Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Artificial River

The Artificial River: the Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1867
© 1997 Carol Sheriff
272 pages

At the dawn of a new century, the two-decade old American republic stood hemmed in between storm-tossed Atlantic ocean and the towering Appalachian mountains. Beyond them lay the west, sparsely settled but full of potential, stifled only by the dangers and isolation of the wilderness. But then the state of New York summoned the will and resources to create a river where there had been none before, to turn the woods and rolling hills to an avenue for expansion. The Erie Canal opened the west to development and changed the nation’s history, but how did it effect the lives of the people who used it and lived along its course? Such is the question Carol Sheriff attempts to answer in The Artificial River: the Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress.

The Erie Canal was the first major infrastructure project in the early Republic, and changed the relationship between the state government and the people in a variety of ways. First, Sheriff demonstrates, it led to a stronger governmental hand in economic affairs, but the Canal Board allowed people a more direct voice in government than the House of Representatives. “The people” included farmers who were annoyed that access to their land had been limited or the land itself diminished by flooding and the actions of laborers, but the phrase also covered businessmen who were beginning to link their own prosperity with ‘the nation’s” and eager to enlist government financial support in matters that would – quite coincidentally, of course! – improve their own business prospect while furthering the nation's interests. It didn’t include so much the laborers who made the canal possible – the men who dug the ‘ditch’ by hand an in era without mechanized tools, and the boys who helped run the boats up and down the canal, seven days a week, finding their pleasures in the taverns and brothels when they could, and constantly under attack by the wealthy as the scourge of society or viewed as a band of sinners who needed to be saved from themselves by the burgeoning Temperance movement.

Aside from the government becoming more involved in the affairs of life, the canal's presence in people's lives drove home the idea of what was possible. The 19th century would be one dominated by the ever-forward March of Technology. A century earlier, a given technological triumph might be enjoyed only by a particularly wealthy lord or merchant, but in the 19th century progress became a democratic institution. The Erie Canal's swiftness was not limited to the the wealthy: the locks opened and the river flowed for all, and it became an active link to "civilization" for the initial settlers even as it served as the agent of the west's own civilization. Indeed, so quickly did the area along the canal become civilized that it was soon taken for granted and its annual winter closings were greeted not with stoic understanding, but annoyance -- like that which cell phone users experience when experiencing choppiness. The fact that they have their personal phone which is operating by sending signals into space is utterly lost on them in comparison to the impression that they have been inconvenienced. So when the railroads followed the canal down the paths it blazed through wilderness and rendered the marvelous waterway obsolete within only a few decades, no one thought it strange When Thomas Jefferson first heard the proposal to build the canal, he snorted that it would make a fine project in a century. He could have never imagined how much change would be wrought before then.

The Artificial River differs from most Erie histories in that its focus is not on the politics and history of the canal's construction and operation  but on the people whose lives it touched. There it demonstrates what a transitional period the United States was in, shifting from an agrarian republic run by a relative elite to a bustling, noisy commercial democracy where property qualifications were increasingly passe, and the future of the country was in the now very noticeable working class. It's very fine history as far as its focus goes, but for a fuller appreciation of the canal I would probably read it along with other books.

Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and American Empire, Gerared Koeppel

The Ghosts of Evolution

The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsense Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms
© 2000 Connie Barlow
291 pages

Grocery stores are excellent places to encounter ghosts. They lurk in the fruit section, feasting on anachronisms.

The biological world is a wondrous web of connections between various animals and plants, and such connections are the source of evolution’s “endless forms most beautiful”. Not only does the contest between predators and prey – a biological ‘arms race’ – drive evolution, creating faster feet, sharper brains, and more discrete camouflage, but the mutually-supportive relationships between species shape them toward one another’s uses, , like leather molding itself into a glove over an offered hand. But what happens to the glove when the hand is ripped away – when one part of a cooperative pair vanishes into the mists of history and leaves its partner alone? Said partner becomes a living anachronism, and such anachronisms and their ghostly partners are the subject of this fascinating bit of science journalism that may be most readers’ introduction to the field of paleoecology.

Like an ethereal spectre waiting at a window for her beloved, every spring trees throughout the western hemisphere produce fruit for animals which no longer exist to consume them. The two American continents once looked very much like Africa,  being home to massive beasts. While some are familiar to us, like the mammoth, others are fantastic (sloths that make grizzlies look like pups?) and still others just seem misplaced, like American species of lions and tigers (andbearsohmy).  Barlow and her associates take a forensic approach to uncovering relationships between extinct and extant species. Although some bits of evidence seem obvious -- fruits and seeds which are too large for the mouth of any living species, but would have been easily gobbled up by the elephant-like gomphotheres --  her work relies on a wide variety of evidence.  Mouth sizes aren't everything: a given animal's intestines must also be taken into consideration. Some fruit require the digestive assistance of bacteria; some seeds need to be softened by stomach acid, or battered by gizzard stones before they can germinate.  So varied are the pieces of the puzzle that Barlow establishes a diagnostic profile for ascertaining if a given species is anachronistic, one that also determines the degree of anachronism.  While some species have found new markets for their produce (so to speak) in the form of horses and cattle brought over from Europe, others see their entire offering of fruit go to waste every year, and have survived the death of the megafauna only because they're exceptionally long-lived species who sometimes get lucky.In addition fruit, Barlow also illustrates how many plants are attempting to defend themselves against the muzzles and digestive systems of animals who haven't been around for centuries

Ghosts of Evolution is one of the most fascinating science books I've read in a long while. Like Sherlock Holmes taking Watson along to investigate a mystery in Victorian London, so Barlow takes the reader through the Pleistocene jungles with a grand mystery of her own. The text isn't as formal as most -- more a journalistic account of Barlow's investigation, and replete with dialogue between herself and a colleague as they puzzle matters through - but it's teeming with interest. Not only does she illustrate the rich biological heritage of the Americas while piecing together the puzzle, but what she does find offers lessons for modern-day conservation efforts. If we can figure out what kind of dynamics kept the landscape healthy in the past, perhaps we can make efforts to restore it. Her epilogue contains information about ecological approaches that have been inspired by work in this field: for instance, the idea that camels should be introduced to the North American desert plains to feast on certain pervasive species of scrub that have been allowed to become overly dominant thanks to a lack of natural predators....a lack created when said predators suddenly disappeared shortly after the arrival of humans in the Americas.

Teaser Tuesday (31 July)

Jim Lovell was having dinner at the White House when his friend Ed White burned to death.  Actually, it was't dinner Lowell was having, just finger sandwiches, orange juice, and unmemorable wine laid out on covered tables in the Green Room.

p. 1, Lost Moon: the Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13. Jim Lovell, Jeffrey Kluger

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly event hosted by ShouldBeReading, in which participants share excerpts from their current reads.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

First Family

First Family: Abigail and John Adams
© 2010 Joseph Ellis
320 pages
'Til then, 'til then, I am, as I ever was....yours, yours, yours. 

1776, a musical film which celebrates the Declaration of Independence, is an absolutely delightful movie, as funny as it is inspiring. But increasingly I enjoy it for the tender way it portrays the relationship between John Adams and his distant wife, Abigail.  Committed whole-heartedly to the Revolution, Adams is its most ardent advocate. He struggles throughout the film against the cautious  conservatism of his fellow congressmen, and even his marginal successes seem ruined by the compromises that were necessary to achieve them. In times of crisis, Adams retreats and finds a place to himself....where he finds consolation in the thought of his wife. Throughout the movie, Abigail appears in his thoughts and the two sing and comfort one another, the lyrics and dialogue being taken from their letters. It is those letters that provide the source of this, Joseph Ellis' lovely biography of the Adams family.

Ellis proved in Founding Brothers that he's a gifted storyteller, and the same strength is at play here. It helps that he has such extraordinary characters to write about. Abigail is no prim and proper personality stifled by petticoats: she's strong, vibrant, and independence, giving as good as she gets in terms of political and philosophical conversations as well as sly innuendo  that no one would expect from a couple living in Puritan country.  She is in the truest sense of the word, Adams's partner; his dearest friend and most constant source of intellectual stimulation. Her interest in politics influences his career directly,  and she takes an active hand in his personal and political relationships with men like Thomas Jefferson.  The affection these two feel for one another -- the strength and power of their relationship -- is abundantly evident in their letters, especially when they are estranged during Adams' time as an diplomat in Europe.  Abigail's role as confidant allows the reader to see inside Adams' mind, and the man revealed is endearing for his faults and fascinating in his beliefs.  Adams' progressive realism contrasts with Jefferson's conservative idealism, and demonstrates the frailty of the false liberal-conservative divide. No man is so easy to box up.  Although politics plays a large role given Adams' place in history as revolutionary leader and president,  John and Abigail's family is never far from sight, and the losses they endure can't help but inspire sympathy.

I thoroughly enjoyed First Family. To be sure, it does have the weakness of maintaining a one-sided view of the Revolution that sees Britain as entirely in the wrong; here, Britain is taxing America to pay for its empire just because it's fun to be oppressive like that.  It's also not quite as varied as Founding Brothers, but even so I couldn't stop reading it. (The story of John and Abigail fairly well enraptures me: even though the Fourth is long past, the taste I had of their relationship in Sacred Honor and Founding Brothers only gave me an appetite for more, and I may wind up having to find and purchase a collection of their letters to find satisfaction!).  It's a story of romance, family, and politics -- one which reveals the mind-boggling insanity of the Adams White House, where the second president is beset by friend and foe alike. Not only does his vice president conspire with the French and instruct them not to pay Adams any attention, but a member of his own party has Bonaparte-esque delusions of grandeur and tries not only to run the presidential cabinet in secret, but put himself at the head of an army he can use to root out spies and traitors....like the vice president. If nothing else, First Family demonstrates the remarkable pillar of contrarianism that was Adams more easily than David McCullough' denser biography might.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

This Week at the Library (24 July)

I've spent this last week recovering from over-doing it on the French front, zipping through no less than three Star Trek novels for relaxation while working on a science read I received in the post a week or so ago. I've just finished that one ("just", as in no less than ten minutes ago), and comments should follow within a day or two. I plan to focus on science for the next few weeks, and The Ghosts of Evolution was a great start.  There'll be a delay before that reading starts, though, because I just ordered the books. Among their ranks.....THE TELL-TALE BRAIN, by V.S. Ramachandran. Yes, after...two years of waiting, I'm finally going to revisit a man whose first work absolutely astonished me.  In the meantime  look for a little history (The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress) and maybe some fiction.

 Grocery stores are excellent places to encounter ghosts. They lurk in the fruit section, feasting on anachronisms.

p. 7, Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsense Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms, Connie Barlow

Logically, Abigail should have felt torn between her two sides as a traditional New England woman and a fiercely independent personality. But she did not. The apparent contradiction felt to her like a seamless continuity. She could mend a  hem while engaging you in a discussion of Macbeth's fatal flaw. If that caused trouble for some people, that was their problem.

p. 14, First Family: Abigail and John Adams, Joseph Ellis

"It appears that the mother of your untaken road will be joining us," sighed Picard, "Lwaxana Troi is being sent by Betazed to be their representative at the joining of the houses of Graziunas and Nistral aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise."
"Do they ever miss an opportunity to send her off planet?" Riker wondered.
Picard glanced at him. "Would you?"

p. 28, Q-in-Law. Peter David

"Why would Sehra of Graziunas give you a naked young woman?"
"She didn't know my shirt size? I don't know!"

p. 122, Q-in-Law. Peter David.

"I'll get you some tea. Just the way you like it." Riker snapped out of his relationship with the numbers and turned to the replicator. "Tea, Earl Grey, hot."
"Sounds funny with you saying it," Picard remarked.

p. 81, Ship of the Line, Diane Carey

Monday, July 23, 2012

A People's History of the Civil War

A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom
594 pages
© 2005 David Williams

No war has left such an impression on the American character as its civil war. That conflict (1861-1865) claimed more American lives than either World War 2 or Vietnam, and remains the only great war to have taken place on American soil. (The war of independence took place here, but didn't occupy or ravage the landscape to any comparable degree.) The memory of it lives on, especially in the south where people fly Confederate flags from their yards and speak still of states' rights and the Cause. Despite its human and material costs, when the war is spoken of it is usually romanticized, depicted a battle between good and evil -- though whether the good was the Union fighting to destroy slavery or the South fighting to defend its rights varies on who is involved in the discussion. Enter A People's History of the Civil War,  a merciless and fascinating treatment that exposes the weaknesses of traditional narratives and butchers illusions. It is both dynamite and bitter medicine -- powerful, necessary, and sometimes painful.

No serious historian would maintain that the Union invaded the South to free the slaves, or that the South severed ties with the Union purely in the defense of principle: anyone with an ounce of integrity would acknowledge contributing economic and material influences. At the very least one might say that the war was simply the violent expression of an conflict between two economic systems, that of the industrial and commercial north versus the traditional, agrarian south.  Williams' account is more direct: the war was about money and power, just the same as any war. Even the abolitionists were motived in part by greed: northern businessmen didn't want their expansion into the west having to compete with the free labor of southern powers.  Although Brooks' work is organized more thematically than chronologically (containing distinct sections on the role of women, labor,  the lives of soldiers, reaction to conscription, the governments' treatment of women etc) he jumps in feet first by critically examining the legitimacy of secession. Contrary to popular belief -- the Confederate government is more loved now than it was when it actually existed -- secession was not a popular mandate. Brooks reveals how election on the question of secession were rigged, stolen, or done away with outright by the planters who saw the election of Lincoln as a threat to their way of life.  Not only was the cutting of ties unpopular: so was the war that followed.  Economic powers in the north were patently unwillingly to allow the south's resources to simply walk away from the union. Following Lincoln's call to arms, support for the two governments' cause rallied briefly, but soon fell away, leading to conscription acts in both parts of the country and fostering popular resentment against the government.  Why did the South lose? The conventional answer of our usual narrative is that the South's lack of material resources doomed her against the industrious north...but Brooks notes on several occasions that the South never lost a battle for want of arms or ammunition: time and again, its weakness was the faltering support of the people for an uninspiring government and a cause not their own: Davis and Lee noted with urgent concern the rising deseration rates in their ranks as early as 1862.

The American Civil War was in short a rich man's war and a poor man's fight: not only was it created by the economic rivalry of competeing business interests, but these same men declined to take part in the fight once it was begun. When the initial emotional spasm of patriotism subsided and the volunteers fell away, both sides instituted conscription acts...but the wealthy were functionally exempt, either for practical reasons (because they could purchase substitutes) or by law (planters with more than twenty slaves were exempt from the draft).  At least the northern elites contributed to the war effort through industrial production: in the south, planters took advantage of increased wartime prices for cotton and shifted emphasis to producing it instead of food, leading to mass and chronic starvation that endured throughout the war.  The producers of war materials also looted soldiers and the government for all they were worth in selling supplies; a practice evidently a staple of American warmaking, for this was a principle complaint of Major General Smedley Butler's War is a Racket, dated 1935 and drawing on suppliers' behavior in the Great War.  The soldiers' experience was generally one of misery:  Brooks documents the inferior food, ghastly medical practices, harsh disicpline (promoted by the contempt of the wealthy officer class for the proles under their command), and the obscene misuse of soldiers using traditional tactics against modern weapons.  A massed body of men in bright uniform makes a marvelous target for the gunners, a fact that Europe learned in 1914. Little wonder that the soldiers and their families at home protested so mightily; little wonder that they deserted. The loyalty they had, Brooks wrote, was to their comrades: though "The Cause" rung hollow after the first year of conflict, few soldiers were willing to simply abandon their friends and comrades to the dangers of war.  They fought on not for the country, but for each other.

Alas, such solidarity is not to be found outside the soldiers' ranks. The war was a truly a civil war, not because it pit Americans from the north and south against one another but because it pit the common people against one another. They're horrifyingly fickle, "the people", first lyching one another for not supporting the war, then for supporting it;  while the tale has a reliable villain in southern planters, there are precious few heroes to be found here in this text where the abolitionists are viciously anti-labor;  the rich abuse the poor, men abuse the women, governments mistreat the Indians, and everybody hates the blacks.   The usual strength of the People's History series is that its infuriating and saddening accounts of exploitation are redeemed by inspiring feats when the people rally together and overcome their oppressors. That never happens here: the people are continually set against one another, and as the bodycount rises one looks for a small sliver of hope in the fact that at least the slaves were freed and the south was forced to modernize. No such luck:  freedmen were trapped in slavery by another name, tenancy-farming, or migrated northward to be abused in the factories by men who were just as fearful and prejudiced as planters of the south.  This is no account for the faint of heart: it will force those who believe in popular sovereignty to face hard questions.  How can a just and peaceful government be possible when people are so easy to set against one another? Such is the question posed to us by the legacy of the Civil War.

A People's History of the Civil War is a mighty contribution to American Civil War literature. It asks questions no other account would, explores facets of the conflict that would otherwise have gone hidden: it ignores military campaigns and politics to look at the lives of the people who were forced to fight and endure through the war. I read about the war obsessively during my high school years, and still time and again Brooks' work left me reeling.   As powerful as it is, it has its weaknesses -- the editing is rough around the edges, and as much as the pages are saturated with primary sources protesting the war or bewailing the rich,  it's easy to cherry pick --  but what it reveals is worth considering for anyone with an interest in the war.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ship of the Line

Ship of the Line
© 1997 Diane Carey
320 pages

Two captains, each without a ship. The first, Captain Picard, lost his when it plowed into the surface of Viridian III while he struggled to prevent a grief-stricken madman from destroying a world. The other's, Captain Bateson's, became a historical artifact when he was thrust into the future in the midst of a battle against a Klingon cruiser. His attempt at self-sacrifice saved a starbase from destruction and prevented a war, but his legendary ship is still not viable against the Federation’s modern foes, like the Dominion and the Borg. After running into one another (dozens of times) in “Cause and Effect”, Bateson and Picard’s fates are again linked with the creation of the USS Enterprise-E. While Picard questions his future as ship’s captain, Bateson is eager to earn the captaincy of the not-yet-commissioned Enterprise despite being ninety years behind the times. While Picard is dispatched on a secret mission inside Cardassian lines, Bateson sees cracks in the Khitomer Accords and is eager to prove himself against an old enemy. Thus the two captains struggle for their reputations at the brink of war.

Ship of the Line is a strikingly odd but fun book. Diane Carey seems to have wanted to write a classic naval adventure novel.  Not only do the characters speak and think as though they're living in the Romantic period, but Captain Bateson is a walking anachronism, a man who seems to live in the heyday of the age of "iron ships and wooden men". His ship is a "clipper", and when he's not cheerfully pointing out the etymology of a given expression, he's musing on naval traditions. This combined with his status as a temporal refugee plays off well, though, because Picard relates to this man the way we would relate to someone from the 18th or 19th century.  References to the Horatio Hornblower series abound: not only do quotations from various Hornblower stories start off each section, but  at least two characters seem to have been named after members of Hornblower's crew, which actually spoiled part of the book for me because I knew straightaway  who the turncoat in Bateson's crew was.

TNG fans in general will find a lot to appreciate it here, for Carey gives us a story of Picard and his people after they were off the air, connecting their stories to those of the then-contemporary Star Trek universe.  going for it, giving TNG readers a look at their captain and his crew between ships and connecting their stories  (post "All Good Things...") to Deep Space Nine's Klingon story arc. The novel takes place at the same approximate time as DS9's "Way of the Warrior":  Commander Wof has already accepted a position onboard the station, but the Klingons have not yet invaded Cardassia nor revoked the Khitomer Accorrds. The Federation and the Klingon Empire are thus at peace, but Klingon belligerence strains relations.The Klingon captain whose invasion Bateson thwarted ninety years ago is enraged and humiliated that his 'vanquished' foe is alive and well, and both he and Bateson are easy for a rematch. Relations between the UFP and Klingon Empire are already strained, and the feud may be the firestarter for war. Picard is also engaged with an old enemy -- Gul Madred, the man who tortured him in "Chain of Command". He gets some marvelous comeuppance.

Carey is an efficient writer, never wasting time with extensive transitions or letting a conclusion drag out. The pace is fast, but not hurried, and there are scenes of rich, thoughtful dialogue that allow for a break in the action and give the reader a chance to savor  the interplay between characters -- particularly between Picard and Captain Kirk, who Picard visits in holographic form as a way of searching his own soul. It captures an opportunity that wasn't quite taken advantage of fully in Generations.

Although I've had this novel for years, I shied away from reading it at first because I found the idea of anyone but Picard manning the Enterprise-E to be distasteful. I'm glad I gave it a chance:  its quaintness ensnared my interest, and it fleshes out a hole in the TNG timeline rather nicely with a dandy 'good show'.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why We Love France (But Not the French)
© 2003 Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow
351 pages

France stymies Americans. They eat what they want, but seemingly don't get fat. Their government is happily involved in health, education, industry, and business, but they have one of the most robust economies in the world. How do they do it? What makes them tick?  Jean-Benoît Nadreau and Julie Barlow were dispatched by a government foundation to find out just that very thing. Having lived in France for several years and made a study of it, they represent their findings in  the fascinating Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French

All of Gaul, Julius Caesar wrote, is divided into three parts -- and so is this book. The first examines the personal aspects of French culture:  notions of privacy,  the importance of language,  the art of cuisine, the deep connection the French have with their land. Part II, "Structure", examines the culture of civics and governance,  and part three demonstrates how those elements of French culture are adapting to the future.  Although it covers a wide range of topics, the editing is such that the three parts fit neatly together to present a solid and comprehensive picture.  That picture is formed in part by the centrality of the State. Although Americans might interpret a central state as a an overwhelming powerful central government, the State is more fundamental in France. It is not an outside thing that people relate to: it is the environment. France is the state: its very creation, a pillar of order erected from the chaos of feudalism.  The French republic is not a federation of provinces and cities it is the Public Thing in itself, wielding enormous power and expressing that through a strong military or money but through the way it enmeshes itself in the lives of the French, creating in part the French culture itself. Most striking for me was the use of language:

When French mayors talk about their constituents, they never use the word 'citizens'. No one talks about the 'citizens of Lyon' or 'the citizens of Toulouse' Mayors speak of their administrés, (literally, their 'administereds'). The French can only be citizens of one thing, the one and indivisible Republic, and that entity 'adinisters' them at the local level through mayors." p. 146

Although in America the state mostly exists as an apparatus for economic interests, in France it seems to exist more for the public welfare, not just business. The idea is at least easy to take seriously, as the French government takes an interest in the lives of its people, providing plenty of support for new parents.  What a delightfully exotic idea to American ears, that the state is there to enhance the quality of life!  Quality is another strong theme --- the opening sections address the French fondness for grandeur and eloquence. Life is to be savored, not merely purchased. Another choice quotation:

‎"The way the French see it, the economy should serve the social well-being of the country, not the other way around. Former prime minister Lionel Jospin is famous for having said "Oui à l'économie de marché, non à la société de marché" (Yes to a market economy, no to a market society)." (p. 276)

The powerful State and the emphasis on quality are joined in the French attitude toward education: there exist in France several academies which exist just to produce an elite caste of people to ensure that this powerful state is being run correctly. The civil service is fashioned along the lines of an army, and this elite is its officer corps. Americans who see higher education as elitist would be positively scandalized by the idea that the French seek to create it deliberately, but in France governance is too important not to be taken seriously.

In general,  the French way is presented as neither better nor worse than the English and American systems, but simply different. I for one am both attracted and disturbed by the aspects of French culture revealed here because of the varying attitudes I have for individualism and the role of the state. One can't deny the results, though, and after reading this and various other works about French culture I can't help but think they have better priorities.

And with that, my reading and reviews for Bastille Day is finally done. Until next year, anyway!

Monday, July 16, 2012

This Week at the Library (16 July)

So, last week was fun. I think I may have overdone it with no less than five reads for Bastille Day, but they certainly put me in the mood for celebrating France. I think it will be a few weeks before I can go somewhere without having accordion strains lingering in my mind!  Food was a pervasive theme, but as I haven't had lunch yet I don't think I should dwell on that!  As fun as last week was,  I'm anticipating more variety for the next few weeks. I've got a science book waiting for me at present -- The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms.  I also have Food, Inc, but I think I'll let it keep for a while, as I'm burned out on criticism for a while  I'm also well versed with the material from previous readings of Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, so I will enjoy it more as a refresher later. Reviews are still pending for A People's History of the Civil War and Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong.  I'd figured to post those yesterday, but wound up playing a game of Civilization III as the French instead. (The French focus bled over into everything last week: I wound up watching movies set in Paris, listening to the "Edith Piaf" station on Pandora, and playing French scenario in my various games..)

Books in the news....today's EconTalk features an interview with Gary Taubes on the book, Why We Get Fat.  His interview on Good Calories, Bad Calories absolutely fascinated me, so I'm looking forward to this one.

Q in Law

Star Trek TNG #18: Q-in-Law
1991 Peter David
252 pages

A feud  between two families of space gypsies is about to end in marriage, as their children have decided to tie the knot and give Captain Picard the honor of marrying them. Although this species never been heard of before, and indeed never will be again, the ceremony is attracting guests from throughout the Federation, including...Lwaxana Troi. That certainly puts a damper on Picard's spirits, but then Q decides to invite himself to the festivities to explore the age-old question: what is love?  Poor Picard. Poor, poor, Picard.  If surviving a week of tense relations and petty bickering between future in-laws weren't bad enough, he has to do it in the company of the two people in the universe who drive him absolutely mental.

It's the setup for what is easily the funniest Star Trek novel I've ever read. Although the premise isn't stellar (aliens wanting to know about human love is rather tired), the execution was perfect. Lwaxana and Q are powerful, prickly characters -- a lot of potential, but they're easy to misuse. In David's hands, they're dynamite together, even when Q isn't sniping at Worf ("Oh, you'll all have to forgive Worf. He's just discovered opposable thumbs, and he's feeling overly confident.") and neither of them is giving the good captain fits. David also weaves in a couple of running gags and throws a  very earnest and very naked young woman in Wesley Crusher's quarters.  Even his mother can't help but laugh.

Were I in the mood for an adventure or some poignant comments about the human condition, Q-in-Law might not have been appropriate. But I wanted to relax, and it delivered magnificently. I've never enjoyed Peter David this much before: small wonder he was asked to write other Q books. If you like Star Trek TNG in the slightest, look for a used copy of this. It's nothing less than a riot.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Age of Napoleon

The Age of Napoleon
© 2004 Alistair Horne
218 pages

Napoleon Bonaparte cast a long shadow over history, considering the relative slightness of his origins. Who would expect a boy from a conquered island to rise to the height of power and command one of the greatest empires in history, and leave a legacy even grander?  Alistair Horne's contribution to the Modern Library Chronicles series discusses that legacy in part, although it is a mere sample of what one might say about the Emperor. Horne himself has written larger, more exhaustive works on the same subject, but this series consists of compact introductions. Horne's account focuses on life in the empire away from the war,  treating military affairs in general as background material only to be referenced occasionally.  A story told in eleven short chapters (including an epilogue), Horne  discusses Napoleon's rise to power, his ambitious vision for both France and Europe (unified and modern),  how society responded to him both at home and abroad, the corrupting effects of hubris as his influence grew, and eventually his downfall.  Other books on the Modern Library Chronicles series have succeeded in meaningful summaries of broad subjects by focusing on a few key points, like Karen Armstrong's treatment of ummah (political-spiritual community) in Islam. Horne's reach is more broad, and not quite as potent.  Even so, I don't know if the emphasis on society and culture in the Napoleon era is one covered by many other books, which would tend to focus more on politics and military games.  On the whole, The Age of Napoleon is a short but  enjoyable read, its ideal audience being lay persons who are faintly curious about Napoleon but who have little interest in reading about military maneuvers.

"Paris", from The City in Mind by James Howard Kunstler, in which Napoleon's architectural legacy is discussed more thoroughly.

Bringing up Bébé

Bringing up Bébé: One Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting
© 2012 Pamela Druckerman
304 pages

When Pamela Druckerman moved to Paris to start a life with her new husband, she noticed something rather odd about French children: they behaved. Long accustomed to the whining, shrieking, squirming, picky eaters in the United States, she couldn’t help but wonder how the French did it…especially seeing as they didn’t seem to be harsh disciplinarians. Indeed, the children seemed to enjoy a fair bit of leeway…but then again, they also seemed to merit it. Druckerman flinched when a group of children ran ahead of their teacher on a busy sidewalk, but the teacher wasn’t bothered in the least – nor should she have been, since the children stopped at the crosswalk to wait for her, just as the teacher knew they would. The French and their children seem to have made a golden peace with one another…but how?  When Druckerman’s own marriage produced a baby, she began finding out how. Bringing up Bebe is the delightful result of Druckerman’s observations and direct experience with childhood and parenting in France, reflections with a lot of offer parents wondering what kind of approach to take with their own bébés.

Although at times Bringing up Bebe seems like a straightforward story of what happens when an American woman raises a child in France (Druckermen comments on her daughter Bean's early bilingualism, freely mixing English and French in the same sentence), the chapters are organized more by subject, following Druckerman's move to Paris and her following pregnancies.  The chapter titles ("paris is burping") establish Druckerman as a storyteller with a quirky sense of humor, ever entertaining to read. The sections cover diet, disicipline, daycare, food culture, language, and so on, but there are at least two concepts which emerge as a foundation of French parenting and are reference throughout. The first is that of 'éducation:   according to Druckerman, the French treat babies not as angry and hostile things that need to be tamed, but as little tiny people who simply need to be taught what is right. They communicate constantly with babies in the belief that the infants can understand them. (This seems dubious to me, but given that humans are social creatures, such communication can't help but be healthy.)  What's interesting is that since babies are regarded as people in their own right, they're expected from the start to conform to certain conventions of society, like the idea that you are just one person among many and are not the center of the universe, even if the only thing you can do is lie in your crib, wait for your cells to divide, and ocassionally fill your diaper. One parenting trick Druckerman learns early on is "The Pause": instead of running every time a baby cries, French parents wait a few seconds to see what happens. Often, the baby will go back to sleep (or was merely making noises in her sleep in the first place), and it is believed the delay between the baby crying and the parents responding establishes in the baby's mind that she is not the center of the universe.  Although children are granted certain indulgences for being young, in general they are expected to conduct themselves in a civilized manner, and are constantly groomed in this direction in every aspect of their lives. "The Pause" also teaches babies patience, and patience is emphasized so consistently that it allows children to dine with their parents in an adult restaurant, sitting for hours and behaving themselves.  'Education' is constantly enforced, not by punishment but by communication.

Children respond to this, partially through a second concept --  the cadre, or framework.  This establishes a few firm rules that are never to be violated, while giving children a free hand everywhere else. For instance, French parents teach their children that adults must have time to themselves, so the children are made to go to their bedrooms at a certain hour...but they are not forced to go to bed if they are not sleepy. The children thus learn to entertain themselves instead of constanting demanding their parents' attention.) The cadre allows children to explore and learn about the  world on their own, but within certain safe limits.  They are treated like adults who simply need to be taught the right thing, and they grow into adults who do it.

Although I'm not a parent, nor do I anticipate becoming one at this point in my life, I found much to appreciate here. The French parenting approach is in line with my own values, and seems quite sensible.  Definitely entertaining and nicely written: those who are interested in considering it as parenting advice might want to read customer reviews at Amazon or some other place to get an idea for how successful the approach has been in other people's lives. I bought this book to start off my Bastille Day reading set, and it's definitely a keeper.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

French Lessons

French Lessons: Adventures with the Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew
© 2001 Peter Mayle
227 pages

Peter Mayle is to be envied. Some people's work involves overseeing hundreds of people and managing the affairs of a business that skirts bankruptcy other day. Some put their life in peril, fighting fires or confronting criminals. Some are pushed to their physical limits putting in long hours on the factory floor.  Mayle, on the other hand, must roam France and subject himself to its most extraordinary pleasures, then regale readers with stories of  this most dreadful task. Mayle is an author who loves France, and after dining with him vicariously through French Lessons, it's easy to understand why. How can one resist a people who love food this much? A retired barfly refers to cuisine as the religion of France, and it's a religion that's quite robust. Mayle visits festival after festival celebrating local delicacies -- truffles, snails, vintage wine -- and immerses himself fully in the traditional celebrations of these foodstuffs. It's either the French gift for cooking or Mayle's for writing, but he does manage to make the task of delivering a slug from its shell sound not only fun, but appetizing. Part of the fun of the book is that Mayle always finds someone passionate to dine with, and they both drink themselves silly.  Although the book seems written mostly to entertain,  Mayle's emphasis on eating quality food for pleasure supported the principles Mireille Guiliano demonstrated in French Women Don't Get Fat.  This is a quick, zesty, and entertaining read.

French Women Don't Get Fat

French Women Don't Get Fat: the Secret of Eating for Pleasure
© 2005 Mireille Guiliano
263 pages

You may have heard of the French Paradox. In an age of innumerable health crises (obesity, diabetes, cancer) tied to diet, where every item in the grocery store contains something that at least one nutritionist has declared will kill us, it's not surprising that many of us approach the dinner plate with the dread caution of a lab rat that's been shocked every time it tried to nibble on a food pellet. But not the French. Name one of the diseases of civilization, and the French have escaped it. Why this should be so is inexplicable, for they indulge -- indeed, luxuriate in --  foods that have been put on the naughty list, from wine to butter to bread.  How is it they stay so slim?  Mireille Guiliano brings her own experiences to bear in trying to answer the question. A native of France, she once visited the United States as an exchange student and came back from her American summer looking very much like an American -- portly.  Her distraught father's first words at seeing his daughter were "You look like a sack of potatoes!".  The weight gain increased until she met with the family doctor, who she terms Dr. Miracle, who scolded her for forgetting the French approach to food.  No sooner did Mireille return to the traditional ways than did the kilograms start following off, and soon she was as svelte as a model. French Women Don't Get Fat offers the advice of her doctor to women everywhere, advice which emphasizes the joy of eating in moderation.

The French attitude toward food enchanted me as soon as I encountered it first in Bringing up Bébe, so the idea of an entire book devoted to it enthralled me. Alas, it wasn't quite as powerful as I'd hoped. The French take food and eating far more seriously than do Americans (and everyone else, conceivably), and see mealtime as a ritual to be enjoyed to the fullest, appeasing all the senses. No scarfing down a burger and fries in the car for the Gauls:  food is to be enjoyed at the table, with full pomp -- served in courses, and preferably with friends with whom one can linger for hours chatting.  Over the course of the book, Guiliano reveals a handful of sensible principles. To borrow from Michael Pollan, she advocates eating real food -- not too much, not too quickly, and from a local market if possible. She also tacks on miscellaneous advice, like practicing breathing, and incorporating more exercise into your life.  It's safe to say you've probably heard this advice before. Unfortunately, some of it is impossible to put into practice for Americans. We don't have local food markets. I would wager that the overwhelming majority of people here obtain 100% of their food from places indexed on the stock exchange.  We can incorporate some of this advice by patronizing farmers' markets and getting involved in Community-Supported Agriculture ventures, though.  The other principles can be put into action, and the strength of French Women Don't Get Fat is that it makes rethinking our approach to food look like such fun.  I wish it offered more than anecdotes, though.

In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
French Kids eat Everything, Karen le Billon
Bringing up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman
In Praise of Slow, Carl Honoré

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mardi Teaser (10 Juillet)

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly event in which participants share excerpts from their current reads: the host is Should Be Reading.

Only a handful of the French population -- one recent estimate puts it at 10 percent -- goes to church on a regular basis. "The fact of it is," said Monsieur Farigoule, the retired schoolmaster who gives regular dissertations from his perch by the village bar on the worsening state of the world, "the plain fact of it is that the religion of the French is food. And wine, of course." He tapped his empty glass with a fingernail to indicate that he might be persuaded to take a refill.

p. 22, French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew. Meter Mayle

Oh, look, I found yet another book to add to my set of French-themed readings...

Monday, July 9, 2012

This Week at the Library (9 July)

I spent this weekend finishing A People's History of the Civil War by David Brooks, which has the distinction of being the gloomiest book in the series I've yet read. Howard Zinn's original work covering the United States forced the reader to confront one tragic episode after another, but it also  imparted to the sympathetic some revolutionary vigor, also telling how common people have time and again rallied against the powerful and advanced the cause of justice.  Although this treatment of the Civil War also contains scenes such as those, they're meager and flickering lights engulfed by the great darkness of the war itself. I am looking forward to collecting my thoughts on it and then moving on to the general merriment of the French Revolution.

...or not. No, the French Revolution would also make for grisly reading*, which is why I'm glad this year's French reading is more geared toward cultural literacy than history. Oh, I've The Age of Napoleon by Alistair Horne, so I'll read about the revolution eating its children, but I have three -- count them, un, deux, trois -- others that are interesting in a delightful way instead of interesting in a morbid, impressively catrastrophic way. First will be Bringing up Bebe, which is an excellent example of how a book can utterly take me by surprise. It came out of nowhere, I started reading the preview, and the next thing I knew I'd bought it and was carrying it around reverently with me all week. I finished it before I finished my Independence Day reads, actually. Great fun and something to think about if I ever become a parent. Following up on that I have French Women Don't Get Fat, which I borrowed from the library and only half-interested in. What keeps distracting my attention is Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French, which is an exploration of French culture in general.  There seems to be quite the market for Americans who want to be judged by the French, with book titles like French Women Don't Sleep Alone and French Children Eat Everything.  I could not find any similar titles for the English, or the Germans. (The books on German culture I found were mostly written for businessmen who find Germans inexplicable, and not for people who wish they were living on some colorful strasse in Hamburg rather than the suburbs in the 'States. )

Although I've found this set of reading toe-curlingly-pleasing so far, it has had the side effect of lodging Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose" in my head for days on end. I can  go nowhere without hearing that beautiful melody playing in my head. Wherever I go, I'm followed by the strains of an accordion. I've since discovered that Dean Martin and Louis Armstrong both did covers of the song, with English lyrics but incorporating the French title (like Pete Seeger did with "Die Gedanken sind frei").

So, on the agenda this week: a couple of reviews pending, my French set to continue reading, plus possibly the new Rick Riordan Egyptian fantasy novel.

* Like Simon Shama's Citizens.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Independence Wrap-up

This year I continued in my tradition of reading some appropriate books around the Fourth of July, starting with the excellent Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis and moving on to two collections.

The first, Our Sacred Honor by William J. Bennett, collects the thoughts and advice of the ‘founding founders’ on such themes as patriotism, frugality, industry, civility, friendship, romance, and faith, adding his own commentary as introductions to each section. It is something of a patriotic canon in that it contains excerpts from not only the Declaration of Independence, but works like the Ballad of Paul Revere and the famed story about Washington cutting down a tree with his hatchet. The collection is weakest here: though Bennett lightly acknowledges that these accounts are not true to fact, they’re included more for the way they make him feel, which is patriotic. What makes up for this is the wealth of material taken from the letters of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and company. (These three and Franklin provide most of the material.) The section on piety seems superfluous given how abundant references to providence are throughout the text, but the religious sentiments of these four are a world apart from those of the current strain of politicians who try to enlist God as a running-mate.  I found the collection informative, though I suppose any collection of letters from Adams and Jefferson would be superb.  In short,, this collection offers a slightly naïve appreciation of the founders’ thoughts, but still enjoyable.

The Good Citizen, a collection of essays about citizenship in modern America, was a far more demanding and meatier read – challenging, in fact, more for the ideas than the language. The modern America the contributing authors address is one increasingly polarized, struggling to adjust to technologies which are radically altering the way we relate with one another, juggling massive issues, both domestic (social injustice) and foreign (struggling to compete in the ever-changing global market), and attempting to do so while not being entirely united. The standout essay for me was Michael Lerner's piece on values in America, though I also greatly appreciated Robert Bellah's piece on polarization and Barbara Christian's "The Crime of Innocence", which chastised Americans who try to excuse themselves from responsibility by remaining willfully ignorant about the problems present in the country today. 

At the library, my American Independence Display proved only lightly popular. Another Joseph Ellis book, American Creation, and David McCullough's 1776 were among those checked out. Ellis is an author I intend to read more of this year,  and I'm thinking I might also tackle McCullough's classic biography of John Adams. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Liebster Survey

A little award-survey game has been going around the biblio-blogging community, one in which participants are tasked with answering eleven questions and then charged with fashioning eleven questions of their own and firing them at another batch of people. Well, I've been tagged twice, one by Doodlebug and today by BookMusings, so I have twenty-two odd questions to answer! Now, as much as I like answering questions, I'm not so keen on the idea of tagging people. (I responded very poorly to chain mail as a kid...)  So, I'm going to change things up a bit and answer 22 questions plus my own eight (an even thirty) and open the entire set up to whomever wants to respond. It is not in keeping with the rules, but as anyone who reads Teaser Tuesday can tell you, I rarely do that. Besides, the essential fact about "memes', these little genes of culture, is that they change with time. Consider this it a bit of memetic engineering.

Oh, and I have to lead off with eleven facts about myself. So, in short order: I have green eyes. I'm partial to furniture in the Queen Anne style, especially of those bookcases with the glass doors. Today I helped a lady trapped in an elevator. I enjoy wearing hats, and this summer am sporting a straw fedora. I start my mornings off with a walk in the neighborhood. I have the oddest itch to learn French recently, even though if I had the time to start learning another language (in addition to building on my altogether rudimentary German) I'd be better served recovering my high school Spanish, especially given that there's no way to check my pronunciation of a tongue in a language where it famously matters. I enjoy playing PC games, but dislike those which require online activation and Steam accounts, so mostly I play older games from before ~2006. (Right now I play The Sims 2, Sid Meier's Railroads!, and Civilization III.) I don't know how to swim, but I'd like to learn.  My favorite singer is Frank Sinatra, my favorite author Isaac Asimov, and my favorite contemporary artist Jack Vettriano.

Okay, now for the questions!

From BookMusings: 
1.  How do you feel about the reading you were assigned in school?  Dislike?  Appreciate?
I remember most of it fondly, even though some titles were distressing at the time. I remember Where the Red Fern Grows reducing me to angry tears.

2.  Is there a book you have read so many times you almost have it memorized?
Ducky, Diary 1 from the California Diaries series (Ann M. Martin) and various Star Trek paperbacks (especially John Vornholt's TNG Dominion War duology) share this distinction. 
3.  What's your favorite non-fiction genre?
Why, history, of course!

4.  Do you listen to many audiobooks?  Why or why not?
I see audiobooks as a way of rexperiencing books I've already enjoyed. It adds another aspect to the story for me. So far I've only experienced the Harry Potter series, Bernard Cornwell's Lords of the North, and a collection of sermons by Martin Luther King Jr this way.  

5.  What's your favorite movie based on a novel?
So many movies have been made from novels, but off the top of my head....A Series of Unfortunate Events.  
Do you talk books with anyone in real life?  Who?  Or is your blog your only avenue?
I work at a library! While going through the morning setup this a.m, my boss and I chatted merrily about a book I've read (Bringing up Bébé, a book she wants to read (French Women Don't Get Fat), and the connections between the two, and when it came time for me to change out my American Independence display, I was in the mood for a food culture theme.  Before I started working at the library, I had begun visiting a lunch-based book club in town. There are several friends both in life and online who I chat about books with on a regular basis, but I'm interested in finding a book circle with meetings that I can attend. 
7.  Is there any book you associate strongly with a particular place or time in your life?
Well, sure! Name a year and I can give you a book that evokes the memories of that year. 2006? Theories for Everything. 2007? Harry Potter. 2008? Foundation. And so on. 
8.  Where and when do you do most of your reading?
I've started waking up an hour early just so I can sit in my chair with a cup of coffee and read, with no need to hurry. Most of my reading probably happens in the mornings now. 
9.  What period in history have you read the most about (either fiction or non-fiction)?
Probably the late 19th century or early 20th. I'm fascinated by societal change, and the industrial revolution created a pile of it. 
10.  What kind of poetry (if any) do you read?
I have an odd relationship with poetry. I don't think of myself as having a poetic mind, but I do seem sensitive to hearing it, and I enjoy memorizing certain poems and then reciting them. Experiencing something in the course of a day, and then connecting it to a poem and adding to the experience myself by performing it  is an absolute pleasure for me. A few months ago, for instance, while walking in the late afternoon, some geese flew overhead and I stopped to admire them. Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese" came to mind, and I couldn't help but recite it.

I suppose I like poetry that is pleasurable to recite, though my favorite to read for pleasure is Kahlil Gibran. 
11.  What is the funniest book you've ever read?
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Max Shulman

From DoodleBug: 

1. Social networking is key to blogging, Which is your favorite, i.e. twitter, facebook etc?
The only social website I use on a regular basis is Facebook, and lately I've been distancing myself from it after realizing it was claiming more time and attention than its contributions to my life warranted. Now I treat it like Wal-Mart, like a raid: I go in, I get the information I need, and I get out.

2. How did you get introduced to blogging?
Way back in the Stone Age, the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was this thing called LiveJournal. That got me used to the idea of broadcasting my thoughts to the internet, though I didn't start a blog with a purpose until 2006 or so, when I started using blogger as a way of sharing some philosophical thoughts of mine with multiple friends online, in a format easier to access than email.

3. Where is your favorite place to read?
It used to be a particular tree on my university campus, but as I no longer live on said campus,  I've taken to my yard swing in the early mornings and late afternoons. I should prefer that it squeaked less, but swinging and reading, especially with a hot muffin and a cup of coffee, is an experience that can't be lessened by a little racket.

4. Let's face it, sometimes you judge the book by its cover, what is most likely to grab your attention?
If a book features the author prominently on the cover, I'll probably avoid it on the contention that the book is more notable for its author than its content.

5. Favorite book store? Large chain or mom and pop?
I don't have a local bookstore, alas, unless you count the supermarkets. I usually  buy from little stores online via Amazon's marketplace. Amazon gets its cut from every transaction, of course, but I figure it's better to support the little guys than a big box. I used to be quite fond of a WaldenBooks in a mall an hour or so away, though.

6. What is the most money you have spent at one time on books?
$300 or so, for university texts my freshman year when I was silly enough to buy them from the campus store...in new condition.

7. Drink of choice?
Coffee in the morning, tea at lunch and supper, water throughout the day, and maybe a little wine after supper with a good book.

8. Favorite Restaurant?
There's a little place across the street from the library which I've started patronizing. I haven't been there enough times to call it a favorite, though. They gave me a taste for squash, though, which astounded my parents and sister.

9. If you could travel anywhere you wanted for 1 day, where would it be?
I'd say Paris, but considering I don't speak French, Oregon might be a better choice.

10. Favorite Disney movie? come on you know you have one!
The Lion King. Did you know Rowan Atkinson did the voice for Zazu? I was astounded to learn this.

11. How do you keep track of what you've read and what you want to read?
Why, I keep a book blog! I also keep a little notebook with me to write down promising book titles.

From Me:
1. If you could hand one book to every president, prime minister, chancellor, chief judge, supreme potentate, etc -- which would it be?
2. What's a book you earnestly hope will live in in the history books, which will have a lasting impression upon the minds and hearts of people of future generations?
3. If you were to write a book, factual or fiction, what kind might it be?
4. If you were to give a loved one one book that would give them insight into why you are the way you are, which would it be?
5. Do you prefer to read outside or inside?
6. What is your local library like? Do you visit it often?
7. Are digital readers a bane or boon to literature?
8. What is your favorite word learned from a book in recent memory?

There you are, an even thirty. Answer any of them or all of them as you wish.

Booking through Thursday: 5 July

This week's Booking through Thursday question: So other than books … what periodicals do you read? Magazines? Newspapers? Newsletters? Journals?  Do you subscribe? Or do you buy them on the newsstand when they look interesting?

Funny BTT should ask! I've been a magazine reader most of my life, and for the past few months I've been trying to find one to subscribe to. Currently I read a couple of magazines available to me through others -- Reminiscence magazine, which is essentially a nostalgia trap for people with silver hair, and The Economist, which is published in Britain and reliably refers to itself as a newspaper despite being a remarkable magazine -- a thick weekly issue dense with text, advertising being marginal.  How they manage to produce such a thing in this age of anorexic glossies taken over by pictures, I have no idea.  I also read two local papers, subscribing to one and buying the other two or three times a week. The Montgomery Advertiser is thicker, but I prefer The Selma Times-Journal, since it's my hometown newspaper and the content is generally more relevant. (A fair bit of the Advertiser is sports or pages also printed in USA Today, so its thickness isn't that material.)

I'd like to subscribe to the kinds of magazines which no longer exist, those substantial volumes of yesteryear that offered short stories and professionally-written articles to a broad audience , those volumes whose role as entertainer and educator has been lost to television and the Internet.  A few do still exist, but since there aren't any bookshops in my hometown I'm forced to rely chiefly on recommendations I receive online in considering which one I should try first.  Ideally I'd like something serious-minded, with relevant news and insightful commentary, but one which also includes something like short stories. I'm whittled it down to two choices:  Harper's or The Atlantic. Both are old, reputable, and varied in content. I'm leaning most toward The Atlantic because it has a sister spin-off about urbanism. In time, I anticipate trying both these two and The New Yorker.

Also, back in May I discovered that the closest (~40 miles) Books a Million carries small versions of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, ANALOG Science Fiction and Fact, and a few others that were on my possible subscriptions list. I bought the latest of EQMM and Analog, but I haven't finished them yet, mostly because I never Sit Down and Read Them. I tend to pick them up and read a portion of one from time to time.

And of course, I do buy single issues of other magazines when I'm near a newsstand and the covers catch my eye. This is more the case with science magazines and out-of-town newspapers.  I also get a quarterly journal, The Historian, available to members of Phi Alpha Theta, which collects history articles. I tend to read only the book reviews.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (2 July)

It's the first Tuesday of July, and that means...time for a teaser. Tuesday Teaser is an event hosted by Should be Reading in which participants share excerpts from their current reads.

[Simon] describes reading the newspaper in a café as an almost transcendent experience. One night at a neighborhood restaurant, he swoons when the waiter sets down a cheese plate in front of him."This is why I live in Paris!" he declares. 

p. 13,  Bringing Up Bébé: One Woman Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting; Pamela Druckerman

Even Simon, who's merely British, is perplexed by my self-doubt and my frequent need to discuss our relationship.
"What are you thinking about?" I ask him periodially, usually when he's reading the newspaper.
"Dutch football," he invariably says.

p. 14,  Bringing Up Bébé

The colors were lifted, the glorious Stars and Stripes, and beside them the white silk colors of Masachusetts with the arms of the Commonwealth embroidered on one flank and the motto Fide et Constantia stitched bright on the other. The silk streamed in the sunlight as the men cheered, broke cover, and charged.
To die. 

p. 38, Copperhead. Bernard Cornwell

(Mood whiplash, anyone?)

Monday, July 2, 2012

This Week at the Library (2 July)

Summertime, and the livin' is easy....

Well, not quite. At the moment we're experiencing a heat wave, and in 110-degree heat, the livin' is anything but easy. After nine o'clock the  soaring temperature makes it impossible to do anything outside, and unless you have a soundly insulated house, the inside isn't too much easier. What I wouldn't give for a cool thundershower...

This Wednesday, on the Fourth of July, we in the United States observe Independence Day. I've been marking the occasions in my own fashion by orienting my reading. I began with Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers, an excellent bit of history I've already commented on, and will soon finish The Good Citizen, a collection of essays on the meaning of citizenship. I've also been reading from an anthology of letters, speeches, and related documents penned by the "founding fathers", called Our Sacred Honor. Expect comments on that to follow in the next day or so.

I'm also half-tempted to tack on The Glorious Fourth to this week's reading, in light of the recent revival of my interest in the American Civil War. The title refers to 4 July 1863, a date that sealed the fate of the ill-born southern confederacy. On that day, Lee's shattered army was driven in retreat from Gettysburg, a battle that marked the turning point of the war. On the same day, in the west, the city of Vicksburg fell after a long siege to General Grant's army -- giving the Union complete command of the Mississippi and dividing the south in two. I say half-tempted, I'm somewhat leery about committing to it in light of the fact that it will soon be time for my Bastille Day reading. The first book, Alistair Horne's The Age of Napoleon, has already arrived in the post. The French reads seem like a lot of fun, and I could use some levity. Lately my reading has tended toward the serious. Although I'm currently nibbling on A People's History of the Civil War, which some kind soul donated to the library last week and which I immediately checked out, I may save it for later -- for as interesting as it is, by Abraham Lincoln's beard it is also grim. I need some light reading, something heartening -- so I'll be looking for some science reads. Science's wonders are always refreshing for my spirits.

"I am not a Federalist, because I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatsoever. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." - Thomas Jefferson,  as quoted in Founding Brothers

"Every human being, my dear, must thus be viewed according to what it is good for, for none of us, no not one, is perfect, and were we to love none who had imperfections, this world would be a desart for our love. All we can do is make the best of our friends, love and cherish what is good in them, and keep out of the way what is bad." - Thomas Jefferson, as quoted in Our Sacred Honor

"Eventually Americans will learn that the fast and hectic pace of urban life is not due to modernity but to bad urban planning. Life is so badly staged in our time [...].  [...] If people more fully understood that many of their problems either neither of their own making nor amenable to self-help but stemmed from the 'mess that is man-made America', personal problems would become political issues."  - Roy Oldenburg, The Great Good Place

"Meanwhile, the Right is in this incredibly contradictory position. It has positioned itself as the champion of the pain that people feel because of the ethos of selfishness and materialism. Paradoxically the Right is the champion of the ethos of ethos of selfishness and materialism in the world of work. With regard to the economy, the Right claims that everybody ought to pursue their own individual self-interest, that every corporation ought to pursue their own self-interest, and that no moral responsibility ought to be imposed upon them. In other words, the Right is totally opposed to any government, collective or social movement that restricts the self-interest of corporations or tells them that they ought to be morally or socially responsible. The same Right that articulates this ethos [...] simultaneously positions itself as the force concerned about the pain that people feel when they bring that every ethos home."  - Michael Lerner, "The Crisis of Values in America: its Manipulation by the Right and its Invisibility to the Left". From The Good Citizen.

In the nineteenth century, the reigning public philosophy was what he calls a republican political theory in which liberty depends on sharing in self-government and sharing "require[d] a formative politics, a politics that cultivates in citizens the qualities of character that self-government requires." [...] As corporations increased in power, a new public philosophy emerged, what Sandel terms the neutralized liberal approach to freedom, or the "procedural republic". The central idea of that philosophy is that government should not affirm, through its policies or laws, any particular conception of the good life; instead it should provide a neutral framework of rights within people can choose their own values and ends.  Rather than liberty depending on "our capacity as citizens to share in the shaping the forces that govern our collective destiny," it now depended on our capacity as persons to choose our values and ends for ourselves.   - Barbara Christian, "The Crime of Innocence". From The Good Citizen.

"Incessant and excessive promotion of the individual and the idea that the good life is an individual accomplishment discourages collective effort, discounts collective effort, and obscures the fact that many good and necessary things can only result from collective effort." - Oldenburg, The Great Good Place