Wednesday, January 29, 2014

This week at the library: artistic bears, Vikings, and l'affaire Dreyfuss (also snow, lots of snow)

Dear readers:

Troubling news. I awoke yesterday to find ice falling from the sky, and would think the atmosphere broken if I were not so well-read, and had not heard of this thing called 'snow', which the falling ice eventually turned in to. Roads are closed in my area, with schoolchildren trapped in their classrooms and others mired on the interstate, now littered with car wrecks. I only live three miles from work, though, so even if I had gone in before the roads were closed all would have been well. As it is, I'm enjoying a weekend in the middle of the week.  Fortunately I have a pile of books to keep me warm!

Before the snow, I treated myself to a new work by Robert Harris in An Officer and a Spy. Harris is a varied author of historical fiction, with works ranging from classical Rome to the Cold War in Russia.  An Officer is set in late 19th century France, and is a retelling of the Dreyfuss Affair.  I enjoyed that over the weekend, and on Saturday I spent several long hours in a bookshop. I found a lot that interested me, but nothing so enticing I couldn't resist buying it. Eventually I bought a book on the Vikings just to avoid leaving empty-handed. I figured it would be a while before I got around to reading that, but considering that I am in the middle of the first season of The Vikings, a History-channel dramatization, I may start it sooner. I'm been a little wild for the Vikings since starting Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories series. Speaking of which,  I am hungrily awaiting The Pagan Lord to be checked in at the library, as it should be the triumphant conclusion of that series.

Currently I'm increasingly into Poor but Proud, a history of the poor in Alabama, and nibbling on When Elephants Weep, which concerns the emotional lives of animals. Those two will be my focus for the next week, and then starts February and another Great War read.

Well, happy reading to all -- I'm off to stare at the snow in wonder again.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ship of Rome

Ship of Rome
© 2009 John Stack
368 pages

            Three hundred years before it became an empire, the Roman Republic started its ascension toward power when it took on the Carthaginian state  for control of first the island of Sicily, and then the entire Mediterranean. Their struggle unfolded over the course of over a hundred years and ended with the complete destruction of Carthage, but it began with an ignominious Roman defeat. As mighty as Rome’s legions were on land,  the war with Carthage made control of the sea a must. Ship of Rome is a tale of naval warfare set during the first Punic War, as mighty yet humiliated Rome sought to find a way to  make good on its naval weakness.  It’s the story of two men, a Roman legionnaire turned marine named Septimus, and his friend and brother-warrior, the  Greek captain of the good ship Aquila. Together they attempt to save Rome from defeat, and redeem  their lost comrades.

            Roman historical fiction is typified by political intrigue and battles on land, not naval stories;  Britain was a naval empire, not Rome. But the war with Carthage made sea superiority a must, just as Britain’s war with Germany made air dominance a requirement, regardless of English naval accomplishments. In Ship of Rome, a Roman army officer and a Greek sea captain serving on the same ship are key players in the opening battles of the first Punic War, when Carthage decides to turn the delicate balance for power between the two states’ holdings in Sicily into open war,  first blockading a supply port and then luring the Roman fleet into a disastrous battle.  The Carthaginians are skilled at naval warfare, and Rome has no time to train its men sufficiently to surpass their rivals experience. But a way must be found, or the legions in Sicily will die a slow death of disease and starvation. Complicating matters is the rivalry between the two Roman consuls over who will get the glory for turning the side, and their mutual treachery of one another is only given spice by the wiles of the merciless Carthaginian admiral, who early on is thwarted by the Aquila and wants revenge.   At least Atticus and Septimus can count on one another to cover the other’s back – at least, when Septimus isn’t distracted by his little sister making goo-goo eyes at his comrade, who for all of his virtues can’t help not being properly Roman, but only merely Greek.

            Ship of Rome is a fantastic read, novel both for being Roman fiction set on the high seas, and for being a sea story set in the classical world. Naval combat during the Punic War bears little resemblance to that of the Age of Wooden Ships and Iron Men that has produced series like the Aubrey-Maturin novels or C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower. There are no cannon broadsides here; combat consists of ramming and boarding;  these ships’ weapons are the six-foot long bronze rams on their front ends and the swords, shields, and arrows of the men aboard her.  Readers of sea stories will find it engaging, but there’s combat on land and in the courts as the consuls vie for power, not to mention the interpersonal conflict like that between the senior consul and his slave, a gladiator who is biding his time and waiting for an opportunity to strike for freedom – but not before taking the consul with him.  For all this strife the plot matures nicely, and even gives a slightly villainous character some sympathetic development.  John Stack has delivered here a book with a lot of appeal; for my own part, I’ve already ordered its sequel, Captain of Rome.

Review of same at Seeking a Little Truth
Armada, John Stack

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Bonobo and the Atheist

The Bonobo and the Atheist: in Search of Humanism Among the Primates 
© 2013 Frans de Waal
313 pages

 Frans de Waal has written extensively on moral instincts within the great apes, in books like Good natured and Primates and Philosophers. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, he reviews his experience with chimpanzees and bonobos over several decades with an eye for what they might teach us about human morality. His express purpose is to find hope for building a moral human society outside the bounds of authoritarian, belief-dependent religion, but he’s more interested in examining the basis of natural morality than in condemning religion. Taking a cue from Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, he acknowledges that religion and human culture have thus far been inextricably bound. His studies of chimp and bonobo behavior, and studies of human behavior, indicate to him that there is more to morality than simple genetic-biased altruism;  we are bound to our communities, kin or no, through deep social instincts, and it is these that are the basis of our morality.

Throughout the book, de Waal explores moral impulses revealed in the behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos. Although chimpanzees have a reputation for violence,  even they discipline one another for failing to practice self-restraint: a challenger for an alpha position can't bite with impunity, nor can adults bully the young who have not yet learned appropriate behavior; violators of these norms and others, like stealing or cheating, are punished with a round of shrieking and beating.  Their morality isn't limited to instinct; it is also informed by their intelligence. As mentioned, youngsters are 'taught' appropriate behavior, indirectly;  chimp youths can chase females in estrus, but as they start to become 'teenagers', they're regarded as potential challengers by the reigning males and taught their place, even if they're not yet  capable of reproduction.  Other cases demonstrate that chimpanzees can take stock of what they've done and remember it later; a chimpanzee who bit a trainer's finger off was later visibly ashamed, isolating itself and covering its eyes; when the human saw him again, the chimp recognized him and attempted to examine the hand.

These behaviors may be safely assumed to be evolutionary boons to a social species, helping mitigate physical damage caused by struggles for power, or preventing competition within the group from destroying it. Moral instincts and acculturation allow a tribe to work better together, and the same holds true for humans. Once our morality would have been guided by the same measures: our every indiscretion would be noticed by the people we lived among, and remembered; we could be directly accountable for our behavior. Once human populations became too large for these tribe-level measures to handle, however, religion became useful, and for that reason not a single human culture today is without it.  Even in the modern era, increasingly secular, we are forging a new path in the form of a civic culture that attempts to foster healthy behavior without the necessity of believing in elaborate creeds.  It is de Waal's hope that the humanist approach, of practicing a moral culture for the sake of human needs, informed by human experience,  will prove workable, though presently its most vocal proponents are men who have limited their advocacy to merely attacking religion, which is fruitless and makes as much sense as 'sleeping furiously'.  Still, he is hopeful that natural morality will prevail eventually; it does have the advantage of being instinctual. Humanity has as much hope of purging itself of its conscience as it does of  becoming asexual.

Although most of de Waal's own experience comes from observing bonobos in an artificial environment, a spacious exhibit in Arnhem Zoo that prevents some pertinent aspects of behavior from manifesting themselves, he couples it with the studies of other populations in the wild.  The Bonobo and the Atheist, like its title, is an interesting discussion that combines primate behavior and the evolution of religion. What is missing, I think, is any mention of Natural Law, which  would have given his mention of civic culture considerable heft. Humans have been attempting to discern moral convention from nature since Aristotle, both inside religion and out of it. A comparison between declared belief in the Rights of Man according to constitutions and charters and the inferred rights in religious texts ("Thou shalt not kill" inferring a right to life, for instance) would have been most interesting. Both in de Waal's view would be expressions of humanity's inherent moral instincts, but civic belief has the quality of being open to change when necessary; a humanistic moral culture would not be limited by dogma. Simply creating a healthy moral culture won't make religious domination a thing of the past -- it has other virtues, other contributions that must also be made good for -- but it would be a start in creating a world more concerned with the needs of people than power, priests, and convention, and less dependent on something as volatile as beautifully dangerous religion.

de Waal's observations and insight prove again remarkable.


Monday, January 20, 2014

This week at the library: Punic war on the high seas, elephants,

Those intrigued by The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion may be interested in today's episode of EconTalk, featuring an interview with the author on the book. The host referred to it as the most extraordinary book he's read in the last ten years, which is high praise considering how many interesting books he's read. 

This past week I finally read Starship Troopers by Rob Heinlein, and found it excellent reading; although the author is generally more militaristic than I'm comfortable with (I've read a few of his essays from The Extended Universe, but not the book properly),  Troopers was more about virtue than the military.  I also finished my first piece in the Great War tribute I'll be doing the rest of the year; I wanted to start off with a general history and Keegan offered as concise but complete a narrative as I could have hoped for. The next read in this series will be Forgotten Voices of the Great War, compiled by Max Arthur. It seems to be a history of the war told in passages from diary entries and interviews of soldiers,  mostly on the Entente side, with a few scattered civilians thrown in. I haven't begun reading it yet, as it's a recent arrival  from interlibrary loan.   This morning I finished off Silent Thunder, which was a decidedly odd collection of nature collections; although it's the accounting of a scientist about her extensive elephant observations, and contains her discoveries (the great creatures' ability to use infrasonic sound for communication across long distances, previously only thought to be used by whales),  it's also on the mystic side. The author does a lot of dream interpretation, some of it involving elephants, and because I read part of the book while in bed  during the weekend with fever, I thought I might have been delusional. That's not the case; Silent Thunder is just an atypical book. 

I'm unsure as to my reading for this current week; I have a nice pile of interesting books I brought home from my university library last week, and distracting me from it will be John Stack's Ship of Rome

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The First World War

The First World War
© 2000 John Keegan
528 pages

The dawning of the 20th century seemed to promise nothing but good tidings for the civilized world; telegraphy and steam were knitting it together,  economies were flourishing, and progress was on the march. Then an Austrian noble was shot, and everything went to hell. The First World War is a comprehensive history of the Great War, beginning with the optimistic state of Europe in the 1910s and ending with a retrospective. The text covers the war's best known front, the western line of trenches gutting France, as well as every other, including the many varied struggles in the east (Germany v Russia, Austria v Italy, Russia v Austria,  and Russia v the Turks just to name the principles; other fights in the Balks, like those in Greece and Bulgaria are also examined),  across the world as colonies changed hands, and on the sea. Keegan's success  in taking a widespread conflict and delivering a concise narrative over it can't be overstated.

Although the Great War began with confrontation between the Austrian-Hungarian empire and its Serbian neighbor, it broadened into a global conflict because of the dense web of alliances between European nations and ethnic hostility in the east.   Germany supported Austria's aggressive blame towards the Serbs for the death of Archduke Franz Ferninand, the Russians supported the Serbs, the French supported the Russians, and the British supported the Belgians who had the impudence to put up forts defending the best route from Germany to France: Belgium itself.  In the east, a handful of Balkan nations loathed the great powers who wanted to rule them, or once had; Greek animosity toward the Turks brought them in.  The great powers of the east, Russia and Turkey, also wanted a piece of each other.  I've long  resisted referring to the Great War as a world war, but after reading this there's no doubt in my mind it fits: the complexity of fronts is mind-boggling. Although Austria-Hungary's bellicose attitude toward Serbia initiated the conflict, I almost felt sorry for them considering how many fronts they were fighting on.  Keegan's skill is also obvious when addressing the human side of the conflict; his depiction of the Battle of the Somme drives home its obscene waste, but while he covers the miseries of the soldiers' lives, he doesn't villainize the generals.  The First World War history and thoughtful commentary, as Keegan reflects on the difficulties inherent in commanding battles that took place across such massive fronts,  and coping with the new technologies that turned traditional tactics into those inviting slaughter.

On the whole, I'm most impressed with the narrative and the history; there's scant mention of airplanes, which I would say is odd in light of von Hindenberg's claim, "No airplanes, no Tannenberg!", but there's a lot of history packed into this book and some elements have to be underplayed; airplanes' role as scouts and artillery spotters can't merit much in a book that has to cover campaigns like Verdun in only a few paragraphs.  Another minor flaw is Keegan's motivation for the United States being purely military, a response to submarine warfare; there's no mention made of the amount of lending the U.S. was giving to the Entente powers.  The work is excellent otherwise, definitely suitable for people who want a general introduction to the war.


Friday, January 17, 2014

Toward a Truly Free Market

Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More
© 2011 John C. Medaille 
282 pages

 "I been a-wonderin' why we can't do that all over. All work together for our own thing, all farm our own lan'.[...] I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin' fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin'. And I been wonderin' if all our folks got together and yelled..."
(Tom Joad, The Grapes of Wrath)

Toward a Truly Free Market argues for an economic system based on neither an unmoderated free market nor an authoritarian command structure, but on  moral principles that put human needs, not ideological purity, at the center. At the heart of these principles is the concept of distributive justice. After sketching out the general problems of conventional economics, Medaille claims that capitalism and socialism are more alike than different. The constant lack of equilibrium in a capitalist economy, the fact that labor is never paid enough to ‘clear the markets’, dooms capitalism to a series of booms and busts, and it is that cycle that distributive justice is intended to remedy, because attempts to 'fix' capitalism through intervention have only led,  to increased economic and political power in the hands of a few. Toward a Truly Free Market offers a fairly comprehensible 'third way' to economics, one that defies partisan labels and offers a humane vision for the future.

The distrubist worldview envisions a society in which both political power and the ownership of production (on which political power depends) are as widely distributed as possible. In this society, no one is an employee; almost everyone has an owner's stake in society, whether in the form of a family farm, a small business, or membership in a cooperative. The idea doesn't originate with Medaille; although aspects of it have been imagined since modernity began (Thomas Jefferson's agrarianism, for instance),  it was argued for under the name Distributism beginning in the 19th century -- as part of the Roman Catholic church's social doctrine. Then, Catholic authors like G.K. Chesterton argued for it as a moral alternative. as a system that would protect the integrity and autonomy of the family against both the ravages of factory dependence and state socialism; now, with distributist ideas  developing a life of their own outside the Church, Medaille takes an economic tack by first examining the weakness of economics without justice, which attempts to reduce land, people, and money to commodities, and then explaining the principles of distributive justice, moving from the general to the particular.

While classical economics begins with the material ("Economics is the study of how scarce resources with alternative uses are distributed"),  distributist economics begins with people: Medaille describes an economy as how a society is provisioned.  His criticisms of socialism and capitalism bear out that provisioning isn't necessarily material; he laments over the destruction of local economies, the brokenness of families, working long hours at jobs which offer no meaningful compensation, only a paycheck, and the fact that people at all levels of society, from the family up through the neighborhood, city, and state become increasingly dependent on the national government, leading to the death of civic society as Citizens become clients and case numbers.  This is true whether the system chosen is capitalism or socialism,  Medaille's solution includes "remoralizing the market, relocalizing the economy, recapitalizing the poor, and reinvigorating local politics".  Operating principles of distributism include solidarity, or the belief that political decisions should be handled by the smallest capable agent; thus, a city would be responsible for its schools, and a state for its highways. Medaille elaborates on how distributive ideas can inform taxation, industry, healthcare, and government policy.  Although he sees a place for government (keeping the currency sound, pricing in externalities, national defense),  distributism rejects a top-heavy state. Politics, like a house,  must work from the ground up, from civic participation to tax funding.  That funding comes not from income or property, but on the land itself. Decentralization is a recurring theme; Medaille's idea on fixing healthcare includes having a range of licenses, beginning with the quasi-medical and progressing to  doctors of medicine) not only would this allow more people to enter the medical field, as they could more easily move between study and practice (a given person might take a license as a midwife, and then use that to pay for more advanced training in obtstritcs or general medicine), but it would result in better healthcare over all, as seasoned and highly-trained doctors would only see problems that could not be resolved at the lower levels.  He advocates for an end to "supply-push" economics, in which companies produce a given number of goods and then use advertising to gin up interest in them, when general-purpose machinery that can adapt to produce anything that is needed by the local economy ("demand-pull") is a more intelligent and just use of finite resources. Otherwise we are merely producing landfill.  

Toward a Truly Free Market is a fascinating book. The beginning  is the most challenging,with the discussion of the 'distributive' and 'corrective' aspects of justice, and  the difference between use-values and exchange values, but understanding what the author means by justice is rewarding once he begins writing about a system that is based on it. Although distributism proper began in the Catholic church, being developed in papal encyclicals, I've encountered its ideas in various and sundry places:  James Howard Kunstler wrote on the virtue of Georgist taxation in The Geography of Nowhere, Chuck Marohn of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns is a firm believer in subsidarity, and the push for local economies, especially local food movements, is gaining serious traction in the environmental and health movements.  Although some aspects were more harder to imagine, like the revival of guilds or the practicality of cooperatives,  Medaille includes sections on communities like the Mondragon Cooperation which put these principles to work. Although there's some economics to digest, the book picks up steam as it moves toward public policy. A fly in the ointment is that Medaille assumes readers have heard of distributism; he doesn't elaborate on it at the start. He develops the idea throughout the book, so strangers won't be lost, but they have to be willing to jump in. This is perhaps explainable given the book's Catholic publisher; since distributism is part of the Church's social doctrine, it almost has a ready-made audience. The claim that capitalism and the state have an unavoidably symbiotic relationship with one another could have used further development; I've heard the same claim from hard-left circles, too, and would be interested in understanding the full reason why. Medaille operates on the idea that the state is necessary to keep capitalism from destroying itself, but Hayekians believe capitalism would have worked out its inner inconsistencies if meddling interventionists didn't keep getting in the way, like suppressing a fever that's intended to kill an infection. (Medaille takes more than a few shots at the Austrian School throughout, which is amusing given that Hayek drew on a distributist work, The Servile State, in his The Road to Serfdom. )

Many national-level reforms mentioned here don't have a prayer of materializing in the current political climate, but a philosophy as locally-focused as distributism can get along.  Determined people can build little sanctuaries of restoration in their own communities, with or without government sanction;  even urbanites can relocalize their food, and cooperatives of all kinds are possible, and already in practice. There's a lot of cause for hope here, and Medaille offers a thoughtful criticism of our current system which is outside the usual complaints.

Books and essays by Wendell Berry
small is beautiful, E.F. Schumacher

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers
© 1959 Robert Heinlein
263 pages

The worlds of the Terran Federation are under constant assault by the malicious Bugs, whose hideousness drives dogs insane and who don’t even have the decency to build their civilization out of buildings that can be blown apart:  the swarming arachnoids have to be dug out of the ground.   Juan Rico didn’t join the military to save truth, justice, and the Terran way of life, however; humankind was largely at peace when he took his oath. Instead, he joined because his best friend did, and because the school  hottie was signing up to become a pilot. Juan, or Johnny, didn’t get to be a pilot, though; that program prefers women’s faster reflexes.Johnny wound up in the Mobile Infantry,  part of a literal killing machine. During his  basic training, however,  a Bug attack completely destroyed Buenos Aires, and it’s up to Johnny and his follow boots to take the war to the enemy.  Starship Troopers is half political philosophy, a third speculation on future warfare, and a fifth wartime action plot.  The best known of Robert Heinlein’s works, alongside Stranger in a Strange Land,  Starship Troopers’s fame stems from its easy-to-loathe insectoid menace and its controversial politics; it well deserves its classic status.

Starship Troopers opens with images of future spaceborne wars, though space is something traveled through, not the battlefield itself; there are no capital ship duels here, only the paratrooper-like deployment and operations of Johnny and the rest of Terra’s finest.  If mobile infantry brings to mind foot soldiers jumping from trucks and riding through the countryside, cast that out of your mind; an M.I is one man in an armored suit, weighing tons  but powered and as responsive to the slightest movement that it might as well be skinned. The suit allows every trained soldier to be a one-man army, making the tanks of ancient days look like pushovers. Every M.I. is worth more than a thousand of the enemy, and that’s no hyperbole.

            But Starship Troopers isn’t chiefly about the Bug War or how sophisticated electronics  and space will alter combat. Throughout the book, largely through reminiscences of his training days, Rico’s understanding of why he’s fighting develops, laying before readers a political philosophy which is the basis for the book's 'controversial' status. In the Federation, the voting franchise is limited to those who have paid their dues in the form of Federal Service, people who have proven that they have characters capable of engaging in self-sacrifice for the good of the nation; people whose sense of duty will keep them sober when they exercise the vote, and mitigate corruption as far as possible. Starship Troopers is paean to the highest ideals of republican soldiery, drawing on classical history, from Greece through Rome; if you've ever read Once an Eagle, it's rather like that. The main argument of Troopers is that politics requires virtue, and for Heinlein, the sacrifice required in military service is the best way of sussing out the virtuous.  The military isn't the meter by which society is run; in fact, those who apply to do their service are actively discouraged and given plenty of opportunities for second thoughts once they've begun.  Other elements of Heinlein's society which have been criticized, like the use of violence as discipline, aren't an example of the military governing civilian life; that's simply the way Heinlein thinks children ought to be raised and how criminals ought to be deal with, and are separate arguments.  The most objectionable element of the worldview developed here is the author's contention that man doesn't have a moral instinct. He views humanity as a wild animal that has to be civilized through culture every step of the way, but if we had no moral instincts such inculcation could not possibly take.

Although I started this book prepared to see in it a glorification of war and authority, it is far more thoughtful than that. The tech speculation is fascinating for a work written in 1959, though the closest we've come to realizing  any of his ideas is helmets with HUD displays, or perhaps remotely-controlled robots.  (In Heinlein's world, the powered suits are controlled with radio signals.)  This is definitely a worthy read.

Monday, January 13, 2014

small is beautiful

small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered
© 1973 E.F. Schumacher
288 pages

Get big or get out, said the Secretary of Agriculture to American farmers in the 1970s. But as the consequences of widespread industrialism and general upheaval began to show their faces, ,the environmental movement was born and another voice, E.F. Schumacher's, rang out against the agribiz giants: not so fast.In small is beautiful, he argues against industrial and agricultural giantism that is not only unsustainable energy-wise, but malignant to the health of developing economies. Taking partial inspiration from “Buddhist economics”, a perspective which considers the impact modes of production have on the persons involved,  Schumacher argues for small-scale production and the implementation of ‘appropriate technology’; that is,  forms of technology that can be implemented into existing societies and increase production gradually, allowing developing nations to adjust without causing the kind of disruption that results in gigantic slums and spasmodic bounts of famine and war. This also applies at the individual level, for appropriate technology can allow laborers to still be personally involved in their work,  not alienated from it as happens with assembly-belt mass production.  Although penned in the 1970s, this is a work which has only increased in relevance:  environmental solutions constantly defer to the need for localism, from community-supported agriculture to roof-mounted neighborhood solar panels feeding into the local grid. Our lifestyle hasn’t become any more sustainable; our rate of progress down the dead-end road of  total consumption has only increased in the last decades.  Small is beautiful is definitely a work to consider if you have any interest at all in environmentalism, ecology, sustainability, or the economy’s impact on society.

  • Virtually anything by Wendell Berry, whose 'Great Economy'  shares the same humane vision, as does the philosophy of distributism.
  • eaarth, Bill McKibben

Sunday, January 12, 2014

This week at the library: The Great War, politics, sex, and elephants

Dear readers:

Hours ago I returned from my monthly visit to my alma mater's library, where I found a host of interesting books. Although I've have plenty enough on my plate already, being knee-deep into The First World War by John Keegan to start my year-long reflection and study of the debacle,  most of these are on far cheerier subjects. 

  • Plagues and Peoples, or how epidemics shaped human history. (Hey, I said most of them were on cheerier subjects.)
  • A Place on Earth, Wendell Berry; a novel about a father's response to his son dying in WW2.  (Ibid.)
  • Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein. My first Heinlein! 
  • The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, Frans de Waal
  • When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, Jeffery Masson and Susan McCarthy
  • Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England, Sally Crawford
  • Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants, Katy Payne
  • The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, Wendell Berry
  • Ravens in Winter, Bernd Heinrich.
There's a definite nature theme to this month's pile, probably prompted by  my yearning for spring. 

We're off to a rocky start this year, books-wise, as I've read a handful of books I liked well enough and a few I was disappointed in. There are a couple of reviews outstanding, for Shop Class as Soulcraft and Wendell Berry's Sex, Community, Economics and Freedom. The latter's eclectic nature defies adequate summation, at least for now.  Sex was also the theme of The Red Queen, which I enjoyed. Related to Soulcraft and Berry is Toward a Truly Free Market,  which presents an  economic idea which EF Schumacher was influenced by in writing small is beautiful. (I owe that one a review as well....)  Comments for Toward a Truly... are just about done.

So, I'll be balancing the misery of the Great War with some fun books on animal behavior, and the toe-curling pleasure that is Wendell Berry, who is for me the literary equivalent of warm chili and a great big quilt sewn by Granny.  There's such a feeling of being at home when I step inside his mind.

Happy reading, everyone! 

The Liberty Amendments

The Liberty Amendments:  Restoring the American Republic
© 2013 Mark Levin
257 pages

The United States Constitution was written by men who appreciated their lack of omniscience, and who therefore included in Article V means for amending their handiwork, for fixing through Congress and the state legislatures any problems that might arise. How do you solve a problem through Congress, however, when Congress is the problem?   The solution, says Mark Levin, is right there in the Constitution: Article V, which establishes the means of amendment, provides two. While Congress can vote on amendments, the State Legislatures can independently  call a convention to propose amendments, amendments Congress is obliged to respect.

With that as a starting point, he introduces ten amendments intended to bring the metastasizing national government into hand. The amendments taken as a whole are strongly sympathetic to a states' rights perspective, as all three heads of the Scylla-like national government are subordinated further to the state legislatures. The legislatures are given the power to override Supreme Court decisions and acts of Congress, and  term limits are imposed on all branches, including on the formerly lifetime Court seats.  Levin's amendments make it clear that he believes sovereignty lies in the states alone. as he proposes measures intended to stifle the effort of the government to take a life of its own. The Supreme Court is denied a right it has assumed, that of judicial review (judging whether a law is constitutional), and federal programs are given an automatic expiration date that they escape only by submitting to a scrutionous review.  Most of the amendments are general and limited, with Levin arguing from what he believes the founders would have intended or believed; he draws on the Federalist papers, the anti-federalist papers, and the founding fathers' letters to inform his views. The exception to this is the tenth proposal, which requires photo ID for elections. This is so specific to current political arguments and current technology that it doesn't deserve the dignity of being attached to the Constitution: let it join the legions of acts of Congress.

As personally sympathetic as I am to any measure limiting the power of the state, and hostile to any measure intended to magnify its power,  something about this book doesn't sit right with me. Levin speaks often about the founders' firm belief in checks and balances, but his proposals put so many cards in the hands of the state legislatures something is bound to go wrong. The state legislatures are not havens of sensibility and justice; my own state has a constitution written by planters to disenfranchise the poor, place the burden of public finance on them, and force local ballot measures to be resolved by means of constitutional amendment.  On the other hand, perhaps we'd end up with something like Swiss cantons; that kind of dynamic localism is attractive.  My principle problem with Levin is that he doesn't bother with a dialogue but writes to people who already agree with him as he presents his case against the dreaded Statists, the Evil Ones.  I don't know if Levin's approach is the answer, but it's not mere talk: in late December, state legislatures sent representatives to George Washington's Virginia home in Mount Vernon to discuss the possibility of an "Article V Convention".   Thus, while Levin's amendments aren't necessarily ones I'd get behind in total (with the exception of term limits),  his basic premise of states using their article V right to discipline Congress, the Court, and the President has promise.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Red Queen

The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature
© 1993 Matthew Ridley
404 pages

The Red Queen begins with a question: why do creatures have sex? Why did it evolve? The answer, Matt Ridley believes, lies in the principle of the Red Queen. A character featured in Lewis Carroll's  Through the Looking Glass, she announced to Alice that in her world, it took all the running one could do simply to remain in one place. This characterizes the constant struggle for domination between species in the natural world,  a struggle between creatures not only visible to us, but between parasites within our bodies  and our immune systems.  Every move is countered, every success overturned; such is the impetus for evolution. In The Red Queen, Ridley explains his reasoning, and demonstrates how  evolutionary principles subtly drive the expression of human sexuality.

There's a lot of tension in this work, first when Ridley makes his case and somehow incorporates aspects of evolution from disparate camps (gene-centered, individually-driven, species-based) , and in the heart of the book as he examines the implications. This is especially true in the chapters, "Polygamy and the Nature of Men" and "Monogamy and the Nature of Women":  while it is true men have a genetic inclination to sow seeds and women one to invest in a partner,  behavior as studied indicates that things are not to trite. In the last chapters of the book, Ridley looks at sexuality as a possible cause of advanced human intelligence (competition and tension between the sexes and individuals), which is amusing given the power sexual interest has to render victims dumbstruck and seemingly foolish.

Since its publication, The Red Queen has proven influential; I knew of it long before I read it because of its place in the literature, being cited often. That may attest to the science, which is is speculative but sensible based on what he presents. He certainly makes for an entertaining author,  one whose arguments are open to virtually anyone regardless of scientific reading;  he begins with a technical, biological edge before spending most of the book on behavior -- a softer, fuzzier realm for readers.

Monday, January 6, 2014

It's the Little Things

  It's the Little Things: Everyday Interactions that Get Under the Skin of Blacks and Whites
© 2002 Lena Williams
304 pages

It’s the Little Things is an account of Lena Williams and her family’s grievances with white people, which are legion. Its full title, poorly chosen, teases the reader with a prospect of being a fascinating look into racial or cultural behavior that we are unaware of. The author delivers, however, nothing but a series of complaints, drawn from a data sample of herself, her family, and her friends   It seemed so promising; imagine a book based on interviews in which people were honest  about their observations or questions about the ‘other side’;  this is more like a book of white-people jokes pretending to be one of social inquiry.

The majority of the ‘little things’ are not unique to black/white dynamics in the United States, but are common symptoms of ethnic tension,  with biological or cultural roots. She mentions that both sides complain the other ‘smelling’ funny,  which is an in-group sensitivity.  There are a few  genuinely helpful insights scattered throughout, like the bait-story that enticed me into reading it. There, the author bristles with resentment as she stands in an elevator and witnesses a white woman combing her fingers through her hair.  Because ‘black’ hair looks, grows, and behaves so differently from ‘white’ hair, which is considered the standard of beauty in America, many black women like the author have gone to great expense and bother to force their hair to  look like ‘white’ hair, implementing relaxers and weaves. The woman’s innocent hair-combing was seen as a flaunting of white privilege.  The book often demonstrates how ordinary tension between people can take on racial undertones: although the liberties telemarketers take in using people's first names to effect an air of friendliness are obnoxious to everyone, the presumption can strike blacks (according to Williams) as offensive given America's racial history.  As the privileged hair example illustrates, however, ascribing racist motivations to some behaviors is simply preposterous.

The work also makes clear that regardless of claims of equality, people remain different;  even if they are equal before the law, populations still have their own cultures and values, some of which rub against one another. For instance, the author declares that there's a difference between the black notion of a party, which consists of plentiful food and lots of dancing, and the white version, which consists of finger food, wine, and subtle music serving as a background conversation.    That is indeed two different notions of a party,  but to say they're black and white versions of a party is bizarrely simplistic.  Anyone with friends or relations in different economic classes can bear witness to the fact that not everyone's idea of a good time is the same, regardless of skin color. This book's greatest fault is the limited experience the author draws on to reach her conclusions;  her childhood background and experience are used to describe everyone's, and that is decidedly not the case. In her world, black people beat their children at the slightest hint of public misbehavior, and feel pressure, when going into town, to dress their best.  She cannot possibly believe this is the case today.  Perhaps she's drawing merely on her memory alone, but in the world of the mid-20th century, such behavior (dressing for town and stern discipline) would have been the rule among 'whites' as well.  The too-personal anecdotes, and the sweeping conclusions based on them, make me think this is a book with an identity crisis; it's written as a playful riff, but wants to be  taken seriously.

This week at the library: prospects for the new year

Dear readers:

The winter solstice is passed and December has ended, beginning a new year regardless of your reckoning. In the past few days I've used my time off, and the fact that it's too cold and dark out to do anything outside, to finish a few books begun in late December -- Bernard Cornwell's Stonehenge, and The Red Queen, a book on sexuality and human nature. With the year anew, what lies ahead? 

January is a kind of penitent season, as people start New Years resolutions to get out of debt and lose all the weight they accumulated eating Christmas goodies.  In that spirit, I'm going to be making an effort to read some books I've long intended to read, but have never quite gotten around to. That includes the first book in a Roman historical fiction series (spotted on Seeking a Little Truth), as well as some science fiction.  I will also be resuming the Story of Civilization series by Will Durant sometime this..ah, year.  The problem at this point  is that the last three books all seem to be about the same things:   the climax of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and Napoleon.  

In the coming year I will of course have the usual tributary readings; a focus on English culture in April, for St. George's Day;  a set on the American revolution in late June for the Fourth of July;  some French items in mid-July for Bastille Day, and something in October for Germany.  As previously announced, throughout 2014 I will be reading books on the Great War, one a month.  I won't be combining the Great War theme with the heritage readings. 

I suspect historical fiction is going to take a hit, because once I read Sharpe's Waterloo, I will have not only finished Sharpe's series but exhausted virtually all of Cornwell's fictional offerings. There remain a few books I've not read, like the second in his Grailquest series and a historical romance he wrote under a false name (yes, really), but after a few years of dedicated, wholly enjoyable reading, I'm reduced to waiting for him to write new books. Alas.  

I also think that 2014 will be a boom year for science and nature reading, because I've discovered an author whose work I think I'll take to. We'll see..

2014 will continue readings in city planning, food, and the like, with everything under the sun also under consideration.  

A year of fascinating reads to you all!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Best of 2013: Annual Year in Review

Previous yearly wrap-ups: 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 

The year turns once more and it's time to look back on the past's reading, to think about which books really stood out and to reflect on the year in general. Let's begin with pie!

As usual, ChartGo did the data-baking, and nonfiction dominated. This year was heavy on civics and society, economic and political philosophy, and bicycles; when I drew up a 'top twenty' list,  most of the books fell into these categories. Toward the end of the year I also got into outdoors-adventure books, including a lot of cycling memoirs.

The great theme that emerged from my reading this year was civics, society, and living humanely.  Not only did I read a great many books about the material arrangement of society, like those on city planning, but I also considered thoughtful works on other aspects of society:  culture, politics, economics, and more. Diverse authors who never met one another, who may have not have even heard of one another, have worked in concert inside  my head to prompt a sea change therein. In trying to understand how society works,  so that I might do my part to help create more resilient, healthier communities, I have developed a sharp aversion to the large-scale, top-down, and heavy-handed approaches I once favored, instead now preferring smaller, locally-oriented, and 'organic' tacks that emphasize healthy relationships between people, connect them to their physical place, and promote inner reliance or autonomy.  And so, the best from this sweeping category, books in bold indicating membership on the Top Ten Favorites for the year.

Now some highlights from other genres:

General Fiction



  • The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, Brian Fagan
  • Chimpanzee Politics by Frans de Waal
  • Your Inner Fish; The Universe Within, Neil Shubin.  
  • Two Sides of the Moon, David Scott and Alexei Leonov

Historical Fiction

I read Pride and Prejudice largely so I could read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which started out hilarious and then drifted toward the merely silly. I did enjoy Austen, especially for the language. Kerr is a new author to me, and one I'll read more of;  I've read three works by him so far, and all were police dramas/international mysteries set in Germany, often around the 1930s. Dark humor abounds.

Speculative Fiction
  • From History's Shadow, Dayton Ward.  Treklit and historical fiction, this history of the United States' attempts to investigate claims of alien life begins shortly after 1947 and 
  • 1632, Eric Flint. What happens when you drop a Pennsylvanian mining town into the middle of 17th century Germany? Good times.

In the long run I think I'll remember this year most for introducing me to one Wendell Berry, an aging gentleman-farmer from Kentucky whose ideas on the good life are expressed in both essay collections and novels. I encountered Berry first when one of his essays, "Health is Membership", appeared in The Plain Reader, a collection of essays on the simple life, many of them rooted in the Quaker tradition.  He writes reverently of the need to conserve and live a life grounded in Nature, mindful of the limits it would suggest for the scale of our activities. He champions a nation based on family farms, small towns, and decentralized political power; he writes against and mourns the destruction caused by agribusiness, urban sprawl, and big stick approaches to little problems. His essay collections are wise and often godawful funny, while the novels are painfully beautiful. I read Jayber Crow back in June, and not a day goes by that I don't think of it-- quote aloud from it, even.  Wendell Berry joins the very-elite club of featured authors for me, alongside Isaac Asimov and Bernard Cornwell.

Friday, January 3, 2014


Stonehenge: 2000 BC
© 2000 Bernard Cornwell
400 pages

         For millennia the hanging rocks of Stonehenge have stricken visitors with awe and mystery. Who  built them, and to what purpose?  Stonehange: 2000 BC  tells the story of those people, the ancient ones, whose dreams and fears were made material in their temple of the sky. Bernard Cornwell is a bonafide master of historical fiction, writing chiefly tales of adventure and war set in Britain’s storied past, but the world of Stonehenge is his earliest treated yet. Stonehenge is largely drama, personal and cosmic, with action throughout, including a battle or two.   It is the story of three brothers:  Lengar, the eldest, whose cruel ambition leads him to murder his father at a wedding and seize the bride; Camaban, born with a club foot and rejected by the tribe, who burns with bitterness and looks to the gods for consolation; and young Saban,  who begins the book fleeing from death,   a race that continues throughout.  Caught between his elder brothers’ constant treachery, Saban must survive the destruction and chaos caused by both, and lead his people to peace.

            Lengar, Camaban, and Saban share a father and little else; their dreams set them at variance with one another, for Saban only wants a quiet life with a woman, kids, and a few healthy pigs while his elder brothers spend the entire book besotted with dreams of grandeur. Lengar wants to be a fearsome warlord who brings the entire region under heel, while Camaban works to become a master sorcerer and restore order to the Cosmos itself.  This is a primeval setting, dominated by a religious worldview that is largely animistic, drenched in blood and steeped in superstition. The overall feel is reminiscent of the magnificent King Arthur trilogy Cornwell penned:  political and religious leaders vie for power, undergird with a metaphysical theme; while Merlin wanted to restore the old gods to Britain to drive out the Saxons,  Camaban wants to end the war between the native gods and bring about an epoch of heaven on earth.  While many find the claim suspect, a temple to the violent sun god serves the glory-thirst  of Lengar, and the challenge appeals to the craftsman Saban. (Not that he has a choice in doing their bidding,  since he has an unfortunate habit of becoming attached to people, a great source of leverage for his sadistic elder.)  The motives for building the temple are thus mixed, and the struggle of its construction is the foundation of the book’s many plot lines, from politics to war. At least a decade passes from the time the first stones arrive to its treacherous consecration.

            Like the King Arthur trilogy,  our main character Saban is a supporting actor in other men’s dramas, but he’s fairly sympathetic. A good thing, too, because he’s much abused;  his is a violent world, and his brothers’ ambitions make it doubly so.  He’s wily enough, and a good fighter,  though not nearly as self-assured or clever as other protagonists.  His life is often in the hands of Fate, which typically comes in the form of possibly-delusional characters who declare that going here or doing this is the Will of the Gods.   Though religious, Saban doesn’t put a lot of stock in such claims; fortunately for the plot, he’s ususally beholden to someone who does – either his brothers, threatening violence, or his girlfriends, who have an unfortunate tendency to become goddesses or prophets.  C’est la vie préhistorique.  

            Stonehenge is an impressive novel, harrowing and dramatic. Like all of Cornwell’s fiction, the world is rich in luxuriant detail. Not only does Cornwell paint the landscape for readers, but the human environment, of actors and legends, is simultaneously fleshed out, using an invented mythology  instead of vexing historic purists by throwing in the Celtic pantheon.  It suffers a little in comparison to the King Arthur trilogy,  but the mystery of the Stones has its own appeal, and seeing the temple appear in stages throughout the tome, as chiefs and priests struggle for power, will doubtless keep readers in thrall.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 Cumulative Reading List

Updated for the final time the day before yesterday, below is the list of this year's reads. Those in bold are superior favorites.

-- January --
1. Calico Joe, John Grisham (Fiction)
2. Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins (Fiction)
3. Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins (Fiction)
4. Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life  of an American Hunter, Steven Rinella
5. For the Love of the Game, Michael Shaara (Fiction)
6. Home from Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler
7. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850Brian Fagan
8. Copperhead: Ball's Bluff, 1862, Bernard Cornwell (Fiction)
9. Battleflag,  Bernard Cornwell (Fiction)
10. Patterns of Home;  Max Jacobson, Murray Silversteinand Barbara Winslow
11. Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, Jeff Speck
12. The Bloody Ground, Bernard Cornwell (fiction)

13. Waiting on a Train: the Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service in America, James McCommons
14. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (Fiction)
15. The Seven Wonders, Steven Saylor (Fiction)
16. Star Trek Cold Equations: The Persistence of Memory, David Mack (Fiction)
17. The Space Between: A Christian Response with the Built Environment, Eric Jacobsen
18. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith, with apologies to Jame Austen (Fiction)
19. Selma: A Novel of the Civil War, Val L. McGee (Fiction)
20. Railroad Stations: the Buildings that Linked the Nation, David Naylor
21. Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities, Jeff Mapes

-- March --
22. On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Faultlines, and Future; Karen Elliot House
23. A Week at the Airport, Alain de Botton
24. Through Painted Deserts, Donald Miller
25. The Universe Within Us: the Shared History of Stars, Planes, and People, Neil Shubin
26. Shift, Jennifer Bradbury (Fiction)
27. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Mary Pipher
28. Hey Mom, Can I Ride My Bike Across America?, John Siegel Boettner
29. Sundays in America, Suzanne Shea
30. Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, Taras Grescoe

-- April --
31. 1356, Bernard Cornwell (Historical Fiction)
32. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
33. Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: the New Geopolitics of Energy, Michael Klare
34. A Spectacle of Corruption, David Liss (Historical Fiction)
35. The Plain Reader: Essays on Making a Simple Life, edited by Scott Savage
36. The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
37. History of the English Speaking Peoples: The New World, Winston Churchill
38. Crunchy Cons, Rob Dreher
39. Chimpanzee Politics, Frans de Waal

-- May --
40. eaarth: making life on a tough new planet, Bill McKibben
41. Warm Bodies, Isaac Marion (Speculative Fiction)
42. Buddhism without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor
43. The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Fowler (Fiction)
44.  Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Healthier Hens, Happier People, and a Better World, Joel Salatin
45. The Revolution: A Manifesto, Ron Paul
46. Garbage Land: on the Hidden Trail of Trash, Elizabeth Royte
47. Star Wars: Fool's Bargain, Timothy Zahn (Speculative Fiction)
48. The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, Michael Pollan
49. The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance, Russell D. Roberts (Fiction)
50. Just Ride: A Radically Different Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike, Grant Peterson
51. Chain of Thunder, Jeff Shaara (Historical Fiction(
52. The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century, James Howard Kunstler
53. Never Done: A History of American Housework, Susan Strasser
54. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough

-- June --
55. Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss
56. Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization, Richard Manning
57. Disrupting the Rabblement, Niall Doherty
58. Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry (Fiction)
59. Alexander Hamilton, Rob Chernow 
60. The History of Money, Jack Weatherford
61. The Story of my Experiments with Truth, Mohandas K. Gandhi
62. American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, Joseph Ellis 
63. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach

-- July --
64. Edens Lost and Found; Dale Bell, Joseph D'Agnese, and Harry Wiland
65. Simplicity: Essays, Joshua Fields Millburn, Ryan Nicodemus
66. His Excellency: George Washington, Joseph Ellis 
67. The Price of Everything, Russell D. Roberts (Fiction)
68. What It Means to be a Libertarian, Charles Murray
69. Star Trek TNG, Cold Equations: Silent Weapons, David Mack (Fiction)
70. Day of Reckoning, Patrick Buchanan 
71. Getting There: the Epic Battle Between Road and Rail in the American Century, Stephen Goddard
72. Brand Failures, Matt Haig
73. The Choice: A Parable of Free Trade and Protectionism, Russell D. Roberts
74. It Can't Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis (Fiction)
75. French Kids Eat Everything,  Karen Le Billon 
76. An Outline of French History, René Sédillot. 
77. Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry (Fiction)
78. A Higher Call, Adam Makos
79. The Unschooling Handbook: How To use the Whole World As Your Child's Classroom, Marry Griffith

-- August --
80. The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk
81. 1632, Eric Flint (Speculative Fiction)
82. What Are People For?, Wendell Berry
83. Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell
84. Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin
85. Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton
86. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionJonathan Haidt
87. The Making of the Fittest, Sean B Carroll
88. Trains and Lovers, Andrew Maccoll Smith
89. Save the Males: Why Men Matter and Why Women Should Care, Kathleen Parker
90. Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of  the Modern American Libertarian Movement, Brian Doherty
91. Paleofantasy, Marlene Zuk

-- September --
92. Star Trek: From History's Shadow, Dayton Ward
93. Two Sides of the Moon, Alexei Leonov and David Scott
94. The Astronaut Wives Club, Lily Koppel
95.  Two Fronts, Harry Turtledove
96. Satisfaction Guaranteed: the Making of the American Mass Market, Susan Strasser
97. Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir, Tom Jones
98. The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist,  Neil deGrasse Tyson
99. Home Economics, Wendell Berry
100. The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman
101. Free to Choose, Milton Friedman
102. The Working Poor: Invisible in America,  David Shipler
103. Born to Buy: the Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, Juliet Shor
104. Field Grey, Philip Kerr
105. Uncommon Carriers, John McPhee
106.  Crabgrass Frontier: the Suburbanization of the United States, Kenneth Jackson

-- October --
107. Taft 2012, Jason Heller
108. The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, Colleen Carroll
109.  The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, Marc Levinson
110. Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization, Bruce Thornton
111. Star Trek Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures, Christopher L. Bennett
112. Bicycle: The History, David Herlihy
113. The Fear Index, Robert Harris
114. Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman
115. The Origin of Satan, Elaine Pagels
116. Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan
117. Just the Two of Us: A Cycling Journey Across America, Melissa Norton
118. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson
119. Hitler's Peace, Phillip Kerr

-- November --
120. Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris
121. Plane Insanity, Elliot Hester
123. Sharpe's Siege, Bernard Cornwell
124. A Consumers' Republic, Lizbeth Cohen
125. Nathan Coulter, Wendell Berry
126. The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis
127. Train TimeRailroads and the Imminent Reshaping of the American Landscape,  John Stilgoe
128. The Last Human, G.J. Sawyer et. al
129. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
130. The South vs. The South, William Freehling
131. The Man Who Cycled the World, Mark Beaumont
132. Martin Eden, Jack London
133. If the Dead Rise Not, Phillip Kerr
134. The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage
135. Sharpe's Revenge, Bernard Cornwell
136. Down the River, Edward Abbey
137.  No Plot? No Problem! Chris Baty

-- December --
138. The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons
139. Into Thick Air, Jim Malusa
140. Things Fall Apart, Harry Turtledove
141. small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered, EF Schumacher
142. Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
143. The Other Side of Western Civilization: Readings in Everyday Life, ed. Stanley
144. Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Thomas Sowell
145. A Scientist in the City, James Trefil
146. The Phantom Menace, Terry Brooks
147. The Wolf Strain: A Western Trio, Max Brand
148. The Men Who United the States, Simon Winchester
149. The View from the Summit, Sir Edmund Hillary
150. Sharpe's Christmas, Bernard Cornwell

'14: The Year of the Great War

As 2014 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Great War, I'm dedicating part of my reading to reflect on its tragic importance. At least one book every month will focus on the Great War; after beginning with a general history, I'll explore different aspects of and theaters in every succeeding month. My aim, besides honoring those who were 'butchered and damned', is to understand the conflict more than I do presently. Virtually all of my Great War studies in university or out of it have looked at western Europe -- either the trenches or the skies. I know nothing of Italy and Austria's meatgrinding struggle in the Alps, nor do I have any real appreciation of the German-Russian conflict.  To that end I'll be reading books specific to these areas of the war largely unknown to me. Although I don't and won't have a scheduled reading list, below are some of the titles I am considering.

The First World War, John Keegan
La Feu (Under Fire), Henri Barbusse
The Great War in Modern Memory, Paul Fussell
The Great War at Sea, Richard Hough
To Crown the Waves: The Great Navies of the First World War, ed. Vincent O'Hara et al
Wipers: A Soldier's Tale from the Great War, Jeff Simmons
Forgotten Voices of the Great War, Max Arthur
The Eastern Front, Norman Stone
Rites of Spring: the Great War  and the Birth of the Modern Age, Modris Eksteins
World War 1 Companion, Mathias Strohn, editor.
Collision of Empires, Prit Buttar
Silent Night,  Stanley Weintraub

Considering the way book recommendations multiply like rabbits once a subject is considered in earnest, I'm confident many more will surface. The top three of these will definitely be attempted, as I've wanted to read them for a long time;  the others I only discovered after beginning preparations for this.  In addition to learning about theaters of the war I'm largely ignorant of, I also want to explore how the war was portrayed in fiction and culture, to discern its impact on the human soul.

Suggestions are welcome.

"Gassed", John Singer Sargent