Monday, January 30, 2012


Reporter: Covering Civil Rights...and Wrongs in Dixie
© 2006 Alvin Benn
388 pages

When a young Alvin Benn left the Marine Corps to beome a civilian editor working with United Press International,  he was asked by UPC's vice president where he wanted to work, "Where the action is," Benn replied, and so they sent him to Birmingham, Alabama, during the most violent years of the Civil Rights movement. Months after his arrival in the Deep South, Benn covered a Ku Klux Klan rally, where his tires were slashed and he and his fellow reporters tailed by a carload of Kluckers. Benn got the action he wante -- and perhaps more than he bargained for, then and throughout his life as a journalist. Reporter is a part-biography and part-journalistic history of Benn's decades of coverage as a reporter, editor, and one-time publisher; coverage for which he recently won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alabama Press Association.

Although Benn wrote it to capture his memories for his family, this collection of yarns should be of interest of anyone from the Alabama area, especially those living in Selma. While Benn has moved all over the state -- covered in a section called 'Newspaper Nomads' -- the last few decades have been spent  in the city where King and his marchers began their journey to Montgomery to fight for equal rights.The turbulent period of the Civil Rights movement still marks Selma, as many of its most prominent personalities (especially the colorful characters Benn delighted most in recovering) were shaped by those events and still count them as influences as they attempt to lead Selma into the 21st century -- or keep it stuck in the 1960s, varying. Among the people Benn profiles is famed mayor "Joe T." Smitherman, who ran Selma for 35 years, finally losing a mayoral election in 2000. Smitherman is remarkable in Benn's eyes for rising from a working class background to effectively ruling a city, without a college background and armed only with an uncanny ability to get what he wanted done accomplished.

There's no doubt that Benn knows how to tell a story, although the organization of this work was a bit questionable. He opens up with his introduction to journalism and then provides an overview of his career before returning to his childhood and his life in the Marines. After leading the reader back to his start as a reporter, Benn then shares the most memorable stories of his career; these constitute the bulk of the book.  This format does have the benefit of leaping into the action and then giving readers context for the stories that follow, but I was left feeling that this is a book composed of three sections that don't flow as well as they should. The liveliness of the writing more than makes up for this, though. Whoever chose the pictures for this volume did a great job; there's an especially fun one of Benn -- who is a Jewish reporter -- standing behind a poster that exhorts people to beware the lies of the evil Jewish media.  I've heard a few of these stories in person, and given his wicked sense of humor I wouldn't be surprised if Benn set up that shot on purpose.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


© 1922 Hermann Hesse
119 pages

Once in India there lived a young man whose life was everything one might dream of. Not only did he come from a wealthy family, but people loved him for who he was; a handsome, kind, and wise personality in their lives. Despite all this, young Siddhartha felt a yearning for more -- and so he left everything behind him to search for enlightenment. Becoming a penniless ascetic, Siddhartha journeys throughout the land, among the poor and the rich alike, befriending the craven and the spiritual, always looking for answers to the meaning of life and suffering. Originally written in German, this translation by Sherab Chödzin Kohn is both spellbinding in content as well as in style.

There are few novels which have placed me so intimately inside the head of a character as this. It follows Siddhartha's story throughout his life, as he attempts to learn from the teachings and practices of others, and from the circumstances of his own life.  Siddhartha is a deeply introspective individual with an intense hunger for ultimate release from himself, from his ego. His years spent with the monks does not satisfy, and he cannot help but note the age of some of the monks present, who have spent decades living their doctrines but seem as constricted as he is. Even the words of Gautama Buddha, the great teacher of the age,  seem flawed. Ultimately, as his life wears on, Siddhartha finds the answers he once searched for...from an unexpected corner. Without spoiling anything, he realizes the preeminent importance of experience: even those who have found enlightenment cannot readily pass it on to students, because enlightenment comes not from books but from living life and responding to it. As each person's mind and life are unique, only we ourselves can learn the path particular to us; only we can plumb our own depths.

I found the book provocative and centering; definitely one worth mulling over.

Death from the Skies!

Death from the Skies! These are the Ways the World Will End...
© 2008 Phil Plait
326 pages

By anyone's standards, 2011 was a banner year for disasters, with Earth's ful inventory of catastrophes on display. Flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions, hurricanes, and tornadoes filled newspaper headlines all year. In the wake of all this, some might be tempted to look to the heavens for relief -- to the placid, twinkling stars above. Too bad that twinkling is probably a gamma-ray burst on its way to vaporize you.

The perils of the heavens are the subject of Phil Plait's second work, Death from the Skies, and in it he lists nine particular ways the universe might be trying to kill us, from relatively mild extinction-level asteroid impacts to the collisions of galaxies.  Although exposure to most of these sounds like nothing to laugh about, Plait's tone remains light throughout the book, until he discusses the total heat death of the universe. Part of the reason for Plait's levity is that these are not serious concerns;  considering the size of the cosmos and the timescale at which things happen, the chances of human beings in their present form being damaged by the collision of the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy, or gobbled up by the Sun's swollen expansion, are virtually nonexistent.  And even if these things were a serious concern, there's nothing we can do to prevent them -- so why worry?  Asteroid impact and solar storms are likely to affect us, but their damage can be mitigated -- and even avoided.

While this is my first time reading Plait, I've long been a fan of him thanks to his blog (Bad Astronomy) and his frequent appearances on shows like Star Talk and the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.  Plait is as entertaining an author as he is an in-person guest, almost chatting with the reader and  making frequent jokes. He's as sneaky as he is funny: while people may be drawn in by the book's colorful cover (and title) and engaged by his literary charisma,  Death from the Skies!  isn't superficial in the least. Along the way, Plait instructs readers in astronomy and cosmology. The stars are the source of many of these world-ending scenarios,  and one can't help but be impressed by the scale of their lives and their overwhelming importance to life as we know it.  The stars don't simply illuminate the skies and heat the planets in orbit about them; throughout their lives and especially in their death throes, they create the stuff of life. The very atoms that make up Earth have been forged in the heart of supernovas.

Death from the Skies! is one of the best science books I've read in a long time; anyone with an interest in the night-time sky should enjoy it. Expect to see his debut book (Bad Astronomy) read here at some point, because Plait is a blast.


  • Death by Black Hole (and other Cosmic Quandries), Neil deGrasse Tyson

Friday, January 27, 2012

Do One Green Thing

Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth through Simple, Everyday Choices
© 2010 Mandy Pennybacker
270 pages

Environmentalism, once the province of hippies and college students on the fringe in the 1970s, is finally percolating into the national consciousness. It's never been more important, but awareness doesn't always translate into activism. Those who are interested in living intelligently and doing right by one another by protecting the environment may not know how to make steps in that direction, or feel relatively powerless in the grand scale of things.  Mandy Pennybacker has produced a functional but light green reference guide for consumers, devoting distinct sections to Food and Drink, A Green and Healthy Home, Personal Care and Apparel, and Transportation.  Pennybacker first explains why consumer choices in these areas matter; in the section on drinking water, for instance, she points out the hidden environmental cost of water. The amount of processing that disposable bottles require increases the actual cost of that water threefold: even though those costs haven't been passed on to buyers yet,  drinking tap water (using the filter, if you're squeamish) and using refillable bottles is a better choice by far. She then lets readers know how and where they can find the superior products, offering general advice on what to look for as well as the names of specific sellers -- like Ecolution, in the case of hemp clothing.

These days green awareness is so mainstream that companies have co-opted it, greenwashing their goos by advertising them as environmentally friendly when in fact they've made no actual effort to fundamentally improve their product. Pennybacker is especially useful in addressing this, providing readers with lists of advertising labels that are legitimate (official seals of approval from third parties), questionable, or outright meaningless. The last includes vague claims like 'free range' and unspecific references to 'green' and 'organic'.  Michael Pollan showed how insubstantial these claims can be in his The Omnivore's Dilemma.

While the book is a useful reference guide to buying responsible, safe products (or making one's own; Pennybacker includes recipes for environmentally safe floor cleaner and the like), the singular emphasis on consumer choices (with little mention given toward lifestyle changes) disappointed me. The section on lighting tells you which bulb to buy, but doesn't suggest ways to minimize the use of lighting in general. The section on transportation mentions bicycling exactly once; in the title. There's no actual information on the viability of bicycle commuting.  Even so, Do One Green Thing should be a good start for those new to environmentally responsible living.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

This Week at the Library (25 January)

Pending Reviews: How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker;  If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley
Currently Reading: Death from the Skies!, Phil Plait; The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene
Potentials: Sharpe's Regiment, Bernard Cornwell


One Victorian cartoon shows a desperate father trying to commit suicide by sticking his head in the gas oven. His concerned family beg him to put off the deed until the cheaper evening gas rate starts.

p. 203, If Walls Could Talk

The first regular television broadcasts were made in 1932, a year in which seventy-six half-hour programmes went out. But no one was sure how many living rooms they reached. In 1933, viewers were asked: 'The BBC is most anxious to know the number of people who are actually seeing this television programme. Will those who are looking in send a postcard marked "Z" to Broadcasting House immediately?'

p. 229, If Walls Could Talk

Today's builders and town planners are also interested in the notion that people don't just inhabit houses, they live in 'places'. Tudor towns were perfect examples of what planners seek: densely populated, walkable communities in which rich and poor live in close proximity. In their markets local, seasonal food was available, just as it is in the phenomenon of the farmer's markets today.

p. 324, If Walls Could Talk

Monday, January 23, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (24 January)

Teaser Tuesday is weekly game hosted by ShouldBeReading.

The chivalric cult had a strange parallel in the sleeping arrangment known as 'bundling', which was common both to rural areas of seventeenth-century Wales and to eighteenth-century New England. This was likewise a non-sexual relationship, where a young man and woman passed the night alone in a bedroom together, but remained fully clothed. Sometimes they were even tied down or a board was placed down the middle of their bed. The idea was to make it through to morning without having sex, in order to find out whether they got on well enough together to marry. Until 1800, when it began to arouse a new moralistic disapproval, to 'bundle' was considered both chaste and sensible as it lead to more successful marriages.

p. 67, If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home; Lucy Worsley. This is an advanced review copy of a book due out on 28 February.

Choices of One

Star Wars: Choices of One
© 2011 Timothy Zahn
366 pages

The choices of one shape the futures of all. (Jedi saying)

Timothy Zahn's Allegiance (2006) introduced us to the Hand of Judgment, a band of "rogue stormtroopers" -- deserters turned do-good vigilantes. In Choices of One, these four hook up with Emperor Palpatine's favored agent, Mara Jade, to 'correct' a governor in the hinterlands who is rumored to be meeting with the leaders of the rebellion. Though the Death Star has been destroyed, the Empire is far from finished, and the rebels badly need a new base of operations.  Luke and Han -- the latter struggling with his place in a military organization -- are dispatched to investigate the governor's offer, and at the edges of known space they, Jade, the Hand of Judgment, Senior Captain Thrawn, and Commander Palleon are drawn into a web of intrigue, spun by an unknown individual with a concealed agenda.

Although the plot proper doesn't add much to the Star Wars canon, other than setting up The Empire Strikes Back, it offers first a mystery and then an action thriller that sees the character growth we missed between A New Hope and its sequel;  Luke is still "the kid", still growing in confidence and ability. Han's connection to the rebellion, formerly tenuous, grows here -- and he and Leia bounce off each other nicely. It is Zahn's characters who steal the show, though: despite the fact they're all villains in that they serve the Empire in one form or another, their motivations are wholly respectable -- or in Jade's case, at least understandable -- and I couldn't help but root for them, especially for the "Hand of Judgment" and the Thrawn-Palleon duo which has its beginnings here. Like the films, the action steadily increases, and at its height all of the characters are involved in desperate fights of their own, all of which are part of a greater conflict between the characters and whoever is responsible for drawing both the Empire and the Rebellion to this previously-forgotten world on the fringes of the empire.

Fun thriller with great characters; recommended.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

At Home

At Home: A Short History of Private Life
© 2011 Bill Bryson
512 pages

How much history and how many laughs can you put under one roof? Take a tour of Bill Bryson's old English home with him and find out.  At the outset of the book, Bryson shares a few experiences in and around his home which impressed upon him the fact that there's a great deal of fascinating history bound up in the mundane environment we take most for granted; our houses. And so, he labors to tell the stories of his house -- of all of houses, and of civilization in general.

A guided visit through his house, room, by room, frames a collection of essays covering the entire range of human activity and history. Some topics are directly connected to the room in question. For instance, when writing on the kitchen Bryson treats the reader to a history of salt and spice -- after assuring us that nothing we touch today will have "more bloodshed, suffering, and woe [...] than the innocuous twin pillars of your salt and pepper shaker."  Other connections are more tenuous: while in the cellar, Bryson rambles cheerfully on about the materials used in homebuilding, and a journey into the garden merits a discussion on public parks. Each room inspires several different but connected sets of thoughts; the kitchen is also a place to discussion nutrition. While the Victorian period in America and England provides the setting of most of Bryson's thoughts, they cover most of western history.

At Home is enormously entertaining, not just to serious-minded students of history who are honestly fascinating by brick-making and the tools of Neanderthals, but to those who enjoy the absurd and grotesque -- history abounds in little stories that make modern audiences' jaws drop in horror or disbelief, and Bryson is a gleeful sharer of those tales. If the content doesn't make you laugh, Bryson's dry wit in delivering these stories will.

Recommended to those who want some light reading that will provide laughs and sneak in a little history to boot.

The Oceans

The Oceans
© 2000 Ellen J. Prager with Sylvia A. Earle
314 pages

Seventy percent of the Earth's surface is covered in water, constituting a vast and largely unknown world of its own -- vitally important to ours, but scarcely explored and barely understood. Beneath the placid (but sometimes storm-tossed) surface lay valley with depths that have never been plumbed; volcanic mountains; great beasts whose size staggers the imagination, and creatures so bizarre that they could just as easily hail from another world. The Oceans is a brief but substantial introduction to this fascinating and vitally important element of our planet.

Life began in the oceans, albeit in very different waters from the ones we delight in today. Prager opens the book with a history of 'evolution's drama', following the growth and divergence of life through th Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, ending with our own Cenozoic. The oceans have been home to a marvelous variety of life throughout the ages, and the authors devote the rest of the book to understanding the current oceanic environment, examine its chemical, geologic, and biological aspects in turn. Even those of us who don't live near a coast experience the ocean's effects on our lives, through weather; a separate section covers hurricanes, monsoons, El Niño effects, sea level changes, and the increasing impact of global warming. Given how much of our  economies -- indeed, planetary life itself -- depends on the health of the seas, an understanding of them is crucial, especially for those in political and economic leadership. Unfortunately, humans -- not known for being the most farsighted of creatures -- have been steadily destroying that environment for decades. In "A Once-Bountiful Sea",  the authors examine the kinds of damage being done, but offer some encouragement in the fact that some governments are taking the issue seriously, if only out of economic reality and not out of concern for the global environment. The final chapter looks to the future of oceanography, for what we know is dwarfed by what we don't; only 95% of the ocean have been explored. The best is yet to come.

While the subject is fascinating by itself, and utterly relevant, Ellen Prager also proves to be an excellent guide through the oceans, not drowning the reader in details but still delivering depth. She proves talented at explaining fundamental processes in a lucid way -- for instance, showing how waves worth.  She's the author of several other books (Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: the Ocean's Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter;  Furious Earth: the Science and Nature of Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Tsunamis, among others), and I'll definitely be looking into them in the future.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Misunderstood Jew

The Misunderstood Jew: the Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus
© 2007 Amy-Jill Levine
250 pages

 Amy-Jill Levine is a Jew for Jesus. No, not that kind of Jew -- she's happily Orthodox, thank you very much. But she grew up with Christian friends and developed an interest in Christian culture to the point that as a child, her Barbie and Ken dolls took celebrated Eucharist with one another -- and as an adult, she teaches on the New Testament at a largely Protestant divinity school. As someone who cherishes both religious traditions, she writes to help Christians and Jews understand one another, and believes that such an understanding may and must be rooted on the fact that Jesus, the inspiration of Christianity, was thoroughly Jewish. He is neither a heretical figure Jews should distance themselves from, nor a theological revolutionary who rendered Judaism irrelevant to those who followed him.

The first chapter covers material which I expected to be the whole of the book; using the gospel accounts  to establish that Jesus was a Jew in practice, beliefs, manners, and dress. Some of this is open to interpretation -- Levine believes that Jesus simply taught the heart of Judaism without answering to particularly restrictive schools of it and emphasizes that the Christian perception of Jewish orthodoxy is somewhat skewed given that the Pharisees of the bible are written as villains.   After this she devotes a chapter to the growth of the Christian church  from a small community of Jews to a network of communities spread out around the Mediterranean basin, dominated by 'Gentiles'.  As the church moves further away from Judaism, hostility between the two now-divergent faiths increases, and this leads into several chapters on anti-Semitism. First, Levine examines claims that the New Testament is explicitly anti-Jewish. She doesn't believe so, but allows that it CAN be used in an anti-Jewish fashion,  and this is a source of agitation for her throughout the book. She even devotes a chapter ("With Friends Like These...") to attacking liberal theologians who see Christ as rescuing spirituality from religion...because, since the religion in question is Judaism, they must not think very much of it. This chapter bothered me, for Levine seems overly sensitive. Criticizing the perceived excesses of first-century Judaism is no more anti-Jewish than criticizing the abuses of the Israeli state is anti-Semitic. Excesses are excesses regardless of who perpetuates them.  Unfortunately, Levine doesn't seem to keen on the idea of admitting that there were excesses at the time, when surely there must have been -- when has an institution with the power of religion never been abused?

The final chapter, however, ends things on a high note. In "Distinct Canons; Distinct Practices", Levine drives home the point that Judaism and Christianity are different religions: Jewish theology and Christian theology aren't the same. The best example is that of original sin and the fall from grace. It is Paul who invents the idea that Jesus died as a sacrifice to redeem people, and it is Christians who are obsessed with the idea of sin and it keeping them from the afterlife. Judaism isn't about the afterlife. 

While the book has its merits, I left ultimately disappointed. I think more space should have been devoted to first-century Judaism to more fully establish the context of Jesus' life, especially since first-century Judaism and modern Orthodox Judaism are as different as first-century Christianity and its modern forms. Jesus' Jewish audience shares ideas with him that no modern Jew would profess -- belief in Satan as a villain, for instance,  seen as an evil dragon.  They're also obsessed by the end of the world; that apocalyptic fire is now largely dead. The Misunderstood Jew should still be of use to Christians who are utterly oblivious about Judaism, but I think the the audience it would best serve are Jews who are leery of both Jesus and the New Testament, for Levine does establish that Jesus and the gospel accounts are firmly rooted in Jewish culture and not hostile to it. 


I haven't read either of these, but I'm fans of both of the authors and look forward to experiencing the books at some point. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

This Week at the Library (18 January)

Pending Reviews: How the Mind Works, Stephen Pinker; The Misunderstood Jew: the Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine.
Currently Reading: The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene; At Home, Bill Bryson
Potentials: The Oceans, Ellen Prager
New Releases: Bernard Cornwell just published the sixth Saxon Stories novel, The Death of Kings, which excites me to no end. Here's hoping my library picks it up quickly.


"It seems a shame to have to turn your back on what took so long and required so much work and study to accomplish."
Bryce thought it seemed a shame, too. But starving seemed an even bigger shame. "You don't always get to do what you want to do," he said. "Sometimes, you do what you have to do, and pick up the pieces from there."

p. 380, Supervolcano: Eruption

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Supervolcano: Eruption

Supervolcano: Eruption
© 2011 Harry Turtledove
420 pages

"I love the smell of hydrogen sulfide in the morning," Daniel intoned. "Smells like...tenure."
p. 146

Sometimes, even Harry Turtledove must tire of penning novels based on World War II. I don't know what spurred his interest in writing this novel -- the fact that 2012 will be a good year for disaster entertainment, perhaps, or the simple need to take a break from the War that Came Early series -- but this science fiction apocalyptic adventure is a drastic change from his usual military-action tomes. He opens on Lieutenant Colin Ferguson, a recently divorced and badly hungover cop taking a vacation to Yellowstone National Park to clear his mind, who barks at a parka-clad figure hunched over a geyser to scold her for trespassing. She proves to be a geologist taking readings of seismic activity,  one who believes the Yellowstone basin presents a future danger to the global environment.  Underneath the geysers and pine trees lurks trouble: a supervolcano in the making. Were it to erupt, the energy released would destroy everything around it for hundreds of miles -- and the amount of ash thrown into Earth's skies could very well lead to an ice age.  Naturally, someone forgets knock on wood.

From the start, the newly-single Curtis is interested in this geologist; his attraction and genuine interest in the implications of such a catastrophe compel him to learn more about it, preferably over dinner dates with her.  Their budding relationship allows Turtledove to gently explain the premise and science of the novel in an unobtrusive way, though the novel's action is slow to take off. The fun doesn't start until a quarter of the way in: for the first hundred or so pages, Turtledove introduces his panel of viewpoint characters, all of whom are Colin's relations -- his divorced wife, his sons (one a touring  20-something musician, the other a perpetual college student),  his impressively abrasive daughter Vanessa, and her ex-boyfriend,  who is working on a thesis related to Hellenistic poetry and who has remained friends with Colin despite being dumped by the lieutenant's daughter.

In the end, it's the premise and not necessarily its execution which carries the novel. The usual Turtledove baggage -- repetition -- is fully present, and the pace sometimes bogs down in minutia. This is especially striking after Yellowstone goes "boom", in a scene where a band-on-tour  breakfasts in Maine, and the viewpoint character devotes an entire page to describing what each member of the band had for breakfast. There's a giant dead zone in the middle of the continent, and he hasn't heard from his sister in Denver -- but these are trivial matters compared to the appropriateness of ordering Mexican food in a fishing village, apparently. Still, Turtledove won me over for the most part. He introduces a fun character in the last fifth of the novel whose personality makes him one of the most likable characters in the novel (not that he's against a lot of competition: Curtis' sons are bums, and even he refers to his daughter as 'a mean dog'). Once the disaster began to unfold, my interest peaked, especially as months wore on and people began having to make adjustments.  The amount of time that passes in the novel is unclear to me -- it begins immediately after Memorial Day, and at least one college semester passes -- but it's lengthy enough that we see more than immediate consequences. The wasteland of the plains strains the connections between the east and west coasts, causing resource crunches; the ash fallout creates a respiratory panic; the United States' diminished strength creates fun times for the middle east when Iran decides to seize the day and bloody Israel's nose. The novel leaves before entering long-term territory, though. Does mass starvation follow the ruin of all the plains crops? What becomes of the nations who rely on the US for their imported food?    The end leaves many of the characters hanging,  but all resolute to pick up the pieces as best they can.

Although burdened with painful repetition and slow to start, ultimately the interesting premise and character growth push Supervolcano into 'fair enough' territory. It's left me with the desire to study up on volcanoes and the possibility of a Yellowstone disaster -- isn't provoking an interest in learning the point of science fiction?

Post-edit note: according to a Turtledove wikisite, this is the first of a new trilogy. I hope Turtledove gets a better handle on what he's aiming for here: while he can get away with a character-dominated story in a war novel in which the viewpoint characters are soldiers participating in the central drama, in Eruption they're just getting in the way and reducing the supposed star of the show, the volcano, to an obscured background reference.

The Throne of Fire

The Kane Chronicles #2: The Throne of Fire
© 2011 Rick Riordan
464 pages

Sadie Kane isn't even a teenager yet, but she and her older brother have four days to find the three pieces of the lost Book of Ra, ressurected the old king of the gods, and help him defeat Apophis, giant snake and lord of chaos. Sucks being a kid, especially if you're the heir of two powerful lines of ancient Egyptian pharaohs. And to make matters worse, the only adults who might be of help, magicians skilled in the Egyptian ways, are convinced that Sadie and Carter are up to no good -- and they're determined to kill the two youngsters who are causing so much trouble. At least they have a dwarf on their side.

In The Red Pyramid, Rick Riordan introduced his fantasy series steeped in the world of Egyptian mythology, and I for one found the new setting fantastic. It combines the familiar (chaos vs order) with the alien.  The central importance of the Nile is especially obvious here, as the attempt to resurrect Ra means taking a dangerous journey down it through the twelve Houses, meeting and prevailing over a panel of bizarre deities and demons while being chased by a mad Russian.  It's not quite as novel as the first book -- the setting is established and the general plot well-trodden, since Rioridan's characters usually only have a few days before the world ends. At least poor Harry had the better part of a year to hunt down Horcruxes -- but entertaining enough.

Top Ten Books I'd Recommend to Someone Who Doesn't Read Nonfiction

This week the Broke and the Bookish are asking people to recommend ten books to someone who doesn't read a particular genre. Since nonfiction doesn't get a lot of love in the blogging community -- people read it sparingly if at all -- and it generally constitutes half or more of my reading, I though I'd focus on it today.I consider nonfiction reading a valuable resource for continuing education -- not only in specific subjects, but as a human being. Therefore, here are ten titles which I think could either (1) entice lay people to learn more about an area of human knowledge or (2) prompt people to consider the way they live their lives.

1. Guns, Germs, and Steel; Jared Diamond

Some books simply tell a story; others impart a fundamental understanding of how history works, In Guns, Germs, and Steel,  Diamond examines the success and failure of various civilizations as the result of geography and local resources, drawing on multiple disciplines; the result is a fantastic read that draws as much from science as it does from history.

2.  The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton

Think philosophy is academic fluff with no relevance to your life? Hardly!  Throughout human history, the concerns of philosophers have always hit close to home; it's only recently that they've acquired a poor reputation. Alain de Botton shows the value of a considered life by examining the thoughts of Seneca on anger, Epicures on simple living and anti-consumerism,  Schopenhauer on broken hearts, and more. A similar title is Plato's Podcasts: the Ancients' Guide to Modern Living.

3. Theories for Everything: An Illustrated History of Science, various authors (National Geographic)

While I've enjoyed learning about nature all my life, I didn't become passionate about science until 2006 or so. In 2007 I read this, and it along with Dan Falk's Universe on a T-Shirt provided the introduction and foundation of my on-going zeal for science and its history.

4. Amusing Ourselves to Death and/or Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman

These two books are on the short list of works which have changed my life. Both share a general theme in that they  address the unexpected consequences of technology and  forced me to think about the way I use certain media. Amusing Ourselves to Death deals primarily with television and its poisonous effect on politics, religion, education, and journalism, as all are hijacked by impulses toward sensationalist entertainment devoid of actual content.

5. The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan

This staple of critical-thinking advocates stresses the importance of both science education in a world increasingly dependent on technology, and scientific thinking in general. Learning to think, to reason independently of any authority or tradition, is crucially important for individuals and society, as our freedom and strength depend on our ability to make good choices based on solid facts.

6. A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (William Irvine),  The Emperor's Handbook (Marcus Aurelius, trans. David and Scott Hicks), or The Art of Living (Sharon Lebell)

While I reccommend philosophical reflection in general to everyone, one philosophical school in particular has proven a boon to me: Stoicism, which is enjoying a curious modern rebirth.  Don't believe me? Edmund Kern penned The Wisdom of Harry Potter a few years ago and identifies Harry as a Stoic hero. Stoicism is an ancient school of Greek philosophy which focused on virtue as the sole good in life, and emphasized developing strength of character and offers freedom from the petty disturbances of life. I like to call it Buddhism for the western world. Of the books listed: the first is an introduction to the philosophy for modern minds, the second is a contemporary translation of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, a primary source for Stoics, and the third is an interpretation of Epictetus' Handbook,  which sold me on the school to begin with.

7. The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy , Michael Foley

I read this book twice last year; it's that good. Its essential premise is that we've created societies which not only fail to meet our needs as human beings, but often run counter to them. For instance, how do we find time for detachment and reflection when an ever-increasing number of gadgets vie for our attention?

8. A People's History of America, Howard Zinn

Imagine a history written from the perspective of the powerless, the losers. That's what Howard Zinn provided, and his narrative prompts readers to not only reconsider traditional versions of history, but to consider that the power to effect change lies not in the hands of Great Men, but in themselves. It is both history and a call to political activism much needed in these days.

9. In Praise of Slowness, Carl Honore

This is one I intend on re-reading soon..

In Praise of Slowness is a book that incorporates simple living, New Urbanism, and the philosophical life into its text. I will summarize as it as being written to make human lives human and livable once more. Where our way of life has reduced us to living passively, consuming unthinkingly, and bouncing from one task to the next without ever really enjoying anything, Slowness asserts that we should slow down and think about what it is we’re doing. 

10. A Life of Her Own, Emile Carles.

This was required reading for a European history class I took a few years ago, and I responded with it with such enthusiasm that I think I made my professor uncomfortable by gushing with thanks. It's the biography of a French peasant woman who, despite her highly isolated  and conservative environment in an alpine farming village,  matures into an independent thinker whose political passions are formed in the early years of the 20th century. Reading this not only encouraged me -- if she could flourish despite that environment, anyone can -- but it added significantly to my understanding of political philosophy.

11. The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler

Were this list written just for American readers, I would have mentioned the Stoic books along with The Consolations of Philosophy, for The Geography of Nowhere is a must-read for American readers. In it, Kunstler attacks the land-use patterns of cheap oil (surburbanization and urban sprawl), decrying them as not only wasteful and doomed to extinction, but physically and spiritually degrading.  It's become one of my favorite books, which sounds odd if you haven't read Kunstler; his history is enlightening and his sharp criticism a joy to read.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Positronic Man

The Positronic Man
© 1993 Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg
290 pages

This novel takes me back to high school, where at some point following the release of The Bicentennial Man starring Robin Williams, I checked it out and read my very first Asimov. I'd watched enough Star Trek to know that 'positronic' meant that this was about an android, and thought perhaps the movie was based on it. My guess was right: The Positronic Man is an expansion of Asimov's short story, "The Bicentennial Man", just as Nightfall is an Asimov-Silverberg expansion of "Nightfall".  The tale of Andrew Martin, the robot who wanted to become a man, is one of my favorite Asimov stories. Data from The Next Generation may have predisposed  me to being fascinated with the book's theme -- what does it mean to be a human, to be sentient?

After having read Silverberg and Asimov's expansion of "Nightfall", I cannot read the original story without missing the additional content. It seems like only half a story. The Positronic Man is more conservative on that count,  starting and ending at the same points as Asimov's original story. That can scarcely be avoided, as much of the original story took place in the form of a flashback, as Andrew -- preparing for a surgery that will constitute the 'final' leap and give him either the humanity he desires or the welcome release of death -- recounts how he came to be such an usual creature, the being who is far more a robot and yet, not quite a man. The Positronic Man greatly enriches the experience; events which are summarized in a sentence or two in the original story unfold over the course of a chapter, allowing for a great deal more characterization, both on Andrew's part and his human companions This isn't simply a 'lengthier' version of " Bicentennial  Man": the additions, which flow so well from the original text, allow Andrew to truly evolve throughout the course of the book: he matures before our eyes as a character, not just as a robot who abandons metal coverings for pseudo-skin or gains legal standing. The polite, metallic servant introduced in the first chapter slowly grows into a thoughtful man, accomplished in multiple artistic and intellectual fields, driven by the same impulses that motivate us all.

I enjoyed this work tremendously;  while I don't know how much is Silverberg and how much is Asimov's, the result makes my favorite Asimov story even better.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

This Week at the Library (11 January)

Currently Reading: How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker; The Positronic Man, Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg; The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene (on hold until I finish How the Mind Works).


"It's ridiculous, sir! Getting married."
"Women like it, Patrick."
"Why do they need us? Why don't they just do it and tell us afterwards. Christ!"

p. 313, Sharpe's Honour. Bernard Cornwell.

"Virtually nothing is known about the functioning microcircuity of the human brain, because there is a shortage of volunteers willing to give up their brains to science before they are dead."

p. 184, How the Mind Works. Steven Pinker. 

You are a robot, Andrew reminded himself sternly.
You are a product of the United States Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation.
And then Andrew would look at Little Miss and a sensation of great joy and warmth would spread through his positronic brain -- a sensation that he had come to identify as 'love' -- and then he would have to remind himself, all over again, that he was nothing more than a cleverly designed structure of metal and plastic with an artificial platinum-iridium brain inside his chrome-steel skull, and he had no right to feel emotions, or to think paradoxical thoughts, or to do any other such complex and mysterious human being.

p. 51, The Positronic Man, Asimov and Silverberg.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sharpe's Honour

Sharpe's Honour
© 1985 Bernard Cornwell
320 pages

In Sharpe's Enemy, Richard Sharpe vanquished one foe only to create another, this time the subtle French intelligence officer Pierre Ducos. Ducos is an enemy both to England and Sharpe, for with one plan he manages to ensnare Sharpe in legal turmoil that may end in a death sentence, and begin the destruction of the Anglo-Spanish alliance which is driving the French army back across the Pyrenees. Sharpe's only hope is the possible help of a treacherous and dangerously attractive 'Marquesa'.

Without giving too much away, Sharpe spends most of the book in trouble as an escaped and condemned outlaw working behind enemy lines.  The escape tests Sharpe's character several times, not just his resourcefulness;  there are times when giving his parole or simply refusing to go one would make his life much easier, but Sharpe insists on making a fight of it.At the same time that Sharpe is engaged in a battle for his life,  Wellington's army and the French are moving toward one of the most decisive altercations of the Peninsular War: the Campaign at Vitoria. Much of the battle takes place without our rifleman, but it wouldn't be a Sharpe novel without him making a dramatic entrance at a pivotal moment. The book is worth it just for the ending; being completely unfamiliar with the history of the Peninsular War, I flew into the book blind and didn't know what surprises Wellington had up his sleeve or what fate would await him.

Although I missed the usual running interaction between Sharpe and his men, Honour offers plenty of excitement and a thoroughly satisfying ending that lifts the pall remaining from Sharpe's Enemy's conclusion.

Next time: Sharpe's Regiment invades France!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Bowling Alone

Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community
© 2001 Robert D. Putnam
544 pages

Every so often I read a book that strikes my brain as lightening, forever altering my thinking and earning a permanent place both on my bedside bookcase and on the tip of my tongue, for I will be thinking, talking, and writing about it from that point on. Bowling Alone is such a book. In it, Robert Putnam makes the case that America has experienced over a half-century of social decline -- decline that is universal, across all demographics and throughout the nation. He uses a concept called social capital, a representation of the strength of social ties between individuals and their networks; the more social capital a society has, the more cohesive it is and the better it functions as a human community in matters of health, safety, and problem solving.

He first charts a steady decline in social capital by  using falling rates in civic organizations (like the Rotary Club), locally-organized political activity, religious participation, communal leisure activities, and other markers. Putnam then attempts to ascertain the causes of this steep decline, which seems inexplicable given that the baby boomer generation has reached the age where civic participation is at its greatest. He finds a variety of society-wide forces (increasing job and security pressure; suburbanization; the rise of television), but also notes a major generational influence.  The most active civic generation in American history is dying off, but much of their strength comes (Putnam believes) from the unifying force of WWII.  That war called upon the resources of the entire nation -- women in the workforce and children gathering scrap metal were just as important as the soldiers in the field. People didn't simply work together; they believed they were working together, and for a common goal. Putnam believes that this extended period of national solidarity cast a shadow over that generation's lives -- but the baby boomers and generation-Xers have had no such struggle. No one would think of the Vietnam War as bringing people together; indeed, it must stand out as one of the most divisive wars in American history.

In making his argument, Putnam is both exhaustive and conservative -- anticipating objections to his conclusions and answering  them as a matter of course. He's also not quick to overestimate the influence of any one factor, when sometimes I thought such emphasis might be appropriate. Putnam then asks the question, "So what?" and examines the ways in which social capital is a boon to society and then the consequences of losing it. He then ends by offering several goals for American society to work forward to as a way of strengthening itself. My interest in this book stems from my interest in the 'human habitat' in general, and community is an essential part of that.

Bowling Alone is imminently worthy of consideration -- not just for the ideas it contains, but for the thorough manner that Putnam presents them. A small caveat; the book may be marginally dated given the rise of social networking sites. While Putnam does address online communities, facebook and similar creatures are altogether different from usenet groups and static websites --  and although they're scarcely a replacement for what we've lost, certainly they're a factor that would need to be considered if this book were published today. For my own part, I am resolutely committed to doing my part to live my life in connection with other people.

Highly recommended.


Friday, January 6, 2012

The Son of Neptune

The Heroes of Olympus, Volume II: The Son of Neptune
© 2011 Rick Riordan
521 pages

In The Lost Hero, Rick Riordan introduced another epic battle between the gods, forcing three young demigods to free Hera from imprisonment and forestall the awakening of Gaea and her Giants -- but without their leader, Percy Jackson. The 'lost hero' returns to the story in The Son of Neptune, robbed of most of his memory and under constant attack by monsters until he finds refuge in a camp of demigods...named Camp Jupiter.

This is no small camp of half-bloods; Camp Jupiter is a bonafide city styled on Rome, where its illustrious history and mythology live on. These campers are born of the gods' Roman personalities and they regard their rumored Greek relations with contempt. Beset on every side by monsters and without their own leader, they regard the unexpected arrival of Percy with suspicion. But Hera -- Juno -- has a plan, and Percy must play a part in it together with two new characters, both with mysterious pasts they would prefer to hide.  The trio are given a quest -- to travel beyond the reach of the gods, to a place where no demigod has returned from alive before....Alaska. There they must free Death from the clutches of one of Gaea's giants, because no one is staying in the Underworld like they should and it's causing quite a bit of confusion.

I welcomed the return of Percy and couldn't wait to read this book, eager to see how Riordan developed the Roman camp. They're far different beyond referring to the gods by different names; the Romans are populous enough to live in a large city defended by legions of demigods and their descendants, governed by a senate. They are organized, energetic, and militant. I delighted seeing little nods to both history and mythology. For instance,  Percy is forced to join a disgraced legion which lost its eagle in the artic hinterlands years ago, under the leadership of a man named...Varus.  One of Riordan's new heroes (Frank Zhang) gives him the opportunity to create a character with a fascinating backstory out of a possible Romano-Chinese connection in history, a 'lost legion'. The Son of Neptune is the "end of the beginning" for Riordan's new series: now Juno's plan to unite the camps is laid out in full, for only together -- and with the gods -- can they triumph over the ancient and wrathful earth-goddess by marching on the Doors of Death. I took for granted that the heroes would triumph in this little adventure -- surely they must live on to fulfill the Prophecy of Seven introduced in the original series. It wasn't quite as novel as The Lost Hero given that the reader has already learned most of the mystery by this point, but I still enjoyed the Roman aspects and dramatic tension which is building in the series. The next book, the Mark of Athena, will unite the seven properly, and I'm excited to see where they're going...for the next battle will be fought not in America, but in the home of the gods....Greece.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Week at the Library (4 January)

Pending Review(s): Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam.
Currently Reading: The Son of Neptune; Rick Riordian; The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene (on hold until next week)
Potentials: How the Mind Works, Stephen Pinker

This blog started out as a weekly affair until I switched to individual book reviews, and since then I've been trying to work with the weekly post and make it purposeful, but not redundant.  In addition to the info above, I'll also be including quotations I would have otherwise scribbled down in my journal or posted to my facebook wall -- funny bits of diaogue, deliciously rich exposition, or thought-provoking passages.


"We did it, we bashed them, wee Potter's the one
And Voldy's gone moldy, so now let's have fun!"
"Really gives a feeling for the scope and tragedy of the thing, doesn't it?"

p. 746, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Finally finished up my Harry Potter Christmastime Re-Read!

The reason there are no humanlike robots is not that the very idea of a mechanical mind is misguided. It is that the engineering problems that we humans solve as we see and walk and plan and make it through the day are far more challenging than landing on the moon or sequencing the human genome.Nature, once gain, has found ingenious solutions that human engineers cannot yet duplicate. When Hamlet says "What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable!" we should direct our awe not at Shakespeare or Mozart or Einstein or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but at a four-year old carrying out a request to put a toy on a shelf.

p. 4, How the Mind Works. Stephen Pinker.

British political philosopher John Stuart Mill lauded the effects of participatory democracy on character. Without shared participation in public life, Mill wrote, a citizen "never thinks of any collective interest, of any objects to be pursued jointly with others but only in competition with them, and in some measure at their expense...A neighbor, not being an ally or an associate, since he is never engaged in any common undertaking for joint benefit, is therefore, only a rival." The engaged citizen, by contrast, 'is called weight interests not his own; to be guided, in case of conflicting claims, by another rule other than his own private partialities....He is made to feel himself one of the public, and whatever is for their benefit to be for his benefit."

p. 337, Bowling Alone

TV-based politics is to political action as watching ER is to saving someone in distress. Just as one cannot restart a heart with one's remote control, one cannot jump-start republican citizenship without direct, face-to-face participation. Citizenship is not a spectator sport."

p. 341, Bowling Alone

Monday, January 2, 2012

Top Ten Anticipated Reads for 2012

At the start of 2012, the Book and the Brokish are looking forward to this year's anticipated reads!

1. The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes us Human, V.S. Ramachandran

This was scheduled to be released in January of last year, and I fully expected that I would buy it at some point.  I didn't get around to that, but it's being re-released this month as a paperback; the decreased price  means it might make it to my bookshelf.  As it happens, this is the only book on last year's anticipated reads list that I never got to read.

2. Death from the Skies! or Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait

Phil Plait is an astronomer, blogger, and activist within the skeptical community. He's also my favorite geek: I always get a kick out of hearing him on the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe or StarTalk (the latter of which is hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, another astrophysicist), and it's high time I try out one of his books.

3. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Charles C. Mann

Mann's 1491: New Revelations about the Americas before Columbus rocked my world. It's one of the best history books I've ever read, and I fully intend on getting my hands on a copy of his newest release, which (one assumes) will tackle the ecological and political changes European expansion brought to the Americas.

4. Department of Temporal Investigation: Forgotten History, Christopher L. Bennett

While I'm generally excited about many of the new Trek releases scheduled for 2012,  Bennett is one of my two favorite contemporary Trek authors (along with David Mack), and he never disappoints.

5. Battle of Shiloh, Jeff Shaara

In 2012 Jeff Shaara will be returning to the American Civil War to do a set of novels set in the western theatre, with the first book centered on the bloody battle of Shiloh. He hasn't shared its title yet, but I'll be waiting to see if it's in my library. I'm curious if he'll continue in his own developing style (which  tends to concentrate on one character and use other viewpoint personalities only as a supplement) or revert to his father's, given that Michael Shaara's original Civil War novel, The Killer Angels, inspired Shaara's own career.

6. Coup D'Etat, Harry Turtledove
The fourth novel in Turtleodove's "War that Came Early" series  should be promising, given that in The Big Switch,  his WWII began taking a drastically different shape than ours. I'm guessing from the title that the leadership position of one of the belligerant nations is going to go through a bit of turmoil.

7. The Son of Neptune, Rick Riordan
Second in the Young Olympians series, I'm going to guess this novel finds out what Percy Jackson has been up to while living among the Roman demigods. This was released in October, but I've been waiting for my library to acquire it.

8. A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins

This one sounds interesting. Dawkins is a biologist and Krauss a physicist, and a book that draws on their respective fields will be quite a treat indeed. I'll probably wait for reviews to seriously think about buying it for myself, though; I've never read Krauss before and cosmological physics can be a daunting subject. I'm also interested in Dawkin's The Magic of Reality, a little book that introduces the wonder and methods of science to children. From what I've heard, it not only answers common questions kids have about the universe, but it explains how we know it -- and how kids can find out themselves.

9. The Foregone Conclusion, John Grisham.

Again, I'm predicting that Grisham will release another thriller this autumn. He's been fairly consistent these last few years.

10. Technological Narcissism, James Howard Kunstler

JHK hasn't yet given his upcoming book a title, but he's mentioned several times on his podcast that he's in the process of writing a new book on our "technological narcissism", which I believe he means our obsessive belief that we can always dig ourselves out of a hole using new technology when a change in our behavior is what is called for.  Given Kunstler's interests in criticizing urban sprawl, he's probably thinking of people who believe Americans will develop Some New Fuel that will allow us to maintain the same patterns of automobile use that we have now -- when it might be a brighter idea to invest in transit, like trains, or urban planning that results in walkable neighborhoods that don't force the majority of people to be utterly reliant on cars.

I couldn't find any information on it, but James Kaplan is supposed to release the second half of his Sinatra biography -- and I would assume that will happen this year or next.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Best of 2011: Annual Year in Review

Previous yearly wrap-ups:  2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010

Ever since I began blogging about books in May 2007, I've taken time in early January to reflect on the previous year of reading. There are always stand-out books I like to spotlight, and trends to mull over.

Using, I broke my reading down into the main genres I visit, excluding miscellaneous works. Last year I commented with some wariness that for the first time ever, fiction had surpassed nonfiction reading. It accomplished the same feat this year, and by a larger margin.  I blame Bernard Cornwell. Discovering the police mysteries of Michael Connelly also helped, as I've read more than a few Harry Bosch mysteries this year.

Early in the year I resolved to read ten particular books, most of which had given me trouble in the past; I'm happy to say I read nine of those. I was also able to maintain my 'bookish resolutions'for the most part. An undeclared goal was that of finishing Isaac Asimov's Empire series, which I did.

And now...the best reads of 2011!

In general fiction, there were some truly outstanding novels:

  • The Sea-Wolf by Jack London combines adventure at sea with an epic story-discussion about morality, the meaning of life, and the measure of a man when a literary critic is kidnapped and forced to serve on a sealing schooner dominated by a brute who fancies himself a Nietzschean superman.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird is, "classic" status aside, simply one of the best novels I've ever read. This coming of age story set in Depression-era Alabama features two young people who are forced to grapple with adult questions of conscience and courage during a legal battle. They are guided by their extraordinary father Atticus Finch.
  • The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner is a beautiful, wild, wrenching story about a restless man who drags his family through peril and poverty looking for financial success.Though the man Bo is never a viewpoint character, he dominates the book and its central characters with his admirable energy and sometimes destructive passion. Even months after reading it, I simply can't get over the novel.
  • The Ethical Assassin by David Liss is an altogether different experience than these prior three. It isn't grand or profound, but quirky and provocative. At first glance it might come off as merely a whimsical novel, but the fascinating interplay between the titular assassin and the main character should stir the minds of readers. 

 Historical fiction proved to be a mainstay this year. Last year its success was based on two series (Horatio Hornblower and the Saxon Stories), but in 2011 Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels swept the field. Sharpe is a stand-out action hero, almost legendary, but so much more attracts me to the series -- the way Cornwell brings the world the early  of the 19th century so utterly alive, the relationships between the characters, and oh...that wit. Almost every week I share a quotation from a Sharpe novel on my facebook wall because they're just too good to keep to myself.

‎"What I don't understand," Sharpe persevered, "is why she ran away."
"She's probably in love," Hogan explained airily. "Nineteen-year-old girls of respectable families are dangerously susceptible to love because of all the novels they read."
(Sharpe's Havoc)

It's terribly hard to choose between the Sharpe novels, but the three most memorable --

  • Sharpe's Prey, in which Sharpe plays the part of spy during the British siege of Copenhagen. 
  • Sharpe's Fortress, involving an unintentionally hilarious villain and a fantastic ending.
  • Sharpe's Fury is another "Sharpe alone behind enemy lines" story, which I seem to like best of all. 

I did read historical fiction outside of Sharpe, though:

  • The Revolutionist is down as one of my ten favorite books this year. It's the story of Alexander Til, a Russian-American immigrant who returns to his homeland following the collapse of the tsar and the rise of the Bolsheviks. Til is a believer in the cause of the people -- not the state, which gets him into trouble when the new Soviet state turns out to be just as vicious as the old empire. What follows is an intense thriller set during the opening decades of Lenin and Stalin's reign.

Other notable works included Bernard Cornwell's The Fort, Bernard Cornwell's Gallows Thief, and Bernard Cornwell's --  look, I can't help that the man writes brilliant books. His heroes are fantastic, his villains loathsome,  his supporting characters often hilarious, and the relationships between characters done to a T.  Combine that with the plots and the man can't be beaten.

Bernard Cornwell, Author of the Year

It just can't be helped. Moving on --

Last year I jumped back into Star Trek literature and had intended to keep up with new releases throughout the year, but my ability to do so flagged over the summer. And yet, it's one of the stronger categories. Good heavens. I enjoyed the Vanguard series as a whole, but the big standout is Christopher L. Bennett's Over a Torrent Sea

Outside of Star Trek I read a fair bit of science fiction, mostly in finishing Asimov's Empire series. Joe Haldeman's The Accidental Time Machine is definitely worth mentioning, but as far as SF goes I liked The Currents of Space and The Gods Themselves the best.

History is of course my staple, and this year saw me return to Will Durant's Story of Civilization series, along with knocking out volume one of H.G. Well's The Outline of History. My library doesn't have volume II, hence why I've never finished it. The Age of Faith stymied my progress last year, and it took me three attempts to tackle it properly, but once I did it proved to be my favorite of the series. Other fantastic books:

And though I'm hopelessly biased, I won't go without mentioning Montevallo: Images of America, a pictorial history of my beloved university town.

The numbers lie: this was a slow year for science,  a year which I propped up  with books of essays by Asimov and a few "made simple" works. As it happens I'm in the middle of a substantial science read, but it won't be finished until 2012, I'm afraid. Marlene Zuke's Sex on Six Legs and the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs  were high notes, though. The best would be Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee, which I sort of forgot to review, because I'm a boob.

Religion-wise, I read a few books on the Catholic and Anglican churches as part of my ongoing cultural literacy goal; Why Do Catholics Do That? was a stellar introduction.  Early in the year I enjoyed Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, a naturalistic approach to the development and growth of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Philosophy and social criticism are related subjects for me, so I shall mention them together. While the Dhammapada was enjoyable, and Michael Pollan's food books were fairly eye-opening (even if they had to be taken with a grain of salt given his anti-scientific slant), the undisputed king this year was Michael Foley's The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to Be Happy. I read it early last year but just couldn't do it justice in a review, so I read it again in November and tried afresh.  KunstlerCast is a close second: I yelped in surprise to see it listed on Amazon and was positively delighted when I won it from LibraryThing.  I listen to the podcast every week, you see, and practically swear by Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere, so this print version of the conversations Kunstler and his cohost have on suburban sprawl, urban planning, and the global oil economy was right up my alley.

This year marked the first time I've read books relating to health and/or nutrition: The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight loss and Fitness and The Beginning Runner's Handbook are both excellent.

As for next year....I predict that historical fiction will make another strong showing, because I'm not quite done with the Sharpe series yet. I'll be continuing in the Story of Civilization series with The Age of Louis XIV at some point. There are still a fair few Trek lit books I'm just waiting to read, but science books are going take priority when it comes to new acquisitions. I also intend on visiting the nonfiction works of Alison Weir, whose novels I've enjoyed so much.  If  I read Asimov's End of Eternity, I'll be in the awkward position of having read all of his best-known work, save perhaps the collection I, Robot. After that it's just...short story and essay collections for the most part.