with troubled histories.  The oldest, Jason, doesn't even know who he is.  These are dark days for the kids of Camp Half-Blood: their leader has vanished,  Olympus is closed, the gods are silent, and strange things are rumbling in the darkness. A great conflict is a-building, and it will test the mettle of three new heroes -- Jason, Piper, and Leo.  The result is an exciting, unpredictable story that's left me looking to a sequel with eager anticipation.

The Lost Hero is most impressive. Although I looked forward to revisiting the Greek gods, I did have concerns that it might be repetitive. This isn't the case. Three distinct viewpoint characters tell the story, and each have a history that has set them up for conflict with one another and their allies in the story; they all start out compromised, unlike Percy and Annabeth. Riordan is clearly writing for a more mature audience here: there's more work put into the long-term story, and the writing itself isn't as light-hearted in nature as with the kids' series. The reader is treated to two stories -- not only the action-adventure thriller, as the three struggle against monsters to prevail, but a darker mystery:  there's clearly a larger story behind this one, but we have no idea what role Destiny has in mind for the heroes. This mystery is gripping and the ending a spectacular reveal. I'm quite excited about future offerings in this series.


I wrote this on 6 October, but for some reason never got around to posting it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Age of Reason Begins

The Age of Reason Begins
© 1961 Will and Aerial Durant
729 pages

"We are all citizens of one world, we are all of one blood. To hate a man because he was born in another county, because he speaks a different language, or because he takes a different view on this subject or that, is a great folly. Desist, I implore you, for we are all equally human...Let us have but one end in view, the welfare of humanity; and let us put aside all selfishness in considerations of language, nationalism, or religion." - p. John Comenius, b. 1592

After struggling through two centuries of Catholics and Protestants screaming at each other in The Reformation,  The Age of Reason Begins promised deliverance:  bring on the Enlightenment!  The opening chapters encouraged those newfound feelings of belief: enter Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare!  Look, in the table of contents -- there's Montaigne! An a full section devoted to science. Glory, hallelujah. And yet,  The Age of Reason Begins is just as dominated by religion as The Reformation; almost moreso, because its contents are almost wholly devoted to religious wars and interdenominational persecution.  England and France's wars are followed by the Thirty Years' War, to the point that I began to look forward to sections on architecture and literature because they promised some relief from the constant bloodletting. And yet, as Durant points out, these conflicts helped clear the way for the Enlightenment. The utter savageness and prolonged nature of these conflicts  --  and the fact that there were no good guys, only a multitude of opinionated, bloodthirsty cretins who caused me to yell "A plague on ALL YOUR HOUSES!" at least once while reading --   sapped faith's credibility in the minds of Europeans. In desperation to escape the insanity, they turned intstead to philosophy and science.  Thus a grisly read offers relief by ending on a happier note.

Beginning Runner's Handbook

The Beginning Runner's Handbook: The Proven 13-Week Walk-Run Program
© 1999 Ian MacNeill
168 pages

As mentioned prior, I committed myself to an active lifestyle back in late August or early September, and began  a daily habit of exercise, choosing to go for brisk walks in the morning and evening.  I've been increasing the length and intensity of my 'walk-outs' steadily until this week, so my legs have been growing in strength and I'm so filled with energy that I wish to RUN -- but I can't. I've had to cut back a bit on my mileage because of runner's knee: my joints simply aren't ready for the intensity of running. Even so, I keep thinking about it and as a way of preparing myself and running vicariously, I decideded to check out The Beginning Runner's Handbook, a thorough guide that includes a transition plan for walkers to condition themselves into becoming runners.

The Handbook reminded me in part of the Complete Guide to Walking in that it stressed the need for the exercise, the ease of taking up running, and devoted sections to gear, stretches, and so on. However,  its chapter on nutrition is more thorough than the Guide to Walking, and it contains information on common running injuries, their treatment, and their prevention. MacNeill also encourages cross-training, along with strength training, but the Runners' Handbook isn't written as much toward a goal of "total body fitness" as the Guide to the Walking. MacNeill's strength-training exercises mostly target those muscles used in running, and cross-training is introduced as a way to keep active during running rest periods or injuries.  Because running is a more intensive activity than walking,  his schedule reccommends running three times a week and using the other days to rest and cross-training.

Altogether, a strong introduction to the subject. For those interested, I would reccommend both the Complete Guide to Walking and this Handbook: the walking guide is more thorough for fitness overall, but the running handbook is more detailed in nutrition needs and medical care.  Unfortunately, I can't evaluate the program just yet, but it has received high praise on Amazon.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

This Week at the Library (25 October)

Oh, dear, oh dear. The number of books I need to review but haven't gotten round to doing yet keeps increasing. Reviews outstanding: The Lost Hero, Rick Riordan; At Home in Mitford, Jan Karon; The Beginning Runners' Handbook by Ian MacNeill, and Active Living Every Day are all owed reviews.  That last one doesn't lend itself well to a full review, though, so I'll just say here that it was written for people who are completely inactive and who need encouragement in just getting started.  While walking is the easiest activity to begin,  it isn't the only one mentioned. The authors encourage complete couch potatoes to start stealing two minute walks whenever they can, work up to ten, and continue working up to an average of thirty minutes a day. That's easier than you might think, because exercise can be enjoyable. When I'm 40+ minutes into my walking in the morning, I feel like I could conquer the world.

  At Home in Mitford is also hard to review, because it doesn't have...a plot, as such. Not that it's harmed by this: it just follows the life of some people in a charming little town for a year and a half. It's...utterly beguiling -- cozy, "home"y.   I also finished reading a book last night I've not yet reviewed, called The Rapture Exposed, and it proved to be most interesting and useful.  More later!

Today at the library I picked up..

  • God has a Dream:A Vision of Hope for Our Time, Desmond Tutu.  Last night I was invited to join a book club, and the November read is this. So I'll read it this week, take some notes, and hopefully remember having read it a month from now. 
  • Clash of Wings: World War II in the Sky, Walter J. Boyne.  I have mentioned Boyne on this blog before, having used his The Influence of Air Power Upon History in many term papers. I owe a lot of my academic success to the man, frankly, and when I saw a Boyne book sitting in the library I had to check it out.
  • Sharpe's Company, Bernard Cornwell. 
  • The Astral, Kate Christensen. On display, this novel's cover caught my attention. I'm not committed to it, but some of the characters sounded interesting. A poet is kicked out of his apartment when his wife realizes some of his older poetry reveals he had an affair in his youth, and he loses everything and isn't quite comfortable with his lesbian daughter and cult-following son. My guess is he learns to stop taking things seriously and learns to love his oddball kids for who they are.

I have that history of math/science book I picked up last week still waiting my attention, and I'm struggling (!) to get into The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The opening story in this volume isn't nearly as enticing as the others.

In addition, I finished The Age of Reason Begins last night, so...that is joining the stack of books I've yet to review. I'm going to take a week-long break from the Story of Civilization series because frankly, I'm a little tired of reading about European wars. Two centuries of Catholics and Protestants frothing at the mouth, and burning each other's homes has taken its toll on me...and that's not even counting the 30 Years' War. Oy.  But next week I'll probably start The Age of Louis XIV.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sharpe's Battle

Sharpe's Battle
© 1995 Bernard Cornwell
304 pages

“You did what, Sharpe? A duel? Don't you know dueling is illegal in the army?”
“I never said anything about a duel, General. I just offered to beat the hell out of him right here and now, but he seemed to have other things on his mind."

Spring 1811, and Captain Richard Sharpe has gotten himself into trouble. At first he was merely lost, but when he stumbled upon a strange band of French troops dressed in grey and led by a man in wolf costume, he earned himself a mortal enemy. Brigadier Loup is a vile French commander who seeks to terrorize the Spanish population into obedience, using even rape as a weapon. This does not sit well with Mr. Sharpe. Cornwell's heroes may live for battle and not think twice about punching  priests who've got it coming, but as a rule they don't abide rape. After Sharpe executes the offenders, their master Loup vows vengeance -- and gives to our valiant greencoated riflemen something we've not before witnessed, defeat. Tasked with babysitting a regiment of Irishmen thought to be more loyal to France than Britain, and threatened with a court of inquiry for executing prisoners,  Sharpe faces the death of his career. Salvation can only be found in a spectatular act of heroism, like the slaying of the Wolf,  Brigadier Loup, whose ferocity has made him a legend among his English and Portugese enemies. Thus begins an exciting story with one of the most personal fights in the series serving  as a conclusion.

Although American schoolchildren are taught the history of England, that history tends to leave off abruptly after 1789, and England appears thereafter only when foreign affairs make it relevant to American history. Thus, the Napoleonic wars are a complete unknown to many of us, and the Peninsular War which British children may be expected to recite facts about might as well be existent. Cornwell's Sharpe series is essentially giving me my education in that regard, as I read his books and various historical articles for context.      When the story picks up, the British army seems to moved beyond its safe fortifications and has tempted Napoleon's eagles into battle.  Sharpe's duties don't allow him a place in battle, but -- being Sharpe -- he finds his way into the thick of things regardless.  Sharpe's Battle focuses more on the movement of armies than other books in the series, and the villain is irredeemably evil, but admittedly interesting. He strikes Sharpe as a pagan warlord, holding a cross of wolves' tales to inspire courage in his men and fear in his opponents'. Cornwell plays a wicked trick on the reader in turns of drama, leading Sharpe into what may be a desperate trap and then moving to Wellington while the reader is left  frantically wondering "What will become of Mister Sharpe?!"  Battle is intense throughout, and another solid hit for the series.

Next up: Sharpe's Company.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Planet that Wasn't

The Planet that Wasn't
© 1976 Isaac Asimov
237 pages

Isaac Asimov routinely penned science essays in various magazines, and given his eagerness to publish books, often produced collections of said science essays. The Planet that Wasn't is one such collection, covering pure science as well as science's perception in society. The title essay refers to the speculated planet of Vulcan, which was thought to exist between Mercury and the Sun, proposed as a way to account for Mercury's slight orbital deviation. Vulcan could never be found, because it did not exist:  our entire understanding of physics had to change (from Newtonian mechanics to Einstein's relativity) before Mercury's orbit was truly understood.  After some initial astrophysics,  a brief series of essays takes us from the versatility of carbon to biochemistry, and Asimov devotes a chapter to the working of the gallbladder, cholesterol, and high blood pressure. The latter essays move from science to its relationship with society: "The Nightfall Effect" addresses the notion that human beings can only settle outer space on other planetary bodies, and not space stations, while "The Flying Dutchman" tackles UFOs.  My favorite essay is "The Bridge of the Gods', which addresses the physics of the rainbow and treated me to a history of optics.

Enjoyable as ever, but I would say that...being an Asimovophile.

Complete Guide to Walking

Walking Magazine's Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss, and Fitness
© 2001 Mark Fenton
261 pages

In late August or early September, I woke up early one morning, donned my wide-brimmed straw hat, and set off for an early-morning walk around my neighborhood. I found the jaunt an excellent way to wake up in the morning, and since I needed to get active, I made the morning walk a routine of mine. Now, over a month later, I'm walking well over five miles a day and am enjoying much stronger legs and an abundance of energy. Since I anticipate making this a lifelong activity, I decided to see if there was any literature on the subject. Walking Magazine's Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss, and  Fitness is as complete and enjoyable an introduction to the subject as I can imagine, and a definite recommendation to those interested in becoming more active or in losing weight.

Author Mark Fenton begins by explaining the benefits of walking as an exercise: it's easy to do, it can be done anywhere, and it requires essentially nothing in the way of special equipment, only a pair of sensible shoes and the will to do it. Walking is a fundamentally natural exercise, so it's easy to start and maintain. Fenton takes the reader through a year in the life of a walker, beginning with weekly program of ten minutes per day and slowly ramping up to a desired average of thirty minutes per day.  A few weeks in, Fenton dedicates a chapter to walking for weight-loss, and explains the basics of metabolism. One of the best points he makes in the book is that diet alone is not a sustainable way to lose weight: as your weight decreases, so do the amount of calories that you need. To keep losing, the dieter must cut out more and more calories from their diet, which is unsustainable given the basic needs of the body -- and the sheer distastefulness of not being able to eat anything. Those who eat moderately and exercise can continue to lose weight  or maintain a healthy weight throughout their life simply by increasing the intensity or length of their workouts. I can attest to this, because I have been consistently losing weight every week in the past month+ since I started walking, without drastic changes to my diet. (Although, I lost a lot less that week I enjoyed a piece of my friend's fresh out-of-the-oven cheesecake...) Although weight loss will be a side effect of a healthy walking habit, Fenton's goal with this book is broader than that. He aims toward total body fitness, and so also advices strength-training exercises. In the early months, these are introduced to strengthen one's "core" to complement the walking, while exercises in the latter half of the book are intended to work muscles that aren't active through walking alone.  A few months into the habit, the author suggests it may be time for new shoes -- and dedicates a chapter towards useful walking gear, like how to dress for inclement weather. He also advocates cross-training, and ends with a chapter on "racewalking".

I give the book high praise for its organization and presentation: Fenton is a passionate, thorough, and useful guide. Visually, it's quite appealing, though I found the fact that all of the pictures featured fit twenty-something females in flattering attire rather amusing. I suppose that's proof to this being the product of a magazine, as is perhaps some mild product-placement in the gear section.  I'll be referring to this book in later months when I do more strength training.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Illustrations by Richard Lebenson
Afterword by Fred Strebeigh
© 1987, The Reader's Digest Association.

‎"You? Who are you? How could you know anything about the matter?"
"My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don't know."

Lately I've been wanting to read a good mystery, but put down a police novel after realizing I'm rather tired of books that begin with dead bodies. I wanted a mystery with some class, with some dignity -- a gentleman's mystery, like Isaac Asimov's Black Widow puzzlers.  Finding no one who could recommend such a work, I decided to examine the most legendary detective in literature: Sherlock Holmes. This handsome volume of twelve stories met my taste exactly, and I am licking my chops at the prospect of having fifty more such stories to read in other volumes.

There are few people in the industrialized world who would not recognize the name Sherlock Holmes, I imagine. His profile -- a deerstalker hat and pipe -- are cultural icons, as his saying, "Elementary, my dear Watson..." Holmes is is a brilliant and ruthlessly logical detective residing in Victorian London, whose clientele ranges from the dregs of society to kings. Regardless of social status or wealth, all who come to Holmes see him as their last possible hope. He only asks that his cases present him with a challenge, and he masters each with his impressive powers of observation, taking in every fact and producing bewilderingly accurate analysis based on that.  Twelve of those stories are chronicled here by Holmes' lone friend and companion, Dr. Watson:  "A Scandal in Bohemia", "The Red-Headed League", "A Case of Identity", "The Boscombe Valley Mystery", "The Five Orange Pis", "The Man with the Twisted Lip", "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle", "The Adventure of the Speckled Band", "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb", "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor", "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet", and "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches".

I fell for Doyle's style of writing immediately; there's such elegance to his prose that I found myself reading aloud simply for the pleasure of it. The stories, too, offered much variety: although there are a few corpses scattered here and there, these aren't death-mysteries. Some of them do not even involve legal crimes. Although a friend told me that Doyle wrote these stories in such a way as to invite the reader to solve them before Holmes, I scarcely think this possible: while the detective's feats of logic are easy enough to follow in retrospect, and readers versed in literary tropes may guess at solutions, Holmes' concrete evidence is often information the readers are not privy to, or can't possibly grasp the significance of. This doesn't in any way detract from the pleasure of following Holmes' footsteps, and the stories are more varied than most modern police-detective mysteries I've read.

The book itself is well-done: the sepia-toned illustrations complement each piece nicely, the font is simple and stylish, and the book ends with a piece from Smithsonian on the widespread cultish following Holmes has. That following is part of the reason why I thought of Doyle's detective when I itched for a mystery: Isaac Asimov was a devoted Sherlockian,  mentioning him in his Widowers stories and writing an essay analyzing Holmes' skills as a chemist.

When I return to the library this week, my first stop will be fiction -- D for "Doyle"!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Star Trek Voyager: Pathways
© 1998 Jeri Taylor
438 pages

Star Trek Pathways throws Voyager's entire bridge crew (save Captain Janeway) into an alien prisoner-of-war camp where tenants are expected to fend for themselves, Andersonville-style. While Commander Chakotay, Commander Tuvok, Lieutenants Paris and Torres,  Ensign Kim, Neelix, and Seven establish a shelter for themselves, survive the harsh surroundings, and attempt to find a way out, they tell stories to pass the time -- stories about themselves, the stories of their lives that brought them to Voyager. Because Jeri Taylor helped produce the show, and wrote this novel while Voyager aired, Pathways (and its sister volume, Mosaic) enjoyed the exceptional status of being regarded as canon, if only temporarily. 

While the metaplot that holds the stories together isn't much (they build a transporter to escape, ho-hum, but Janeway uses an interesting little trick to guide the group to safety), but the stories themselves deliver more character development than we were able to see on the show. They answer questions -- how did Chakotay and Torres come to join the Maquis? Why did Tuvok enter Starfleet, resign it, and then begin a second career years later?   What was the accident that led to Tom Paris' disgrace and imprisonment? -- and add depth to the relationships of the characters, especially Chakotay and Paris. They're introduced as characters with bad blood between them, but Taylor's story shows that this isn't true from Paris' perspective -- it's very well done, especially given how strong the bond between those two is in the Voyager relaunch. Seven doesn't have much of a story to tell -- as she says, "My parents sang 'Happy birthday, Annika. Then the Borg took us." --  so Kes visits Neelix in a dream and tells her story in that way. I didn't like Kes in one of the first episodes I saw her in, so she's never really grown on me -- but even so, I enjoyed her here.

The book would have been most enjoyable during the series' run, but if there are any Voyager fans or readers out there who've not read this one, by all means look for it. Considering the strength of the Voyager relaunch -- it has met universal praise from readers at TrekBBS -- Pathways can still serve as an intro to the characters for those just getting into the series.

Sharpe's Fury

Sharpe's Fury
© 2006 Bernard Cornwell
337 pages

Winter 1811: most of Spain lies under the flag of the Emperor Napoleon, and the British army has beaten a retreat to a fortified corner of Portugal. Cadiz, the last city of the sovereign Spanish, is under siege.  While Richard Sharpe has no business being there, a mission to blow up a bridge right under French noses didn't go exactly as he planned, and he found himself washed down the river following history's wake -- right into Cadiz, where he enters the service of the Duke of Wellington's brother involving a little domestic derring-do. Most book heroes would be content with surviving what Sharpe survives,  and more would consider their task done if they manage to do what Sharpe accomplishes by the book's midpoint -- but Sharpe, being Sharpe, manages to get himself involved in a battle where the odds are more against the valiant redcoats than they've ever been.

Bernard Cornwell delivers yet another novel full of action and suspense, with his Napoleonic hero surviving treacherous priests,  plots of blackmail, several explosions, the uncertain loyalty of Spanish allies, and a dragoon-filled final battle in which he tracks a nemesis. As mentioned before, I like the books which set Sharpe and his chosen men alone by themselves, and this book offers plenty of that when our favored scoundrel becomes a secret agent of sorts.  Fury is another solid hit in this series.

This Week at the Library (12 October)

After reading several tomes in Will Durant's Story of Civilization series, I'm rather...full of epic history at the moment, particularly religious history, so I returned Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years for some lighter fare. I have three recent reviews waiting to be finished or written: The Lost Hero, Rick Riordan;  Sharpe's Fury, Bernard Cornwell; and The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Fitness, and Weight Loss by Walking Magazine's Mark Fenton.

This week...

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I'm in the mood for mysteries, but I put down a Harry Bosch novel because I'm tired of mysteries that start with corpses. Aren't there any authors who write non-murder mysteries?
  • The Age of Reason Begins, by Will Durant. It's only 600 pages, practically an airport novel after The Age of Faith and The Reformation....and it begins with Queen Elizabeth, which is promising. Looking forward to the dawn of Science and the Enlightenment. 
  • Active Living Every Day, by...Steven Blair, Andrew L. Dunn, Bess H. Marcus, Ruth Ann Carpenter, and Peter Jaret.   I've started getting up early and doing an hour of brisk walking in the mornings, and do another 30 or so minutes in the afternoon. My goal has been to create an active lifestyle to be maintained the rest of my life, and so I'm doing a little reading to educate myself.  

I also have The Odyssey.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Good German

The Good German
© 2001 Joseph Kanon
512 pages

Berlin, summer 1945. The heart of the most infamous empire in history lies in ruins, battered by bombs and ravaged block by block by Russian artillery.  Its contents sacked and its people abused by the victorious Soviet army, nothing remains but rubble, piles of bodies, and broken spirits. The allies of World War 2 are meeting for the Potsdam conference, but such a story is not the reason why reporter Jacob Gesimar has come. Gesimar lived in Berlin years ago, before war forced him to exit, and he visits the sad metropolis not to gloat in victory or take in the spectre like a tourist, but to look for the girl he left behind. In the opening ours of the conference, an American body washes up on a Berlin lakeshore -- the body of a man alive only hours before, who stood beside Gesimar as they flew into Berlin together. One man's death is of no interest to the allies, but Gesimar works to solve the mystery of it by himself -- if nothing else, there's a story to be had.

The Good German is a busy novel, for the man's death is not an isolated incident. More will follow, and as Geismar continues to work his way through an intelligence network of retired Berlin cops and black marketeers, he begins to realize there is a story of international proportions building around him -- the start of another war, and he may perish with its opening shots. The "busy-ness" intensifies throughout the novel: plot twists and general action multiply with every chapter, but Joseph Kanon is spinning another mystery besides, having Gesimar ask more questions: how could the beloved Berlin of his youth have given itself over to be Hitler's capital? How could his neighbors, good people all, become Nazis and willing participants in one of the most horrific exercises in human history, the Holocaust?  The questions lie over the setting like a cloud of dust, ever-haunting Jacob and the reader, especially once multiple plot threads converge and those questions become personal.

The Good German is definitely readable: the immediate postwar setting is unique. I don't know of any other novels which take place so soon after the peace: Berlin is literally lying in ruins, and the Allies are only just organizing their occupation. It's depressing, but more depressing is the fact that such savagery could rise in Germany, the land of "poets, thinkers, and storytellers": barbarism from civilization.  The novel was best when Jacob grappled with these questions, as he did throughout. The bulk of the novel is its mystery, which turns the novel into an action-thriller by the end, but it grew so complicated that I lost interest.  The plot of a novel is almost like a musical piece: there are various elements at work -- some subtle, some obvious -- and pacing is critical. As the plot grows, the number of elements at play multiplies, and a good thriller may read like a jazz piece sounds -- intense, active, exciting.  The Good German was so over-busy, though, that it seemed like noise by the time I was finished. I would still recommend it for the reflective aspects, however.

The Union Club Mysteries

The Union Club Mysteries
© 1987 Isaac Asimov
210 pages

Evening falls in New York City, and inside the aristocratic Union Club, four gentlemen sit ensconced in their usual chairs in the club library. Three talk softly among themselves while a fourth -- an older gentleman with a white, puffy mustache -- seems to doze. But their conversation makes a turn that interests his still-awake ears, his somnolent mind springs to life, and he takes a sip of his scotch and soda. Griswold has awoken, and that last bit of conversation reminds him of a story...

So begin thirty evenings inside the Union Club, wherein Griswold -- formerly in the employ of a shadowy government Department which gave him plentiful opportunities to solve domestic mysteries and international espionage plots -- regales or abuses his dining comrades with a mystery from his life, a story which he expects them to solve by the end.  If they do not -- and they never do -- he faithfully explains the solution.  Although the setting seems similar to the Black Widowers -- a stag club who meet once a month for conversation and drinks -- Griswold's tales are much shorter, and the appeal of the stories is different. While Black Widowers stories feature the gentlemen discussing literature, science, history, art, and the like in order to find a solution to a given mystery, here the burden is laid entirely upon the reader, and the solution is often more subjective than in a Widower's story. It's a bit like working a crossword puzzle in that in reading, you must try to think like Asimov, to find some odd angle at which to hang the plot.   The solution's clue is usually obvious, but the trick is  matching Asimov in thinking of why that clue is relevant.

I enjoy little puzzlers like these, and have reading a tale or two at lunch every day since I received the book in the mail. Although the stories aren't nearly as entertaining as the Black Widowers tales, I enjoyed most of the mysteries and even solved a fair few of them. There were a few groaners, but on the whole I'd recommend this to short-mystery or Asimov readers.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Reformation

The Reformation: A history of European civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300-1564
© 1957 Will Durant
1025 pages

Although titled as a work of religious history, The Reformation is almost more a continuation of The Age of Faith in covering the final two hundred years of the medieval epoch not just in Europe, but in the Islamic and Turkish worlds as well. For Europe, these are centuries of transition: philosophy and humanism have been gaining in strength, and the old feudal kingdoms are becoming increasingly powerful states with masters who resent the power of the Bishop of Rome over their mutual subjects' lives.  The economic revival is well on its way: captialism has already triumphed over feudalism. Soon will come the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the dawn of modernity...but first, the tree of liberty shall be fed with the blood of saints and heretics, and the manure of brain-droppings from such personalities as Luther and Calvin.

I have never liked Luther, and I regard Calvin with even cooler regard:  their ideas of predestination are miserable, and their Sola Scriptura doctrine has been a heavy fetter upon the necks of European civilization, keeping backs bent in worship of a book that was written, translated, compiled, and published by men of diverse and sometimes objectionable agendas. Though I will admit the Judeo-Christian literature has some wonderful verses in it, there are also a great many horrific ones, ones that deserve to be cast into the dustbin of history.  I regard with contempt many arrogant and sadistic claims made by people using this book as their source.  Still, I have given these 'gentlemen' a token of gruding respect in that they slew a great tyrant and made it easier for individuals to free themselves. They reduced the power of the Roman church and made religion a local affair:  someone could flee John Calvin's psychotic dictatorship in Geneva as easily as going to another Swiss canton -- but before the Reformation, a man condemned by one priest was condemned by all of Europe.  However, my reading of The Age of Faith, The Renaissance, and The Reformation has made this view a bit harder to hold. In Durant's history,  I have seen the Church consistently pale in influence compared to the rise of absolutist monarchies, powerful economic forces, and intellectual tides that would lead to the Enlightenment. Its continuing moral corruption and game tolerance of humanism made it increasing irrelevant. But then came Luther and Calvin, re-energizing the populace of Europe about religion, and with them the despicable monsters of Puritanism and biblical literalism.

This is a great book in scope, spanning virtually aspect of civilized life: politics, economics, everyday living, religion, music, art, literature, and architecture. Religion is a consistent thread throughout the text, but as I read this seemed to me a book driven by powerful personalities -- Leo X of Rome, Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England, and most of all, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.  If you ever need to consider Charles V's place in history, look no further than this, The Reformation.  Charles' conflicts with Francis and the Roman church essentially create the world of the Reformation -- a world in which Luther was protected by German princes, and his religion used to spark a nationalistic fire in Germany that would allow the Empire to exist completely free of Roman influence -- a feat more easily accomplished by the fact that Germany was never completely conquered by the Roman empire, never Latinized. Teutonic culture never fell before Rome, and Luther gave it a chance to reassert itself and assert its own completely temporal mastery of Europe.  The Holy Roman Empire's far-reaching politics appear in almost every chapter of the book. What led to the separation of the Church of England from Rome? Not doctrine -- not Luther, not Calvin -- but politics. Henry's needs of state led him to seek an annulment of his marriage from Katherine of Aragon -- an aunt of Charles. The Pope may have well given that annulment, but at the time he happened to be a prisoner of Charles.  Charles isn't going to let the Pope allow his aunt to be divorced, and so Henry  simply  has to go around the pope's authority. Throughout the tome, religion and politics prove to be fiercely intertwined creatures.  Using this book as a source, I might well write a paper on the thesis: no Charles V, no Reformation.

This is a  thoroughly impressive history which is ended perfectly by Durant's epilogue, where he assumes the voices of three persons -- a Catholic, a Protestant, and a humanist -- arguing with one another over the virtues and failings of the Reformation.