Posts Tagged ‘book review’

“Pebble in the Sky” by Isaac Asimov reviewed

22 March 2009

Asimov, Isaac. Pebble in the Sky. Del Ray Books. 1950. 230 pp.

Cover of the 1983 Ballatine Books edition

Cover of the 1983 Ballatine Books edition

Pebble in the Sky is the first written of Isaac Asimov’s three “Empire novels,” though chronologically it takes place last, long after the events of The Stars, Like Dust and The Currents of Space, books which are only very loosely connected. I had originally read Pebble about nine years ago and was looking forward to experiencing it again. Unfortunatly, it doesn’t hold up well.

The basic plot is that a retired tailor from Chicago in 1949, Joseph Schwartz, is accidentally sent into a distant future (“hundred of thousands of years” are alluded to) when the Earth is a backwater planet in the Galactic Empire. And he helps to save the galaxy along with a native Earth scientist, his daughter, and a visiting archaeologist. Structural problems arise from the fact that Asimov can’t decide wether Schwartz or Arvardan is his main character and the book’s hero, so one or the other spends large portions of the book with nothing to do even when they are on the page to remind the reader of their existence. Pacing is further disrupted when two months is skipped over without any reason, relieving valuable tension.

There are several points in the story that require one or more characters to act contrary to reason. For instance, the farmers that find Schwartz—who, of course, can’t speak the language and has no idea where he is—decide to take him to Dr. Shekt, the aforementioned scientist, who they heard is experimenting with a device that can educate people instantly. The fact that it’d never been used on a person and that 90% of the rats that were so educated died doesn’t deter them from “volunteering” Schwartz to undergo treatment. (Things are actually not as they appear, but the farmers don’t know that, so their actions are still ridiculous—and immoral.) The good guys then rely several times on a deus ex machina to elude the bad guys: said brain experiments give Schwartz psychic powers, so he can conveniently read minds, kill people, and control people as needed. Asimov usually doesn’t usually rely on such clumsy, ad hoc story devices to solve his problems.

The characters are two dimensional, so they don’t rescue the book. Arvardan is “tall and craggily, calm and self-confident … like an ancient marble statue.” Arvardan’s love interest, Dr. Shekt’s 20ish daughter, Pola, is “devastatingly desireable” (more on her in a moment). Their relationship has no real basis and obviously exists only so that the hero—or one of them—can “get the girl.” It’s hardly a surprise that they’re married in the epilog.  It’s forgiveable if you recall who the audience was for most 1940s-era science fiction.  Eventually, Asimov figured out how to write sensibly about romantic relationships, but much later in his career—long after Pebble in the Sky.

Isaac Asimov in 1956, shortly after writing Pebble in the Sky

Isaac Asimov in 1956, a few years after writing Pebble in the Sky

Pola’s character is typical of females the early Asimov corpus—she’s pretty, so she has to be silly and frivolous. She breaks down in tears five times in novel’s 230 pages, sometimes for trivial reasons, and constantly needs rescuing. She is seen as “weak” and “hysterical” by the other characters, and she spends most of the book with a “look of fear and exhaustion on her face” and experiencing “deep and pathetic disappointment” or “horror and fright.” Obviously, Asimov was a product of his time, but all of the attractive women in his early works are like this.  The ones who are intelligent, self-assured, and take the initiative (consider Bayta in “The Mule” or Arcadia in “—And Now You Don’t”) are deliberately described as being plain looking. For me, these attitudes date the story far more than the idea that they’d be smoking tobacco or reading paper newspapers in 100,000 CE—we aren’t even reading our news on papers now!

One thing that I completely missed nine years ago but enjoyed on my second reading were the numerous allussions to Jewish history in the book. Asimov was a big fan of the Bible—witness his 1300-page Guide to the Bible (an excellent book, by the way)—and took inspiration for Pebble’s setting from Roman-occupied first century Palastine. The novel’s powerful Society of Ancients were like the Jewish religious elite and the Zealots; their High Minister corresponds to the chief priest; and “the customs” are equivalent to “the Law” (Torah). They proclaim “the Second Kingdom of Earth is at hand” (cf. “the Kingdom of God is at hand”), are described as “extreme nationalists” and dream of past and future glory—just like Jewish nationalists in the first century CE.

Of course, the Galactic Empire stands in for its inspiration, the Roman Empire, and Earth’s governor, Procurator Ennius, is inspired by Procurator Pontius Pilate—and he even quotes him, declaring “I find no fault in this man”! (A direct quote from Luke 23:4 in the King James translation.) It is no accident that Earth was said to have rebelled against the empire three times over 200 years; the Jews revolted against the Romans three times: in 66–73, 115–117, and 132–135, and Ennius, like Pilate, is concerned with not crossing the elites, who control the mob and could stir up a rebellion. That almost happened to a prior procurator, when the insane Emperor Stannell II tried to put the imperial insignia in Earth’s Council Chamber. If you recall either your Roman or Jewish history (and Asimov loved both—see his two volumes on the Romans), you know that he’s referring to Caligula’s attempt to put a statue of himself in the Jewish Temple in 40 CE. The book is full of such references.  Even Ennius’s conversation with his wife, Flora, reminds me of Pilate’s exchange with his wife (Matthew 27:19). I’ve spent too much space on this, but I found discovering the allusions to be quite pleasant, and most people probably don’t even know they’re there.

Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend Pebble in the Sky to anyone except an Asimov fan; it’s far from his best work. Some of the structural and plotting problems may be due to its history—the 70,000 word novel started as a 40,000 word novella which was later expanded at his publisher’s request—but they’re there nonetheless. Check out The Foundation Trilogy, The Gods Themselves, or The Caves of Steel instead.

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“Bush at War” by Bob Woodward reviewed

17 March 2009

Woodward, Bob. Bush at War. Simon & Schuster. 2002. 355 pp.

Published just 14 months after the September 11th attacks, Bush at War by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward covers the Bush administration on that infamous day and during the three-months following during which the Taliban was toppled in Afghanistan.  This was one of the first books out covering the War on Terror, and certainly isn’t the best out there now; like most such works by journalists—as opposed to historians—it is long on the who, what, where, and when and very short on the why: don’t look for a lot of analysis in this book.  Bush at War lacks a thesis, what it does is give an inside look at how top government officials, including the president, reacted to the attacks and how they planned and executed the war in Afghanistan.  The epilogue covers about a year and the lead up to the Iraq war (which hadn’t been launched yet when the book went to press).

Seeing things that we all saw from the outside from the inside view that Woodward provides is very interesting.  At just 9:44 am Bush told Cheney “We’re at war.”  “That’s what we’re paid for boys,” he told his staff.  “We’re going to take care of this.  And when we find out who did this, they’re not going to like me as president.  Somebody is going to pay.” (17)  He used slightly cruder language with the Vice President: “We’re going to find out who did this, and we’re going to kick their asses.” (18)

He wanted to be decisive and bold in his response to the attacks, not like the Clinton administration which limited it’s military response to terror attacks to air strikes.  Bush said “I don’t want to put a million-dollar missile on a five-dollar tent.” (I’d elsewhere heard that quote expanded to “I’m not going to fire a million-dollar missile at a ten-dollar empty tent, and hit a camel in the butt.”)  However, Bush told his communications director (Karen Hughes) to remove the phrase “this is not just an act of terrorism.  This is an act of war,” from the Oval Office address he gave that evening.  He wanted that speech to be reassuring, to be tough, and to show resolve, not to add to the country’s angst.  A speech that he gave to the UN the next year went through 24 drafts (and they displayed the wrong one on the teleprompter).

Bush at War gives in sight into its eponym’s leadership philosophy and style.  “I do not need to explain why I say things.  That’s the interesting thing about being the president.  Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”  Elsewhere, Bush says

First of all, a president has got to be the calcium in the backbone.  If I weaken, the whole team weakens.  If I’m doubtful, I can assure you there will be a lot of doubt.  If my confidence level in our ability declines, it will send ripples throughout the whole organization.  I mean, it’s essential that we be confident and determined and united.

Woodward reports that, in interviews, Bush made frequent reference to his “instincts” or “instinctive” reaction, saying “I’m not a textbook player, I’m a gut player.”  The author said that “[Bush’s] instincts are almost his second religion.”  These themes are demonstrated in much of what Bush does and says as recorded in the book.

Once the war gets going the book becomes much more interesting and faster-paced.  The president et al quickly realized that the War on Terror would be a different sort of war, and scrambled to adjust to fighting a guerrila organization in Afghanistan and a terror network around the globe.  During the 1991 Gulf War the military already had Operations Plan 90-1002 that they could dust off and follow.  But there was no plan in place for the situation in Afghanistan.  Much diplomatic wrangling with Pakistan and other countries for overflight and basing rights also had to take place.  The need for bases for search and rescue teams held up the air war, due to unwillingness to risk pilots being captured by the Taliban.

Several anecdotes are interesting, including an offer they made to an Afghan tribal leader that he couldn’t refuse:

$50,000 was offered to a commander to defect. Let me think about it, the commander said. So the Special Forces A-team directed a J-DAM precision bomg right outside the commander’s headquarters.  The next day they called the commander back.  How about $40,000? He accepted. (299)

Then there is the account of how Dick and Lynne Cheney spent Halloween at an undisclosed location with their three grandchildren, ages 2, 3, and 7.  The kids dressed up and went trick-or-treating in the bunker, knocking on the office doors of the staffers who were hiding out with them.  And who knew that Dick Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State, could bench 330 lbs. six times (Bush was only benching 205 lbs.).

The most colorful figure in the book is Cofer Black, the Director of the CIA Counter Terrorism Center, who, as Woodward says, “had a penchant for dramatizing.”  He emphasized in early briefings that military action would be bloody, for both American and al Qaeda. “When we’re through with them, they will have flies walking across their eyeballs.”  (Other staffers subsequently referred to him as “the flies on the eyeballs guy.”)  Later, in reference to al Qaeda, he said that “we’re going to kill them. We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.” (103) But he didn’t want all of their heads put on sticks; he told a CIA team “You have one mission. Go find the al Qaeda and kill them.  We’re going to eliminate them.  Get bin Laden, find him. I want his head in a box.”  Once said box was occupied by bin Laden’s head, he wanted “to take it down and show the president.” (141)

The information about Iraq—the invasion of which Paul Wolfowitz starting pushing on September 12th—is interesting, albeit incomplete, the book having been published before the invasion was launched.  Cheney also pushed for toppling Saddam, which Powell opposed.  Watching those dynamics play out in the epilog was informative, but much more research is needed on the lead up to the Iraq war—which hadn’t been launched as of press time—and historians will have their hands full with those events for decades as more information becomes available about what went right and wrong.

The book is okay, but is probably already dated as more scholarly books come out.  And if you want analysis of the Afghanistan war, check out Imperial Hubris by Anonymous (a.k.a. Michael Scheuer).  And if you want more details on the September 11th attacks themselves, see the 9/11 Commission Report (published July 2004).  Still, Bush at War holds some interest for it’s view of the administration’s decision-making process after the attacks and during the war in Afghanistan.

“The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon reviewed

27 February 2009

Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Everyman’s Library. ca. 3590 pp. (Vol. VI: 650 pp.)

Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a work that most people have heard of but which few have read. The former is due to the excellence of this literary achievement, known for the quality and irony of its prose and its rigorous use of primary sources; the later is due largely to the fact that Gibbon takes six volumes to cover the thirteen centuries of history from the Age of the Antonines to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. While I cannot do justice to Gibbon’s 3000+ page magnum opus in this review, I do hope to avoid doing it a great injustice. Note that while this review applies to the totality of the work, I will confine the specifics to the sixth volume as it is freshest in my mind and most thoroughly described in my notes.

Firstly, Gibbon was an excellent historian; he was very rigorous about resorting to the primary sources in Latin and Greek whenever possible. The many footnotes often contain information on both these sources and his secondary sources along with quotations therefrom.  And though you can’t get the full effect of the notes unless you read Latin, Greek, and French, they are well worth perusing for Gibbon’s own comments, such as this epigram: “the true praise of kings is after their death, and from the mouth of their enemies” (120). In another note he takes to task the Hal Lindseys of his day: “The more pious antiquaries labour to reconcile the promises and threats of the author of the Revelations with the present state of the seven cities. Perhaps it would be more prudent to confine his predictions to the characters and events of his own times” (332). The editor of the Everyman edition also sometimes add clarifications of his own, especially in those few places where Gibbon’s own judgments were not born out by subsequent scholarship.

In addition to his writing ability and researching skill, Edward Gibbon brings his great wit and point of view to bear on his subject, remarking that history “is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” After thirteen centuries and six volumes, the reader is inclined to agree. I never fail to be amazed how, time after time, in just a paragraph—or sometimes a mere fragment of a sentence—Gibbon announces that 130,000 people were killed by Arabs (16), or that 300,000 crusaders died before they even captured a single city (57), or that 70,000 Moslems were killed in Jerusalem (95)—all of which occur in just the first hundred pages of this one volume. Later (page 364) we learn that Tamerlane constructed a pyramid of 90,000 severed heads in Baghdad, just three pages after he had 4000 Armenians buried alive. Such statements do not, of course, include all of the literally countless deaths from all of the wars and massacres, only those for which the author could come by reliable figures; for instance, the victim’s of the Tartar’s rampage, whose severed right ears filled nine sacks, cannot be accurately enumerated since the size of the sacks was not specified. The reader may be relieved to still be capable of shock if he or she pauses, on page 374, as the deaths of one million Chinese people are announced. “So familiar, and as it were so natural to man, is the practice of violence, that our indulgence allows the slightest provocation, the most disputable right, as a sufficient ground of national hostility.” Gibbon is right: “the paths of blood … such is the history of nations.”

The specific murders and mutilations of individuals or small groups, usually at the direction of some emperor or other, are equally horrifying: despite involving smaller numbers they can be imagined with greater ease.  For instance, 70 rebels were boiled alive by Genghis Khan, who had a harem of 500 wives and concubines (n.b. only half of Solomon’s total of 700 wives and 300 concubines). Elsewhere, a young Greek concubine is mutilated by having her lips and nose cut off. The Decline and Fall is so filled with murders, massacres, and mutilations that one almost laughs when given the opportunity to have the tension broken at the ridiculous contrivance of the Emperor Theodore, who sacrificed “the lives and fortunes, the eyes and limbs, of his kinsmen and nobles” to his own passions:

A matron … had provoked his anger by refusing to bestow her beauteous daughter on the vile plebeian who was recommended by his caprice. Without regard to her birth, or age, her body, as high as the neck, was enclosed in a sack with several cats, who were pricked with pins to irritate their fury against their unfortunate fellow captive. (248)

The matron’s ultimate fate is not recorded by Gibbon.  One hopes that she survived the ordeal.

Speaking of eyes, I was surprised at the great frequency with which men who had claims to the throne lose their eyesight (and/or ability to reproduce) at the hands of rivals, who are frequently their brothers or other relatives. Blinding, of course, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the claimant to oversee (no pun intended) and administer the government, effectively removing him from contention for the throne. In this concluding volume Gibbon finally gives some information on how the operation was usually conducted by referring to “the brutal violence of tearing out the eyes,” though it was also sometimes down by destroying the optic nerve with a red-hot implement. In a footnote, Gibbon dryly lists some of the more violent methods of blinding devised by “ingenious tyrants” through the ages: “scooping, burning with an iron or hot vinegar, and binding the head with a strong cord until the eyes burst forth from their sockets.” Absolutely barbaric to us, but not to so many of the potentates who furnish Gibbon with his material, since “in the balance of ambition, the innocence or life of an individual is of small account.”

Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) circa 1779

Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) circa 1779

Despite the vast amounts of immorality that it records, the Decline and Fall is a profoundly moral work, deeply concerned with right and wrong, and the reader with an ear for irony can perceive Gibbon’s scathing condemnation of barbarity on most of the pages where such crimes and follies are recorded. His harshest criticism is reserved for organized religion in general and those claiming to be followers of Christ in particular.  For instance, of the crusaders, who killed so many, he says “they neglected to live, but they were prepared to die, in the service of Christ.” When they capture Jerusalem and massacre those 70,000 Moslems Gibbon calls it a  “bloody sacrifice [that] was offered by his mistaken votaries to the God of the Christians.” Elsewhere:

such was the pious tendency of the crusades, that they [one group of Crusaders] employed the holy week in pillaging the country for their subsistence, and in framing engines for the destruction of their fellow-Christians. (212)

Note that Gibbon is most certainly not saying that Christians who pillage and kill are being truly pious—just as he wasn’t calling those tyrants geniuses for coming up with new ways of blinding people—or that those are things prescribed by Christianity; he is being ironic, and one gets the distinct impression that Gibbon, who was irreligious, was a great admirer of the Nazarene but bitterly disappointed with his followers, a sentiment indicated where he writes that “the God of the Christians is not a local deity, and … the recovery of Bethlehem or Calvary, his cradle or his tomb, will not atone for the violation of the moral precepts of the Gospel” (47) or that “the spirit of persecution is unworthy of a Christian.” (459)

Some of what came from his pen seems like it could have come from Christopher Hitchen’s keyboard. Consider Gibbon’s comments on the Popes, who came

from the mode of education and life the most adverse to reason, humanity, and freedom. In the trammels of servile faith, he has learned to believe because it is absurd, to revere all that is contemptible, and to despise whatever might deserve the esteem of a rational being; to punish error as a crime, to reward mortification and celibacy as the first of virtues; to place the saints of the calendar above the heroes of Rome and the sages of Athens; and to consider the missal, or the crucifix, as more useful instruments than the plough or the loom. (614)

Or elsewhere, where he mocks the mystical experiences of the monks at Mt. Athos: “the production of a distempered fancy, the creature of an empty stomach and an empty brain.” (299)  But such ridicule is not reserved for the Christian tradition alone; the whirling dervishes in Islam who “turn round in endless rotation” are called “fanatics [who] mistake the giddiness of the head for the illumination of the spirit.” (451)

Like many of today’s “new atheists” (a.k.a. “angry atheists”), Gibbon had a lot of anger towards Christians, never openly declared but easily detectable between the lines in his magnum opus. The depth of his feeling may be indicated by the fact that, less than a dozen pages after the quote on the popes above, he writes that “of the Christian hierarchy, the bishops of Rome were commonly the most prudent and least fanatic.” But the reader should keep in mind that Gibbon uses the term “Christian” for both people who truly follow the precepts of Christ and for those who only take his name for themselves. Thus he writes that “a Christian, a philosopher, and a patriot, will be equally scandalized by the temporal kingdom of the clergy,” referring to a true follower of Jesus.

Whether it contributed to his distaste for organized religion or, more likely, followed from it, Gibbon did not believe in the supernatural or miraculous and, as one reviewer put it, he “treated the Christian church as a phenomenon of general history, not a special case admitting supernatural explanations and disallowing criticism of its adherents.” Miracles, Gibbon wrote, were difficult to disprove, “except by those who are armed with a general antidote against religious credulity” and “such is the progress of credulity, that miracles, most doubtful on the spot and at the moment, will be received with implicit faith at a convenient distance of time and space.” Perhaps the reader can divine something of Gibbon’s attitude towards superstition, and gain some appreciation for his prose, in the following anecdote which he relates, where two competing schools came together to settle their doctrinal dispute in a trial by fire:

In the confidence of fanaticism, they had proposed to try their cause by a miracle; and when the two papers, that contained their own and the adverse cause, were cast into a fiery brazier, they expected that the Catholic verity would be respected by the flames. Alas! the two papers were indiscriminately consumed, and this unforeseen accident produced the union of a day, and renewed the quarrel of an age. (259)

Gibbon is most certainly an iconoclast, but I think he gets a lot of stuff right and was headed in the right direction with his moralizing.  The Roman Empire was a very barbaric place where a small number of very powerful people vied for power, wealth, and glory at the expense of their rivals and the people.  The story of the empire is one of endless wars, massacres, and murders with anyone who gets in the way being murdered or mutilated and everyone else being ruthlessly exploited.  Of course, “for every war a motive of safety or revenge, of honour or zeal, of right or convenience, may be readily found in the jurisprudence of conquerors” (353) and I’m sure such justifications may have helped them sleep better at night.  But Gibbon says this about one empire builder: “Perhaps his conscience would have been startled if a priest or philosopher had dared to number the millions of victims whom he had sacrificed to the establishment of peace and order.” (378)

The overwhelmingly vast portion of those casualties are known but to God, but among them we must number the Roman Empire itself, whose end was caused and hastened by the wasting of the empire’s resources in combat with itself.  One of the authors and victims of the calamity called civil war “the deadly heat of a fever, which consumes without a remedy the vitals of the constitution.” (292)  Instead of using the wealth and strength that they’d inherited to further build up their society and their civilization, they used those resources against each other in a short-sighted and selfish attempt to grab more for themselves without regard for others and the whole.  The Romans who did this were like

the Indian who fells the tree that he may gather the fruit, and the Arab who plunders the caravans of commerce, … actuated by the same impulse of savage nature, which overlooks the future in the present, and relinquishes for momentary rapine the long and secure possession of the most important blessings. (525)

Gibbon spent two decades of his life researching, contemplating, and writing about the Roman Empire and its decline and fall, a task he was inspired to undertake, as he famously put it, “at Rome on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, [when] the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started in my mind.” That inspiration launched one of the finest written works in the English language (one shudders to learn he’d initially planned penning it in French); the six volumes first appeared between 1776 and 1788.  Gibbon, who had lifelong health issues, died only six years later.  His works and their abridgments will undoubtedly remain in print for years to come—but not forever.  As Gibbon himself muses, “the art of man is able to construct monuments far more permanent than the narrow span of his own existence: yet these monuments, like himself, are perishable and frail; and in the boundless annals of time his life and his labours must equally be measured as a fleeting moment.”

Indeed, that impermanence is one of the chief lessons of the Decline and Fall.  It is perhaps most poetically and poignantly suggested in the 71st and final chapter of the whole, where Gibbon relays the observations of Poggius, a servant to Pope Eugene IV, as he looks out over the ruined city of Rome in the 15th century:

This Tarpeian rock was then a savage and solitary thicket: in the time of the poet, it was crowned with the golden roofs of a temple; the temple is overthrown, the gold has been pillaged, the wheel of fortune has accomplished her revolution, and the sacred ground is again disfigured with thorns and brambles. The hill of the Capitol, on which we sit, was formerly the head of the Roman empire, the citadel of the earth, the terror of kings; illustrated by the footsteps of so many triumphs, enriched with the spoils and tributes of so many nations. This spectacle of the world, how is it fallen! how changed! how defaced! The path of victory is obliterated by vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill.

Desolation, the final painting in Thomas Cole's five-painting series The Course of Empire

Desolation, the final painting in Thomas Cole's five-painting series The Course of Empire

Not only the ideas conveyed but the language used by Poggius is evocative of that five painting series by Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, and I wonder if indeed that work was inspired by the passage in question.  Either way, the whole monologue, and the concluding chapter itself, are well worth reading, so I link to the full text here.

Thus concludes my review of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  I hope that my review has communicated something of the greatness of the work in question, but even if my review were flawless, and its subject greater still…  sic transit gloria mundi.

“Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson

5 February 2009

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. (1962). 296 pp.

Why would anyone ever think that it is a good idea to dump tons of poisonous toxins all over just about everything?  If that question has never occurred to you, you’ve never read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, the book that jump-started the environmental movement.  The book argues that human actions can have devastating, even if unintended, consequences for the natural world, a conclusion that few would now dispute.

Carson makes it clear that her opposition is not to chemical use per se, but to the short-sighted and ultimately very harmful use thereof, which also happen to be unnecessary in most cases.  She shows that, counterintuitively, massive spraying programs can often lead to the target species becoming more prevalent if the chemicals more thoroughly wipe out the target’s natural predators than the target itself.  Fostering a proper predator-prey balance she says is the best way to control pests, including invasive species, and she gives many examples of when and where this has been done with success—and at much lower cost than massive spraying programs, writing that
Nature herself has met many of the problems that now beset us, and she has usually solved them in her own successful way.  Where man has been intelligent enough to observe and to emulate Nature he, too, is often rewarded with success. (81)

Examples that she gives include using marigolds to keep nematodes away from roses and using shrubs to prevent view-blocking trees from growing up too close to the roadway.

Several times she takes snipes at the chemical companies, “the beneficiaries of this ‘sales bonanza'”, for promoting the use of insecticides for their own good, not that of the public; the book is certainly not an anti-capitalist manifesto, however, and any excesses of the environmental movement find little to no support in what Silent Spring actually says.
Rachel Carson's official Fish and Wildlife Service photo, circa 1940

Official Fish and Wildlife Service photo of Rachel Carson (1907–1964), taken circa 1940

Carson explains enough of the chemistry, but never gets bogged down in unneeded detail; information on the biology of the toxins and how they interfere with the body’s normal functioning were very interesting.  Given how dangerous many of the everyday chemicals that were available back then are, and how little education the public had about their use, it seems surprising that more people weren’t killed or crippled.  Especially since chemical interactions could greatly amplify the effects of toxins: with certain pairings of chemicals just 1% of the fatal dose of each, if taken together, could result in death.  Thankfully, such compounds are better regulated now than hitherto—in significant part due to this book.

Carson’s use of language is excellent; every word selection is correct and the book’s ideas flow into each other.  She is good at summing things up and turning a phrase to catch one’s attention.  Consider: “Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.”  Carson also knows exactly what level of detail to get into when discussing the examples and case studies that support her thesis, never glossing over important facts or getting bogged down in technical points; for those who want to verify her claims or explore any topic in more depth the book contains a 55-page bibliography. A 7-page afterword by entomologist E. O. Wilson completes this edition; but those familiar with the excellent quality of Wilson’s other science writing may be somewhat disappointed: the afterword doesn’t add much to the book unless you hadn’t been paying attention to the preceding 353 pages.

The book did it’s job so well that parts of it are no longer directly applicable: we no longer use many of the chemicals it mentions and we don’t do a lot of the really dumb things it critiques.  But the precautionary message is still right on and Silent Spring can serve as an excellent introduction to ecology.  Recommended for all readers who live in the environment.

“The Normal Christian Life” by Watchman Nee

3 February 2009

The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee. (1957). 292 pp.

Originally published in 1957, The Normal Christian Life is based on a series of sermons given by Watchman Nee, a Chinese Christian (see his Wikipedia article) in 1938-9. It was edited by Angus Kinnear, since Nee had been in a Chinese prison on trumped up charges since 1952; he would die in jail in 1972, just before his scheduled release. The Hendrickson Christian Classics edition has a nice introductory essay that provides this context and other biographical details on Nee.

The best portions of the book come early. Nee draws a distinction between sins (lowercase and plural) and Sin (uppercase and singular). Sins are bad things that we do; Sin is an attitude or view which leads us to commit sins; this is a distinction also drawn by contemporary theologian Marcus Borg in his writings. Nee writes that it is not enough to simply receive forgiveness for bad things that we’ve done; we also need personal transformation (to use a term that Borg does) so that we won’t simply keep committing new transgressions. We must stop being greedy, petty, selfish, fearful, angry, impatient, and all the rest.

I also liked Nee’s definition of salvation, which is rather non-standard: “[Salvation] relates not to our sins nor to the power of sin, but to the cosmos or world-system. We are involved in Satan’s world-system. To be saved is to make our exit from his world-system into God’s” (55). He uses Noah and his family as an example; their salvation was “not so much that they were personally not drowned, but that they were out of that corrupt system. That is salvation” (56).

Watchman Nee

Watchman Nee (1903–1972)

Much of the rest of the book didn’t strike me as very useful; he doesn’t argue from first principles but from a number of assumptions that he never defends or explicitly state; insofar as I don’t share those assumptions—about the nature of the Bible, how atonement works, and what God is like, among others—I didn’t find the central argument of the book very compelling. (One example: the author assumes the idea of Original Sin and its inheritability.)  The book never deals with the concept of love—the most important concept in Christianity; indeed, I’m not certain the word even occurs anywhere in the book.

Nee begins the book by asking “What is the normal Christian life? We do well at the outset to ponder this question. The object of these studies is to show that it is something very different from the life of the average Christian.” Unfortunately, the book leads one to think that the problem that many of us have is that we try to do things, whereas we should really just sit back passively somehow and focus our efforts on believing that God will make everything work out okay in the end. Some of this comes close to the position of the Word of Faith movement and almost superstitious.   Finally, the portrait of God that Nee draws is one of a capricious deity that is always poking and prodding people, pushing them around and pulling the rug out from under them in order to manipulate them into doing good. God, as is often the case when the substitutionary theory of the atonement is assumed, comes across as rather punitive and blood-thirsty, a matter not particularly helped by Nee’s frequent and casual use of the term “the blood.”

This raises another problem.  Nee frequently falls into using jargon indiscriminately, often throwing around terms like “the blood”, “the cross”, “reckoning”, and “carnal power” without pausing to define them . One should always be suspicious of someone who doesn’t make his or her points in plain language (see “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell) and here one is forced to question exactly how much real meaning is in some of Nee’s statements; the vagueness of the terms allows many of his claims to mean almost anything the reader wants.  Often, the opaque terminology makes it is hard to derive any meaning from the text at all. Consider the following passage:

The Scriptures declare that we are “dead indeed,” but nowhere do they say that we are dead in ourselves. We shall look in vain to find death within; that is just the place where it is not to be found. We are dead not in ourselves but in Christ. We were crucified with him because we are in him. (p. 48, emphasis original)

Or another:

Unfortunately, in presenting the truth of our union with Christ, the emphasis has too often been placed upon this second matter of reckoning ourselves to be dead, as though that were the starting point, whereas it should rather be upon knowing ourselves to be dead. God’s Word makes it clear that “knowing” is to precede “reckoning.” (p. 38, emphasis original)

I have conversed before with people who use such language and I’ve no doubt that many will find these sorts of statements inspirational and purposeful.  That’s fine so far as it goes, but it’s not clear to me that he’s actually saying anything or conveying any real meaning.  It’s so easy to read what you want into what he’s saying that there’s not a lot that you can read out of what he’s saying.

Beyond those problems the fairly short book is easy to read.  Nee frequently uses anecdotes about his personal experiences, usually conversations he’s had with others, and illustrations involving everything from factories, light switches, putting sugar in tea, and buying books to help make his points. Readers may want to have a Bible handy when reading, as Nee often refers to and uses as background scripture passages without reproducing them in the text.  You can learn more about The Normal Christian Life by checking out its Wikipedia page.

Not recommended—especially for people without a solid grounding in theology—albeit not without value.

“The Path to Power” by Margaret Thatcher

27 January 2009

The Path to Power by Margaret Thatcher. (1995). 615 pp.

Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs are contained in two volumes; The Downing Street Years (1993) cover her time as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and this volume, though published second, largely covers her life prior to that point.  The book starts off with her childhood and upbringing, her time at Oxford, and then very quickly moves into politics; she is elected to the House on page 100, less than a sixth of the way into the book.

This is very much a political autobiography; you won’t learn much about Thatcher’s personal life, hobbies, or interests.  So don’t read this book unless you’re interested in British politics.  If the terms three line whip and Hansard are unfamiliar to you, this book probably isn’t for you; the author doesn’t stop to explain these things and you’ll be frequently at a loss when she mentions red boxes or tells how she wondered whether it was constitutionally possible for Alex Douglas-Home to become Prime Minister.

Many will find the path that Thatcher took to power to be interesting.  She never held any of the three principle offices or shadow offices (Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Minister, or Home Secretary) before becoming Tory leader in 1975.  She was Education Minister in the Heath Government, and then shadowed various departments in opposition before deciding to oppose Heath for the party leadership.  Throughout the book her disagreements with other Conservatives is a constant theme and she often critiques her colleagues who were less keen on market forces and more willing to engage in socialist policies.  However, she rarely, if ever, has any criticism of herself which makes the book less interesting than it otherwise might be.

Some, especially those on the left, may be annoyed at the frequent sniping she does at Labour, almost as if the book were a political speech and not an autobiography.  But she writes “of Clement Attlee, however, I was an admirer.  He was a serious man and a patriot.  Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show.”  Most of the compliments she has for other Labour members are of the “he was a good speaker” variety.  I am forced to wonder if this book would have turned out any differently if Thatcher hadn’t written it so soon after leaving office.  Perhaps her analyses would have been different.

Something I found interesting was the view of British government from the inside—how the opposition and government are at each other all the time, how frontbenchers interact with backbenchers, how various politicians rise and fall.  A disappointment that I had was that the book doesn’t really describe any of the debates and exchanges which happen in the House of Commons.  Anyone familiar with Prime Minister’s Questions will understand my dissatisfaction at this omission.  (Hint for those not in the know: debate in the British House of Commons is very different in tone that that on the floor of the U.S. Congress.)

Thatcher circa 1975

Thatcher circa 1975

Anyway, the last 140 pages or so cover her activities after leaving 10 Downing Street.  In the final pages she becomes somewhat more reflective and also comments on how her early life experiences shaped her political and other views.  Rest of the second part is only slightly autobiographical and tends to be more an exposition of her views on the European Union (she was skeptical or closer political integration), traditional values and the family (she was socially conservative on such issues), and the need to continue opposing socialism in all its guises.  Those seeking more information on her foreign policy views should check out her more recent book Statecraft.  Those wanting more on her views on social policy, fiscal policy, and how they interact should read The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher, which covers her entire time in politics.

To give you a bit more of the flavor of the book, here are some not necessarily representative quotations and fragments that I found interesting for one reason or another.  The second one seems quite Randian to me.

Market forces operating within the right framework make for fairness, and … even beneficent state control only makes for equality. (228.)

All collectivism is always conducive to oppression: it is only the victims who differ. (406)

So many people and so many vested interests were by now significantly dependent on the state—for employment in the public sector, for Social Security benefits, for health care, education and housing—that economic freedom had begun to pose an almost unacceptable risk to their living standards.  And, when that finally happened, political freedom—for example the freedom to join or not join a union or the freedom to have controversial views and still be entitled to teach in a state school or work in a government department—would be the next victim. (440)

The primary duty a free country owes, not just to itself but to countries which are unfree, is to survive. (365)

Youth cult of the 1960s whereby the young were regarded as a source of pure insight into the human condition. (186)

That one mortal sin in the eyes of mediocrities—he had shown “lack of judgment”, i.e. willingness to think for himself.

As indicated above, I would not recommend this book to most people, only those interested in politics and who have some background in British government.  For those who are and who do, I would recommend this book. It has me interested in checking out it’s companion volume, The Downing Street Years.

“When I Was a Young Man” by Bob Kerrey

20 January 2009

When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir by J. Robert Kerrey. (2002). 261 pp.

when_i_was_a_young_man

This is a short, autobiographical work by former Democratic Nebraska Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey.  He describes his happy childhood in Nebraska, how he joined the U.S. Navy and became a Navy SEAL, and his various training.  Kerrey was sent of to Vietnam where he took part in several actions and was ultimately wounded seriously.

The portions where he describes his convalescence after the amputation of part of one leg, including how it impacted how people saw him, has lessons for us today as we face so many wounded Iraq vets.  Incidentally, Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Vietnam.

The book lacks direction and purpose, however.  Perhaps that is because, as he explains in the preface, he set out to write a different book: one about his father and uncle, the later of whom was killed in the Philippines in WWII.  There are some anti-war sentiments throughout the book, but they are never really developed or made explicit, Kerrey doesn’t truly make them his own.  Anyway, from the preface he sort of sets things up this way:

In the first half of my life, history was one of two things: sterile and meaningless information to be memorized for school tests of myths told to generate good feelings and memories.  The patriotic and heroic stories I heard in my youth caused me to believe that my nation was never wrong and that my leaders would never lie to me.  When the sand of this foundation blew away, I lost my patriotism.  In the second half of my life, I rebuilt this foundation on something sturdier: the observation that Americans at their best can be unimaginably generous and willing to put their lives on the line for the freedom and well-being of others.

There are some amusing points in the book, such as the club he was in that was to be called “the Angels” but ended up being “the Angles” because “we let our poorest speller write our name on the door” and then the account of what they saw from the tree house (p. 58).  Other material of interest to me were Kerrey’s comments on his religious upbringing and the evolution of his beliefs, his comments on racism, and the account of the serviceman who died in training.

This book is very light reading; I finished it’s 261 pages in about 5 hours despite a few distractions.  While not a bad book, I don’t particularly recommend it; time reading it won’t be wasted, but it would probably be better invested elsewhere unless you’re completely ignorant about the Vietnam war.

Leo Tolstoy: Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 1

20 January 2009

Leo Tolstoy: Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 1. Everyman Library’s (2001). 759 pp.

The Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 1 from the Everyman's Library

Leo Tolstoy: The Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 1 from the Everyman's Library

Though I didn’t realize it when I purchased this book, it is only the first of two volumes of Tolstoy’s shorter fiction published by Everyman’s Library—and several of the stories I’d been most looking forward to are in the second volume, which I can tell because this book includes the tables of contents for both volumes.  It also includes a 12-page introductory essay which I did not find terribly useful, but a person who brings no knowledge of Tolstoy to the book may find it helpful.

This volume contains 22 of Tolstoy’s shorter works, only some of them qualifying as short stories, others weighing in as novellas; one, Family Happiness, is called “a novel” and another, A Landlord’s Morning, was apparently part of an unfinished novel, but is a complete work in itself.

My favorite item in the book is the short story “Lucerne” (available online here).  It is told in the first person by a wealthy man staying at a resort in Lucerne, Switzerland.  He sees a mendicant musician perform for a crowd of wealthy patrons there who then refuse to give him any money and, indeed, laugh at him.  The narrator speaks with the musician and shows him kindness, while observing how shabbily the hotel staff and patrons treat the man.  This is all told, basically, to lead up to the final third of the work, in which the narrator confronts and denounces the wealthy patrons and their attendants for their shallowness, lack of compassion, and self-absorbsion.  This portion of the story has no plot or characters, it’s basically a speech by the narrator, and seems to convey Tolstoy’s own sentiments, which are clearly filled with a lot of passion and righteous anger.  An passage:

“Who is the greater man, and who the greater barbarian,—that lord, who, seeing the minstrel’s well-worn clothes, angrily left the table, who gave him not the millionth part of his possessions in payment of his labor, and now lazily sitting in his brilliant, comfortable room, calmly expresses his opinion about the events that are happening in China, and justifies the massacres that have been done there; or the little minstrel, who, risking imprisonment, with a franc in his pocket, and doing no harm to any one, has been going about for a score of years, up hill and down dale, rejoicing men’s hearts with his songs, though they have jeered at him, and almost cast him out of the pale of humanity; and who, in weariness and cold and shame, has gone off to sleep, no one knows where, on his filthy straw?”

Also earning an underline from me is “God Sees the Truth, But Waits,” one of the shortest items in the collection at just nine pages; it deals almost exclusively with the theme of forgiveness.

An 1887 portrait of Count Leo Tolstoy

An 1887 portrait of Count Leo Tolstoy

“A Prisoner in the Caucasus” is a good adventure story, detailing the capture and escape of a Russian soldier.  Like several other works in this volume, this story is based on Tolstoy’s own experience serving in the Russian army.

Like any collection of short stories written over four decades, the quality and interest of these works varies a good bit.  Some are written in first person, others in third person limited.  Tolstoy doesn’t use (at least in this collection) the omniscient point of view that would inform the reader of the thoughts and feelings of the characters, except insofar as they are manifested outwardly.  His descriptions of things is also very matter-of-fact, he doesn’t put a lot of poetry or soaring language into his descriptions of settings or actions; there is no purple prose here.

While I recommend with reservations the volume as a whole there are several items in it that I would highly recommend.  Perhaps more importantly, I am now interested in getting the second volume of Tolstoy’s short works.