Saturday, October 27, 2012


Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization
© 2006 W. Hodding Carter
241 pages

So, plumbing.  You use it.  Chances are you wouldn't be alive without it, because civilizations without plumbing tend to be miserable places rife with disease. Despite its importance, not much fuss is made about plumbing; in fact, the topic is studiously avoided by various modern cultures, who have placed a taboo on the discussion of human waste. W. Hodding Carter rejects that taboo and his breezy account of plumbing’s contribution to civilization – both historically and presently – suggests that sparing a few thoughts for toilets would do us good, helping us not only appreciate the importance of good sanitation, but make use of it to create a more sustainable future.

          Carter is an author who is very much excited about plumbing, and he’d like dearly to pass on that passion to the reader. Although he reports on the storied past of plumbing with gusto (and, entertainingly, attempts to bring the past to life by forging a Roman pipe himself), this isn’t a comprehensive history of plumbing. Nor is it a detailed guide to the plumbing systems of modern homes, though Carter does explain how most systems set to work, information he obtains by giddily smashing through his own wall to follow the pipes.  And it’s not a guide to considering plumbing as a career, though Carter does follow plumbers around and describes the path to the toilet that each man took. And it’s not a consideration of human waste as a possible means of creating sustainability. Instead, Flushed! is a quick romp through all these subjects, Carter leading the reader to and fro like a crazed tour guide – but as frantic as it is,  his approach conveys the fact that plumbing can be genuinely interesting. It undergirds not only society, but our homes – and possibly our future.  Carter’s race through the pipes of modernity takes him across the world, where he sees the future of toiletry in India, with the invention of a “biogas digester” that uses excrement to create fuel; such an invention literally creates energy by eliminating waste. (David Owen would ask, of course, how much energy it takes to manufacture the digesters.)

          This is in short  a commendably fun book about a element part of civilization, which manages to be entertaining and amusing without resorting to a series of toilet jokes.    

Friday, October 26, 2012

Bitterly Divided

Bitterly Divided: the South's Inner Civil War
© 2008 David Williams
310 pages

Why did the South lose the Civil War? Was it the strengths of the Union -- a better rail network, a superior manufacturing base, more soldiers? David Williams doesn't think so, emphasizing rather the great weakness of the Confederacy, its divided populace. In Bitterly Divided: the South's Inner Civil War, he demonstrates that the south did not fight the war as a unified body. In Williams' view, secession and war were forced upon the population by a few self-interested planters, who instituted the first draft in American history to compel the masses to do their fighting for them. Such an idea flies in the face of modern southern nationalists,  but the evidence here does bear out that the the south was a land set against itself during the planters' insurrection, and its disunity -- not Union armies -- may have well led to is demise.

Williams' narrative is energetic and direct.  After first establishing that the war was, in fact, about slavery, with a ruling planter aristocracy forcing secession conventions on the states to defend the ailing and embattled institution of slavery against anticipated attacks, Williams notes how quickly popular support for the conflict waned after the first few months. Despite an initial outburst of patriotism following Lincoln's call for volunteers, most "plain folk" quickly lost interest in fighting what they perceived to be someone else's cause. The falling out of volunteers prompted the confederate government to pass the conscription act,  forcing everyone, even those without a stake in slavery, to fight to defend it.  Curiously, though, the planters themselves passed legislation exempting slaveholders from the draft and providing a means of escape for the wealthy who didn't have quite enough slaves (20) to qualify as indispensable.  These same planters also took advantage of the wartime uptick in demand for cotton, and the increase in prices brought on by the Union blockade -- neglecting food in the process.

 This selfish neglect deprived the common people food, and wives wrote to their husbands lamenting of their impending starvation. When the price of food climbed, in part owing to speculation, southern ladies took a page from the books of the French revolution and stole the food  from merchants at gunpoint. The news of their loved ones’ misery, coupled with that of their own, prompted millions of soldiers to start deserting, so much so that Lee and Davis were fretting over their shrinking numbers only two years into the war.  Meanwhile, rebels-against-the-rebellion were hiding in swamps and raging guerilla war on the confederacy, tying down troops and cooperating with slaves, who were not only deserting or killing their masters, but likewise taking up arms – sometimes officially, for the Union cause, joining millions of white southerners who chose to fight for the north in defense of the nation. Nearly a quarter of Union soldiers came from the south. In short, the Confederate government’s enemies didn’t wear blue and weren't massed on one front: they were everywhere. The Confederacy failed because it was a corrupt, abusive institution from the start which never earned the loyalty of the people it claimed to govern.

This is a lively retelling of the story of the Civil War, and a heartening one, but it has its faults.  There's no denying the essential truth of Williams' account: the letters, newspaper articles, and government memos he relies on here firmly establish that corruption, abuse, and revolt against the same were rife in the south during the war years. The problem is that Williams hits the reader with a barrage of scattered incidents that doesn't bear the weight of comprehensive evidence. It's easy to pile on examples, but even an avalanche of anecdotes wouldn't do the job. More focused data sets are needed: military reports listing proportions of desertions, for instance.  What percentage of the planter class stayed home? As was the case with A People's History, Bitterly Divided needed more attention in the editing process. Repetition abounds, with some cases being cited three or more times. This borders on obnoxious given that the book isn't particularly lengthy.

Bitterly Divided has an excellent point to make, but it is in need of refinement. Presently, it makes for compelling if rough reading. I intend to pursue other authors in this area of scholarship, and will readily recommend Williams to others despite the book’s limitations.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Enemy of God

Enemy of God: A Novel of Arthur
© 1996 Bernard Cornwell
416 pages    

      Enemy of God  stunned me. I thought I knew what to expect from a Bernard Cornwell novel: a solid, irreverent hero with a talent for fighting, enticing and dramatic narration of historical battles, and a lot of wry commentary thrown in.  And Enemy delivered that, but it’s a much different beast than I anticipated. Second in his King Arthur trilogy, it sees Cornwell flirt with the realms of fantasy and horror. Although I opened it planning to continue an thrilling historical series, Cornwell surprised me with a read very much appropriate for the Halloween season.

        The Winter King set the stage:  it is the twilight of the fifth century, the dawn of the sixth, and Britain is going mad as the year 500 approaches. The isle is rifle with conflict between the invading Saxons and the defending Celtic Britons. The Britons were once united under High King  Uther, but his death left a baby on the throne, and now all of the British kingdoms fight with one another as eagerly as they do against the Saxons. In Winter King,  Arthur emerged as the baby king’s half-uncle, the eldest son of the deceased high king but illegitimate. Arthur strove to unite the Britons, and succeeded – but in Enemy of God, he must defend the  peace from internal strife, dark conspiracies,  and the growing Saxon hordes.

         Cornwell’s usual strengths are present here, but the Arthur books are exceptional because of their larger-than-life characters and the fantasy elements, which are not found in any other of Cornwell’s novels to my knowledge.  Arthur and Merlin are the titans;  Cornwell’s Merlin surpasses even Albus Dumbledore for being a half-mad mentor – and like Dumbledore, Merlin has his own plans and ambitions which ensnare Arthur and his lieutenant, our narrator Derfel; plans  that may run contrary to those of the heroes.  Merlin is a chessmaster, forever pulling the strings, and there’s a shadow of malevolence to his  hoped-for future. Mordred, Morgan, Galahad, and Lancelot are here as well. I didn’t mention Lancelot* in my comments on The Winter King, in part because he’s a truly unpleasant character, ambitious, vain, and deceitful. Believed by most (especially the ladies) to be a mighty white knight in shining armor, he manages to achieve great praise despite never accomplishing anything, aside from keeping his pretty face free of battle scars.  Arthur, of course, dominates the novel, and is legendary – an almost perfect leader, but he is hopelessly in love with Guinevere and doggedly loyal to his friends. Alas for him and Britain,  he is not as sound a judge of character as he is a friend, and the result is disaster...and for Arthur, heart-rending pain.

All this makes for a fantastic story: this series is truly set apart from Cornwell's other work. If the characters, humor, historical details, and intense storytelling weren't enough, the backdrop is faintly fantastic, and increasing horrific  Regular fantasy readers may not notice it, but it's a jarring difference from Cornwell's other work, and definitely gives the story and edge.Arthur and Derfel go on quests to dark ruins, fight against monsters (people given to madness, rather reminiscent of the Reapers from the Firefly universe),  and return to find  hell releashed on the peaceful world of Camelot. It would have made for perfect Halloween reading, especially as one of the incidents fell on Samhain and Celtic mythlogy plays a crucial role.

Enemy of God is magnificent.I await Excalibur to arrive in the mail.

* Think of Prince Charming from Shrek 2. Seriously, I watched the movie last night and thought, "That's who Lancelot reminded me of!".

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (23 October)

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish event in which bloggers share excerpts from their current reads, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

"Remember , don't look up!" one of the sewer workers, affectionately known as the "flusher" within the industry, called to me. The rungs were now dripping with sewer water -- millions of pestilent microbes yearning to enter our bodies. They'd told us countless times not to look up and I'd just watched Rebecca carefully avoid doing so, no matter how many times I called to her, trying to trick her into it. Only an idiot would look up.
"What?" I said, looking up. A droplet burst apart on my right cheek, splashing within a millimeter of my eye.

p. 112. Flushed! How the Plumber Saved Civilization, W. Hodding Carter

Common folk reserved their most intense scorn for those who brought on the war yet refused to serve in it or grow enough food to support it. 'The crime is with the planters", wrote an angry Georgian to the Savannah Morning News. "As a class, they have yielded their patriotism  if they ever had any, to covetousness...for the sake of the money, they are pursuing a course to destroy or demoralize our army -- to starve out the other class dependent on them for provisions." Another asked: "What class has the most interest in the war and has made the most money by it, and sacrificed the least to maintain it? It is the class known as the planters."

p. 85, Bitterly Divided: the South's Inner Civil War, David Williams

Monday, October 22, 2012

This Week at the Library (22 October)

A day or so ago, I finished the second book in Bernard Cornwell's King Arthur trilogy, Enemy of God, and realized with a sigh that last year, I only purchased the first two books in the series. Why I didn't this, I can't recall, except that it didn't seem prudent to buy an entire trilogy when I had no idea if I'd like it. But why would I have thought this, when the trilogy was by Bernard Cornwell, who delights me like no other?  And so despite my being utterly enraptured by the story, I'll have to wait until the third book, which I ordered this weekend, can be shipped to me.  It should arrive at roughly the same time as the books I purchased for my upcoming tribute-to-England reading, which will include Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island.  I'll be reading those around 5 November, the date of Guy Fawkes night.  Bryson never fails to amuse, so I'm looking forward to that.

This week, I'm reading Bitterly Divided:  the South's Inner Civil War, by David Williams, which declares the idea of southern unity a lie, and examines the way the Confederacy was wracked by dissent from its very beginnings.  This was a predominant theme in A People's History of the Civil War, which Williams also wrote, and I took such heart in it that I began looking around for more books in this area of scholarship. It's a promising story of human defiance so far -- of draft dodgers, Union sympathizers fighting guerilla-style, slave revolts, and armed women seizing goods from the marketplace when speculators drove the price of bread too high.

On another note, I'm pursuing another passion of mine: the Apocalypse.  I've read a fair few books on religion in the past five or six years, but only a few have really made their mark on my mind. One of those was Bart Ehrman's God's Problem, which explores three biblical explanations for the origins of evil and suffering. Theodicy isn't an issue for me, but one of the three biblical approaches was rooted in what Ehrman calls apocalypticism, the idea that the world is a battlefield between spiritual forces of good and evil, and that miracles are manifestations of the power of these forces, and that one day a chosen one will win the ultimate victory for good.  This part of the Zoroastrian religion influenced Judaism, and thus Christianity and Islam, and it's one of the reasons people today are somewhat insane.  While I knew the western religions had picked up dualism from Persia, I didn't realize the Messiah bit was connected to that until I read Ehrman, and learning that threw a lot of light on a question that's been bugging me since 2005 about Judaism's evolution.  Anyhoo, since reading God's Problem, I've wanted to find out more, and so last week  I purchased Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Ehrman's portrayal of the historical Jesus as someone who believed that the world was ending the week after next.  My hope is that he'll expand on Apocalpyticism.

Last this past week I read Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation, by Joseph T. Hallman, in which Hallman gives a history of American penalism while traveling throughout the country and visiting its most pivotal prisons. One out of every one hundred Americans is in prison, which is quite a statistic: "the land of free" leads the world in incarceration, putting even police states like China to shame.  Prisons are big business, and that's the point of Hallman's book. Whereas in the past prisons were thought to be "reformatories" that might fix crime, or at least a place of last resort, now they're a source of revenue. Prisoners are captive consumers and cheap labor, and the enormous facilities that keep them isolated from society are the economic backbone of counties across the nation that have seen their industries move overseas for cheap labor of their own.  Now prisoners are "clients", and cities hope for their numbers to grow.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Winter King

The Winter King: a Story of Arthur
© 1997 Bernard Cornwell
433 pages

The high king of Britain is dead, and the land lies in peril. Surrounded by implacable enemies, from the vicious Irish to the aggressive and hungry Saxon invaders, scarcely a day goes by without a village being reduced to smoke and its granaries looted. Some folk cling to the old gods, while others embrace the new Christ – but all need a hero, and they get it in the unexpected form of Arthur, the exiled and bastard son of the old king, who has been named protector of the young Prince Mordred, his nephew and the high king’s chosen heir. Arthur is loved by neither the druids nor the bishops: he is not of the royal blood. His authority has been earned, not granted, but it will be sorely put to the test in the days that lie ahead. Such is the beginning of Arthur’s story, The Winter King, Bernard Cornwell’s captivating treatment of the Arthurian legends.

            Search the lists of English kings, and you will find no Arthur. Yet, his memory lives strongly in the mind of English and American culture, and has since the medieval era. He is the ideal king: strong, just, and benevolent, incorruptible and inspiring.  Historically, there are only faint traces of a man named Arthur who may have led the British armies against the Saxons in the 400s. From those traces, Cornwell creates the noblest character he’s ever attempted, a leader with great dreams and all the virtues to make them a reality…until he lays eyes on the Princess Guinievere,  who “turns his blood to smoke” and his story into tragedy.

            Cornwell tells Arthur’s story through another character’s eyes, namely a soldier named Derfel who becomes the ruler’s ally and friend. Like other Cornwellian protagonists, Derfel begins as an outcast without pedigree, who must prove himself as a warrior and leader.  Spending time with  Cornwell’s main characters is always part of the appeal of his works: though possessing many faults, they’re utterly guileless (except when tricking their enemies on the field). Though surrounded by men who have deceived themselves into thinking they are powerful, clever, or righteous, his heroes stand, content to be just themselves, warts and all. Thus it’s interesting here that Derfel tells the story of a man who doesn’t regard himself as heroic, but who will nevertheless be considered as such by history, and can’t help but read larger-than-life.

            The Arthur legends are rich with fantasy, and Cornwell weaves that into his own story. Magic exists in Cornwell’s world not as supernatural reality, but in the minds of people; it is there that the wizard Merlin casts his spells. Ritual permeates this world of dark-age Britain, but it’s not forced or hokey, readers are allowed to experience the mystery of Cornwell’s world as his characters would. Other aspects of the Arthur legends, like the search for the Holy Grail,  are also worked into The Winter King, but in a way that makes sense in the context of the story. Arthur isn’t challenged to find an artifact of Christianity, but a treasure from Celtic mythology.

            The Winter King is a magnificent story, succeeding both as a “realistic” treatment of King Arthur and a historical novel about the cultural conflict between not only Britons and Saxons, but between Christianity and the native religion. As usual, the weight of historic details is impressive, and the characterization -- always  one of Cornwell's strengths -- is superb, but then his characters are legends.  I am astonished that I've owned the first two books for well over a year and am only just now reading them.

           A final thought:  Cornwell's story has so filled my imagination that despite spending the past few days reading about King Arthur, only once have I had an issue with quotations from Monty Python cheerfully invading my focus.  (That happened only recently, halfway through the second book when Camelot was mentioned. You can guess what song played in my head for an hour thereafter...)

Thoughts on Building Strong Towns

Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Volume I
© 2012 Chuck Marohn
174 pages

 In California, school districts are being forced to suspend their bus routes. In Alabama,  Jefferson County – home to the state’s largest city, Birmingham – has gone bankrupt. Basic functions of the government are no longer available because the money simply isn’t there. Across the nation, cities and counties are struggling to make ends meet – and although contributing reasons vary from case to case, Chuck Marohn would argue that the fundamental cause is the same: we’re no longer building places that can maintain themselves. Worse, we've tried to finance the present with loans made with the promise of future growth. Now those bills are coming due. Since 2008, engineer and urban planner Chuck Marohn has been writing about the weaknesses of America's urban places, partially out of professional interest but also as a concerned citizen and father, who is casting an eye toward the America his girls will inhabit. Thoughts on Building Strong Towns collects some of the blog's most essential pieces in a compact volume. Marohn is passionately earnest, but reliant more on data and sober arguments than fiery rhetoric.

Marohn isn't alone in elaborating on the fiscal problems of American urbanism: Andrés Duany revealed the same in Suburban Nation, but Marohn's criticism cuts deeper to the bone, examining not only urban planning,  but its very financing, and the beliefs of growth-devoted politicians and the civil engineers who aid them.  His greatest contribution to the new urbanist cause is an analysis of "growth" as a Ponzi scheme, one wherein investors are paid not by productivity, but by more, future investment. Marohn puts forth a number of case studies which amply demonstrate how little return taxpayers receive on infrastructure spending, like the one below:

A small, rural road is paved, with the costs of the surfacing project split evenly between the property owners and the city. We asked a simple question: Based on the taxes being paid by the property owners along this road, how long will it take the city to recoup its 50% contribution  The answer: 37 years. Of course, the road is only expected to last 20 to 25 years. Who pays the difference and when?

Who pays the difference, or who paid, is the federal government: a reliable means of expansion for the past half-century has been dependence on the state for funds to build roads, pipes, and other infrastructure, with the municipality benefiting from them only having to assume the costs of maintenance. But the kind of development that springs up from these grandiose projects doesn't even generate enough tax revenue to meet upkeep, and cities are going broke in their attempt to meet these obligations. But the federal government's own obligations are too numerous for it to continue to cover everyone else's losses.

A new attitude is required. We can no longer buy casually into yesterday's dreams of easy returns: reality is not The Field of Dreams, and throughout the work Marohn advocates toughminded frugalism while lambasting the if-you-build-it-they-will-come  mentality that continues to pervade the minds of government officials and engineers. Instead of chasing growth  (or hunting it, as he puts it  elsewhere), we should maximize the value of what we have already, analyzing every project with the question: does this add value?

I've been a Strong Towns follower for the past couple of years now, being attracted to Marohn's work for its bluntness: while opponents to new urbanism can scoff at arguments made on aesthetic or quality-of-life grounds, Marohn's by-the-numbers criticism isn't partisan and can't be ignored. Like it or not,  the urban fabric of America will change in the coming decades: it is up to the people whether their towns and cities will survive as leaner and more productive, or be ruined.

Thoughts on Building Strong Towns is definitely recommended to the serious-minded citzen, although I did miss the inclusion of Marohn's "The High Cost of Automobile Orientation", which points out how much more productive traditional city blocks are to those used in recent decades.

Review at National Resources Defense Council

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (16 October)

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish game hosted by Should Be Reading wherein participants share excerpts from their current reads. This week I started Bernard Cornwell's King Arthur trilogy, which has proven captivating so far.

There have been many more beautiful women, and thousands who were better, but since the world was weaned I doubt there have been many so unforgettable as Guinevere, eldest daughter of Leodegan, the exiled King of Henis Wyren.  And it would have been better, Merlin always said, had she been drowned at birth.

p. 172, The Winter King: a Novel of Arthur. Bernard Cornwell

'Get the mines working, rebuild the bridges, pave the fords, dig out the sluices and find a way of persuading the Sais to go back home. That's enough work for one man's life, don't you think?"
'Yes, Lord', I said nervously, and wondered by a warlord would busy himself repairing water conduits.

p. 109, The Winter King

'Dear sweet God!' Sansum bellowed. 'Thy servant comes, slaughtered by wicked men and their foul witch! All I did was obey Your word. Receive me, Lord! Receive Thy humble servant!' This was followed by a scream as he anticipated his death, but it was only Issa lifting him by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his robe and carrying him gently away from the stone pile to the pond where he dropped Sansum into the shallow, muddy water. 'I'm drowning, Lord!' Sansum shouted. 'Cast into mighty waters like Jonah into the ocean! A martyr for Christ! As Paul and Peter were martyred, Lord, so now I come!' He blew some urgent bubbles, but no one besides his God was taking any notice and so he slowly dragged himself out of the muddy duckweed to spit curses at my men who were eagerly dragging the stones aside.

p. 311, The Winter King

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Twelfth Imam

The Twelfth Imam
© 2010 Joel Rosenberg
512 pages

Who’s up for the Apocalypse? Israel stands ready for a preemptive strike against Iran, whose concealed nuclear program is on the verge of being able to produce warheads. Considering that both Iran’s Supreme Muckety-Muck and president subscribe to a cult within Islam that believes the end and salvation of the world can be brought about only through a war of annihilation against Iran’s foes (namely, Israel and the United States), Tel Aviv just may have cause for concern. Especially seeing as there’s a fellow roaming around the countryside performing miracles and claiming to be the Messiah, ordained by God to restore the Islamic Caliphate and subordinate the entire world to his will.

 Such is the setup for Joel Rosenberg’s The Twelfth Imam, a doomsday novel that starts out reading like a political thriller in the vein of Tom Clancy, complete with a CIA operative inserted into Iran with the objective of thwarting the nation’s nuclear ambitions. The book quickly proves to be much more along the lines of Left Behind; this is an apocalyptic novel in its truest sense, because the religious prophecies drive the plot, and not merely as motivation for the characters; instead, supernatural forces and creatures are active elements within the plot, making it light fantasy and…well, somewhat silly.  I say  silly because while I started reading Left Behind knowing it would have fantastical elements,  The Twelfth Imam began with a more sober setup which is derailed by them.

 It is perfectly believable to anyone that Iran could be led by religious lunatics, because it is; it is perfectly believable that Israel could be aggressively wary, because it is; it is perfectly believable that a man could claim to be the messiah and create a following for himself, complete with magic tricks and illusions. And the premise is outstandingly interesting: although Christianity is the religion most identified with the concept of messiahs, other religions with an apocalyptic strain believe that a hero – a powerful warrior, a charismatic leader, a righteous judge – will rise and lead the forces of good to a final triumph over evil, and establish a paradise on Earth. The Jews call this figure the moschiah; the Muslims, the Mahdi.  Christians believe that Jesus will be this figure when he returns, but a minority (the Left Behind readers) believe that fake messiah, the Antichrist, will emerge as a popular and powerful figure, and create a world empire of scum and villainy.  The Twelfth Imam combines two views of the messiah: the Mahdi has come, but he’s coming in the role of the antichrist, the villain.

 Done well, readers could have been treated to the story of 'good' characters who put their trust in a leader promising and apparently delivering great things, who are later agonized when his intentions prove to be malevolent, and who undergo crises of confidence -- like The Good German.  Alas, Rosenberg instead uses this premise to demonize Islam, complete with his Mahdi offering the same deal to Iran’s supreme muckety-muck as Satan offered to Jesus during his 40-day fast in the wilderness. Worship me, and the world is yours. There are no sympathetic Muslims here: the devout are without exception utterly slavish stereotypes, vowing and delivering violence against non-Muslims. In one scene, a Muslim father drives his kids across town and cheerfully quizzes them on how the Koran instructs them to hate Jews and delight in slaughter. (Then he drops them off so they can become human minesweepers. Dad of the year, he’s not.)  There are a few characters the reader can identify with from Iran or Iraq, but they’re not devout and in the course of the novel will be bejesused when Jesus himself shows up to covert them and start giving them advice on life.

 This is the part where I started giggling, where the tenseness of the spy novel became a farce. Rosenberg has managed to write quite a few novels without being schooled on the meaning of Deus ex machina, apparently: Here the fantasy elements take the plot off the rails by physically picking them up and plonking them down wherever: once Jesus shows up (repeating the Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus bit  line for line in a random conversion),  he makes a habit  of rescuing the main characters from conflict. Need something? Oh, good, Jesus just told that guy in the supermarket to give it to you.  Flying down the highway with the mahdi’s state apparatus looking for you? Jesus is your GPS: turn left, now, to avoid capture. Unfortunately, the novel becomes increasingly ridiculous as it wears on: at one point, the Mahdi summons the leaders of Islamic countries and groups together and proclaims the caliphate, at which point they happily drop down in fealty. Forget the hostility between Iranians and Arabs, between Hezbollah and Hamas, between Shiites and Sunnis: all that is trivial compared to the power of a man in black robe who shouts generic jihadist phrases.

 Ultimately this isn’t a spy thriller or a story of political intrigue: it's Left Behind for a new generation, meant to broadcast a particular view of the world to a mass audience, and it's just as narrow-minded, partisan, arrogant, and fearmongering. It stands apart for having a far more interesting premise and being somewhat better done than the Jenkins-LaHaye novels. It still manages to be entertaining, for all tis weaknesses, because the back cover refers to Rush Limbaugh as a “leader”.

For what it's worth, I've also read the sequel, The Tehran Initiative, which is mildly better but still has absurd situations like Satan worrying if his cellphone is secure. Yes, really.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

This Week at the Library (10 October)

Fall arrived rather suddenly this week, although I imagine the cooler temperatures won't stay for too long. October 3rd was 'der Tag der Deutschen Einheit', or the day of German Unity. As I did with the United States and France in July, I planned a set of German readings. I'm not quite done with that, partially because Five Germanies I Have Known is denser than I expected and because I keep getting distracted by other books. Here are a few:

In certain remote areas of the United States, there are churches which believe the Bible encourages the faithful to take up poisonous snakes. In Salvation on Sand Mountain journalist Dennis Covington explores their world. Although at the first he seems like an objective investigator, as the story takes on a manifestly personal light as it unfolds. Covington's own family history is connected to the snake handlers, and despite disagreeing with their theology he's entranced by the practice, and is seduced by it to the point that he "takes up the serpent" himself.  The reader is thus partial witness to an intense 'spiritual' experience; Covington retains enough clarity to describe those moments of holding death in his hands as a way of experiencing transcendence  a losing of the self.  It's a disturbing work, but it does shed some light into a dark corner of the fundamentalist mind.

Guyland takes as its subject the extended adolescence of middle-class young men, who instead of assuming the rights and responsibilities of manhood right out of high school or in college, are instead deferring it until their late twenties. In this expansion of boyhood, they spend their time loafing around in college or in dead-end jobs, when they aren't drinking themselves into stupors,  "hooking up" with girls, and staying up all night playing video games. This youth culture is somehow rooted in the Guy Code, which emphasizes being  tough (drinking until you puke is so manly), repressing emotions,   and using women.  Kimmell is sharply critical, but he doesn't quite demonize his subjects, who act like badly behaved chimpanzees, raping and pillaging: they're just as miserable as their victims. There's a lot to consider here, but in the end I'm impressed by one central weakness and one really engaging idea. The weakness is that he tries to address the culture of American young men in general based on the lifestyle of the guys he interviews here, who all come from relatively privileged backgrounds. Of course they're depraved, selfish, and obsessed with entitlement; they've nothing to work forward to. But a recurring theme caught my eye, that of homosociality. Every aspect of the youth culture examined here eventually circled back to how guys relate to other guys, even dating women.  I'm interested in this from an anthropological perspective: how deeply rooted is that behavior?

Fiction has been nowhere to be seen in, months, but just a couple of days ago I read Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov. It's a bit unusual in that the story isn't Asimov's: it was a movie he was asked to produce a novelization of.  I've not seen the movie, but the novel  is supposed to have removed plot holes and bolstered the scientific content  The story is one of scientific adventure and political espionage, combining the cultural norms of the 1960s with technology beyond today's imagination. In the world of Fantastic Voyage, the globe is still polarized into the NATO and Warsaw camps, and the peace of the Cold War is kept by stalemate: neither side can gain a decisive advantage over the other quite quickly enough. That may change: for years, both have maintained experiments in miniaturization technology (that is, shrinking things), but the technology hasn't proven militarily useful yet because of restrictions. A Soviet scientist has found a way to get around those restrictions, and he has defected to the United States. Astonishingly  the Soviets weren't just willing to let him desert without offering a goodbye kiss, so now he's in the hospital with a blood clot in his brain threatening death or dementia. The American solution is to shrink a submarine to the size of a bacterium, and use it to eliminate the clot with a laser. Unfortunately, one of the crew is a traitor, and so the book's hero, Grant, must ferret that individual out while the ship navigates the perilous world of the human body, a world which must be survived but not fought because fighting it might mean the death of the defector.

It's rather like The Odyssey: what was supposed to be a simple run from the neck to the brain turns into a prolonged and dangerous trip through the entire body, where something goes wrong at every turn. Here the monsters are white blood cells and antibodies, not cyclopes; and here the obstacles are the beating heart and lymph nodes, not Scylla and Charybdis.  The decades since this book and the movie's publication have seen a lot of works inspired by it, like the Magic Schoolbus trips inside the body I watched as a kid, but this original exploration of the body is still fantastically interesting, even  considering the cold war context where a female scientist is an oddity.

Oh, and there's The Lolita Effect, which covered the same material as So Sexy So Soon, but not as well.

Reviews are pending for Hamlet's Blackberry and Gone Tomorrow, and by pending I mean they would have been posted last week had they not gotten deleted accidentally.

This next week...

I'm just about to finish Jesus for the Nonreligious, by John Shelby Spong, and am thinking about doing a few more religion reads. Specifically, lately I've been thinking a lot about the origins of Satan. Ever since 2006, I've been interested in the evolution of Judaism, and how parts of it were transformed into apocalyptic Christianity, with Satan as Mr. Evil and a fallen rebel instead of God's quality-assurance agent, as he was in pre-christian Judaism and is now.  Also, I am considering a book on the plumbing side of waste management.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Waste and Want

Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash
© 2000 Susan Strasser
368 pages

     Consider your trash can. In all likelihood, you cannot imagine not using it. What else would you do all with the trash generated in the course of day to day living? And yet trash cans haven't always been a fixture in our homes; until the 19th century, people invariably fond uses for whatever extraneous materials they produced, so much so that waste was an anomaly  But now,  disposing of it is a mammoth task, handled by the government and large corporations. In Waste and Want Susan Strasser reveals how waste rose to such heights, and despite its subject matter it manages to be charming rather than 'offal'.

Throughout most of human history, material goods have been too precious to waste. Every article represented hours of hard labor, where that work was invested in the sewing of clothing,  the milking of cows, or the manufacture of pottery. Economy forced prudence, not to mention self-reliance:  people made their own candles out of cooking fat because they needed candles, and like all skill made objects they were not easy to come by, being either rare or expensive. If an item broke, it was repaired; if beyond repair, it was put to future use. Clothes were extensively modified to extend their lives, and passed down through the generations (as were most household items). Cloth remains too small to be used in clothing could be sewn into quilts. Food scraps were fed to animals, who converted refuse into more food -- and if nothing else, the items were burned as fuel in the family hearth.  Even if a given family didn’t possess all the skills and time required to recapture the value of every scrap, local economies thrived on communal recycling. But all that changed with industrialization.

Although the first factories, like paper mills, inserted themselves into the garbage cycle seamlessly -- using refuse like rags to produce paper -- soon the industrial process broke a circle of endless reuse to the one-directional “waste stream”, the stream that has turned into a torrent by the 21st century and is fast filling up landfills, incinerators, and the open ocean. This disruption began as industrialization became increasingly efficient through economies of scale: large operations that relied on waste for their manufacturing (like the paper mills) demanded too much to be satisfied by communities: instead, they had to be fed by other factories, and the trash of the common people fond itself without an outlet. Transformations in the home (like gas stoves) removed the use of garbage as fuel. Factories also made consumer goods cheaply: as they became abundant, they lost value. Why repair when you can replace?  In the 20th century, companies seized on that idea and encouraged it, first through changes in fashion (cars replaced by new models every year, the only real distinction being aesthetics), and then through Planned Obsolescence, wherein items were manufactured with the intent of their breaking down within a relatively short time frame  and requiring replacement. (They could be repaired, at first, but then someone hit on the bright idea of engineering every part in a given machine so that they would all begin breaking down at roughly the same time…)

The results? Trash -- lots of it. Dealing with the trash has required new technologies and systems of organization to cope with it. The pressing demand for waste management is mitigated (ever so much) by recycling, but our pitiful attempts at reusing resources are nothing like those our ancestors managed. Recycling is a meager flame overwhelmed by the mighty ocean of garbage that consumerism encourages and our economy relies on. The amount of waste necessitated by modern life is staggering: next time you visit a grocery store or supermarket, consider how almost every item in the store comes in a cardboard box, and inside it may be goods wrapped in plastic. We cannot possibly find uses for so many boxes, and what on earth would we do with even one ice-cream wrapper, let alone the dozens or hundreds we are liable to rip off in a year?

Waste and Want is a fantastic little  bit of history and indirect social criticism.  While garbage is on the cover, it’s really a history of us, of how we relate to the world through our use of its material resources and how that has changed. It’s a fun read, sure, but by its end one can’t help but be impressed by the fact that waste is an issue we must think about. Environmentalism aside: in this era of austerity, how can we possibly justify throwing way so many resources and even consuming more resources to manage the waste?  It behooves us to act more responsibly, and as the 21st century progresses I can only hope that our worsening economic condition will force a rebirth the prudence of our forebears.

Cheap: the High Cost of Discount Culture; Ellen Shell
No Logo, Naomi Klein


Germany: Unraveling an Enigma
© 2000 Paul Nees
236 pages

If you follow European news, chances are good that you’ve heard the name Angela Merkel in recent months. Chancellor of Germany, her nation is the economic heart of Europe and essential to the eventual resolution of its debt crisis. And yet, just a little over two decades ago,  Germany was a divided nation…and a generation before, it lay in ruins, largely destroyed in a war which instigated, a war which casts a shadow over all Germans, even those born today. Germany has a long, storied, and troubled past: it is the land of Beethoven and Marx,  but also of Hitler and his ilk.  Europe and the world have been ravaged by Germany’s military in times past, but buoyed by its contributions to culture -- and it will likely continue to be a major player throughout the next century. All that in mind, what makes the Germans tick?

Paul Nee’s attempt to answer that question comes in the form of a cultural analysis, an exploration of the German character which seems to be largely written for Americans interested in doing business in America, but his guide concerns Germany as a whole. Even the latter two-thirds of the book focused on business and economics -- explaining both the social market system as well as Germany business culture, exploring practices in the United States and Germany which might be at variance with one another -- are fascinating, as they build on the general themes which Nees set forth at the opening. There, he explores the German mind, elaborating on convictions that most Germans share. He not only identifies the concepts, but demonstrates how they are interwoven throughout Germany society. In the section titled "Ordnung muss Sein", for instance, he shows how the concept of good order manifests itself not only in politics, but in the way people relate to their possessions  a shoddily maintained car is unthinkable. The picture of the Germans which emerges from the book is that of a intense, serious, and passionate people.

Nees' book is similar to Sixty Million Frenchman Can't Be Wrong, which tries to explain France to Americans. Nees is (suitably, for his subject), more "solid": he concentrates on a few ideas and explores them thoroughly.  Although seemingly targeted toward businessmen, its thorough thoughtfulness recommends it to anyone with a curiosity about Germany.